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The shaping of the beliefs and values of Joe Dunne

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Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell

In a revealing interview, we learn more about the life and career of Cambridge United's head coach in a fascinating insight.

Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell

Joe Dunne is a ball of energy on the touchline, living and breathing each game with the players out on the pitch.

He is someone who, on a matchday, wears his heart on his sleeve, and readily admits to being “an emotive guy”.

The animated gestures in reaction to what is happening cannot be hidden, and the response is either encouragement for better next time or a fist pump or clap of the hands for perfect execution.

It is such positive communication to his players that is at the core of what the head coach is hoping to achieve at Cambridge United, by developing those in his charge.

“I always felt, even when I was a player, it was never going to be a playing career for me, I just wanted to make people better,” said Dunne.

“I just felt how I was moulded into what I was, I just wanted to coach to try to encourage and help people.

“Trying to bring out people’s creativity grew over a period of time. It didn’t just happen at a young age because at a young age you’re still trying to follow your own pathway.

“I just felt I had more to give. I had life lessons to give. I had encouragement to give. I had more to give to people than what I was doing, and my pathway is football.”

Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell

Bringing out that creativity has certainly been evident at Cambridge United.

Since initially being made interim head coach, Dunne has helped the side flourish as their attacking style and results have been a hit with supporters – and earned him the job on a permanent basis.

It means the 44-year-old Irishman has stepped out of the shadows to receive wider recognition – his work on the training pitches was already lauded by the club’s staff and playing personnel.

It has been an interesting few months talking to Dunne at his weekly press conferences and getting to know and understand what he wants from his team.

You get a hint of the analytical nature when he talks of optimal timings for substitutions and the positives and negatives for different formations.

There is also an indication of the man when he greets the assembled media with a handshake and looks them straight in the eye.

Further examples of his personable nature are spending time talking to fans at the training ground and boarding the supporters’ coach at Carlisle to thank them for their efforts in making the trip.

It only scratches the surface of a fascinating character though, and one who will no doubt have to write a book about his story.

Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell

When Dunne says “my pathway is football” and talks about his life lessons and what moulded him into the man he is now, it is a story of tragedy, determination, hard work and drive to succeed.

Growing up in Dublin, that competitive spirit was bred into him at a young age at school where he describes teachers as “tough, but they were fair and taught you right from wrong”.

It also came from a working-class home life where the work ethic and values that he holds dear were passed on to the young Dunne by his parents.

“The survival instincts in my family have rubbed off, and they gave me all they could,” said Dunne.

“My mum was a woman who cycled miles and miles to work, held down three jobs, the kind of thing that you’re seeing these days.

“My father used to dig roads. He was on the roads from all hours of the morning and would come back late at night and always have time for you.

“Father out digging roads and mother working as hard as she can to get back and put food on the table, and that’s the kind of environment that I grew up in, and it teaches you to fend for yourself.

“We had to fight our own corners many times where I lived, but good people everywhere, people that shared the same values, hard-working people.

Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge United head coach Joe Dunne. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We had a football pitch in the middle of the estate where everybody played, and you played and it was no holds barred, like the old days. But grounded to come over and it gave me those survival skills.”

Football was to the core growing up, playing on the estate to develop that “street mentality” which Dunne so often refers and through his father’s team, Inchicore Athletic.

A boyhood Liverpool fan, Dunne and his father would make regular trips across the Irish Sea to meet friends and visit Anfield.

His world changed though just as he hit his teens, when his father died aged 45; a life-changing day that is honoured by Dunne with a tattoo on his right forearm.

“As a young 13-year-old, very impressionable, that changed my life really,” he said. “You have to grow up quickly and become the man of the house really and make decisions that 13-year-olds sometimes don’t have to make. All of a sudden you’re 13 but you’re 30.”

Further change was soon around the corner, and it was a decision that was to set Dunne’s life in a new direction.

At the press conference to confirm him as the U’s head coach, the former Colchester United player and manager had referred to arriving on these shores when he was 15, but did not expand any further on the story.

It is therefore only in conversation with Dunne that you understand what he gave up to pursue his ambition and sign for Gillingham.

“My mother knew initially I was going on trial, but she didn’t know I had signed to stay over here, so I had to drop back and tell her, put my clothes in a suitcase and left,” he said.

“It was obviously difficult for my mum, having lost my father, but this is always what I wanted to do. I always wanted to come to England and I couldn’t turn down the chance.”

At the age of 15, he found himself in digs at Gillingham, taken under the wing of youth team boss Damien Richardson, with friends from home Steve O’Brien and Mark Dempsey to offer support.

It was a fast learning curve though, as 15-year-old Dunne was first battling to get into the under-18s, and then as a 17-year-old moving into the first team picture to compete with older pros.

“We had good people around us, the host family were wonderful, the people that looked after us were wonderful, so we were lucky in that respect,” said Dunne.

“But also, it was tough in a lot of other respects – just growing up here.

“You are in an environment that is a new community, you’re battling for position with older people.”

Dunne never looked back though, and has carved out a successful career in the game.

The right-back made more than 100 appearances for both Gillingham and Colchester United before injury brought an end to his career at the age of 29.

Having turned to the coaching side of things, Dunne is still grateful for all the game has given him, feeling it is a privilege to be in the profession and is eager to give as much back.

He cites arrogance and aloofness as two of his pet hates, and it is easy to see why, given the intrinsic values that shine through, Dunne wants to use being in the public eye as a force for good.

