A win on the road many would not have foreseen, followed up with a 2-0 in your first game in front of your own fans. It was just the start Julian Dicks was looking for, as the eternal West Ham United favourite saw his Heybridge Swifts team hit the mark as firmly as one of his famous left-footed penalties once upon a time.
Wins over Mildenhall Town and Bury Town have started the ball rolling and the former full-back’s appointment at the Bostik North club leaves him thrown headlong and happily back into what has always been his sanctuary. The hurt of early retirement from a top-flight playing career will perhaps never fully subside, but coaching and management keeps the one-time Birmingham City and Liverpool man immersed in a game he has masses to offer.
Manager of non-league sides Wivenhoe Town and Grays Athletic around the turn of the last decade, the Bristolian recently spent over two years back at West Ham, where he is still most fervently revered for his ultra-combative displays and more. Having served as first-team coach under manager and former Hammers teammate Slaven Bilić, Julian departed with the former Croatia boss last November.
Their time back at the east Londoners had encompassed the club’s farewell to Upton Park, as well as finishing just four points off a Champions League place. In such an all-consuming game, a break can sometimes be just the ticket when someone leaves a club, though it wasn’t necessarily the case for Julian, as he explains.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time back at West Ham; loved every minute of it with Slav. You have good times and bad in football but I learned a lot off Slav in the two years.
“I didn’t need any time off after I left West Ham; I was a coach there and as a coach you don’t get all the problems that a manager gets, so it’s not as stressful. So for me, I wanted to get back in football straight away, but you don’t always get the opportunities.
“When this opportunity came along I put my name forward.”
The ex-England Under-21 and B international comes in at Heybridge as the successor to Jody Brown, who had led the club to a play-off place and an FA Cup first round spot last season, after avoiding relegation in 2017. While not new to non-league management, Julian is also more than familiar when it comes to the Essex club specifically.
When resigning towards the end of September, Brown paid tribute to chairman Gary White and vice-chairman Steve Spreadbury, and Julian knows both well.
“I live in Wickford. I played at West Ham for 11 years, I lived in Latchingdon, but I’ve lived here basically since ’88, so I’ve been local.
“I used to go round coaching non-league and youth teams, and Steve, who wasn’t the vice-chairman at the time, he said ‘can you come and coach my Under-11s at Heybridge?’ They might have been Under-10s or 9s then, but I went and coached them, and I’ve stayed in touch with Steve ever since.”
Circumstances can often stipulate that a player or manager’s association with a club is simply not made to last. On the flipside, it could also be a mutual ticking of the boxes that leads to a memorable and enduring link, which Julian himself knows all about from his playing days.
He describes why he saw himself making a real go of it with his new club.
“Well, one, they have a good team. Obviously, things didn’t go to plan this season, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad players.
“Last season they were fantastic, this season hasn’t been so good. They work with the youth as well, which is always a good thing, at any level, because obviously the kids are the future of football clubs, especially non-league.
“I’ve done quite a bit with the youth teams at Heybridge in the past and there’s some fantastic players there. I’ve coached the Under-14s and there’s three or four players there that have a bright future, and I don’t just mean for Heybridge.
“So, the youth has a lot going for it, and the club does. It’s not about just chucking money in willy-nilly, it’s about having a budget, having the right structure and stabilising the club.”
With their last two victories, Swifts have climbed to 8th place in the league, just four points off Aveley in 2nd spot. Arriving off the back of working with Premier League players, Julian believes all that has really changed in non-league in recent years is the money, rather than foundational differences to when he was last managing.
Many, however, agree that today’s elite-level or even just professional player comes complete with different demands for a manager than in decades gone by. Julian’s playing career saw the page turn from the ‘old school’ to the beginnings of today’s Premier League, with the influx of overseas talent going hand in hand with the league becoming this contemporary global product.
