‘At his best, Richard Dunne was Ireland's best, a throwback to another era’

‘At his best, Richard Dunne was Ireland's best, a throwback to another era’

IT WILL be remembered as the night of the French cheat, the Swedish ref and the Irish whinge. A time when, once again, we reminded ourselves how no other country cries injustice quite like us.

November 2009 became the month of the long goodbye, a farewell to a World Cup dream and a reunion with the big-mouths who play to the gallery. And the more attention the Brian Cowans, Eamon Dunphys and John Delaneys brought to themselves, the more we considered how the true meaning of football had been lost.

We thought about all this last Friday when Richard Dunne reflected on a career with Ireland which started majestically, disappeared for about three years and then re-appeared with a bang.

At his best, he was Ireland’s best, a throwback to another era, a man who put his body on the line for his country and has the scars to show it. Last week as he spoke in Carton House in Kildare, a thin, pale line was visible on his right cheek. “That was from Moscow,” he smiled. Others are hidden away, though.

And Paris, the night Thierry Henry handled a ball and then acted disgracefully on the pitch afterwards, provides the deepest scar of all.

“What annoys me is that we were at our peak then,” said Dunne. “If we had have qualified for South Africa, we could have performed well in that World Cup, certainly a lot better than we did in Poland two years later. We have regrets about that.”

What hurts almost as much as Henry’s handball was the second injustice that surrounded that game. This one was equally as cynical, the way politicians in the Dail jumped onto a bandwagon and tapped into a public’s goodwill which should have been the preserve of the people who created it: Dunne and his fellow players. That night should have been their finest hour because it was a night when the Irish team, briefly, reconnected with the Irish people.

Remember the context of the wilderness years which preceded it — that 5-2 defeat in Cyprus, those lame exits to the Swiss, the farce in San Marino, the lack of qualification since 2002 and the failure to beat a big team in a competitive game since 2001.

By August and September of 2009, Ireland were struggling to get 20,000 people to watch home internationals, whereas when Real Madrid came to town to play Shamrock Rovers earlier that summer, tickets sold out within hours. That was where Irish football stood.

dunne henry-n Thierry Henry denying Dunne his World Cup ream epitomises the Irishman's international career

And then, in Paris, there was a French revolution and the value of the side’s stock rose once again. With a performance, a spirit and a bravery which was breath-taking, the congregation who had wandered off, either to other sports, in particular rugby, or to other football teams — the Manchester Uniteds, Liverpools and Chelseas — came flocking back.

And once again we learned that supporting Irish football is a civic religion in this country. The team played with such determination and style, passion and panache that even the greatest cynics were won over.

Then came the Henry handball.

All hell broke loose. Grown men wept. Thickos expressed outrage. Biffo’s expressed sympathy.

Yet remarkably, unification occurred as Ireland’s defeated soccer players created a tidal wave of goodwill.

Why so?

Well, at its most basic level, this is just what sport does. When performed well enough, it inspires others. And then, very rarely, it changes the social and cultural history of a country.

That’s what happened in Italia ’90. Pointedly, as Dunne said, it was okay to grow up with an Irishman being your hero.

Fast forward to 2009 again.

Once again, we were a country in recession — economic and sporting. The football team, which had lost its way, found itself again. A generation of Irish players produced the performance of their lives and a nation tuned into their wavelengths.

People were proud of the way they played. They needed a cause to uplift their mood and the way these sons of Donegal, Wicklow, Waterford, Dublin and Wexford went about their task, had the desired effect.

That something was then stolen away by a harsh foreign power only served to cement the newly found love. After all, having a sense of bitterness and injustice is part of the national psyche.

Yet of all the thousands of words spoken, eight, muttered by Dunne the morning after that game, summed up everything about the whole saga and the night which defined a generation of Irish soccer players.

Dunne said: “Now, we can hold our heads high again.”

Five years on he most certainly can. While Robbie Keane has received the plaudits, in many ways his roommate and best pal was the soul of the Irish national team for the guts of a decade.

And while Moscow in 2011, when he single-handedly defied wave after wave of Russian attacks, remains his greatest performance, the image of him sitting beside Henry on the Stade de France pitch with Henry telling him, “I cheated, I handled it”, and Dunne issuing a grunt in reply, best sums up his Ireland career.

Because, even though he was brilliant that night, he was sold short. As he was throughout his international career.

Remember how he helped Ireland qualify for Japan and Korea? But do you remember he never got a minute’s action at that 2002 World Cup? He was at his peak in the qualifiers for Euro 2012 but played through injury when the finals came around.

He was a loyal, brilliant servant — yet the glory always seemed to escape him. Others took it away from him in Paris, no one more so than the man who sat down beside him on the Stade de France turf to offer the most insincere of apologies.

While the nation — led by the opportunists and motormouths — went in to meltdown, Dunne chose not to indulge self-pity. Instead he did what he always did: picked himself off the ground and got on with it. There would be more battles.

Now, sadly for Irish football, there won’t be. He will take some replacing.