When Sven-Goran Eriksson reflected on Manchester City’s surprise derby win at Old Trafford yesterday, he could have been forgiven for concentrating only on the goalscorers who had ensured the club’s first league double over their near neighbours since 1970, and their first win in enemy territory since Denis Law’s backheel and United’s relegation in 1974.
And after all, Darius Vassell & Benjani have both come in for plenty of criticism in their City careers, Vassell for his lack of conviction, and Benjani for what some perceived to be a lack of hunger to play for the club (missing two separate flights to Manchester on deadline day does tend to give that impression), so a bit of healthy praise for both would have been understandable.
But instead, perhaps true to form, Eriksson looked no further than the rock on which his side’s success this season has been based on, his captain, Richard Dunne. It was him, along with Micah Richards, that nullified the substantial threat offered by the home side, with Carlos Tevez cutting a pretty solemn figure for much of the match, Cristiano Ronaldo reduced to a pouting sideshow, and City keeper Joe Hart kept relatively untroubled. No mean feat considering the opposition.
Dunne’s performance yesterday will have come as no surprise to anyone who has watched City over the past two or three seasons, he turns them in pretty much every week. But throw in the fact that he had been struck down with tonsillitis in the build up to the game, hadn’t trained with the first team since Wednesday, and only joined up with the squad a couple of hours before kick off, and it amounts to a pretty remarkable effort from a man who may very well be able to lay claim to the crown of “Most Improved Player” in the league.
He wasn’t always as popular as he will be today. As a youngster, despite becoming the youngest ever Everton debutant, and making more than sixty first team appearances, Dunne endured a couple disciplinary issues at Goodison Park and more often than not it was his non-football exploits that dominated the local papers rather than his defending.
A hefty fine for failing to turn up for New Year’s Day training was followed by an alleged altercation with staff on the way back from a League Cup defeat to Bristol Rovers, one offence too far for manager Walter Smith, who offloaded him to Joe Royle’s newly promoted City side in the summer of 2000. Dunne was initially used as a right back, and early performances, admittedly in a struggling side, indicated that the well built Irishman may not be able to stand up to the demands of a Premier League full back.
He was never blessed with great pace or acceleration, and doubts surfaced about his fitness. City were relegated and Dunne failed to convince fans and pundits alike that he was the genuine article at Premiership level. City breezed to the First Division title in 2002 under Kevin Keegan’s gung-ho leadership, but back in the big time, Dunne appeared to press the self-destruct button. He was sent home by Keegan after turning up to a training session in what was described as “a dishevelled state” and was suspended from the club. Few people at Manchester City would have been too sad to see him leave.
Keegan, typically, offered the twenty three year old Dunne a second chance, and after an intensive programme of fitness and rehabilitation, he was restored to the side as a centre half alongside club captain Sylvain Distin. His improved attitude and fitness gradually began to pay dividends, gone was the sluggish, oversized full back and in his place was a leaner, quicker and more composed centre half. Dunne & Distin proved a very good partnership for City, despite the odd hiccup- it wouldn’t be Manchester City without the odd hiccup now would it?- and when Distin stalled over a new contract in 2006, Dunne was an obvious and popular choice to take over the captaincy.
It’s fair to say he revelled in the added responsibility, his performances over the past two seasons have been of a consistently high standard, and alongside his young protégé Richards, he appears to have formed a partnership that has every right to be considered as one of the finest in the country. A fiercely committed, intelligent and deceptively pacy centre back, he has rightly drawn comparisons with Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher as someone who took a few years to reach the required level but is now a model of consistency (a bonus in a team that is so traditionally inconsistent).
Richards rates his skipper in the same bracket as his England colleagues Rio Ferdinand & John Terry, which may be stretching it a bit, but the message is clear. In Dunne, City not only have a truly excellent defender, but a player who leads by example on the pitch and has put his off-field problems well behind him, settling down with his long term girlfriend and young daughter. Something which the player himself acknowledges to have helped his progress enormously.
With the PFA votes to be announced next month, the likes of Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Richards, Carragher & William Gallas will ensure there will be fierce competition for the centre half spots in the “team of the year”, but Dunne need not feel inferior amongst them, and if he continues in his current run of form, he will surely not be far away from the reckoning. His manager certainly thinks so, but what does he know eh?!