History Boys | Ryan Dickson

There was wholehearted disappointment in June 2010, when Ryan Dickson left Brentford for Southampton after turning down a new deal at Griffin Park.

Football fans are, at times, unforgiving in their parting words to players seeking pastures new and, in the case of the left-back, some felt he was leaving the Bees in the lurch for the bright lights of St Mary’s, an eventual Premier League return and the riches that accompanied it.

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With the career of a footballer lasting, in many cases, little more than 15 years, of course, those factors come into play when a club of such significant stature comes calling, but for Ryan it meant more, owing to the injury-plagued start to his career as a professional footballer.

“I had a serious back injury at Plymouth, which I was told I’d only play until 26 with,” he explains to BEES. “That’s one thing I’m so grateful to Brentford for. It sounds stupid but they saved my career, really.

“I was in a bad way, living off tablets and trying to get through training sessions and games as I could. I went to see a specialist in London, Scotty sent me up there, and he gave me some proper exercises and I used to do them religiously. It got me going and got me performing to the level I should’ve.

“It was always hard to push my body to play a full season, so I ended that season [2009/10] with about 30 appearances, but obviously, performance-wise, they weren’t too bad and the club knew there was interest from bigger clubs. I knew time was running out for myself football-wise, I wasn’t going to have a career that spanned the age I am now, but at a high level where I was going to be earning a lot of money. I needed to experience that and move up as far as I could, as soon as I could.

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“Although I loved Brentford and wanted to stay, I moved to Southampton. It was always going to happen. They were interested the whole season and there were a couple of other Championship clubs interested, but they were smaller. It was always the club I wanted to move to. To be fair, it was a massive step and I didn’t realise how big a football club it was – huge.”

Perhaps describing his ascent as ‘meteoric’ would be a stretch too far, but Ryan’s stock rose at a frightening pace following his first loan move from Plymouth to Brentford under Terry Butcher in November 2007. After 10 appearances, Andy Scott sanctioned a move that saw the 21-year-old become his first January signing after assuming the reigns from Butcher.

He settled well and went onto make 31 appearances – a career best at that point – endearing himself to the Bees’ faithful with his explosive, over-lapping rampages forward. “Scotty and Bully [Terry Bullivant] said I was a bit direct and told me not to get forward as much,” he grins.

But the script could’ve been a whole lot different had Brentford not tied Ryan down to the two-and-a-half-year agreement he, thankfully, inked that winter.

“To be fair, I loved it straight away,” he says. “I did quite well and Darlington – who were a big club in that league at the time – showed an interest. I went up there and had a look around, but my heart was at Brentford. Even though Darlington was better financially, my heart was at Brentford because I enjoyed my time there.

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“I think, financially, Brentford still weren’t in a great position and I think I was Matthew Benham’s first proper signing, but they sorted me out with a flat. I think pretty much all of the boys were London-based and that was one of the benefits we had in the team – they were all local lads; strong London lads. There was a good five or six of us in a block of flats at Bedfont Lakes: me, Gary Smith, Craig Pead, Nathan Elder, Ben Hamer and Glenn Poole.

“It was a really nice new-build flat estate; it was good fun and we all got really close living there. I liked the area and adapted to the big city quite quickly because there is always stuff to do.”

Without a long-term replacement for reliable left-back and former vice-captain Andy Frampton in place, Ryan became just that when he joined. There seemed to be a growing list of left-sided players – Sam Wood, Ryan, Glenn Poole – in Andy’s squad for the 2008/09 season, yet he was the only out-and-out left-back in TW8.

Even so, his work ethic and drive clearly aligned with Andy’s and, throughout his time at Brentford, Ryan became one of the first names on the team sheet each week. With the contract issues towards the end, the relationship turned fraught momentarily, but after helping to prolong his career, Ryan has fond memories of his former boss.

“Andy liked me – I don’t that it’s much of a secret! Maybe it’s that I was a left-footer and had a similar character, I don’t know, but being away from home, he looked after me. Myself and Ben Hamer grew up in completely different areas to what the London lads would have done, so our characters were a little bit different in the fact of being maybe vulnerable, a bit fierier.

