If any sentimental West Ham fan should ever take a trip down memory lane by way of a trip down Green Street, in search of long-lost memories of legends like Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds or Paolo di Canio, do not be surprised if you see another club legend in the flesh, doing the same thing. It will be Julian Dicks.
‘Playing in Upton Park, for those fans, I still think about it every day, without fail,’ the 55-year-old left back legend told Blowing Bubbles. ‘I have photos of Upton Park in my house, and every six months or so, I go back to drive around the area because it was a massive part of my life and I miss it. It might sound crazy, but that’s how I feel about it – that’s how much it mattered to me.’
Few players in the modern era have had quite the same two-way love affair with the club and its fans as the man known as the Terminator. His shaven head, crunching challenges and thunderous shot ensured him a place among the club’s all-time greats, and the story of that relationship is at the heart of his new book, Hammer Time: Me, West Ham and a passion for the shirt.
Although his story began at Birmingham City, and included a stint at Liverpool, as the title makes clear, it is West Ham, and his love for the club, that makes up most of the story. Dicks joined from Birmingham towards the end of the 1987-88 season, as manager John Lyall left it extremely late to bring in reinforcements to revive a faltering season, but West Ham were lucky to get him, as weeks before, another big offer had come Birmingham’s way.
‘Birmingham were a selling club, and a month before West Ham came along, Graeme Souness, who later took me to Liverpool, tried to sign me for Rangers, offering £350,000, but the chairman turned it down saying it wasn’t enough,’ he explained. ‘I thought no more of it, then a month later he said “we’ve accepted an offer from West Ham, they’re coming to talk to you tomorrow,” and it was only £300,000. No-one ever did explain that to me.’
As with so many of his signings, the Lyall personal touch won over the potential new recruit. ‘He had Eddie Bayley with him, and told me how Steve Whitton had recommended me as a player worth signing,’ Dicks explained. ‘I was on £140 a week at Birmingham, and he said at West Ham I’d get £650 a week plus £50 appearance fee, and I had five minutes to think it over. There were no mobiles in those days, so I had to ring my wife on the landline to tell her the offer, but it was engaged, so I couldn’t ask her. Five minutes later, he asked for my decision, I said yes, and he said “I knew you would”.’
Throughout his career, Dicks was known for a questioning attitude to authority, which cost him any chance of a full England cap, but when it came to Lyall, he had nothing but respect for the manager, and the man. ‘Right from the start, he was amazing, a truly special person,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have a car, so he used to pick me up from the hotel in Epping in his Jaguar, and drive me to Chadwell Heath, smoking like a chimney the whole way, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask him not to. I never once heard him raise his voice, he was an absolute gent and would do anything for you to make sure you were happy. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.’
Having been on the end of a roasting from the home fans in the Chicken Run when playing for Birmingham, Dicks was keen to get them on his side as a West Ham player, and it did not take long. ‘In my first home game against Everton, I took out Gary Stevens, and the way he went down, the fans loved it – from that moment on, I knew things were going to be alright between us,’ he said.
A late season rally saw West Ham steer clear of relegation, but the warning signs were not heeded and the following season, a miserable campaign ended in a long drawn-out failure to avoid the drop. But when it came to crisis talks in the dressing room, the future captain kept his thoughts to himself.
‘I’ve never been a dressing room talker,’ Dicks explained. ‘We had senior pros like Alvin Martin, Phil Parkes, Tony Gale, plenty who would speak up, but that’s never been my way – I let my playing do the talking. I can put my hand on my heart and say every game I ever played I gave 100 percent – I may have made mistakes and had bad games, because no-one’s perfect, but I would always try, and I knew I was doing my bit. All you can do is hope others do the same.’
Although relegation may have felt inevitable, what followed – the sacking of Lyall – did not. ‘I know managers get the sack but John was a part of the furniture, everybody loved him, so surely they could have found a role and a way of keeping him and all that knowledge somewhere inside the club, but no, they got rid of him,’ said Dicks. ‘Anyone with half a brain knew that was wrong.’
Exit Lyall, enter Lou Macari – but if Lyall was part of the furniture, Macari barely got a chance to unpack. ‘Lou tried to change our style of play completely, to make us a running side, which with the players and ability we had, was never going to work,’ said Dicks. ‘That may have worked at Swindon but they’re not the same sort of club as West Ham. I had no problem with him personally – he made me captain, and penalty and free kick taker, so I owe him a lot for my goals and assists. Without him, my story would be very different. But the change was too big and too fast, so it was never going to work.’
With the Macari experiment soon consigned to the bin of history, West Ham got back on track with his replacement, the next best thing to John Lyall – Billy Bonds. ‘We were like two peas in a pod – yes we had arguments, like I had with every manager I ever had except John Lyall and John Bond, but I loved Billy. He had so much passion and pride, and I’ve never seen anyone of his age so fit, either.
‘One problem, though, was running. I hated it but he did a lot of it. We used to run a mile around the pitch, which was about four and half laps. People like Matthew Rush and Martin Allen would do it in five minutes, and I did it in 13 minutes. I simply didn’t care.
‘Once the ball came out, though, that’s where I got my fitness, I’d run all day with a ball but Billy never seemed to grasp that, so he kept us running. But he knew what he’d get from me on the pitch, so he played me every game.’
Dicks’s nickname the Terminator was for several reasons; his ultra toughness, his menace, and his pledge when faced with the first of two career-threatening knee injuries in the winter of 1990, that ‘I’ll be back’.
