The importance of the iron man to Pompey

James Dunne at Five Lakes. Picture: Joe Pepler
James Dunne at Five Lakes. Picture: Joe Pepler

Without a moment’s hesitation, James Dunne thundered into the stinging nettle-infested ditch.

Emerging from the undergrowth with the ball safely under his arm and no discernible discomfort, he clambered out and strode back towards his team-mates.

That day at Pompey’s pre-season Five Lakes Hotel base, it was clear there was something different about this particular summer recruit.

By that stage Dunne had already made friendly appearances against the Hawks and Bognor, following his June arrival from Stevenage for an undisclosed fee.

There had been the comparison with Mick Kennedy, talk of a hardman who never shirks a tackle, and portrayals of a combative character patrolling the midfield areas.

Yet in the brief moment the 26-year-old dealt with that errant ball in the grounds of the Colchester hotel, it eloquently delivered an accurate appraisal of this newcomer to Fratton Park.

A trivial encounter, granted, yet those ditches were unfathomable in depth, the deathly-black wet contents rancid in aroma, while rampant stinging nettles fended off any other curious plant life.

Retrieving the balls during the week-long training camp was a two-man job, usually headed by kitman Kev McCormack and involved the lowering of a second volunteer while gripping his outstretched hand. No safety nets were used.

Alternatively, there were the plastic poles earmarked for the training pitch which helpfully doubled up as a method of prodding footballs from their clever cover before putting the rescue plan into action.

Then on the final day Dunne intervened to leave the onlooking members of the fifth emergency service with mouths agape.

Not so much as a glance for a dock leaf, scratching of the bare legs or emptying of the squidging boot, the iron man strode into battle once more.

Subsequently, Dunne’s midfield performances have established him as one of the more outstanding players in another disappointing Pompey season.

Admittedly, one defeat in nine before today’s visit of Luton Town is to be applauded.

But it still cannot disguise the overall failings of a side assembled with one of the best budgets in the league and possessing ambitions of a play-off challenge.

Let no-one forget the Blues finished 13th in League Two last season.

Nonetheless, Dunne has emerged as an excellent purchase by Andy Awford and, rightfully, will challenge Jed Wallace, Paul Jones and Paul Robinson in the forthcoming The News/Sports Mail player-of-the-season vote.

He represents the midfield enforcer long absent from a Pompey side, a snapping and snarling presence with a thirst for a tackle and a penchant for collecting yellow cards from those poor unfortunates he has maimed.

With an inevitability, he was sentenced to two separate bans before the end February following the accumulation of 10 yellow cards during his maiden Fratton Park campaign.

Mightily impressive going, considering he spent eight matches on the sidelines from the start of November having undergone a knee operation.

Dunne being Dunne, he picked up the complaint while warming-up before kick-off against Carlisle, yet insisted on carrying on to lead his team-mates to a 3-0 home victory, lasting the entire 90 minutes.

He was out for a month and 28 days, before returning as a substitute at Luton in the final match of 2014 as the 1-1 draw signified the true beginning of Pompey’s resurgence.

It was no coincidence either, after results show Awford’s men have won just once this season in all competitions when their midfield general has not been present.

In the 13 fixtures Dunne has missed to this point, the 3-0 win over Morecambe at Fratton Park in November represents the sole three points collected.

Scratching beneath the surface, the Blues have conceded 24 goals without the ex-Exeter man bolstering the team.

That is two more than the 22 let in during his 26 starts – a total collected over twice as many fixtures.

In fact, Pompey have suffered defeat five times with Dunne named in the line-up, most recently the January home defeat to Southend.

Contrast that to the nine losses in all competitions Awford has suffered in the 13 games without his presence.

That includes a failure to beat non-league Aldershot in the FA Cup and then the subsequent elimination in the replay, creating unwanted Pompey history in the process.

In terms of scoring goals, that tallies 36 in 26 matches, Dunne himself netting one of them in a 3-0 home success over Dagenham & Redbridge in September.

Without him in the starting line-up, it has been 10 netted in 13 fixtures.

Of course, Dunne has also made two substitute appearances, as he felt his way back into the first-team against Luton and Newport County following his knee operation.

These yielded one defeat and one loss, although obviously they are not considered when it comes to calculating his record when starting.

Finally, when it comes down to victories, before today the midfielder enjoys a 46.15 per cent win ratio when he has been in the first XI.

Without him it is 7.69 per cent – basically Morecambe at home.

Not that the Fratton faithful need lecturing on the importance of Dunne to their side, they are a knowledgeable lot who recognise quality in front of them.

And you cannot help but admire someone prepared to leap bare-legged into stinging nettles and putrid water to retrieve a football.