Ex-Swindon and Southend man James Dunne: I suspected Portsmouth career was over when Paul Cook made me take two-week paternity leave

James Dunne got the hint, the foisting upon him of paternity leave and ushering towards the nursery signalled no way back at Pompey.

Thursday, 27th January 2022, 6:00 pm

The tough-tackling midfielder was an instant Fratton Park favourite, his combative performances acknowledged by runner-up honours in The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season for 2014-15.

Considering it had been an eye-catching maiden campaign, inevitably collecting 11 bookings and two suspensions in the process, Dunne’s departure was a curious one.

The May 2015 arrival of Paul Cook as boss would transform the Blues and finally launch the long-awaited Football League assent.

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James Dunne made 39 appearances and scored once before his January 2016 departure from Fratton Park. Picture: Joe Pepler

Yet Dunne was one of the early casualties.

Having already resisted his new manager’s urges to relocate to the city from his newly-purchased home in Orpington, Kent, the 24-year-old was handed another instruction, this time non-negotiable.

Cook generously insisted Dunne spent two weeks of pre-season with his wife following the birth of their first child, Amelia.

The midfielder’s suspicions were not unfounded – he would subsequently play just 11 more minutes for Pompey.

James Dunne celebrates with Matt Tubbs after the striker netted in Pompey's 2-2 draw with Cheltenham in March 2015. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘You are for some managers, but not for others. That’s football for you, it’s a game of opinions and you have to get on with it,’ Dunne told The News.

‘Cookie brought in Michael Doyle, a great player, and others. I wasn’t playing, this is football, no problem, you move on. Reluctantly.

‘I had no problems with him, I just don’t think he liked me that much.

‘He should have told me “You are not for me”, rather than giving me all this spiel about moving and babies.

James Dunne joined the Blues for an undisclosed fee from Stevenage in June 2014. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘Firstly, he wanted me to move to the area, but at the time my missus had just given birth by caesarean, so I could only stay up two or three times a week.

‘Then the squad went to Portugal for some pre-season team building. I wanted to go, but he insisted I had the time off to be with my missus. I would rather have travelled with them and got some rest!

‘To me, he was using it as an excuse in the end because I was liked by the fans. They’re going to be asking questions: “Where’s Dunnie?”. So he replied: “I’ve given him time off”.

‘Great. Except I didn’t want those two weeks off and didn’t ask for them.

Pre-season training in June 2015 overseen by Pompey manager Paul Cook. From left: Cook, Michael Poke, Tom Craddock, James Dunne and Paul Jones. Picture: Colin Farmery

‘Instead I had to train on my own to keep my fitness up. They went away to Portugal – and I trained on my own. They came back from Portugal – and I was still back home training on my own.

‘This was pre-season, I just wanted to train with the lads.

‘I wanted to be at home with the family, obviously, but I also wanted to be playing, that’s my job.

‘During that pre-season, I never played a single minute in the friendlies. I had a couple of weeks out with a little ankle problem, but otherwise Cook was saying: “Listen, I’m going to be using the players who will be starting the season”.

‘I had worked out what was going on.’

It was June 2014 when Dunne arrived at Fratton Park, with Andy Awford paying an undisclosed fee to capture his services from Stevenage.

James Dunne was a combative performer in Pompey's midfield during the 2014-15 campaign, earning him runner-up in The News/Sport Mail's Player of the Season vote. Picture: Joe Pepler

The former Arsenal apprentice had spent the second half of the previous season on loan at Scottish Premiership side St Johnstone, where he won the Scottish Cup.

His first Fratton Park appearance for the Blues was marked by a stunning volleyed goal from 25-yards in a pre-season friendly against Bournemouth, which resulted in a 3-2 loss.

Yet the 2014-15 campaign which unfolded was one of immense disappointment, with Pompey ending up 16th in League Two – their lowest finishing position in Football League history.

‘I was buzzing when I got the call to say Pompey were interested,’ added Dunne.

‘Playing in front of 17,000 week in, week out, going to away grounds where sometimes there were nearly more of our fans than home fans, it was a no-brainer. Get me down there as quickly as possible.

‘You want to go to the big clubs. Their ambition is promotion and if you don’t get that then it’s a bad season. Draws aren’t good enough, it’s pressure – but I like the pressure.

‘It was just a shame that, as a team, we were inconsistent. Maybe you bring in some players and they can’t handle the pressure of playing in front of 17,000 every week.

‘Okay, you’re used to 3-4,000 at a game, but, all of a sudden, this is playing in front of a massive crowd – and that can get to some.

‘Whether I’m playing in front of 17,000 or 1,000, it’s all the same to me. That comes with age as well, the older you are you don’t take any notice of the crowd, it comes naturally, especially playing at home at Fratton Park.

‘Teams would come to us and we’d hear them afterwards in their dressing room celebrating a draw. They loved playing at Fratton Park and it raised their game 10 per cent.

‘You need the work-rate to match them, but we didn’t most games. That’s why the season fizzled out and, unfortunately, that’s why Andy got the sack.’

