WHEN he steps out at Celtic Park on Saturday, James Dunne knows he will feel a long way from home. However, it is nothing compared to the sense of isolation experienced by his parents as they search to find coverage of the Scottish Cup final – in China.
The Farnborough-born St Johnstone midfielder’s parents, Janet and John, are on the trip of a lifetime to Asia, and clearly did not anticipate their son featuring in a Scottish Cup final, as is set to happen this weekend against Dundee United. In fairness, they booked their holiday when Dunne was playing with Stevenage, so the prospect of him lining up in Scottish football’s showpiece occasion was more than a little remote.
Dunne’s father has investigated ways to return but in the end, he and his son reached the conclusion that it was just too expensive. “They are travelling to Malaysia, China and Dubai, so it’s a fair trek to come back here,” said Dunne, who will have the support of his sister and girlfriend in person at least. His parents, on the other hand, have been left to scramble around in search of alternative means to watch the game. “They’ll be in China at the time, but they’ll have wifi and get it on the Ipad, or more probably try to find a bar,” said Dunne.
“They’d booked the holiday before I came to Scotland,” he added. “My mum and dad love coming to the games and wouldn’t have booked anywhere if they’d known I was going to be playing in a final.”
Dunne has made his own incredible journey from playing Sunday football in the Kent leagues, via Wimbledon and then Arsenal, from where he has entertaining tales of training with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. “We went round to the first-team training when they were preparing for Champions League and needed mannequins,” the 24 year-old smiled yesterday. “They were superstars but made you feel so welcome – they would shake your hand and ask if you were alright.
“Training with the best players in the world made you feel good but sometimes I did feel a bit scared. Playing against guys like that you can get found out and I got found out quite a few times.”
“Of the people who are now in the first team, I came through with Jack Wilshere who has done exceptionally well,” he added. “He’s had a few injuries but is a very good player. A lot of the guys left Arsenal and have gone to the Championship or League One and League Two, so they’ve had good careers as well.”
But current Arsenal full-back Kieran Gibbs was his main compadre back in these days, although they have lost touch now. “He’s from near me and we played against each other in the Sunday League games,” recalled Dunne. “I played against his little brother Jayden, who is at Aldershot now. I went to Wimbledon and they turned up, so we took it from there. Kieran and I went back on to Arsenal and Jayden came for a year, but they didn’t offer him anything after that. He has done well since then and I am still close to Jayden.”
Dunne admits that given they once shared a similar pathway into football, it would be strange if he and Gibbs should secure their first major cup-winning medals on the same day, on either side of the Border. Arsenal are of course aiming to lift a trophy for the first time in nine years against Hull City in the FA Cup final, while slightly earlier, St Johnstone will bid to win a first major trophy in their history. “He’s done exceptionally well, playing in Champions League games,” said Dunne of Gibbs, who has, unfairly in the view of some, been left out of England’s World Cup squad. “We used to play central midfield together and I never would have thought that he would become a left-back. He’s had a few injuries but other than that he’s done really well.”
“I hope they [Arsenal] do well on Saturday,” Dunne added. “They’ve had a good season but at the end they weren’t really able to carry it on. Maybe the size of their squad caught up with them. Manchester City’s squad is ridiculous. They could play a second-team and probably be second or third in the table. But I hope they win.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his London connections, Dunne grew up a Manchester United fan. Indeed, he had to confess this when he signed for Arsenal, although he added that his new club “didn’t seem to mind”. However, he failed to establish himself at Arsenal, and he has since had further stints at Exeter City and Stevenage, as well as a spell on loan at Nottingham Forest.
Dunne isn’t sure what his prospects are now with St Johnstone, whatever happens on Saturday. Stevenage have the option to keep him for another year but he sounds as though he has settled quickly into life in Perth, after scoring on his debut against Forfar Athletic in an earlier round in the Scottish Cup. Having previously worked with Arsene Wenger, his assessment of St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright carries some weight. “I have been very impressed by the way he handles the players and the training,” said Dunne. “It is up there with the best training I’ve had and that’s also down to [coaches] Callum Davidson and Alex Cleland.”