He may have been born in Bristol, but few people in the modern era are as West Ham to their core as the legend that is Julian Dicks.
The man known as The Terminator was arguably the greatest left-back the club has ever had, and his full-blooded tackling, cannonball shot and all-round total commitment in two stints at the club in the 1980s and 90s make him one of the all-time greats.
Sixteen years after injury brought a premature end to his second spell at the club in 1999, Dicks returned to West Ham as first-team coach alongside former team-mate Slaven Bilic, having a front row seat for the dramatic transition period of leaving Upton Park and moving into the London Stadium, before leaving the club, along with Bilic, last November.
In a lengthy and very honest interview for Blowing Bubbles, Dicks opened up about every aspect of his West Ham career, from his arrival under John Lyall to his departure under David Gold.
His genuine passion for the club shone through, a passion that is sadly missing from too many players in the modern era – and when asked about how his and Bilic’s time at the club had come to an end, it was clear that the scarcity of such devotion was a big factor.
‘I would go to Timbuktu with Slav – he’s a great person and a good manager, but since we left the club he has asked me where it went wrong, and I told him he was too good to the players,’ said Dicks.
‘When you’re nice to people, you expect something in return. If you’ve got somebody who’s really good to you, you should work your nuts off to do the best you can for them in every game and every training session. Some players did that, but there were too many that didn’t.
‘You shouldn’t have to tell players to work harder – your work rate should be a given, all the fans want to see is 100% given every game. Losing is part of football – I’ve lost many games, but never through lack of trying.
‘We all make mistakes but there’s no excuse for people not working hard enough, not closing down, and not running the extra yard to help your team mate. In the first season we had that edge, but in the second and third it deteriorated quite a bit.’
Few players encapsulate the rise and fall of the Bilic era quite like Dimitri Payet, and as someone who is still held in adoration by West Ham fans despite all his very public faults and failings, Dicks clearly feels strongly about how the Frenchman managed to destroy his own reputation at the club before his return to Marseille.
‘I understand people want to leave clubs, it happens all the times, but you don’t just down tools – there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it, and he did it the wrong way,’ said Dicks.
‘To turn round to your teammates and say “I’m not playing for you any more, sod you” – that’s so wrong. If he’d left on good terms, he’d go down in club history, but now people hate him.
‘West Ham were so good to him – he was on a fortune, had two deals in two years, with big bonuses, and then he did that to the club. Slav did the right thing, putting him in the U23s – personally I’d have put them there for the rest of his contract.
‘He should go down as a great player at West Ham, because he was, but he won’t. He was a nice bloke, and never disruptive, but it all turned sour.’
During his time on the West Ham coaching staff, one of Dicks’s responsibilities was to watch U23 matches and report back to Bilic on the progress of the club’s younger players.
And as a product of the old apprentice route himself – when a youngster at Birmingham, one of the players whose boots Dicks cleaned was future West Ham manager Alan Curbishley, and when moved to Upton Park, Dicks’ boots were cleaned by a young Frank Lampard – the development of young talent is something Dicks has strong opinions about.
‘In my day, we had reserve team football, which meant as a youngster you were going up against senior pros recovering from injury and trying to get into the first team, so it was tough stuff – these days, the U23 set-up is too easy for some of the youngsters,’ he said.
‘Players like Josh Cullen, Reece Oxford, Martin Samuelsen and Toni Martinez – they need to get out and play men’s football, the U23s isn’t testing them enough and the jump to the first team is huge.
‘Reece played that one game against Arsenal and everyone was talking about him. He’s a nice kid but I question whether he wants to pay football. He’s got a big contact at a young age, but you have to have the desire.
‘If I was his age, with his ability, I’d make sure I was knocking on the first team door. You’re earning vast amounts of money at a young age, so can’t you just go out and do the best that you can do?
‘The best players keep performing. Reece could do that – he’s big, he’s strong and he’s comfortable on the ball, but it’s not worth him playing in the U23s as it’s too easy. He needs to go out [on loan] and get beaten up, that’s what makes you a player.”