“We should be humble and understand that there are many people who want to do what we do,” he said.

“There are many people who will never achieve what we achieve and become a footballer; we need to respect that.”

That means being actively supportive of the work of the Cambridge United Community Trust in reaching out to all parts of society, and Dunne believes it is vitally important to do that.

What is also key for Dunne is that creation and ambition in any individual is not stifled or suppressed.

“Creation and ambition is in us all, you just need to push the right button,” he said. “We all have creativity, we can all create things when we’re young.

“We have a duty when we’re in the position we hold as players and staff to make sure we can help in any way we can because we’re not all perfect.

“We all share the same flaws. There is so much similar between us and everybody else that it’s only a key creative thing that we’ve chosen to do well.”

With such strong values and ethos, it is easy to see why Dunne will be a superb ambassador for Cambridge United in everything they do, both on the pitch and off it.


The power of the mind is of huge importance to the approach of Joe Dunne.

The psychology of sport is an area that has grown significantly in the last couple of decades, and mental health awareness within society has also taken greater prominence in recent times.

Mindset is a subject that has a deep meaning to Dunne.

It is a subject matter that the head coach often refers to in pre-match press conferences, and one that he spent time studying during his nine months away from the game after leaving Colchester United.

Dunne wanted to understand in greater detail why we make decisions, the source of emotional responses, the effect the brain has on the body and how it emits chemicals for a reaction from the body.

“I’m fascinated with the brain and how it works,” he said. “It controls your mood, how you might look at a situation, good or bad.

“I read a lot about it, went on a couple of things and tried to understand better human thinking and how we come to make decisions and how it can stifle us.

“The power the mind has over us is incredible; it can put us in a good place and it can put us in a difficult place.

“It’s healthy and unhealthy at times, and it controls you. A confident person is a person who can achieve a lot.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m an emotive guy. I like emotion and sometimes you’ve got to use that emotion at the right moment.

“It’s allowed me to be more calculated; and understanding is key, you learn more from listening and observing when you have a different mindset.

“Bringing the best out of people physically and from a technical and ability point of view is never really that much of an issue, it’s how you make yourself do things.”

Dunne is all to aware of the expectations placed on youngsters and young players these days, with the demand to live up to expectations placed on them by social media.

He believes it makes things more difficult to match the image that has been set, with the 15 minutes of fame saying being about seeking social acceptance.

“I think it’s very unhealthy,” he said. “It creates a lot of pressure and a lot of pressure creates a lot of issues in the brain. As long as they understand their own worth. Knowing your self-worth is important – self-belief, self-worth, self-satisfaction that you’re improving every day.

“We have a saying here where we talk about ‘come in and win every day’.

“What I mean by that when you’re winning, go home healthy, go home stronger, go home fitter, go home feeling that today you’re happy.

“It’s not that everything is rainbows. Some days you’ve just got to see out the bad ones because until you have some of those you don’t end up appreciating the good ones.

“The more we can teach our young people to understand there is so much ahead of you and so much life after you’ve finished football, and that’s what I say to even the older players. If you finish at 35, you’ve got another possibly 50 years of living.

“Enjoy it and try to make your life better.”


A redeeming feature of Joe Dunne’s time since taking the reins at Cambridge United has been the style of play.

It has been filled with creativity and attacking intent, an approach which has proved a hit with supporters.

Having been born in 1973, Dunne grew up with attacking football.

The Liverpool team of the 70s and 80s, Forest of the late 70s, English success in Europe, Hugo Sanchez’s overhead kick for Real Madrid against Logrones in 1988 and Marco Tardelli’s celebration at the 1982 World Cup are all inspirations.

Not quite reaching that super potential, it was a question of finding the next best thing for Dunne.

It came in the car park of Priestfield Stadium, where he first dabbled in coaching with the junior Gills.

Dunne had found his calling through the desire to help others, with his belief in a style of play starting to be shaped when he was 23 after properly learning the art of movement, shape and passing.

It is an approach that is perhaps out of place in the lower reaches of the Football League, but not for Dunne, with European visits while studying for his badges also introducing him to new ideas and techniques.

“I grew up in the fourth division where it was get the ball and get it up there as fast as you can and tackle and head and kick and fight and scrap and do all those things,” he said.

“There was more to football than that. When I did my A licence I was 30, I just realised so much more.

“I think the level we’re at, you’ve got to be pragmatic at times. I understand that, but that should never dampen the ability to try to make somebody really, really good at something rather than pigeon hole them into one thing they can do.

“I believe sometimes we get bogged down by people’s weaknesses. I think a weakness will always be a weakness no matter how hard you work.

“You will get an improvement, but someone’s strengths can be enhanced and that’s important.

“Sometimes we judge people on their weaknesses rather than their strengths. We’re able to find more weaknesses in people than we are strengths and I think that’s just the difference between positive and negative mindset.”

Dunne was keen to emphasise that there is no one way to play; what may suit one team may not suit another, but his belief is to develop people first as that will in turn nurture players and by consequence results arrive.

“I just try to work with people, and create better people, better players to allow them to fulfil potential,” he said.

“I believe I have a duty to help aid people to fulfil their potential. People will say, no your duty is to win games; of course it is, we all want to win games.

“But I believe you’ve got to see each thing as it is, and say right how can we make them better to give us that goal to achieve.

“If I set a way of playing at this club that stifles progression for players, well what’s the point as it totally goes against everything I believe.

“I love attacking football.”

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