Names of the Nineties: Dion Dublin

Names of the Nineties: Dion Dublin

It is not uncommon for footballers to use their sporting platform as a byroad into the public domain, whether intent on becoming musicians, TV personalities, or anything alike. If successful, it can be quite easy to forget what they achieved with a ball at their feet, and such is the case with this Homes Under the Hammer presenter. Dion Dublin’s playing days dearly deserve remembrance, though, as they might’ve begun rather modestly but soon sparked into a professional career that saw setbacks scupper then spur on one of the most feared strikers in England in his heyday.

After spells working in a leisure centre and an ice cream factory, a 19-year-old Dublin joined Cambridge United in 1988. The youngster didn’t harbour hopes of leading the line for his country but marshalling the defence in the fourth tier of English football. Released by Norwich, Dublin arrived at the Abbey Stadium as a centre-half before the coaching staff recognised his knack of finding the net. A couple of campaigns in Division Four saw him grow into his new position and so began his prolific scoring.

After a fantastical FA Cup run that would end at the quarter-final stage in defeat to Crystal Palace, Dublin’s goals propelled the U’s into the play-off positions in 1990. A first-leg draw saw Cambridge travel to Maidstone, needing a win to progress from the semi-final. With the game goalless after 90 minutes, Dublin put the visitors in front before Michael Cheetham’s penalty secured John Beck’s side a place in the final against Chesterfield at Wembley. This would be the first Football League play-off final to played over just one leg and the first at Wembley. A man for marking milestones, no matter how minimal, Dublin nodded home 13 minutes from time to send Cambridge into Division Three, in front of over 26,000 at the national stadium.

The 21-year-old returned to London the following season, on yet another prestigious stage, as he lined up against George Graham’s Arsenal, in an FA Cup quarter-final at Highbury. Cup glory didn’t play second fiddle to league success in 1991 and Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and David Seaman all started, and tried to stop Dublin scoring past them. They couldn’t. Kevin Campbell’s header gave the Gunners a half-time lead before Dublin got in front of Adams and flung a leg at the incoming cross. Only he knows whether he meant to guide the ball over Seaman in the looping way that he did, but Cambridge didn’t care; they were level at Highbury. Adams’ header knocked the minnows out but didn’t knock them off their stride.

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A second successive promotion, this time as league champions, hauled Cambridge back up into Division Two. Reading were dispatched in the opening round of the League Cup before the club were dealt their draw of the decade. Despite not having won a league title since 1967, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were exciting many with their promotion of youth and exhilarating style of play. Dublin and Cambridge did themselves proud at Old Trafford in the first leg despite the 3-0 scoreline. A 17-year-old Ryan Giggs stole the show but his boss was just as impressed with Cambridge’s fearless and dangerous striker. That same striker tormented Steve Bruce in the return fixture at the Abbey as Dublin struck the post before netting a lack equaliser to send the crowd home happy. Ferguson was so taken aback by those two performances that Dublin swapped United’s the following summer in a £1 million deal.

Manchester United have well over 600 wins in total, during the Premier League era: they owe their very first to Dion Dublin. Life in the newly-formed Premier League wasn’t how anyone at Old Trafford had imagined it, as they were beaten at Bramall Lane before being demolished by Howard Kendall’s Everton at home. A draw at Ipswich stagnated the season’s start further before the Red Devils went to Southampton. It was Dublin’s very, very late winner at St. Mary’s that earned his struggling team a valuable three points and installed himself as a firm favourite with the fans.

Just as the 23-year-old set about making significant strides in a red shirt, a broken leg against Crystal Palace forced him to watch the next six months of action from the sidelines. With a lack of front men in his squad, Ferguson ventured out to find Dublin’s replacement. Eric Cantona was poached from Leeds and, well, you know the rest. Dublin found himself behind both the flamboyant Frenchman and Mark Hughes in a United team that stormed to their first league triumph for 26 years. Not one to sit and twiddle his thumbs, Dublin’s strive for self-improvement saw him learn to play the saxophone. However, with Old Trafford dancing to the tune of Le God, Dublin’s opportunities were reduced and a move away seemed the best option at his career crossroads. 

Kendall was a big fan at Goodison Park and managed to persuade the striker to sign for the Toffees. The Everton board, unconvinced by Dublin as a player, pulled the plug on the deal. Kendall, the club’s most successful manager with two First Division titles, an FA Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup to his name, resigned as a result. Dublin saw out a second season in Manchester, with his hard work and dedication to the club not going unnoticed by the supporters. He notched United’s second goal shortly after coming on as a substitute against Oldham, in a 3-2 win at Old Trafford, and was more than a popular scorer in front of the home faithful and among his teammates. He started the final fixture of United’s second Premier League title win against Coventry and signed for the Sky Blues a few weeks later.

Shortly after Dublin’s arrival, Phil Neal made way for Ron Atkinson in the dugout. After sitting on the bench for Manchester United’s Community Shield win, Dublin came to Coventry with an instant impact, scoring in four consecutive league games. A win against Ipswich didn’t include a Dublin goal but four of the next five matches did. Towards the back-end of the season, Dublin and Peter Ndlovu struck up a prolific partnership that bore that necessary firepower to keep Coventry in the Premier League. Having diced with relegation for his entire stay at Highfield Road, a comfortable mid-table finish during the 1997/98 campaign came as a relaxing alternative to Sky Blues fans. It also came as a result of Dublin’s exceptional 18 league goals, as he shared the league’s Golden Boot with Michael Owen and Chris Sutton.

Glenn Hoddle recognised the striker’s outstanding displays and gave Dublin his deserved England debut at Wembley against Chile, during a 2-0 defeat, almost eight years after he’d first turned out there for Cambridge in the Fourth Division play-off final. With the World Cup in France fast approaching that summer, Dublin’s Premier League form kept him in with a shout of making the final squad. With two more caps under his belt against Morocco and Belgium, many thought his inclusion would be a certainty. Instead, Hoddle opted for experience in the form of Les Ferdinand whose first season with Tottenham had been blighted by injuries. Over a year after his fourth and final England appearance, Dublin was hit by a second serious injury. This one didn’t just put his footballing career in doubt, but his life. While playing for Aston Villa against Sheffield Wednesday, Dublin broke his neck in a collision with Gerald Sibon.

“The accident gave me a totally different outlook on life,” he told the Mirror in 2018. “I could have been sat down for the rest of my life, but I wasn’t because I had very good people around me. I know I’m a very lucky man.” With a titanium plate holding his three neck vertebrae together, Dublin returned to action later that season, scoring a penalty during Villa’s semi-final shootout victory over Bolton, in the FA Cup. The trophy eluded John Gregory’s team as they finished runners up to Chelsea, Dublin knowing the real triumph was the fact that he took part that day at all.

Due to his defensive days as a youngster, the striker often played alongside Gareth Southgate in the centre of a back three or four. “Being a striker definitely helped,” he told Planet Football. “When I was playing centre-back I would stand like a striker. I could predict where the ball was going to go and get their first – before the striker made a move – because I knew what kind of runs a forward would make. I remember when I was marking Wayne Rooney, playing centre-back for Villa, and he told me I was the best centre-back he’d played against. He said he couldn’t do anything, even though he was faster than me, and it’s because I was anticipating where the ball would go. And I remember thinking, ‘wow, I must be doing something right for a 19-year-old Rooney to say that.’”

Now often seen presenting home improvement shows on daytime TV, and playing his very own Dube instrument, Dublin has made more than a living out of football. Today, plenty may know him best for his jovial exploits far from the football field, but, for many of a particular vintage, there’ll never be any forgetting his enduring exploits on it.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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