In a distinguished twenty year career, Dion Dublin played for nine different clubs, scored 183 goals, and invented a musical instrument called ‘The Dube’. In 1998 the widely respected and universally liked striker won the Premier League’s Golden Boot award, an achievement that led to four England caps, while in his twilight years he proven himself to be equally adept as a formidable centre-back.
Now a popular television presenter and pundit, here the Leicester-born gent looks back on an outstanding contribution to top-class football, assessing his former club Aston Villa as they seek promotion; explaining how his broken leg at Manchester United led to the signing of a certain French poet; recalling a partnership at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena that struck fear into every back-line; and revealing why Cambridge’s opponents in the nineties would always decline the offer of a pre-match brew.
Villa are in safe hands
We begin at Villa Park where Dublin enjoyed five successful years in a flamboyantly gifted team, that regularly inhabited the higher echelons of the top flight. With the present-day Villa competing in the Championship, any comparisons between the two understandably get short shrift.
“At Villa I played with some of the best players in the world. We had a great side. This side now doesn’t compare to ours. Nowhere near. Whether that comes across as rude or arrogant, I don’t know.”
It does not, and especially when the former striker runs through an illustrious roll-call of his former team-mates. When pressed to name the best of them however Dublin is spoilt for choice.
“That’s a hard, unfair question! I’m going to put it into categories. Paul Merson is the best one-footed player ever. His left foot was rubbish but he didn’t need it because he had the outside of his right foot. With his vision too, nobody could make a pass with the outside of his boot like Paul Merson. As for David Ginola I still don’t know if he was right footed or left footed. As regards captains, Gareth Southgate was incredible and his partnership with Ugo Ehiogu was one of the strongest I’ve played I front of. It was a very strong squad of players with in fact loads of captains – you didn’t need an armband at Villa - and I was very fortunate to play with them.”
A succession of sixth place finishes and some deep runs in domestic cups was the sum total of Villa’s achievements during a heady era. Though impressive, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that this enthralling team could have reached even higher heights, with a FA Cup Final in 2000 loss particularly notable. Does Dublin find any solace in participating in the last ever final at the old Wembley?
“No solace. We were crap and I’ve no idea why we were crap. We were possibly overly wound up by getting into a final, thinking we had to win. Maybe it was a lack of quality on the day? I’m going to speak for Chelsea and say they were rubbish as well. The final in general was so poor from two professional football teams to sign off from this wonderful stadium. On the other hand I can say I played in the last final.”
As for the present, Villa’s fortunes are on the up with serious investment made over the summer, and a promotion charge that currently sees the Midlands giants lying in fourth. Dublin insists their short-term future is in safe hands with an ex-team mate.
“With Steve Bruce at the helm, they have got every chance of being successful. He’s a great manager, great person, and he was a great centre-half as well. I believe that Steve Bruce is the right man to take Villa forward and I believe he has the backing of the board. If the players do exactly what Brucey says, they will be successful.”
I was the catalyst for Manchester United’s glory years
With over 150 appearances for Cambridge under his belt, a 23 year old Dion Dublin made the huge leap to Old Trafford in 1992 and understandably – given the multitude of striking options available – found first team opportunities to be at a premium. Just three months in his chances weren’t exactly helped by a long-term injury endured against Crystal Palace and it was an injury that was to have defining consequences for the Red Devils, as Dublin retells, laughing easily throughout.
“When I broke my leg Man United had to find somebody of a very, very high standard to take my place so they turned to Eric Cantona! He didn’t just fill my boots; he took it to the next level and he was brilliant. I do consider myself the catalyst to Man United’s success because if it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t have signed Eric Cantona. They don’t have to thank me though, it’s fine.”
“Eric was very unique in the way that he played the game. I think he saw the game differently to most people. He was fearless towards any other human being and he was fearless towards failure, so he tried all sorts. He was outstanding.”
During his three years at Old Trafford the targetman won the Premier League title and saw his reputation greatly enhanced. His tenure there also afforded him a front row seat to witness the emerging phenomenon later coined the ‘Class of 92’.
