Richard Dunne would have, under usual circumstances, reclined in indispensability as the current campaign began. Manchester City captain, a nine-year servant of the club, its player of the year for four of the past five seasons and, at 29, arguably in his prime, the indomitable, broad-shouldered defender was revered within Eastlands' gates.
It was, however, an exceptional period at City, whose new owners, in their seldom, no-expense-spared style, were bankrolling a revolution. Their summer outlay included a combined £38m swoop for centre-backs Kolo Toure and Joleon Lescott. Dunne was, consequently, rendered surplus to requirements.
Aston Villa capitalised upon the Republic of Ireland international becoming an accessory at City, and their £5m signing has swiftly elicited the sporadic scent of a major bargain. The Villans are seventh in the Premier League - just two points shy of third - with a game in hand on three of the sides above them. This position has been achieved despite an examining start that has included a trip to Liverpool and the visits of Manchester City and Chelsea, from which the Midlands outfit have seized an admirable seven points.
Villa's prosperity owes much to the joint-best defensive record in the division - a mere eight goals conceded in nine outings - which, in turn, is indebted to Dunne, whose eight appearances have included four man-of-the-match awards and two goals - both, predictably, thumping headers.
"I don't think I have ever scored two goals in a season before. I think I only got seven in nine years at City, so I'm happy" explained Dunne. My job is to help keep goals out, though it's always nice to score. But as long as we're winning and working hard for each other, it doesn't matter who's scoring the goals.
"I had some great years at Man City, but I left and that was it. As soon as you go somewhere else, there's no point moping about and being sulky. Thankfully everyone has accepted me here. From day one the dressing room has been brilliant. You can see the team spirit when we go out and play. It's been a really good season so far, and hopefully we'll all be happy come May," added Dunne, who has his sights set on a UEFA Champions League place.
It is qualification for another tournament, however, that will truly determine Dunne's emotion once the Premier League season ends. Indeed, two dates with France - at Croke Park on 14 November and the Stade de France four days later - will determine whether Republic of Ireland reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Having been a non-playing member of his country's Korea/Japan 2002 squad and part of the team that failed to make Germany 2006, Dunne, who turned 30 last month and has 56 caps to his name, is determined to help Giovanni Trapattoni's side prevail.
France are nevertheless the favourites. They have appeared at 12 of the previous 18 FIFA World Cups - a record bettered by only Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Mexico - while Republic of Ireland have three participations to their name. The Boys in Green have never gone beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament; Les Bleus have won the FIFA Confederations Cup and UEFA European Championship twice apiece, and the FIFA World Cup. The Irish watched the last world finals on television after finishing fourth in their qualifying group behind their forthcoming opponents, runners-up Switzerland and third-placed Israel; France reached the Germany 2006 Final, which they only lost to Italy on penalties.
But scratching beneath the surface uncovers are a far more balanced tale. Republic of Ireland were one of only five teams to finish the group phase of European Zone qualifying unbeaten, although they were the only member of the quintet not to qualify directly for South Africa 2010 [Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands all topped their pools]. The Irish's company nonetheless included the reigning world champions, whom they drew with twice; 1-1 in Bari and 2-2 in Dublin. France, meanwhile, finished runners-up behind Serbia in a Group 7 they were expected to dominate. Moreover, Raymond Domenech's team will enter their play-off without the genius of Franck Ribery.
The France coach will, nevertheless, have a plethora of formidable forwards at his disposal, including Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and Karim Benzema, which will heighten the responsibility on Dunne's shoulders. He will nonetheless use history as a source of encouragement.
When Villa hosted Chelsea on 17 October, Dunne shackled Anelka and scored in a 2-1 victory. The last time the Tallaght native encountered Henry, in August 2006, he helped Manchester City beat Arsenal 1-0 and was named man of a match the Gunners legend described as "one of my worst games in an Arsenal shirt". In the former Everton player's previous meeting with French opposition in December, he again excelled as City held Paris Saint-Germain to a 0-0 draw in the UEFA Cup.
Dunne's community of admirers is vast and abounding. O'Neill recently described him as "'immense", while Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given called him "one of the best centre-halves I have ever played with." Trapattoni labelled him a "wardrobe" during their qualifying campaign and, according to the country's former coach Mick McCarthy, the Villa No5 is on a par with John Terry and Nemanja Vidic, consensually two of the finest centre-backs on the planet.
And while the Irish colossus is flattered by his burgeoning popularity, he would love nothing more than to emerge as France's bête noire in Saint-Denis.