Although the first of his two West Ham stints began in 1988, the images of Julian that arguably stick in the mind most vividly for the wider footballing public have him in that mid-to-late-90s, claret and blue, Dagenham Motors-sponsored shirt – untucked as he readied himself for a battle. Back then, Slaven Bilić was a defensive counterpart in Harry Redknapp’s side, and Julian’s time on Bilić’s staff in recent years included the notable, and plenty would feel charmless, departure of mercurial Frenchman Dimitri Payet, after a sensational first season.
Asked how he approached working with the ‘modern-day’ top-flight players when he was back at the club, Julian says his job in essence was relatively straightforward.
“As a coach, as I said, you don’t have the problems you have as a manager. If the players have problems, they go to the manager, so all my job was, Slav would say ‘today you’ve got to put on a shooting drill,’ or a crossing drill, or ‘today we’re gonna sit down in the office and talk about the team going ahead for Saturday’s game.’
“I got on very well with 99 percent of them; there’s always one or two where I didn’t get on with them, but you go in, you do your job, you chat with them and that’s it.”
For the players, though, where does he stand on the need for a team to get on? Is it required, at least to a degree, in order to be successful?
“For me, when I played there were players that I didn’t like whatsoever, but if they played, I would put my life on the line for them. After the game, did I socialise with them? No, course I didn’t.
“You don’t have to get on with everybody off the pitch, but on the pitch you do. I would die for my teammates when I played at West Ham; whether I liked them or not was irrelevant.
“We’re all going for the same goal, which is to win a game, and that’s the way I see it. Everybody has their own ways of ‘you have to get on, you have to do this, you have to do that.’
“For me, it wasn’t the case.”
The simplicity of being able to get out there and play is of course what it is all about, but when that enjoyment, outlet, and for some perhaps escape, is taken away, either temporarily or permanently, it can be troubling or even devastating to contend with. Julian’s two long-term knee injuries sidelined him for 14 and 18 months during his 20s, leading to his eventual retirement in 1999, though there was still time for an explosive testimonial with Athletic Bilbao (Julian was off the pitch as the 17-player brawl happened, in all fairness…).
The four-time Hammer of the Year – only Sir Trevor Brooking can better that – admits there are still embers of that desire to add to those 326 club appearances, a couple of decades on. There is also the 65 goals he bagged as well, with his penalties renowned for being just about as lethal as one of his challenges.
There was more to ‘the Terminator’ than just brawn, though, and not being able to step away from the pitch on his own terms had a harrowing rawness, as he details when discussing how he found his transition from player to coach.
“I made the transition okay but I was quite bitter because I was 29 and my knee was shot to pieces. The decision was made for me, basically, and I was very bitter that I gave everything I did in football and it kicked me in the teeth at 29, whereas other players didn’t really care and played until 34/35.
“It was nothing against them players but that’s the way I looked at it. It didn’t take me long to adjust but I still miss it now and I’m 50 years old; I still miss it like I did the first day.
“I played in my testimonial and I came off and had a tear in my eye because I knew that was the last time I was gonna play at Upton Park. Luckily enough, I went back to West Ham with Slav and Mark Noble had a testimonial.
“He knows what my knee’s like and he said ‘can you play?’ and I said ‘Mark, I would love to play. Give me 20 minutes, no problem.’
“To walk out there in front of that crowd again, it was a full house, was beyond my wildest dreams. That was my last 20 minutes at the Boleyn in front of those fans and I loved every minute.”
The natural progression for many post-playing is to turn to coaching, though Julian also ran a pub, as well as playing golf for a time, having begun when he first badly injured his knee at 22. He later acquired the same coach as Colin Montgomerie, but says he broke a few clubs out of frustration, while his knee would ultimately stop him playing more than nine or ten holes.
Back at West Ham in his first spell, it wasn’t a golf cart that saved him and the maverick Frank McAvennie from any more gruelling miles to run – though not all that far off. The distance that Billy Bonds MBE’s Hammers squad was running was such that the gaps between those leading the way and the less enthusiastic pair at the back had become miles itself.
Julian has been asked about, and confirmed to be true, the story that he and McAvennie hitched a ride on a milk float back to the training ground. The two were found out when one of the coaches stationed at different points on the run came back to tell Bonds he hadn’t seen the two, who were by now back with the team.
