Dunk was sent off for two bookings late in the previous game at home to Derby County. That meant he missed the must-win match at Boro, which finished 1-1, and also the first leg of the Championship play-offs when Brighton lost 2-0 at Sheffield Wednesday.
Dunk was back – and scored – in the second leg but the Owls snatched a 1-1 draw to progress to the final at Wembley. A homegrown talent, who has been with the Seagulls since he was ten, the 25-year-old said missing out on going up to the Premier League last season was one of the worst moments in his career but promotion this year was something he would never forget.
Thinking back to the match at Middlesbrough, which Albion had to win to be promoted, Dunk said: “It was agony sitting there watching and not being able to do anything to help. It was horrible and I beat myself up about it for a long time.
“It was a stupid second booking (against Derby) and I beat myself up the whole summer. I finally forgot about it when we came back for pre-season and we talked about our goals again. I thought ‘let’s do it this year’.
“It’s got to be up there (with my worst moment in football) because of how close we were and missing out on goal difference. I was thinking ‘if I was out there, could I help?’ and it wasn’t a good time.”
Albion produced an outstanding performance in the play-off second leg against Sheffield Wednesday but a controversial equaliser gave the Owls the momentum to progress.
Dunk said: “I say it was a foul but the lino and the ref didn’t. The first half an hour of that game was the best game I’ve been involved in. Some of the passing and the play was unbelievable and you could see from the Sheffield Wednesday players that they were panicking but then they scored the goal and it changed the game.
“We had so much more to do then. We didn’t quite get there but luckily we’ve done it this year.”
Dunk was booked just once in March and April, after picking up 12 yellow cards in the first 28 games of the season. He admitted he wanted to be involved in the crunch games and said: “After missing the Middlesbrough game, it was always in the back of my mind to stop the silly ones.
“Do you know what I’ve done? I’ve closed my mouth. I’ve been told so many times ‘keep your head together, don’t do anything stupid’ and finally I think something has clicked in my brain and I’ve realised ‘don’t be stupid’. You want to play every game, if you’re suspended, you can’t even be selected. You want to be up for selection every game and if you’re doing stupid things like that, you can’t be up for selection.”
Dunk, a popular figure with Albion fans, was in pictures and videos on social media celebrating with fans after promotion was confirmed and he admits that is his favourite memory of the season: “That whole day and night was something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
“We got the train in (to Brighton) with the fans and intergrated with them and made it a big day with them and us. That’s the way this club has always been, it’s a community club and I think it was really fitting for us to do that, instead of just going off and doing it on our own.
“We took our time out and spent it with the fans for a bit, we loved it and they loved it, so what more could you ask for?
“It’s been my best season so far. Being promoted and getting named in the PFA team of the year has been huge and one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
“As a club, and me as well, we’d had so many near misses in the play-offs for the past five years. We’ve been in and around it and to finally get there is a massive relief for all of us and my celebrations proved how much it meant and how much of a dream come true it is for all of us.”
Dunk has been around Sussex football since a young age. His father, Mark, played in the county and managed Horsham, while his brother, Carl, played for several Sussex league sides. Dunk began his men’s football career at Bognor Regis and now hopes going up into the top flight of English football could open the door for an international call-up.
He has twice been on the bench for England under-21s and many Albion fans feel the defender is good enough to play for his country.
On international aspirations, Dunk said: “Of course, it has to be. When you’re a little kid, you want to play in the Premier League and you want to play for England. Hopefully I can show what I can do in the Premier League, do enough and follow in Michael Keane’s footsteps and get the call-up like he did.”
A Chelsea supporter, Dunk looks up to John Terry as his idol but it’s not just matches with the Blues he is looking forward to next season: “You’ve got to look forward to every one. Every team is in the top league for a reason. It’s the best league in the world and there’s some of the best teams in the world. To be playing against them is just amazing. It’s going to be a challenge but I’m excited for all of them.”
Terry spent 20 years at Chelsea, so could Dunk, who says he would love to be club captain one day, see himself being a one-club man?
“I don’t think too far ahead but I’m happy here.
“I enjoy my football, I’ve got all my family around me and we’re in the Premier League, so what more do I want at the moment?”
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