“My toughest opponent? Scholes of Manchester. He is the complete midfielder. Scholes is undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation” – Zinedine Zidane
“Julian Dicks was an animal. I remember him having a go at Vinnie Jones once and Vinnie was shitting himself. His arsehole fell out. Dicks epitomised West Ham. When he kissed that badge, he meant it” – Danny Dyer
There are several strands of evergreen football content that experienced their print-magazine peak in the 1990s: fat footballers, “dodgy barnets”, terrible kits (usually away ones) and football’s hard men. The appeal of the hatchet man was cultivated over the previous few decades, thanks to the efforts of Ron “Chopper” Harris and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter, reached exceptional levels in the 1980s with Mick Harford’s supposedly vinegar-soaked elbows, and finally embedded itself into the mainstream in 1992.
“Soccer’s Hard Men”, the second-best selling sports video that Christmas, earned presenter Vinnie Jones a record £20,000 fine and a suspended six-month ban from a hugely disapproving FA. That only added to the novelty but, after that point, it was clear that one-dimensional hard men were being phased out by football’s new wave of professionalism, leaving behind just the Roy Keanes and their rather more varied footballing lockers. It was more important than ever to be able to “play a bit” as well.
In terms of bridging the gap between the shameless caricatures of the 1970s and the elite bruisers of the present day, few managed to tick as many boxes as Julian Dicks. Blessed with an eye-catching left foot as well as a quaint nickname, “Terminator” maintained an impressive balance of yellow cards (112) and emphatic goalscoring (64) from left-back.
After his West Ham debut as a 19-year-old in 1988, Dicks’ uncompromising approach led to the captain’s armband only a year later, only for a serious knee injury to keep him out of action for 14 months. His return, halfway through the 1991/92 season, failed to halt West Ham’s slide into the second tier. While the Premier League era began in style, Dicks was busy developing his personal brand in Division One, getting himself sent off three times by January, losing the captaincy in the process.
— WHUFC Bulletin (@whufcbulletin) August 20, 2016
Dicks also chipped in with eleven goals to propel the Hammers back to the top flight but, with barely enough time to break teammate Simon Webster’s leg in two places with a training ground tackle, he was cashed in.
The unlikely destination? Graeme Souness’ hot mess of a Liverpool squad, still in freefall from the Kenny Dalglish era, which was in the process of being toughened up with the arrival of Neil Ruddock and – “my kind of player”, Souness decided – the 25-year-old Dicks.
Former Liverpool left back Julian Dicks #90's pic.twitter.com/PdGx9NPEp8
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His debut was far from ideal: Dicks’ clumsy collision with Ruddock set Tony Cottee free to seal a 2-0 win for Everton at Goodison Park.
Atonement eventually came in the form of a 30-yarder against Oldham and, booking-free, Dicks was starting to grow in confidence at Anfield.
However, an embarrassing FA Cup defeat to Bristol City meant a New Year’s exit for noted Dicks advocate Souness and, in his place, came the rather less impressed Roy Evans. Dicks’ pre-match ritual of two cans of Coke was immediately questioned, and Evans’ training methods soon clashed with the defender’s penchant for warming up by smashing the ball as hard as he could towards goal.
“One day I thought ‘bollocks to this’,” Dicks recalled. “I’ve had enough. I can’t handle it anymore. I jumped in my car and went home.”
Banished to train with the youth team, Dicks attitude didn’t improve from there. A YTS kid called Jamie Carragher arrived in 1994 to witness the spectacle of Julian Dicks in pre-season mode.
“I remember Dicks attempting long-distance running around the perimeter of Liverpool’s Melwood training ground and getting lapped. The perimeter is huge. He’d be cutting the biggest corner you’ve ever seen to try to catch up and nobody would say anything.”
Dicks’ Anfield escape route led straight back to Upton Park, where Harry Redknapp was now manager. Despite boasting a somewhat wider frame than when he’d left, Dicks picked up where he left off with West Ham.
It’s at one point during his second spell in claret and blue that Dicks’ defining moment can be found. His goalscoring output had such ferocity and frequency – better than one in five for West Ham – that it warrants a three-part YouTube playlist to accommodate it. It’s a mildly hypnotic procession of West Ham forwards hopefully tumbling in the area, followed by a wide-eyed Dicks charging in from somewhere in the region of 25 yards to hammer a penalty into both the net and oblivion.
There is no better example than against Manchester United at Upton Park in December 1996.
“I remember the ball was on the spot and the players were arguing. Cantona then came over to me and said ‘Dicks, small goal.’ I managed to score and remember running past Cantona on the way back and he winked at me. That was one penalty that I was not going to miss.”