Although he and legendary former Hammers captain Bonds had many a run-in back then, they have enjoyed an altogether more cordial rapport since, and Bonds was on hand to help out as Julian hosted a fundraiser for West Ham Ladies during his time in charge of the team. Back in the heat of the moment between player and manager, however, did the gaffer find Julian and McAvennie’s milk float ride at all funny?
“No, he didn’t find it funny at all! He went ballistic, and rightly so, but it wasn’t a case of ‘I’m rebelling’ – I hated running.
“Like I said, all I wanted to do was play football. Back then, we had to run to get our fitness up; the players now, they keep themselves fit.
“When there was the six weeks off, most of us let ourselves go. We might be half a stone overweight or whatever it was, but I hated running.
“So he didn’t find it funny, but I’ve spoken to Billy many, many times and he said the only reason he would have a go at me was ‘the young lads looked up to you,’ but he only said that about three years ago. He didn’t tell me at the time.
“Would it have made a difference? No, not really, because I was what I was, and I played football the way I wanted to play football.
“When it came to your keep-balls, your 5-a-sides and your games, he knew he could count on me. That’s why he said he picked me every week.
“During the games there was no one fitter than me in the 90 minutes.”
Julian twice hit 14 goals in a season for West Ham, one of which was their immediate return to the top division under Bonds in 1992/93. On the subject of his former managers, he also goes through the likes of his old Birmingham bosses Ron Saunders and John Bond, Hammers gaffers John Lyall and Harry Redknapp, and Graeme Souness at Liverpool, paying tribute to each. Julian will touch on more of his time with them in the regular Q&A that finishes this feature.
He says he will treat players how he wanted to be treated, which includes not standing in someone’s way if they have the opportunity to play higher and progress their career. Julian’s first major knee injury came as he fell off the pitch at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate in an October 1990 game for West Ham.
That meant a long lay-off that he particularly struggled to deal with, and with his own experiences like that in mind, he responds to the question of whether he therefore makes sure any injured players are still very much integrated.
“Well you can, but you would do that anyway. Obviously we only train twice a week, but you speak to them; some of my managers didn’t even speak to me.
“I was going in every day and they wouldn’t even acknowledge me, and it was hard. I wouldn’t do that, not because they didn’t, but because that’s not the way I am.
“I will speak to my players, whether they’re playing or not, whether they’re injured or not. I said to them ‘if you wanna ring me up at 2 o’clock in the morning and have a chat, ring me up at 2 o’clock in the morning.
“Or if you wanna meet for a beer after training on a Thursday, we’ll do that. If you wanna talk to me, I’ll talk all day.’
“They’re a part of Heybridge, they’re my team and I’ll do the best I can for them.”
He expects the same in return, and has set about bolstering the ranks since his arrival, with a number of new signings. Julian’s playing career included a year at Liverpool, which although not quite as he would have hoped, did bring him the honour of being the last Reds player to score in front of the old standing Kop at Anfield, as he buried a late penalty to beat Ipswich Town in April 1994.
Last weekend pitted him against an old teammate, but one from Canvey Island, where he played for a short spell as he tried to resume his playing career in 2001. That was Ben Chenery, whose Bury Town team were beaten 2-0 by Julian’s Heybridge at Swifts’ Aspen Waite Arena.
Before that, Swifts had gone to Mildenhall and won 4-3. Leading into that one, Julian asked simply for full commitment from each player. He admits he does not know whether his style will be a significant change for the squad to get accustomed to, or more a minor difference.
“Well, one, I don’t really know what they’ve been used to, and to be honest, I don’t really care. I go in and I have my way of playing and coaching.
“I said to them the Thursday I came in, ‘all I want from you is every training session, every single game, just give me everything you have, that’s all I ask.’ You’re gonna lose games because that’s a part of football, that’s the way it goes, but there’s ways to lose games.
“If you lose and nobody cares and nobody tries, that’s not good for anybody, but if you go out and you give everything and you get beat, then you hold your hands up and go ‘it wasn’t our day today.’”
