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The Toe Poke

Dunne's finals chance

It seemed as though Richard Dunne's days as a top-level performer were to end in less than glorious fashion as a crumbling relationship with his club manager was complemented by frustrations working with defensive-minded Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Aston Villa boss Gerard Houllier made no secret of the fact that he was determined to end Dunne's stint as the club's talisman in defence and as Ireland's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2012 appeared to run aground, the veteran who carries so many scars of battle on and off the pitch appeared to be destined to bow out with a whimper a year ago.

However, he has mastered the art of bouncing back from adversity down the years and following Houllier's sudden departure from Villa last April, the defensive rock who was included in the PFA's Premier League team of the season just two years ago set about composing a fitting final chapter to his story in a bid to cement his legacy.

Alex McLeish wasted little time in declaring that Dunne would be given a second chance as the leader of Villa's defensive line as he succeeded Houllier last June and with that, the big Dubliner rediscovered his appetite for the game to quickly return to the peak of his powers for club and country.

It could all culminate with glorious triumph for his beloved Ireland in Friday's Euro 2012 play-off first leg against Estonia, with Dunne admitting his mood right now could not be more contrasting than it was just a few short months ago.

"Last season was very difficult for me as I was not enjoying coming to work every day at Villa and there were some issues with the Ireland team as well," he begins. "It was a shame because the previous campaign had been great for me personally, but there wasn't a very good atmosphere around the club last season and it affected all of us.

"I would have probably left Villa in the summer if Houllier had stayed, but Alex McLeish changed everything around very quickly. The boss spoke to me soon after he arrived to let me know that he saw me as being a key part of his defence and hopefully I have repaid some of the faith he has shown in me.

"This season has been really enjoyable so far. The new manager made himself very open to talk to from day one and he has got all the lads feeling as if they want to do well for him. He is very approachable and gives the impression that he is one of us, out on the training ground every day and kicking every ball with us.

"That positive feeling has changed the mood at the club and I have been pleased with the way things have gone for me so far. It still feels as if there is so much more to come from this Villa team and another big bonus for me has been the progress Ireland have made. We are so close to qualifying for our first major finals in a decade and it needs just one final push now."

Dunne's performance in his nation's vital 0-0 draw against Russia in Moscow last September was truly heroic, with a remarkable goal-line clearance capping a performance many compared to the sort of defensive master classes Ireland and Villa legend Paul McGrath used to produce in his prime.

However, this gentle giant is not the type to accept plaudits of heroism without dispute. "We needed to get something out of the Russia game and my performance was not any more important compared to the effort the rest of the lads put in to get a decent result out in Moscow," insists the modest Dunne, who many feel is a more natural leader of the Ireland team than skipper Robbie Keane.

"I got myself in the right place at the right times on a few occasions, but that's what I am there for and we needed Shay Given and the rest of the team to work their heart out to get that result. In the end, the point against the Russians was important in helping us to get second place in the group and reach the play-offs.

"I was delighted to score the winning goal in our final qualifier against Armenia and now we have the final push to try and qualify for another major tournament in these two games against Estonia. This is probably the last chance for some of the more experienced players like myself, Robbie (Keane) and Shay (Given) to get a major tournament and we are all determined to make the most of it."

Two years after Thierry Henry's infamous handball denied Ireland in the play-off for the World Cup finals, Dunne insists their motivation to beat Estonia will not be driven by the agony of previous near misses as he preaches caution ahead of a tie most observers are backing Ireland to win.

"None of us look back on that Henry handball anymore as it's old news at this stage," adds Dunne, who scored twice against Estonia in a qualifier for the 2002 World Cup finals. "This is a whole new story and we have a chance for Ireland to qualify for our first major championship since 2002, so what has gone in the past doesn't matter too much now.

"We've have had a little rub of luck in recent games ourselves in this qualifying campaign and hopefully that will continue into these play-off games because even though we are quite pleased to have been drawn against Estonia, these two ties will be very difficult for us.

"This Ireland team are not good enough to blow any well organised team away and Estonia deserve to be respected as they have earned the right to be in these play-offs. I'm sure we will know all about them before this game kicks off as Trapattoni doesn't leave too many stones unturned in his preparation and I feel that having the second match in Dublin is a big bonus for us.

"Hopefully we will have a full house at the Aviva Stadium for the second leg and it will be a great night if we get through to Euro finals."

A decade and more of hard toil will have paid off for Dunne if he is packing his bags for a Euro 2012 adventure next summer and if there is any justice in this world, one of the game's good guys will get his final jig in the spotlight.

• Richard Dunne was speaking to ESPNsoccernet in association with Aston Villa's charity partner Acorn.


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