Initially signed as a raw teenager from Home Farm in 1995 – a period in which the Dublin club served as a feeder team to Everton – centre back Dunne was the archetypal ‘Man-Boy’, towering above even Dave Watson when he made his first-team debut alongside him in an FA Cup tie against Swindon Town, in January 1997. Invariably commanding for such a physically imposing player, Dunne seemed a ready-made replacement for the Everton captain, who was now in the veteran part of his career.
INDEED, when Watson became caretaker manager three months later, perhaps seeing something of himself in the young Irishman, he thrust Dunne into the limelight, making him the youngest player to turn out in a Merseyside derby, a distinction he held for just 25 minutes when Michael Ball – eleven days his junior – joined him as an early substitute. He responded superbly, putting in a performance of composure and maturity in a game that ended in a 1-1 draw, simultaneously ending Liverpool’s title challenge and easing Everton’s relegation worries. An international call-up for the 17-year-old followed just weeks later.
ALTHOUGH HIS progress was limited under Howard Kendall in the 1997/98 season, along with Leon Osman, Danny Cadamarteri, Francis Jeffers and Tony Hibbert, Dunne was part of the team that lifted the FA Youth Cup that year, following a two-legged final victory over Blackburn Rovers.
He made his breakthrough into the Everton squad the following year, with new manager Walter Smith deploying him at wing back, a position totally unsuited to Dunne’s attributes. The young Irishman nevertheless impressed in patches, and continued to receive call-ups to his national squad. Yet only on the rare occasions he was given a chance at centre half did he show his true potential. Calm and unruffled, firm in the tackle and with a good first touch, it was clear even from a young age that he had all the facets necessary to cut it at the top level.
And yet indiscipline on and off the field tempered that realisation – and would ultimately cost him his career at Everton. Dunne suffered periodic lapses in concentration, which would sometimes result in a howling error or an unnecessary red or yellow card. Never the most naturally athletic player, he sometimes struggled with his weight, which invariably affected his match fitness. A series of escapades, tame by comparison to some of modern football’s excesses, were allowed to escalate under Smith’s man-management to a point where they reached the national press: on one occasion he ill-advisedly took Everton to an FA tribunal after claiming a two-week fine for missing training contravened his contract; on another, he was dropped after being caught laughing on the team coach following a League Cup defeat to Bristol Rovers, rather than spending the journey home in silent introspection.
Indeed the latter incident led directly to Dunne’s £3million departure to Manchester City days later. Dunne plodded on, eventually putting his disciplinary problems behind him, becoming club captain at Eastlands and one of the Premier League’s most formidable defenders.