Jed Wallace was voted The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season by supporters ahead of his departure for Wolves.

Runner-up was Dunne, capping an excellent individual campaign for the hard-working midfielder, reflecting his popularity among the Fratton faithful.

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Within two weeks of season’s completion, Cook was unveiled as manager in May 2015 and set about the essential squad clear-out with relish.

Dunne said: ‘If I was going to root up my family, with my missus in no fit state to be left on her own after having a caesarean, I wanted to know if I’d actually be playing.

‘Cookie’s response was “You will be given a fair crack of the whip” and stuff like that. Obviously I wasn't for him, that’s fine, just tell me that so I’m not holding on and considering moving my family here.

‘Funnily enough, I lived in Port Solent the previous season, spending 3-4 days in a club house in Port Solent. It was written into my contract that they had to pay for my accommodation in the area – then they sold the house!

‘There were four of us, with Patrick Agyemang, Nicky Shorey and Ben Chorley living with me. Bondz N’Gala had also been there at the start, but then left.

‘They were older boys and I was the youngest, so they looked after me, so it wasn’t like I was being naughty off the pitch or anything like that. We were basically in The Pizza House Restaurant every night, the owner was a mad Pompey fan and looked after us.

‘From the summer of 2015, I was now staying in the Holiday Inn in Southsea 2-3 times a week, but I don’t think that was good enough for Cookie.

‘I lived in Orpington, I still live there now. It would take me one hour 45 minutes on a good run, although in the mornings it was probably two-and-half hours because of the traffic. Driving is also a killer on your legs.

‘We had actually settled into the house the previous month, but I still debated moving after what the manager had said. We couldn’t afford it, though, and it took my wife 6-8 weeks before she was properly able to get around again.

‘This is football. The game is about opinions, Paul Cook didn’t rate me as a player or didn’t like the way I played. He wanted to bring his players in and that’s fine, you just get on with it.’

An 11-minute outing off the bench against Reading in the Capital One Cup in August 2015 would prove to be Dunne’s final Pompey first-team involvement.

It represented the first and only time he featured in a Blues squad under Cook – and two months later Dagenham & Redbridge offered an escape through an emergency loan.

The midfielder netted once in 14 appearances for the League Two strugglers before returning to Fratton Park in January 2016.

Faced with no Blues future, agreement was reached on the cancellation of his contract, allowing a permanent move to Cambridge United for the remainder of the 2015-16 campaign.

After 39 appearances, 11 bookings and one goal, his time on the south coast was over.

He added: ‘Under Cook, I would join in with the first-team squad for the warm-up and first part of the session.

‘When they went through how they were going to play, however, I’d be sent away with the fitness coach to do running.

‘I found it a bit strange because it wasn’t like I was a bad egg. I’d go off, do my running, no complaints, get on with it. I wasn’t causing trouble. I was working hard to try to get into the team – and it just didn’t happen.

‘Dagenham & Redbridge were bottom of League Two at the time, but it was near home and I needed to get out and play some games.

‘It was a case of then seeing what happened in January. Perhaps I would come back and Cook says “You’re for me” – but obviously that wasn’t the case.

‘Pompey had picked up results and were doing well, so it was “You aren’t going to play under me”. Instead they were trying to bring in another player in a different position to replace me.

‘When I left, Pompey had a number of injuries in midfield and it occurred to me that perhaps I should have stayed, then maybe I could have played and kept my place in the team. But it's not that easy.

‘Four weeks later we played at Fratton Park, but I wasn’t allowed to take part. Paul Cook had a gentleman’s agreement between the clubs that I couldn’t feature.

‘Considering he didn’t think I was for him, I don’t know why he would do that. Probably in case I had a good game, then it would look bad on him.’

Amelia Dunne is now aged six, with the family welcoming Frank into the world three years ago. A third child is on the way on March 22, with a caesarean booked in.

In the meantime, Dunne returned to training with Southend last weekend after rolling his ankle on Bromley’s artificial pitch on Boxing Day.

Since departing Pompey, he has served Cambridge United and Swindon, before slipping into non-league with Barnet in July 2019.

Having linked-up with Southend on a two-year deal in the summer, the former Football Club club have struggled in the National League and are presently 18th and looking over their shoulder.

Yet they possess the right man for a battle.

Now aged 32, Dunne added: ‘I loved my time at Pompey, but it was a big disappointment with what went on and not doing well in the first season.

‘When they won promotion the season after I left, I was devastated, I so wanted that to be me at that football club. I loved the place, I loved the people there.

‘Along with my first year at Stevenage, the best I played in my career was in my maiden Pompey season, which made what happened even more frustrating.

‘It was one of the most disappointing times of my career. You are thinking this club is going to take off, your career is going to get better, you’re going to play at higher levels, but it didn’t seem to work out.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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James Dunne (far right), with Kal Naismith and Jack Whatmough at an open training season in August 2015. Picture: Malcolm Wells