It was the same approach he took when leading West Ham’s women’s team. Taking over the side in 2014, he led them in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division.
The team has since been given much greater backing, with the club rebranding to West Ham United Women and successfully gaining a tier-one licence for the newly-structured, fully pro FA Women’s Super League. Julian recalls his time with the team fondly.
“Women’s football, I treated them exactly the same as men’s football. They trained hard, I spoke to them like I would speak to men.
“I didn’t hold back, I told them this in the beginning – ‘I will treat you like professional footballers.’ We trained Tuesdays and Thursdays and played Saturday, and I treated them exactly the same as I will treat the boys at Heybridge, or the people at West Ham.
“I will sit there and talk to people all day long, but I expect them to give me everything they have. I really enjoyed my time with West Ham Ladies.
“I had a great season there, my first season. They were fantastic.”
Julian’s connection to supporters is cast iron, and it was something he was able to enjoy during his time on Twitter, though even for the most popular footballing figures there are the less enjoyable aspects of such a platform. He explains why you no longer find him on there.
“I enjoyed my time on Twitter. I interacted with the fans; not just West Ham fans but all fans.
“I came off for the reason of people were asking me for signed shirts, signed footballs, signed football boots, signed pictures from when I was at West Ham. I’m talking probably 30, 40 every day, so I thought ‘I can’t deal with this.’
“I hate saying no to people, so I just came off it. I would never go back on it, it’s not for me.”
Current Chesterfield boss Martin Allen said that as a player, person and friend, Julian was the best he played with – though he also tells how he would rip people’s newspapers and playing cards up for a laugh! Going in goal after Luděk Mikloško was sent off at Everton in December 1995, Julian couldn’t save West Ham from a 3-0 defeat, but he did earn Sky’s Man of the Match award for his efforts, as well as ‘England’s number one’ shouts from the travelling Hammers faithful.
He is often asked for specific games he would choose to relive and his response is that there isn’t one; rather that the overall feeling of playing for West Ham is what endures. Individual afternoons or evenings on the pitch may not stand out so much, but was there a specific season or longer segment of his career in which he felt at his best, in a good system, and generally most pleased with the overall picture?
Really it just comes back to the simple heart of it all, he says.
“Don’t get me wrong, when we got promoted under Billy Bonds, it was great, it was brilliant, but they’re just bits of my career. I had two major knee injuries, and I would love not to have had injuries, but they made me what I am.
“I was out for 14 months with one and 18 months with another; they’re big parts of my life. It was very difficult for me because I wasn’t playing football and I wasn’t a part of the team; I was a part of the club but I wasn’t a part of the team.
“If I could still play now, I would still play.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A…
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
When I retired in ’99 I took two or three years out. I went and played for Canvey; I played ten or 12 games and my knee played up again. Then for 18 months to two years I was out of it, and then like people say, you get an urge and you want to play again. You know you can’t so the next best thing is coaching and managing. It will never, ever compare to playing, but it is the next best thing, and you can pass things on.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
I work my players hard, which is like your keep-balls, your two-on-twos, your one-on-ones. Your shooting drills, your crossing drills, 5-a-sides, for me now they’re not really a big part of it at the moment. The players I have need to get fitter and that is in their keep-ball sessions. We’ll have 5-a-sides and they are enjoyable when you’re a player, so I’m sure someone will say something soon if they don’t get one!
Will you ever take part in training?
I take my sessions. Sometimes I might say to Karl (Duguid), ‘take this session, I wanna stand back,’ but that’s it. That’s just the way I am, I kick every ball with them and I encourage them. Then if I have to stop it and say ‘this is what I want you to do,’ then I’m in a position to do that.
Favourite ground (other than your own) that you’ve visited or would like to visit. Alongside Upton Park, you mentioned St. James’ Park as another you enjoyed, so are there any in non-league that have stood out?
