This past season for Chris Dickson will always be euphorically associated with Hornchurch, though such was the nature of 2020/21 that he spent part of it with Dartford a division higher, in a quest for continued league action. The vastly-experienced frontman was back at the Urchins to play a pivotal part in some of their biggest headline moments en route to FA Trophy glory, as Mark Stimson’s Isthmian Premier side toppled higher-level opponents an outrageous seven rounds in a row.
Having lifted his penalty high into the Notts County net to send them into the final, the ex-Charlton Athletic man was provider-in-chief against Hereford on the big day. As Mousse T. (‘Horny ’98’ of course…) got three airings from the Wembley speakers late on to signal Hornchurch goals, it was ‘Dicko’ who had served up the perfect knock-down for Liam Nash’s decisive second. He even had time to set Ellis Brown on his way to plant a giant red cherry on the day at 3-1.
Alongside his teammates, he revelled in the moment on the big stage, which if you know anything about his vivacious personality, should come as little surprise. It was from non-league that he initially vaulted into the professional game, and on to Cyprus and European club competition, China, and even senior international football. Not bad for a kid from southeast London. That his return to non-league in recent years ultimately led him to something that will sit alongside his fondest ever memories decades from now is wonderfully apt. And he’s not done yet…
To start, take me behind the scenes of those celebrations with Hornchurch after the final. What was the changing room like and where did you take it after you left Wembley?
The scenes after Wembley actually weren’t as crazy as the scenes after Notts County and Darlington; those scenes were unreal. The scenes after Wembley were more humbling, but at the same time, it felt like ‘we’ve done it’, and the journey was over. So it was almost like a bit of a comedown. Obviously, on the pitch, our families were there, our fans were there, it was unbelievable. I think that was the height of the hysteria and the euphoria of the occasion, because it was incredible how it tuned out, being 1-0 down and then turning it around for the umpteenth time in this whole journey. Back in the changing room, it got a bit…I’d say messy! We probably tore up Wembley Stadium changing room a little bit, but it wasn’t anything major! We went back to the ground afterwards to share the occasion with some of the supporters that couldn’t come to the game. A lot of the supporters who were at the game came back to the ground, the chairman was there, the rest of the board were there and it was almost like a family gathering. I think it just kept on going. Our group chat’s obviously firing off every single day, all the boys keep watching the videos over and over again. It’s been an amazing journey and we want to keep it going. I think we’ve got an open-top bus on 11th July, so we’re looking forward to that, then roll on next season.
Does experiencing that feel like reward for still putting yourself through it all as a footballer? Because you’ve seen a lot of the game, and plenty of it’s not great, with the ‘business’ side, the agendas you can encounter, and so on.
For me personally, I’ve felt like I’ve always had a point to prove in the game. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always lived with the motto of ‘prove people wrong’. People that may have doubted me, people that didn’t think I should have been a pro, and even people that probably undermined the levels that I reached in the game. So coming back and doing it at the age of 36 was almost like ramming it down people’s throats! ‘This is what it’s about and this is what you can achieve in the game at any level, as long as you keep on pushing’. For Hornchurch, what we achieved and what we overcame was unbelievable, but I also coach through my business CAD PT, and I got tickets for a lot of the kids that I coach. For them to see me playing live at Wembley Stadium, some of them had never been to Wembley themselves, so for them to experience that was the thing that touched me the most. My family were there, my son was there, and to have everyone there and to see me do what I’ve been doing for the last 17/18 years was what hit me the most. For all the boys, what we overcame was massive; COVID, our league being null and void, it was a lot to take on. The discipline and dedication that all the boys put in, the reward was massive. Like I said before, roll on next season, we’re gonna do it all over again!
On the subject of sorting Wembley tickets for people, did you say that you nearly forgot to get your son’s at one point?!
I went to the chairman to tell him how many tickets I needed, and I had a list of names, and my son wasn’t on it! I ran back in the room and said ‘I need one more ticket!’
As a club, how much is there a shared sense of wanting to push higher now and really take this on? How far beyond that ‘pub team from Hornchurch’ do you think it actually wants to be?
We’ve got an amazing chairman and board; with Colin McBride and Alex Sharp, what they’re putting into the club is massive, and they want to see the club push on. We want to replicate that on the pitch. As soon as the final was over, a few days later we met up and all the boys were saying the same thing: now it’s time for promotion. Let’s get this club to where it needs to be. We can’t go on a run where we beat all these higher-league teams and not then be in the same category as them. So that’s the aim, to go and get promotion, and show that it wasn’t just a flukey run, we can do this consistently and we can mix it up with the big boys in non-league.
‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’, did playing that start in the dressing room after one of the Trophy games?
The gaffer (Mark Stimson) started it! I believe it was at Maidstone, because I wasn’t there, I was on dual registration (at Dartford) at the time. Once I came on board, I’m the music man, so then it was like ‘we’re running with this, this is the one!’ And the train didn’t stop.
— Chris Dickson (@MrDickoDotcom) March 27, 2021
With your Ghanaian and Jamaican heritage, growing up in London, how present were those sides of your background? In what ways would you get to celebrate and live it?
We live in a multi-cultural world, now more than ever, and for me, I’m blessed to come from two different heritages, as well as obviously being raised in London. So I get a mixture of everything, and I like to integrate my culture into everything I do. That culminates in forming a great bond within the group of players that we have, because we’ve got so many different background heritages in our team. We all crack banter together, whether it’s the boys down in Essex, or the Jamaican-background boys or the African-background boys, and it all comes out of love. That’s the main thing, because I always say to people, if you’re not having fun doing what you love, then don’t do it, because you need to be able to enjoy what you love doing, and that’s what football’s all about.
I know you’re not an Arsenal fan but I think Ian Wright was one example here. Whether in football or any other area, who was visible to you growing up as something to reach for? ‘That’s what I wanna go and do’.
There were quite a few of them. Ian Wright is top of the list, definitely. Andy Cole. John Barnes, being a Liverpool fan; my dad being a Liverpool fan was massive in our family. I’d say those three people I really wanted to be like and emulate in any way at any level. As I got older, I took on more heroes; R9 (Ronaldo), Matthew Le Tissier was a favourite of mine as well. I had loads of different influences in trying to create the style that I wanted to play.
Hornchurch is surely up there now, but which spell(s) in your career has been the happiest you’ve felt?
Okay, the gaffer will kill me if I don’t say this, so Gillingham’s one. When I was with the gaffer there the first time around, it was unbelievable; I think that set off my whole professional football journey. Going abroad was very different but exactly what I needed, so when I went to Nea Salamina, and then transferring to AEL Limassol, was incredible. Winning the league there (at AEL) took me to another level in football, which I never, ever thought I’d experience, playing in the Champions League and Europa League. Then international football (with Ghana), of course. Rubbing shoulders with players like Michael Essien, Junior Agogo – rest in peace – Sulley Muntari, you suddenly realise what the professional game is actually all about, and the discipline and the dedication you need if you want to reach certain heights.
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Has there been a particular time when the enjoyment was lost, ‘this isn’t what it’s about’ kind of thing?
Along the journey, there definitely have been down times, usually with being injured. I think my first injury at Charlton really hit me hard, because of how it transpired as well. I was walking into the team hotel, I think there were a few rumblings that I was going to start that night as well, and I literally turned round and just popped my knee and that was it. So that was a very hard few months, because my season was over, and definitely China. I was playing in China (for Shanghai SIPG), got injured the first game of the season, somebody tackled and my ankle was gone. That ultimately ended my time in China and I’d say that was probably one of my biggest regrets, because I really wanted to get the full experience of that whole journey.
From all you’ve seen of the game, is there any possible change to implement that you can think of to help players? In the set-up of things, whatever it may be.
In the football industry, there’s multiple. What’s obviously the main headline at the moment is racism, and I’ve unfortunately been in incidents around the world; we were playing a Champions League qualifier in Serbia and there were monkey chants. That’s the main thing we need to get out of the game, get out of society as well, and we need to educate people. It’s never going to totally disappear, there’s going to be a lot of ignorant people in the world who just don’t want to understand or don’t want to listen, but it’s something that we all collectively need to keep pushing. Educating people and letting them know ‘this can be a much better world’, because it just spoils everything, and it doesn’t help the kids as well. I’m old enough now to understand how much influence the outside world has on our children. I see the posts that come up all the time that say nobody was born racist, it’s something that’s learned or taught, and we just need to educate so that kids can grow up peacefully.