“They all had their tick-box list and they all did exactly what they were supposed to do. They didn’t complicate things which is one of the clever things about the Class of 92. Gary Neville defended very, very well. He was vocal and confident. David Beckham…I’ve never known anyone to strike a ball like he did. He put it where you said. As for Giggsy he was one of the quickest I’ve ever seen whilst running with the ball and keeping it under control then having an end product. As for Scholesy, well, his nickname is Satnav because he always knows where everybody is.”
A partnership made in sky blue heaven
On leaving United Dublin joined Coventry City and flourished into the proven goal-scorer everybody remembers today. While at the Ricoh Arena he also developed a striking partnership with Darren Huckerby that arguably remains one of the most fruitful in Premier League history. What were the key elements to the chemistry between the pair?
“It was the obvious things. There was a big man who was incredibly slow and a little man who was incredibly quick. There was a good understanding and me and Hucks are still very, very close now. We speak weekly which is very rare in in football to speak to ex-team mates on a weekly basis.”
The mutual admiration is not only obvious but genuinely heart-warming.
“Put it this way, Huck’s opinion of me is this – He was asked years ago who would be his ideal strike partner if he could choose anyone in the world. He said if Dion Dublin was injured and couldn’t play then he’d choose Gabriel Batistuta. That’s the way Darren Huckerby respects me and I respect him back. I believe that he got me my England call-up. If I wasn’t playing with Darren Huckerby then I don’t think I would have played for England while at Coventry City. Our bond on the pitch was strong and our bond off it is exactly the same.”
Canaries deserve to fly high again
At the ripe old age of 37, the now veteran forward joined Norwich City, the club where it all began for Dublin as a sixteen year old trainee. The circle was complete.
Currently vying with Villa for a play-off spot, or even promotion, the Canaries are singing right now, largely due to the scintillating form of their young midfielder James Maddison. Persistent transfer rumours, however, refuse to go away for the future superstar.
“At the moment Mads is absolutely flying and there will be offers. Norwich have to do the right thing for Norwich football club. It’s not about the money, it’s about moving forward and getting back into the Premier League. Is it best to get rid of him for decent money or think ‘hold on a minute, we need more James Maddisons in our squad’ and build the team around him? Because if you’ve got James Maddison he will attract others of that quality.”
As for Norwich’s dream of returning to the top flight their former centre-forward-turned-centre-half believes it might ultimately come down to belief and fortitude.
“The problem is that Norwich City are a Premier League team but there are twenty other clubs in the Championship who can say the same thing. It’s all about taking your turn and finding the right time to make it to the Premier League. I believe Norwich will be fighting this year in the play-offs and then it’s about whether you’ve got to bottle to take it further.”
As you would expect from such an eminently likable guy Dublin speaks highly of all his former clubs. Yet when the East-Anglian side crops up in conversation it is noticeable that his smile widens into a content grin.
“I absolutely loved it at Norwich. On my very first day of training there was a massive scrap between two players and I was gutted because I was clean through on goal and about to score my first goal. Instead everybody stopped and watched. Two players got sent home and I was thinking ‘what have I signed for here?’ Meanwhile there was lots of speculation from the fans saying ‘what have we signed him for? He’s 37 years old. He’s had his day’.”
“But lo and behold the squad that we had was very tight. People like Dickson Etuhu, Robert Earnshaw, Youssef Safri: everyone was so tight and we had one of Norwich’s strongest squads ever. We played some good football and I made some good friends and even got to score some decent goals. I played centre-half, centre-forward, and even at 37 I was doing what I was told. I just loved the football club. I felt relaxed there, I felt comfortable there; it felt like home.”
Cambridge was horrible
We finish where it all began, for a forward whose currency was goals across three different divisions – four if you include the SPL and Celtic.
The stories that surround the early nineties Cambridge United of direct football, promotions and John Beck scowling from the dug-out are legend in the game. Now is as good a time as any to determine how much is embellishment after the fact. Dublin laughs once again and is more than happy to set the record straight.
“Every single thing you’ve heard from that time was true. We were a horrible team to play against. Playing at the Abbey Stadium was so uncomfortable for other teams. We used to put loads of sugar in the tea and give them no hot water at all. We put the warm-up balls in the bath so they would be soaking wet. This all got around the other clubs so it was very much a case of ‘Oh no, it’s Cambridge United this weekend’. They didn’t like us because we were horrible.”