No, non-league’s non-league. When I go to Heybridge, I like to listen to the supporters and what they say; when there’s 30, 40, 50,000 people it’s a bit difficult. From that point of view it’s good.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
When I was growing up, I just wanted to play football, so I didn’t have idols as such. I enjoyed watching Man United because they were the biggest team at the time. I remember I went out with George Best once for a magazine and had four or five hours with George and his latest wife. To sit there with him was an absolute honour. I wouldn’t do it for anyone else – apart from maybe Elvis Presley! I wouldn’t do it for any other footballer. I did that for four or five hours and we had a chat and it was unbelievable for me.
And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him, in his prime, for Heybridge Swifts?!
Well I’ve obviously spoke to players since I’ve had the job, and I say to them ‘what are your ambitions? What do you wanna do in football?’ and a few of them have gone ‘I wanna be a professional footballer.’ Great, not a problem. I can help players, not achieve it, because it comes from them, but I can help them get on that ladder, because obviously I know a lot of people in football. I would not put a player into a club if I didn’t think he could handle it, so hopefully the people that I would speak to would know this.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
Maybe Cuba, because I like cigars! With West Ham, we went to Dubai; nice place but not for me. We went to Austria; a very nice place. If it’s pre-season, and you want to go somewhere where there’s not a load of sightseeing and stuff, Austria’s a beautiful, beautiful place and we had a good pre-season there. So, somewhere like Austria or Switzerland.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
Obviously in non-league, these boys work, so it’s not possible to work on things every day. I would love to have them for four or five days a week. That would be great, but you have to make allowances. They’ve finished work at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday and they come and train at 7 o’clock. If they wanna be there, they have to put a shift in for me, but again, you have to make allowances.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest. You’ve talked about rooming with Gazza for England Under-21s, so is there anyone people wouldn’t necessarily think of?
John Bond was so funny. He was my manager at Birmingham and he was larger than life; he was like a Malcolm Allison. He would come in, in his sheepskin, great big cigar, but he was a genuine, really nice man. He stopped me playing for England Under-17s or 18s because he didn’t like the way they played football. You’ve got Graeme Souness, and before a game, on a Friday night, you could have one or two glasses of wine and sit and talk to him. He was another one. He wasn’t funny! But he was a top, top man. John Lyall was an incredible person, when I went from Birmingham to West Ham. He used to take me home after training, back to my hotel when I first came down here. He took me and got me my first car, he took me to look at houses. That would never happen now because there’s too many people involved in football.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
No, none really. Sometimes you say certain words too many times, which I’m not gonna say, because they might pick up on it! Football is football; not everything goes to plan. I’ve got OCD so I sorted my training sessions out this morning; 9 o’ clock I’m doing my training session for tonight, but you’re banking on most of the players being there. You do the session for 16 or 18 players and all of a sudden you get 12. Things happen but you have to adapt.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist. Shaka Hislop said Neil Ruddock would stick the Elvis songs on in the changing room when you’d won at West Ham.
I’m a big Elvis fan, massive Elvis fan. Guns N’ Roses fan. But if I had to stick to one song, it’d be ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Elvis.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
Kick him on the halfway line! Basically, go out and give 100 percent. My dad said that to me many, many times when I was playing for Under-12s, Under-13s.
How have you changed since you first started coaching/managing, or what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Probably when I was at Grays, I was a bit too hot-headed maybe after a defeat, and I’d let the players know. Working with Slav (Bilić), he would take two or three minutes to go in his office, sit down, relax, then go and see them.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
When people meet me they say, one, ‘I thought you were a lot bigger,’ and two, ‘you’re not as aggressive as I thought you were.’ When I played football I wanted to win. If it meant kicking my nan, then I would kick my nan. That was me, but off the pitch I’m a totally different person.
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football?
I’ve been privileged to do something that I’d dreamt of doing since I was seven or eight years old. My dad was a non-league player in Bristol; he had a trial at a couple of clubs. Football’s always been in my blood and I’ve always, always wanted to be a professional footballer. Ron Saunders gave me that opportunity, which I’m obviously forever grateful for. I played for some fantastic clubs and I was just privileged to do what I wanted to do.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes