THIS PIECE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED 27 APRIL 2015
Joe Ellison reveals why you never quite get over your first footballing hero
We’ve all got a footballing idol.
The guys who first made supporting your club amid bleary-eyed away trips and overpriced pies seem worth it. Whose natural skill and tenacity replaced any sadness or fears that you might not make it as a professional footballer, right before you inevitably got distracted by lesser important things such as the opposite sex, university and a career.
By the time you know it, you’re old, and your boyhood hero has since signed for a bigger team on a bigger contract, if not retired completely, and once again you’re on your own, forced to face the grim realisation that every footballer has a shelf life, even the best ones. You can reload FIFA 2002 all you want, it’s never going to be the same.
Well I’ve been lucky enough to watch my boyhood hero for a solid two decades, and then before I knew it I lost him.
Thanking the fans in an open letter, Blackburn Rovers David Dunn midfielder announced he was to leave the club at the end of the 2014/2015 season after a 27 year association - the last reminder of my youth finally falling to ruin.
Aged 14, his was the first name I ever had printed onto the back of my home shirt. Granted, it was the cheapest (I could have opted for 'Duff' if I’d wanted to) but truthfully, as a Blackburn supporter, who else was I supposed to have on my back? The boy was a rare talent of muddling contradiction, unafraid to nutmeg an opponent on the edge of his own box, his thickset frame belying his twinkle toed genius. He had an intrinsic dribbling ability and wonderful footballing brain that saw him, in his pomp, hailed as the ‘new Gazza.' I’ve never had another name on the back of my shirt since.
During the time he started to emerge in the first-team, sporting hair curtains that would put 90s-era Take That to shame, I remember him shaving his hair off and dropping jaws for the England U21s at the European Championships. One specific mazy solo run and goal against Holland sticks in the mind. At the time (and this is often forgotten), he was also captain of the young internationals, ousting a fellow chubby-cheeked midfielder by the name of Frank Lampard.
A few years later I watched the same pair tussle in an FA Cup semi-final in which Blackburn were narrowly beaten by Chelsea. It was hard to separate the class of Lampard and Dunn, two attacking English midfielders at the top of their game. Stark contrast to the previous season where Dunn had barely managed 11 appearances due to injury, and sadly it wasn't long before injury struck again.
And therein lies the anomaly of Dunn’s career: for every Paul Scholes of this world who fulfils their potential at the highest level, there’s the one whose career is cut short by injury and is gradually forced to move on, like Owen Hargreaves, a player seemingly more delicate than Sony's internet security. Dunn, on the other hand, lies somewhere between the two, managing to play half of the team’s games in a season, always pulling up with some sort of niggling injury. Never enough to ruin a whole season, just enough to blot it.
For this reason, and with his great displays early on in mind, he remains one of the forgotten geniuses of his generation, a talent lost to a combination of injuries which have recently seen him chalking up scarce playing time in The Championship, continuing to play for the club he originally had glory with.
If medals were won for time on the treatment table as opposed to the league table, Dunn wouldn't be able to move for shiny metal. As it was though, despite the dizzy highs of winning promotion to the Premier League with Blackburn, a League Cup win, a cap for England, a series of niggling injuries denied him ever finding out how far he could have gone, which, for my money, was all the way.
Even the three seasons he spent rogue with Birmingham never felt wrong. Incited by a falling out with then Blackburn manager Graeme Souness, (and arguably worth it to get this piece of viral gold), it always felt like a return to Ewood Park was destined. Like the married couple who quickly realise an open relationship is far too messy and not good for the kids.
But this time it really is over. Even if his seasoned skill will be put to pasture on some other hallowed turf, it won’t be my David Dunn.
UPDATE: He's just been released from Oldham, and we wish him well with his future coaching career.