What kind of approach from managers in your career have you found gets the best from you?
I’m a very confident person, so different managers have handled me different ways. Some of them have challenged me, which has probably been the best way to get the best out of me, where my mindset is already ‘I wanna prove people wrong’, and then the manager has said ‘okay, well go and prove me wrong’. On the flipside, I’ve had a manager like Wayne Burnett (at Dulwich Hamlet and Dagenham & Redbridge) who has believed in me so much that he’s saying ‘Dicko, go and put on a show, entertain me today’. It’s finding the right manager that has the balance, and the man-management skills to take time to understand you, and then know how to get the best out of you.
What about any individual opponents that have tested you in a new way?
I remember one of my first training sessions at Gillingham, Efe Sodje, he put me in a box and was not letting me out! I came in cocky, raw, loud, and in our first three training sessions, I didn’t score a goal. He did it on purpose because he wanted to humble me, and let me know ‘this is how it’s going to be when you get out on the field and have people that personally want to stop you’. So Efe Sodje was definitely up there. On the pitch itself, I’d say Joseph Yobo. I played against him, I think he was at Fenerbahçe, and he was very, very strong, very aggressive and experienced, so he knew how to deal with my pace and deal with my presence.
Which teammates have you felt that extra sense of understanding with when you’ve played together?
A couple of seasons ago, it was Danny Uchechi, down at Hornchurch; we’d been at Charlton together. Most recently, Charlie Ruff, 100 per cent. It took him maybe one training session to understand how I play, for me to understand how he plays, and I think it showed in the (Trophy) final as well. As soon as he got on the ball, I was like ‘yeah, I’m on my bike’. He’s definitely one for the future as well; I’m really hoping he pushes on from this cup run and makes a name for himself, whether it be in the pro game or at a very high non-league level. I think he can play pro.
Football’s a game of so many misconceptions about some of the people involved. Has that ever been the case with you, or mostly a fair impression of what you’re all about?
There’s definitely misconceptions, because people have good and bad impressions of you, but in the grand scheme of things, I think I’ve always been known to be buoyant. I’m a loud guy, but I always come with good energy; I’ve never really had someone turn around and say ‘he’s a bad egg’, because it would be a lie. I’ve always wanted to pass on good energy throughout my team wherever I’ve been, and the main thing is I’ve got a winning mentality, I hate losing as much as the next person.
When you’ve joined a new team, which song(s) have you chosen for Initiation? Or have you gone through a whole repertoire?!
I’ve gone through a whole repertoire! I think it’s no secret now that I’ve got a musical background, I studied at The BRIT School, so everyone knows I’ve got a set of lungs on me and a decent vocal here and there. So, initiations, I look forward to them! It turns out being a medley of songs, nine times out of ten.
In terms of other interests and ventures away from football, we mentioned one earlier on, but what do you currently enjoy away from the game? Is music still a part of it in some way?
Unfortunately music isn’t really a part of it, actually. Because I’ve dedicated myself to football and fitness for so long, I’ve kind of strayed away from music. I’ve still got a lot of friends in the music industry that I’m really close to, and I’m lucky enough that they participate in events such as Soccer Aid and that they call on my services, but for me, it’s now focusing on my business, CAD PT, and giving back to the kids as much as possible. We train everyone from seven and above, so whether you’re seven, 15, 18, we want to help you and help you fulfil your own dream.
Finally, what’s the future looking like as we speak now? How are you feeling and what are you looking for from what comes next?
With the null and void happening with COVID over the last two seasons, I was actually going to hang up my boots at the end of the season at 36. Because of the null and void, and them scrapping 34 of my goals, I’m like ‘nah, I’ve gotta come back and give them at least another year!’ I’m hoping to play on for another two years and then we’ll see, and I’ve just confirmed with the gaffer that I’ll be back at Hornchurch next season. It’s literally a case of make up for them goals that I’ve lost, get the team promoted, and then we’ll see what happens in the second season. I tend to keep myself fit, being a personal trainer now, so I feel good, I feel like there’s a lot more goals left in me.
Interview by @chris_brookes