At least this weather will help the lads shift a few pounds, won’t it, joked Paul Lambert with a big grin, pointedly nudging the player sat alongside him.
It was last summer and Richard Dunne was accompanying his manager at a press conference in the basement of Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park Stadium as Aston Villa kicked off their pre-season preparations in sweltering conditions on the east coast of America.
If Lambert’s lighthearted dig at Dunne’s shape – taken by the bulky defender in the warm spirit in which it was intended – lingers in the memory, so too does the weighty interview the experienced Irishman gave in a corridor outside after the main media event and before an intense workout in the Philadelphia sunshine.
Dunne had been given special dispensation to join Villa’s pre-season campaign two weeks late after his own summer holidays were taken up by his country’s disappointing exit from Euro 2012.
Back then Dunne spoke enthusiastically about using his Ireland disappointment as a motivational force to kick start his claret and blue career and revealed his excitement at the forthcoming battle to be part of Lambert’s new regime.
Emile Heskey and Carlos Cuellar had already departed and Dunne’s central defensive partner and friend James Collins was soon to follow as the clear-out of players from the bygone Martin O’Neill era continued apace. But Dunne wanted to strike a blow for Villa’s veterans and, while his international future was on hold, his mind was very much focused on proving he still had plenty to offer Villa.
He made a 26-minute cameo as a substitute in the following day’s 1-0 victory over Union and played the first half as Chicago Fire were defeated by the same margin three days later, but was conspicuous by his absence when Villa rounded off the nine day tour by beating Portland Timbers on penalties. Dunne has not been seen in a claret and blue shirt since. What was thought to be an innocuous injury has ruled him out for most of the season.
In his engaging interview at PPL Park he had talked about possibly one day following Irish pal and former Villa team-mate Robbie Keane to Major League Soccer in the States, maybe even to LA Galaxy, but not before he had completed his unfinished business at Villa Park.
Subsequently, he has made a Transatlantic return trip sooner than he thought. Not for a recce mission with Robbie, but to see a specialist in an attempt to finally find a solution to the groin trouble which originally started out as a minor twinge on Ireland duty nine months ago.
Last summer’s dream of using this season to remind Villa Park of the warrior they witnessed in his first season in 2009-10 suffered setback after setback as he neared recovery only to aggravate the injury time and again.
Lambert, in response to persistent questions about Dunne’s prognosis and estimated return date, revealed this week that the 33-year-old’s complicated recovery is not career-threatening.
His constant words of respect for Dunne suggest the former Everton and Manchester City player was in his plans, and was never a candidate for the Stephen Warnock, Alan Hutton, and now Stephen Ireland, exclusion treatment.
As the mysterious injury lingers on, Lambert has even talked of potentially offering Dunne a new contract when his current deal expires this summer.
Given Dunne’s age, lack of football and wages it seems unlikely – but the wait, not the weight, is his heaviest burden now.