16 goals in two seasons tested the goalframes at various Premier League grounds, while any lingering frustration at his Liverpool failures was taken out on the head of Chelsea’s John Spencer.
Despite Redknapp’s claim that Dicks “swore on his daughters’ lives that it was accidental”, the FA were compelled to investigate the video evidence and meted out a three-match ban, a punishment rubber-stamped by Dicks’ sending-off at Arsenal just five days after the Chelsea game.
This quickfire brace of indiscretions brought the reputation of Julian Dicks nicely to a simmer. Taking constructive feedback as happily as ever, Dicks turned on knob-twiddling Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray for what he perceived to be a campaign against him.
“Andy Gray seems to be making a career out of having a go at me. People like to jump to the same old conclusions. Some people have tried to portray me as somebody who just goes out and tries to snap opponents in two.
October 1995: Julian Dicks going up in the lift for an FA hearing at Lancaster Gate. pic.twitter.com/wlgICvOIZw
— Offside Sports Photo (@welloffside) October 22, 2015
“The fact that I am Julian Dicks, a player with a certain reputation, seems to make me an easy target. Other incidents occur and they’ve replayed them only a couple of times. But when it’s me it gets shown hundreds of times.”
In a retrospectively excellent twist to the tale, West Ham’s notorious Inter City Firm leapt to the defence of their hero, contacting the Daily Mirror to confirm that “we are unhappy with Mr Gray’s constant criticism of Julian Dicks. We have put £3,000 out to have him done over. We’re going to give him a good working-over.”
Dicks’ troubled 1995 was crowned in unexpected fashion – being flattened by Middlesbrough and Brazil’s infamous hard man Juninho.
While his club career settled into a familiar groove again, his international prospects proved a little more awkward. Having picked up a couple of England B caps in 1992 – surely the most dispiriting time in living memory to be falling short of the full squad – Dicks was still waiting for his chance to stake a claim at left-back for his country. His patience was fairly short. Ray Clemence was dispatched by Terry Venables in 1995 to sound Dicks out about a call-up, only to be told to “shove his England caps up his arse.”
Despite missing the Euro ‘96 boat, and now with Stuart Pearce and Graeme Le Saux preferred ahead of him, Dicks was again encouraged by an England manager to put himself in the international frame. In 1997, Glenn Hoddle’s assistant John Gorman was given similarly short shrift when he gave Dicks some peculiar advice when the pair met on holiday. The response was unequivocal. “We met in Tenerife last summer and he told me I was just the kind of player Glenn was looking for. He then told me to grow my hair long and I would get in the side. I ask you, what sort of shit is that? I don’t care about the England side and I don’t feel patriotic.”
“I’m not being big-headed but I should really have been there two years ago. I am better than Stuart Pearce, Graeme Le Saux, Phillip Neville and Alan Wright. Some people might think that is big-headed but it’s how I feel.”
That unshakeable self-belief had already served Dicks well in battling against his failing knee. Eight separate operations had taken their toll – his surgeon refused to try again – but Dicks flew to Alabama for a last-ditch attempt to prolong his career.
“West Ham got the hump when my knee went,” Dicks told FourFourTwo. “They wanted to pay me off and kick me out but I refused because I wanted to play on. I had the surgery and when I recovered, I played 12 more games before Harry Redknapp picked me as left wing-back against Charlton. I’d never played that position before in my life and he knew it. I realised then the writing was on the wall.”
Dicks’ ten years as a West Ham man were rewarded with a testimonial at Upton Park in the summer of 2000. Athletic Bilbao were the puzzling, exotic choice as opposition, and soon became the sacrificial lambs for the occasion. Nigel Winterburn sent Joseba Etxeberria crashing into the advertising hoardings to instigate a 17-man brawl, and that was before Dicks had even made his cameo appearance from the bench. Short of being gift-wrapped a chance to score a penalty, this was about as fitting a send-off as it goes.
Julian Dicks at the height of athleticism back in the 90s. pic.twitter.com/UPCERCcDbY
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In one final act, straight out of the Proper Football Man textbook, Dicks retired to run the Shepherd & Dog pub in Essex, before moving to Spain and then, eventually, working his way back into the West Ham dugout as part of former teammate Slaven Bilic’s coaching staff. While players from the 1970s and 80s lament that their time came too soon to enjoy the spoils of modern football, Dicks has the opposite view:
“It would have been nice to have played 20 or 30 years ago. You could get away with murder then, elbow people, everything. The game’s changing for the worse.”