IT’S a sign of just how far Manchester City have come in the last 12 months that they have agreed to sell Richard Dunne. When Mark Hughes took over at Eastlands, he put a good deal of time and effort into persuading Dunne not to sign for Portsmouth. Although the defender’s move to Aston Villa is still awaiting final approval, it does look as though his nine-year stint at City has come to an end.
And it comes to an end 12 months to the week since the Abu Dhabi United Group agreed to take over at Eastlands, and started pumping the kind of money into City which would have fans rubbing their eyes and Michel Platini furrowing his brow.
Hughes has made changes during his 15 months at City – and lots of them. The impending exit of Dunne, City’s longest-serving player, is arguably the most significant.
Once, not so long ago, Dunne was the main man in the City backline. Now, he finds himself preparing to move to another club just to guarantee first-team football.
Hughes’ tenure at City has seen a rapid turnover of players. Of the 18 players on duty at Portsmouth on Sunday, only five (Micah Richards, Stephen Ireland, Nedum Onuoha, Martin Petrov and Vladimir Weiss) were at the club when Hughes arrived in June last year. Figuring out how much he has spent as boss at Eastlands is an inexact science in an age where so many deals are done for an undisclosed fee – but you wouldn’t be far off with a total of £220m.
A host of arrivals has been matched by a host of departures. Hughes said last week that he didn’t want Dunne to leave, but acknowledged that the defender’s first-team chances would be severely limited following the arrivals of Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott. While Onuoha was prepared to stick around, in the knowledge that he would probably have to spend a fair bit of time on the bench this season, Dunne decided to move on.
For much of this afternoon, there were question marks as to whether the deal would go through, as Dunne attempted to sort out the finer details a pay-off he was due from City. And as the transfer window was closing, and the chaps and chappesses of Sky Sports News were reaching levels of hysteria that would seem excessive for the discovery of a new planet, there was still no news.
But given that the Football Association are satisfied that Villa submitted the paperwork for the deal on time, and that the Premier League have asked for an extension to ratify the deal, it does appear that the Dunne deal is a done deal.
The statistics give a mixed picture of Dunne’s achievements at City. On the one hand, he is the only person ever to have won City’s player of the year award four times. (What’s more, he won it four years running.) On the other, he scored more own goals than any other player in the club’s history (seven).
He was the one constant during a decade of change at City, playing under five managers – and four chairmen – staying at the club through two high-profile takeovers, a relegation, a promotion and a stadium move. His performances weren’t always flawless, but they were always wholehearted.
A few days ago, I spoke to Joe Royle, the manager who gave Dunne his senior debut at Everton as a 17-year-old, and who brought him to Manchester City for £3m in October 2000.
Royle, a man with a quarter-of-a-century’s experience in management, was happy to declare Dunne as one of his best value-for-money signings.
“When I was at Oldham, I signed Denis Irwin on a free, and Earl Barrett for £30,000, and I would be hard pressed to beat them,” Royle said. “But signing Richard Dunne for £3m would be up in my top three.
“I rated Richard from the first time I saw him. He always had the ability; he just had to learn the game. He was exceptionally quick too, and that’s something that people haven’t always realised about him.
“Richard always had a lot of promise. I first picked him for Everton when he was 17, and you don’t throw someone in blind at that age. I knew he could play.
“The promise was there for all to see. When Richard was in Everton’s reserves, I remember telling Mick McCarthy – who was in charge of the Republic of Ireland at the time – that I had his future international centre-half. And that’s the way it turned out, because he went on to be a regular for his country.
“But at the time I brought him to City, he had been out of the side at Everton after falling out with Walter Smith. Walter had suspended Richard and Michael Ball for some kids’ stuff, and I thought it was a good chance to get him in.”
The story goes that Smith drummed Dunne and Ball out of Goodison Park after they were both spotted laughing on the Everton team coach coming back from an embarrassing League Cup defeat at Bristol Rovers in September 2000. If Dunne was always recognised as a talented defender, he also had a reputation early on in his career for indiscipline. It was a negative trait he worked hard to eradicate.
Dunne’s City career began as it ended, with a victory and a clean sheet. His first game was a 2-0 victory at Southampton on October 23, 2000. His last was a 1-0 home win over Wolves 10 days ago.
In between, the ride wasn’t always straightforward. Dunne was almost sacked in September 2002 after turning up for training in a dishevelled state. Manager Kevin Keegan and the City board decided not to terminate the defender’s contract – instead fining him two weeks’ wages and ordering him to carry out a specialist training programme. Dunne heeded the wake-up call, added application to his undoubted talent and became an indispensable part of City’s side under Keegan, Stuart Pearce and Sven-Goran Eriksson.
He was arguably at his best alongside Sylvain Distin at the heart of City’s defence, a partnership which played a key part in keeping them out of relegation trouble as they struggled for goals towards the end of Pearce’s reign.
Distin’s departure or Portsmouth coincided with Thaksin Shinawatra’s drawn-out takeover in the summer of 2007. Eriksson, appointed when Thaksin finally secured control, was unable to sign a replacement centre-back in time for the start of the new season, and so Dunne found himself as the senior partner alongside Micah Richards, a player who considers himself more comfortable at right-back.
The central defensive puzzle was one which Eriksson was never able to solve to any great satisfaction, and it took Hughes a large chunk of last season to find an answer too.
Richards, Tal Ben Haim and Vincent Kompany all had stints alongside Dunne at the back last term, before Hughes finally settled on Onuoha. It was clear, though, that Hughes needed to strengthen his central defence. Toure and Lescott arrived, and Dunne decided it was time to jump.
Dunne leaves with a couple of unwanted records to his name. Of his seven own goals at City, six have come in the top flight. (His one own goal in the First Division came against Bradford in 2001. His six in the Premier League came against West Brom in 2004, Manchester United in 2005, Wigan in 2006, and Chelsea, Newcastle and Bolton in 2008.)
As a result, he shares the record for the highest number of Premier League own goals with Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher and former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair, now with Wrexham.
He also shares the record for the highest number of Premier League red cards, eight in total, having picked up five at City to add to his three at Everton.
But Royle is adamant that those stats divert attention from the quality of a defender who was, for four years, the only contender in town when it came to the club’s player of the year award.
“Richard’s 29 now,” said Royle. “It’s a good age to seek a new challenge. I know last season he had one or two moments that suggested it might be time for a change.
“But he’s been a magnificent servant to City. He stuck with the club through troubled times when he might have moved on – but perhaps now a move will give him fresh impetus.”