LAST season’s sleeping giant Aston Villa’s Richard Dunne is now wide awake and ready to give opposing strikers nightmares again, according to his manager.
Alex McLeish was delighted with the commitment Dunne showed during last week’s Hong Kong trip despite suffering with insomnia during the tour and hopes his return to form along with Stephen Warnock will help the Villain’s launch a good title attack.
Dunne found it particularly hard to sleep during the nights because of the heat and humidity and was forced to catch up with naps during the day.
But McLeish hopes the experienced defender’s desire to return to form will be an eye-opening experience for the critics who wrote him off last term and in turn help his Republic of Ireland side.
Dunne under-achieved during Gerard Houllier’s brief reign and his below-par performances coincided with Villa’s wider defensive woes.
“I know that on three nights Richard didn’t sleep and had to catch up during the day,” said McLeish.
“But, to be fair to the big fella, after losing an early goal in the first minute against Chelsea he went right to the very end. “I know he looked as if he wanted to lie down at some stages of the game but he showed a real determination and character to go right on.
“So we will need that character and we will need that spirit.”
Many modern fans of football forget that Birmingham is a hotbed of the sport and none come bigger than the Villa. A better European Cup record than Chelsea for example and a bigger fan base make Villa the biggest of the sleeping giants. Randy Lerner has restored financial stability and unlike legendary Chairman Doug Ellis has been faithful to previous managers but has pulled off a master stroke in getting McLeish in and thus becoming the first managerial interchange between Birmingham and Villa since Ron Saunders. Will big ek win the title like Saunders did back in 81? Who knows but the ghosts of that Withe, Shaw and Mortimer side do hang over Villa Park. But on a positive note for Mssrs Given, Ireland, Dunne and Clarke, McLeish is loyal to his team and with MG Rover back in Longbridge things are looking good for the Villa to kickstart former glories. Some passion and pride should see a top six finish and a Cup arriving in the second city.
However, the 3,000 travelling fans looking for positives from Wednesday nights friendly defeat to the Rams will have found them in short supply.
But the claret and blue army will be hoping Villa can restore the pride lost at Pride Park in their final practice match at Braga on Saturday. It is likely to be a completely different team in Portugal with Alex McLeish planning to rotate his squad and give a debut to Charles N’Zogbia.
Having started with his preferred back four of Luke Young, James Collins, Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock during both Hong Kong games, it was no surprise to see McLeish shuffle his defensive pack Chris Herd, Ciaran Clark and Shane Lowry were their replacements in a young-looking rearguard, with the experienced Habib Beye bumping up the average age.
There was also a first start of pre-season for Brad Guzan in place of new No.1 Shay Given and the goalkeeping understudy made Villa’s most telling contributions of the first half.
The American international came to the rescue in the 13th minute as the hosts posed as many threats as they faced before the break, racing off his line to deny Nathan Tyson as he escaped behind the visitors’ defence.
Guzan also got down well to scramble away a strike from James Bailey during a penalty box scramble just before the interval.
It took Villa until midway through the first half to register their first shot when Barry Bannan’s rising drive packed power but lacked precision as it whizzed over the bar.
Former Rams loanee Bannan then released Darren Bent whose cutback to Marc Albrighton was intercepted when the star striker might have been better advised to shoot from an acute angle.
The second half was played in much the same low-key vein and it took a goal from Derby to momentarily spark Villa’s players and their dedicated fans into life on 56 minutes.
Lowry stuck his hand in the way of Craig Bryson’s strike and when referee Dean Mohareb pointed to the spot, not even penalty-saving specialist Guzan could keep out Steven Davies’ powerful strike.
Albrighton responded by forcing Rams keeper Frank Fielding into a routine save, while Bent was marginally offside on a series of occasions as he led the line with little support from Stephen Ireland in the hole.
And it was Derby who deservedly doubled their advantage in the 77th minute when Ben Davies smashed a cracker into the top right-hand corner of Guzan’s goal after Theo Robinson’s run had opened up the Villa defence.