ALAN DUNNE was back in Dublin last week, the city of his birth and the place he wants to end up living in. “It’s me home, ain’t it,” he said in his broad London accent.
Truthfully it is – even if he spent only two years of his life here – the rest in England. Yet while his statement may not make any sense to the Englishmen he shared a dressing room with for over 16 years as a professional footballer – to his fellow London Irishmen, Dunne’s tale has that everyman feel to it.
It is a story – like that of so many children of emigrants – that begins in the 1980s when his parents – a Dubliner and a Wexford lady – were forced ‘to take the boat across’ because work had dried up. Yet if their old life in Kilbarrack, on Dublin’s northside, was hard, then the new one was hardly any better.
Instead, for years they drifted from home to home, area to area, stopping off first in an aunt’s house, before they found a place on the Old Kent Road. Next came Hoxton – ‘where dad managed a pub for two years, before it was sold, rendering us homeless’.
After that came a succession of B&Bs in Paddington prior to something permanent being found in Hornsey. “But that was a run-down fourth-floor flat, where the block had no lift and where we had to step over people shooting up on the stairwells.”
If all this sounds harrowing, then bear in mind that Dunne – who rose from his impoverished background to successfully carve out a career for himself with Millwall – had to grow up hearing words like ‘Irish scum’ and ‘IRA murderers’ shouted at him.
Life on Bemerton Estate on the ‘Cally’ – Caledonian Road – wasn’t an easy place for any Irish family, particularly a vulnerable one with five small children.
“My parents were picked upon because they were Irish,” Dunne said. “The IRA’s Brighton bombing of the Conservative Party conference, plus attacks on soldiers and security forces, made my parents a target for local mindless morons who believed that because they were Irish they were somehow mixed up in the killings. I was too young to remember, but my dad told me their door was kicked in with shouts of ‘f**king Paddies’ from those responsible.”
To make ends meet, his father joined the Navy. And while the income was steady and his family could be supported, whenever an IRA bomb would explode in Britain, ‘dad would be systematically beaten up because he was the only Irishman aboard’.
On top of all that, the fact his mother spent the majority of her life suffering from a disability caused by a car accident, is simply horrendous. Somehow she managed to raise her five children, often carrying them up and down stairs, before eventually the council housed the Dunnes in a ground-floor flat. “She died in 2000 and while people tell me time is a great healer, they’re wrong. It is still hard to know she is gone.”
In this context, we should not expect to have heard of Alan Dunne. His name should never have appeared on our sporting radar. That it has is a testament to his iron-clad belief, force of will, talent, and, he’ll freely admit, the drive he inherited from his parents. “I’m a father myself now and when I think back to what my parents went through, it’s incredible to think how even though they struggled to make ends meet, they raised us all so well.
“They were fighters. Mum was nine when she was knocked down while running across a road to the shops and was dragged for a quarter of a mile by the car, before the driver realised something was happening and stopped. She’d spend two years undergoing multiple operations to save her right leg as well as having skin grafts on her face. A lesser person may have given up. But not my mum.”
So the chances of Dunne giving up when things went wrong during his career – like when Millwall were relegated in 2006 – simply didn’t exist. “A footballer’s life can be quite an insecure one,” he says. “You have to be mentally tough.”
He was, and still is. After playing 388 games for the club between 2000 and 2015 – the sixth most in the club’s history – he was sold ‘over a pint’ to Leyton Orient. If the rejection hurt, then he quickly learned that he simply had to get on with it, to appreciate that he had a mortgage to pay, a family to feed.
Yet it was the family ‘back home’ he longed to represent. “I would have loved to have won just one cap for my country, even as a last-minute substitute on a cold night away to Kazakhstan,” he said. “The fact is my accent may betray my place of birth but I am 100 per cent Irish and though I like England to win, nothing can match the thrill of seeing Ireland victorious.”
Which is why he is travelling to France this summer as a fan. “I’d love to see the team do well, love to see Fordey [David Forde, the Millwall and Ireland goalkeeper] get a game because I know how much playing for Ireland means to him. It would have meant everything to me, too. In my family, we were brought up as Irish supporters.
“Every event, or even the Eurovision, there was a big gathering in our house. If it was the World Cup, you’d have all the family over, you’d have your Irish jerseys on and if they won, it would be a party and if they lost everyone would cry and then there would be a party. I remember those days growing up watching the 1990 World Cup when we beat Romania – and that was fantastic for us at home, cheering and thinking one day you could be there.”
That he was never given a chance by either Steve Staunton or Giovanni Trapattoni ‘to be there’ remains a sore point.
“I felt I deserved to be capped. Obviously David Forde and Andy Keogh [his team mates at Millwall] were selected and if David Forde was included, it must have been for a reason, because you don’t get included for leaking goals, you get called up for keeping clean sheets so therefore you have to have a back four in front of you and one of those was me. And I was Irish and playing week-in, week-out. It doesn’t add up to me and I think the boat is missed now and it’s something I’ll always regret.”
Otherwise regrets are few and far between – except for one major one. “I wish mum were still around,” he says quietly. “I was 18 when she died. I still miss her every day.”
- Alan Dunne’s harrowing story of life as a professional football and a second generation Irishman – Dunne it the Hard Way – has been published by Pitch Publishing and is available in all good bookstores