‘The club surgeon who did my first knee injury made a terrible mess and when I tried to play, it went again. The new physio John Green said it had been done really badly and sent me off to see another surgeon who said I had a one in 10 chance of playing again,’ he explained. ‘I was 22-years-old, and to hear something like that – I was nearly sick on his desk. To face up to the prospect of having the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do taken away from you at that age is absolutely devastating.
‘I was out for 14 months, and I was bordering on alcoholic because I was feeling so sorry for myself, but then I was advised to play golf. There may have been a bar at the end of the round, but it was different. Having an addictive personality, I’d hit 500 balls in the driving range, then go out and play, then have just a couple of drinks in the club bar and go home.’
When he returned, Dicks became an integral part of the ups and downs of the next few seasons, reinforcing his reputation as one of the hardest players in English football with a disciplinary record that saw him miss many games, and be stripped of the captaincy. In September 1993, however, chapter one of Dicks’s two-part West Ham playing career came to an end when Souness, on the recommendation of Bonds’s assistant Harry Redknapp, took him to Liverpool.
‘Harry said if I wanted to go to Liverpool, he could get me a move. I didn’t want to leave, even if we were struggling I was happy there, but when someone says something like that, it’s a sign something’s not right,’ he explained. ‘Billy didn’t say he wanted me to stay, so I met Souness, we got on superbly, and I ended up joining. David Burrows and Mike Marsh, who were decent players, went the other way and did ok, so I think it worked out well for West Ham.
‘I enjoyed my time playing for such a great club, and there were some great players and wonderful people there, but although I was doing my job for Liverpool, my heart was still at West Ham. When Roy Evans took over from Souness, we never got on, so I knew the writing was on the wall. He made me train with the kids, things were going really badly, and then I played a reserves game against Everton. Tony Cottee told me he was going to go back to West Ham soon, and I felt so jealous. As luck would have it, Jamie Redknapp said Harry, who was now manager, wanted me back at West Ham and I told him “if he wants me, then I’ll walk there”.’
It was an agonising wait, though, with things going nowhere at Liverpool and the fact that Dicks could not let on what was happening, even though he knew. ‘I knew that if Harry wanted me back, it would happen,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t say anything to anyone, though, so I had to be patient and quiet, and go to the gym trying to shed some weight, before I had the chance to return home,’ he said. ‘But I still didn’t do any running.’
If Dicks thought the first five-year chapter of his West Ham years had been eventful and exciting, they were just the warm-up for chapter two, another five years, as he returned to the club and fans he loved, and who loved him, for a second bite at the cherry. ‘I got on fantastically with Harry, his man management was superb as he made you feel like the best player in your position,’ said Dicks. ‘I never needed any manager to tell me what to do – that was up to me to know – but what he did do for me was make me feel like I was an exceptional player.’
Legendary performances, more disciplinary fireworks, more injury, some memorable team-mates and a testimonial which ended up with di Canio being taken off on the referee’s advice after a 17-man brawl made for another lively stay at Dicks’s spiritual home – and introduced him to the man who would be responsible for his third stint at the club, in the dugout as assistant manager, Slaven Bilic.
‘We were roommates and got on really well,’ he said. ‘We both liked listening to heavy metal, we drank and we smoked, so straight away we had that in common. He’s a very humble person, not outgoing, and I love my own company and would happily stay at home rather than going out. When he’d gone to Everton and we played them, we swapped shirts but after that we didn’t speak for years, then years later out of the blue, he phoned and asked if I wanted to be his assistant. Once I’d played for West Ham, that was all I ever wanted to do, and although of course being on the sidelines wasn’t the same, it was the next best thing, so to have the chance to go back again was a dream come true.’
To some outsiders, the thought of Dicks trying to keep headstrong youngsters in line might seem almost comical, but he drew on his own experiences when handling players. ‘If it’s a good player scoring every week and doing his job properly, you cut him some slack – you can turn a blind eye to things,’ he said. ‘My managers did that with me because they could see I scored and assisted lots, and led by example. There were plenty of times when people could have dropped me but they didn’t – if I was coming back from suspension, I always knew I’d play because I knew how much I brought to the team, and so did they. but if it was someone who wasn’t pulling their weight, you wouldn’t tolerate that.’
After the pain of the Sam Allardyce years, to have two people who cared so much for West Ham in charge for the Boleyn farewell came as a huge relief to fans, and Dicks speaks from the heart about the topic of management. ‘For years, I’ve said to be a West Ham manager, you have to have been a West Ham player,’ he explained. ‘As an ex-player, you know the demands of that crowd, and you can transfer it to your players. When you were at Upton Park, within punching distance of the crowd, the fans let you know what was expected of you. They demand that you give everything.’
Dicks’s love affair with the West Ham fans, as chronicled in the book, could not be more genuine and more heartfelt, and it is clear that he loves having played for the club – and the era in which he did it. ‘I wouldn’t swap my time for today’s for anything – I don’t care how much they get paid, I never negotiated a contract in my lifetime, I took what I was offered because I wanted to play,’ he said. ‘You could play with passion in those days – I used to have fierce scraps with the likes of Dennis Wise but afterwards we’d have a chat and say see you again in a few months. People didn’t try to get one another sent off.
‘I gave 100 percent in every game, and as a fan that’s all you want to see, someone who cares for the club, cares for the shirt, and cares for them. I did that. People work all week to pay for their match ticket, so all you had to do is give your best. West Ham’s fans have been with me through thick and thin, and whatever happened, never turned on me. Sometimes I overstepped the mark but I cared, and the supporters knew it.’