THERE are some things you never forget. Some things that stay with you forever, faded and jaded but still a part of you, in football and in life. Cup finals, title deciders, your first game. Treasured times when a cat, a dog, a hamster, a nun, runs across the pitch in startled exhilaration. All buried deep in your memory banks, to be summoned into service whenever an obscure fact or devastating anecdote is called for.
I say this as a man with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of FA Cup final goalscorers from 1971 to 2006 and who rarely misses a chance to show it off (though anything after 2006 is strictly off-limits, consisting in my head solely of Didier Drogba scuffing the ball into the net year after year). It’s definitely going to be my chosen specialist subject on Mastermind if they decide, for some reason, that my first choice, ‘The Manson Family Murders’, is too challenging a topic for the early evening BBC2 viewer.
Liverpool fans of a certain vintage will have little trouble recalling the last match at Anfield in front of the standing Kop. Amid the carnival of banners and flags and scarves, an explosion of defiance and emotion, the defeat to Norwich became little more than an irrelevance. It was notable mainly for elevating the name of Jeremy Goss, the last man to score a goal before that legendary heaving terrace, into the history books, like a pissed-up streaker photo-bombing your wedding snaps.
Perhaps less readily brought to mind is the identity of the last Liverpool player to find The Kop net before the bulldozers moved in. Ian Rush? That’d be fitting. Robbie Fowler? Again, worthy of the honour. John Barnes? Makes sense. Ronnie Whelan? Steve Nicol? No. I’m afraid we’re going to have to face a harsh truth here.
It was Julian Dicks.
Dicks is never going to win any ‘Greatest Ever Player’ polls. Not at Anfield anyway. There’s a good reason for that. He wasn’t very good. Actually, I may be doing him a disservice. Dicks was a fine servant for West Ham, patrolling the left flank year on year, striking fear into the hearts of tremulous wingers with his psychotic stare and his relaxed approach to health and safety regulations.
But Dicks was never, no matter how hard you may try to rationalise or reconcile yourself to the uncomfortable reality, a Liverpool player. I mean, technically he *was* a Liverpool player, in the sense that he wore the shirt and represented the club on the pitch in officially sanctioned football matches. That much is not in dispute. That much is also true of Paul Konchesky.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s also an inexplicable, unspoken bond between player and supporter, an appreciation of history and your place within it, and an acknowledgement that playing for Liverpool brings with it certain expectations, of style, of ambition, of attitude, that we like to think are absent at other clubs.
Also, he was called Julian. Bad start.
Graeme Souness brought Dicks to Anfield a few games into the 1993-4 season. After a promising start to the campaign, three defeats in four had brought the familiar weaknesses of the previous year once more to the fore. Souness felt, with some justification, that the team was still something of a soft touch, despite the acquisition of rotund hacker, Neil Ruddock in the summer. He saw the value of a team built in his own uncompromising image.
Still, it was no less of a surprise when he turned his attentions to Dicks. This was someone whose reputation for being excessively aggressive defined him, someone who had received three red cards for West Ham in the preceding 12 months. Someone who liked to be known as ‘The Terminator’. Yeah, I know. If nothing else, it was a bold statement by Souness, and one that was likely to make or break him as Liverpool manager.
Dicks made his first start at Goodison, as Everton outplayed and outfought a dire Liverpool line-up to win 2-0. Dicks presented the second goal to pug-faced irritant, Tony Cottee, while Bruce Grobbelaar and Steve McManaman attempted to slap the lethargy out of each other. It wasn’t what you’d call a dream debut.
The team’s inconsistency continued and, despite a noticeably improved disciplinary record, Dicks did little to show that he was going to be the solution to what were, by now, deeply ingrained problems. Also, it was clear that, like fellow wannabe tough-nut, Ruddock, his level of fitness was not up to the required standard.
When Souness eventually succumbed to the inevitable and resigned in January 1994, in the wake of a lamentable FA Cup exit to Bristol City, it was the beginning of the end for Dicks’ Liverpool career, just a few months after it began. Roy Evans was not a fan. He didn’t see Dicks as someone to rebuild a team around, someone to be relied upon.
That said, Dicks started each of the remaining 16 league games that season, giving the lie to his later complaints that he wasn’t given a chance to prove himself at Liverpool. On the contrary, he proved all too well that he wasn’t the kind of player required for a new era at Anfield.
During the summer Evans made his stance clear. Dicks returned to pre-season training overweight and unprepared and, following a disastrous showing in a 4-1 friendly defeat to Bolton, was banished from the first-team set-up. There was clearly going to be no way back. After an uncomfortable stand-off lasting several months, Dicks was finally offloaded to his previous employers, West Ham United.
He went on to have a second successful spell at Upton Park, where he was idolised and ultimately regarded as a legend. That’s fine. Some players belong at certain clubs, their stories are intertwined, their names synonymous with each other. Take them out of the familiar environment, the comfort zone and they lose their essence, the thing that makes them special.
Dicks and Liverpool was a coupling that never looked likely to work. For his part, Dicks was unfortunate to join a team that was fundamentally flawed and to be thrust into a maelstrom of disunity and mediocrity. From Liverpool’s perspective, he was absolutely the wrong player at the wrong time. It’s doubtful he would ever have been anything else.
Still, at least we’ve got that goal, the last to be scored by a Liverpool player in front of the famous Kop, to remember him by. April 9, 1994. A late penalty. Against Ipswich. In a dismal 1-0 win described by the Sunday Times as “this apology for a game.”
On second thoughts, perhaps some things are best forgotten.