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Monday 11 December 2017

'Nobody is as mentally strong as we are''

IN an exclusive interview, Richard Dunne tells PAUL HYLAND why he thinks Ireland can go a long way at the Euros

REPETITION, routine, reassurance. Three words which cover a multitude for Richard Dunne and represent a template for everything Giovanni Trapattoni and his squad have been doing for four years.

I met up with Dunne during a quiet hour in Montecatini when the town was limbering up for a grand send-off from locals who feted Trapattoni, Marco Tardelli and the players.

Away from the madding crowds, Dunne's calm countenance is a tonic and simply adds to a growing sense that destiny has conspired to put the right group of players in the right place, with the right manager at exactly the right time.

But it is only when Dunne warms to the subject of the mental strength he sees on a daily basis within the cloistered confines of the squad that this sense of well-being and extraordinary focus gains momentum.

"Mental toughness is our great strength. Technically, we may not be as strong as other teams, but in the whole tournament, nobody will be as mentally strong as we are. I believe that can take us a long way."

Most footballers will throw out a line like that as easily as breathing but Dunne picks his words carefully and thinks about what he says before his mouth opens.

"You hear all the time in major tournaments with certain teams how they can be hostile within the group and little fights break out. But with us there's no chance of that and I mean that. We're not an overly cocky bunch that goes around shouting about how good we are."

Dunne uses the collective plural most of the time when he speaks about the road ahead, and there is no question that the bond formed and still forming between the individual members of the group is a formidable advantage over many other teams.

His only marker for something like that is the experience he had during the 2002 World Cup, and while he won't make any comparisons between the relative merits of Mick McCarthy and Trapattoni, he is quick to underline the difference in approach.

"There are no major differences except on the football side of things. It is a little bit different and the organisation is constant, like you would imagine a typical Italian team. Drilling it, drilling it, drilling it all the time.

"We met up last August and we still do the same sessions now. In fact, it goes all the way back to the first time we went into camp with the manager back in Portugal.

"It has been the same the whole way through. On the Monday you'll do this, on Tuesday that and so on. As it gets closer to each game, you get the team shape.

"On the pitch, they tell us what to do and we listen. There is no leeway -- their way is the right way and it's got us this far so we have trust in them.

"Off the pitch they are free with us, as long as we are honest and trustworthy and let them know what we're doing everything is fine."

So you're all behaving yourselves?

Dunne laughs, but only a short chuckle.

"We have to be. We're preparing for the Euro 2012 finals."

There was a time when a comment like that from an Irish player in these circumstances would have sounded pompous and difficult to credit, given the predilection for serious nights on the town and imaginative use of emergency hotel exits to slip past Trapattoni's night watch.

Not any more. There may be a professional warmth between Trapattoni and his players but it stops at that.

"Look, if we want to go for a walk, we just tell them and that's fine. It is always very difficult because players get fed up and bored because there's not a whole lot to do.

"But we're here to prepare for the championship and the manager has done it before and knows what it takes to win things.

"But as much as you want to prepare and train, it's also about making sure everything in the camp is right. It's been good from the staff down to the manager all the way to the kit man trying to make it as enjoyable as it can be."

A key figure in this is Dick Redmond who, like Mick Byrne and Johnny Fallon before him, has become a one-man entertainment centre.

During the training at Borgo a Buggiano last week, Redmond cracked everyone up when he squeezed himself into the smallest van in the known universe and chugged around the running track gathering balls, cones, nets and a big audience of smiling faces.

"Dicky Redmond in his little van, hilarious. He's slowly falling apart. His knee is gone now," says Dunne with a heartfelt guffaw.

"The back room staff are brilliant. We get bored with each other, looking at the same four walls, and they are out and about coming back to us with the stories.

"When we're with our clubs, we'll go home after training and we're out with our wives and kids doing normal things so the staff help to fill in that gap."

Each squad has a different dynamic and individual players fill particular roles. As an example, Stephen Kelly has long been known as the most articulate and erudite of all the Irish players and this is never a good thing among a group of young men where bookishness is often seen as a handicap.

"Kelly has books in his bag alright but they haven't been seen. They haven't come out. He even looks clever. We all love him and he is without doubt the cleverest man in the squad.

"Put it this way - we had a quiz the other night and Kelly and the Duffer were on the same team. They won hands down and I think we all know why that was," laughs Dunne.

Back in 2002, Dunne never kicked a ball and needed any distraction possible. His own World Cup experience has been well rehearsed and by now, the memory has blurred into a mixture of newspaper headlines and fleeting mental snapshots.

"I played a lot of the qualifiers but as the finals came around, we were relegated, so I wasn't sure I would even make it into the squad. I think I was a bit too young for it, to be honest.

"Because I wasn't playing, a lot of it passed me by. It was great that we did well but, eventually, it all goes back to the Roy Keane thing and it tends to blur the experience."

This time, as the central figure in the squad and with a lifetime - in football terms - of experience behind him, Dunne will be much more involved.

He knows there is a growing sense of expectation and that there is real depth to that.

"I think people at home are beginning to think we could do well. I think they believe we can do something and it's growing. Our performance against Bosnia set a little bit of a marker and that was us after a week's training.

"As players, we all know what we can do and we need to transfer it onto the pitch. That was the start of it for me.

"That's the way it should be. We've proved over four years we're a good side. We believe exactly what the manager tells us is right and we keep doing the same things over and over.

"Repetitive as it may seem and I know some people may not enjoy it, but ... " Dunne's voice trails away, the unspoken words obvious. It gets the job done.

"We don't lose many games or concede goals, and in a tournament of seven games, that's a very important and valuable quality.

"We have belief in each other. As we play more games, we grow more confident. Fourteen games unbeaten and we've lost just two in 24. That's a brilliant record and not many teams can boast the same sort of thing.

"In one-off games we're very hard to beat, we can win games and compete against the best. We will be underdogs in every game as far as the outside world is concerned but we don't feel like that at all."

Settled as Dunne and the rest of the players are in the certainty Trapattoni has brought to their lives, there are still wild cards in play and the biggest is James McClean.

McClean has brought an edge to the group at exactly the right moment and while the media view is that the young Derryman put it up to Trapattoni's wingmen in a big way, Dunne has a subtly different view.

"Aiden was brilliant against Bosnia, we all saw that but I don't think James has shaken things up, just brought a different dimension to the squad.

"We have Stephen Hunt who can run and battle and fight people. Damien and Aiden do their tricks but James is direct, straight down the line. He's something new.

"Teams have watched us over that time and they've never seen James. When he's in full flow, he's unstoppable.

"I did read that some might be unhappy that he is in the squad and sure, it's competition, but if he comes in and creates the winning goal, not one player will say, 'I should have been there instead."

"We're on an even keel. Whoever plays, plays and we're all in this together. Every day, we push each other. The bond within the group is very, very strong now."

And that was that. Dunne strolled back towards to the team hotel with a backward wave as another task was completed.

By the time this is all over, there is absolutely no doubt that this is the man whose shoulders will carry the greatest load and would we have it any other way?

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