The average length of a professional footballer’s career is no more than eight years according to figures provided by the PFA and for those who go on to play for longer than that there is generally a very good reason for their not falling by the wayside much sooner.
For the favoured few it is simply a case of their outstanding and overwhelming talent, but even then that can sometimes not be enough.
Back in the early 60s Barry Fry was considered to be one of the most promising Busby Babes coming through the ranks at Manchester United but despite his huge talent and self-evident confidence in his own ability, his lack of off the field discipline and application, in addition to a series of recurring injuries condemned him to a frustratingly short career that comprised less than twenty Football League matches at far less glamorous outposts of the game such as Bolton, Luton and Leyton Orient rather than the heady heights of Old Trafford that at one time seemed certain.
Talent alone cannot guarantee that a fledgling footballer makes the grade, what matters just as much is good fortune in avoiding chronic or career ending injury, having the luck to play for a manager who believes in you and the attributes that you can bring to the party as well as showing a combination of total commitment and dedication to the cause.
Millwall is a club that seems to attract players of a certain type who are totally in keeping with the gritty and tough nature of the local area. It is not a place for fancy-dan ball players and they, as well as men who shirk challenges and lack moral fibre generally do not remain at the club for very long. It is hardly surprising that the three players who have made the most appearances for the club were all tough and uncompromising defenders in Barry Kitchener, Keith Stevens and Harry Cripps. No shrinking violets there and any tricky forward attempting to go past any of them was liable to experience the delights of cinder rash.
Interestingly enough, there have already been a couple of outstanding books about Millwall. Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game? Diary of a Professional Footballer, remains a classic of the genre over forty years after it was written and clearly demonstrates how a midfield player skilful enough to earn twenty-three caps for Eire was forced to modify and simplify his game and cut out all the frills in order to fit in and gain acceptance from the Millwall faithful. Journalist Michael Calvin’s more recent account of a promotion winning season, Family: Life, Death and Football, provided a brilliant insider’s view of life at the sharp end of the football pyramid as well as the importance of the club to its local community and vice versa.
Now there is a worthy new addition to the Millwall library with the publication of long-serving defender Alan Dunne’s recollections of a fine career which saw him play almost four hundred times during his twenty-three years at the club.
Dunne is a passionate and impetuous character who had to learn the hard way how to control his temper and ensure that his behaviour both on and off the pitch remained within bounds and his book is full of stories of his scrapes and escapades which on many occasions threatened to cut short what eventually became a long and meritorious career.
Make no mistake about it, Dunne is a talented defender who at his peak came close to full international honours with Eire, but what really set him apart from many former team mates was his total determination to succeed and his ceaseless will to win. He was not going to let anything come between him and his heartfelt ambition to become a professional footballer and woe betide anybody or anything that got in his way.
There is much here of interest to Millwall supporters. Dunne speaks of his massive hurt and disappointment at missing out on a starting place in the 2004 FA Cup Final team despite an apparent promise that he would play some part in the game. The numbing feeling he felt after being released by his former team mate Neil Harris. How he missed an opportunity to prolong his stay at the club when he should have pressed for a new contract and struck when the iron was hot at the start of the 2014/15 season after he had just spearheaded Millwall’s great escape from relegation from the Championship. He gives full, frank and honest opinions on a plethora of Millwall managers and team mates good, bad and indifferent as well as writing honestly about his sense of insecurity after being released and his struggle to find a new club.
He also paints a vivid picture of what it means to play for a club like Millwall and how the players feed off the fans and vice versa. Some footballers shrivel under the relentless pressure and are never accepted by a crowd that demands total passion and commitment at all times, others revel in the need to demonstrate their grit and determination and are quickly accepted and become part of the family as well as local heroes. Dunne certainly belonged to that last category and he writes lucidly and with pride about his strong relationship with a marvellous bunch of supporters.
The book is honest in the extreme and Dunne provides frank and graphic descriptions of all eleven red cards that he has been shown to date and how the red mist sometimes came down and he even acknowledges that perhaps three or four of them were in fact the correct decision.
Brentford fans will be interested to note that Dunne’s favourite goal was his equaliser at The Den last season in a match where Millwall were wearing a special camouflage kit to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of World War One. Dunne’s shot squeezed through the legs of Brentford defender Tony Craig on its way into the net and Dunne is also full of praise for Craig, his ability, temperament and dressing room influence. Another excellent professional who has also fully deserved his success.
Dunne almost came to blows with giant striker Mark McCammon in the lead-up to the Cup Final when tension was building and let’s just say that he probably shares the same opinion about McCammon’s footballing ability as most Bees supporters!
This is not just a book for Millwall fans and there is much that will be relished and enjoyed by supporters of all teams. Dunne clearly represents Everyman, and the archetypical lower division footballer. He made the most of what he had and overcame the vicissitudes of fate, injury, personal shortcomings and the whims of his managers as well as referees!
He has enjoyed a wonderful career and one that he has fully deserved given what he has always put back into the game and he is a shining example of what hard work and commitment can bring.
This is an excellent book which is highly recommended.
DUNNE IT THE HARD WAY BY ALUN DUNNE WITH CHRIS DAVIES. PUBLISHED BY PITCH PUBLISHING AT £17.99