Dicks’ time watching the U23s was time well spent, however, with several emerging talents catching his eye.
‘I like Marcus Browne,’ he said. ‘He’s got an attitude, but in a good way. We used to play first team against the U23s, and he used to kick people – and that’s what you want to see. Josh Cullen, too – I’ve watched him in the U23s, he’s very aggressive and a good passer of the ball.’
But as someone who knows a bit about defending, there is one defender in the current crop who really caught Dicks’s eye. It is not hard to guess who.
‘Declan Rice – he stands out head and shoulders, and will make it as a professional player in the Premier League.
‘He’s a good lad, competitive, has a bit of a nasty streak to him, and is an old-style centre back who gets in close and doesn’t let forwards turn. He will definitely make it.’
Although he was born in Bristol and started his career at Birmingham, as well as having a stint at Liverpool, West Ham is definitely Dicks’s spiritual home. Or, to be more specific, Upton Park was.
‘It was like church,’ he said. ‘There’s no comparison to anywhere else. When I was at Birmingham, it was the worst place to play, but when you’re at West Ham, it was the best. When I retired, I didn’t miss the lads, and I certainly didn’t miss training – what I did miss was Upton Park.’
After two stints in claret and blue, taking in 262 League appearances and 52 Cup matches, Dicks’s final appearance for West Ham was a 4-0 home defeat by Arsenal in February 1999 – perhaps symbolically, the home debut of his successor as the club’s totemic inspiration, Paolo di Canio – and in August 2000 he was granted a testimonial against Athletic Bilbao.
Fittingly enough, the game involved a 17-man brawl, although before Dicks had even taken to the pitch.
‘I said [to manager Harry Redknapp] put me on for 20 minutes, I want to come off at the end but he took me off early – when I was walking off, I had tears in my eyes, I knew that was my last ever game at Upton Park,’ he said, although years later, he was given one bonus cameo appearance – all his shattered knees could handle – in Mark Noble’s testimonial.
‘Just to play there again, it was incredible,’ Dicks said. ‘I never thought I would do that after my testimonial – OK it wasn’t a competitive game but they were all pros and it was a full house.’
Dicks’s role alongside Bilic meant he had the best seat in the house for the grand finale at Upton Park, the epic 3-2 win over Manchester United, so perhaps it is almost inevitable that having been so closely involved in such a historic night, following that up was always a challenge.
‘When we left Upton Park, for fans, that was like having their heart ripped out, so you have to give them something back,’ he said.
‘We were told West Ham would be competing with the top teams – but we haven’t. If you say these things you have to follow them up, and the only way to do that is with investment.
‘Winning games is about having the best players, but West Ham has always been about having a bare squad, keeping players fit and playing them on a regular basis.’
In November 2017, Dicks’ West Ham career came to an end once again, as he and Bilic were sacked following a 4-1 defeat against one of his former sides, Liverpool.
Despite his comments about the commitment of some players, Dicks holds no grudge or ill-will against the club, but at the same time, he does not seem to miss top flight football either.
And given his remarks about players’ commitment and work rate, it is revealing to see how he spends his time now.
‘I love non-league football, I watch Heybridge Swifts on a regular basis,’ he said.
‘The players at that level, they have two games a week, they have jobs, and they have to train too, but they never moan, they go out and play.
‘When I was at Grays as a manager, I loved it. You don’t get the ability, the crowds or the money, but I really enjoy that football. If I can get into management at non-league then yes, maybe I’d do so, but not at league level.’
And Dicks is not exactly sitting by the phone waiting for job offers either, because he knows there is only one person who could get him back into football at the highest level. ‘For me, Slav is the only person who would give me a job,’ he said.
‘When I quit, no-one offered me a job, so the only chance I have is if he gets one and he wants me.
‘After West Ham, Slav said he wanted a break as he hadn’t had one for 10 years. If he wants to get back involved, he said if he could take me, he will.’
*Julian Dicks was speaking on Phoenix FM’s The West Ham Way radio show