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“He looked after us in the fact that he knew how to handle his players, but I think that came in the same way that he knew the type of player he wanted so we were perhaps similar characters to what he was like when he was younger.

“The following year when I was out of contract, he did what managers do and maybe made it a bit difficult for me, but that’s just a case where he’s doing his job and I had to do mine. Afterwards there were no hard feelings and, at that point, it was a good decision that I made. I thoroughly enjoyed it and he was probably my favourite person to play under; I just enjoyed him as a person as well.

“He was very driven and it’s one of those where, if you don’t have the same determination and drive with him and you couldn’t play the way he wanted you to play, he maybe them ruffled a few feathers, but that’s football. It happens at every club you go to – it’s certainly happened at every club I’ve been at. I don’t think he was necessarily ruthless, I think he was extremely fair.”

Ryan mutters to himself and pauses for thought as he re-lives memories of the title win at Darlington and trophy presentation in front of the ecstatic home crowd. Evoking particular games proves challenging – “They all merge into one!” he jokes.

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Moments later, he answers; it’s recollections of Griffin Park he holds dearest.

“I used to really look forward to playing home games. I’m pretty sure even in the Championship now it’s nice to go to nicer grounds, but – no one is going to like me saying this – it’s almost how QPR fans think of Loftus Road. It’s like a proper London ground to play at.

“That was probably my favourite place to play as a footballer. I just liked the atmosphere and it was just a proper club. The fans liked football and knew what they were on about. It was just a good football-orientated area.

“I think Griffin Park had a big part to play in it [the title win]. Scotty got us playing forward football, attacking in the sense of advancing quickly and I think the fans enjoyed that. One of the main components of success is fast, forward football. Whether that’s passing forward or going more direct, you need athletic players and I think that was key for us, really.

“I’d been around a couple of promotions at Plymouth but when you are young, you don’t take it in properly. It just goes by really quickly and you don’t really know how to take it all in, at the time. I still look back at photos now. I remember it had been a long season and that day – I was probably on my knees towards the last couple of games – I got a knock and Andy took me off at half-time with a dead leg. It would’ve been nice to finish that game.”

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As he mentioned, Ryan missed spells of the 2009/10 season with injury, allowing recent BEES interviewee Sam Wood the chance to display his versatility at full-back, having largely been deployed on the left wing. That said, Southampton’s interest was unwavering.

There had long been murmurs Ryan would turn down a new contract to pursue a move away from west London and many pairs of eyes were undoubtedly glued to the Hounslow Chronicle website when the season reached its conclusion. May passed without concern, but in June, the worst was confirmed when he did indeed head to the south coast.

What made the move even harder to swallow was the fact one of the club’s prized assets brought in an initial fee of just £125,000, prior to appearance and promotion-related clauses. That was even after the club had taken it to a tribunal.

“They did [get a bargain]. I think Scotty and Andrew Mills wanted half a million but they went to tribunal and they just said I didn’t come through their setup and this, that and the other. In hindsight, when you are young, you don’t have the guidance of people telling you the right decisions that you should be making and what’s going to happen when you go to Southampton.

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“I came up through Plymouth’s academy so the biggest thing I struggled with when I went there was keeping a football. It sounds stupid but passing a football. At Southampton, they get brought up at a young age, like Barcelona players, to be technically brilliant at 14/15. They might not even go on to play professional football, but if you get them in a keep-ball, they just never give the ball away.

“I had an unbelievable work-rate when I first went there, but they could match me for it because they were top Premier League players playing in League One. It took me a little while to settle and get up to passing standard of looking after a football. By the time I’d done that, they moved on another level and brought in Dan Fox on a lot of money for £3 million. It was just a club that was moving in the right direction extremely fast.

“In hindsight, if there was a club I could have jumped to in-between, but I don’t really regret anything because, at the time, I knew I was on borrowed time, let’s say, and it was a massive football club, which I’m proud to have played for.”

It all started reasonably well at St Mary’s, with Ryan playing 28 times and scoring once in his first campaign there, which saw the Saints promoted to the Championship as League One runners-up. But the back injury that had threatened to curtail his career began to cause problems elsewhere and he made just two more first team appearances for the club as they returned to the Premier League for the 2012/13 season.

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He continues: “I know Ross Montague had something similar but I don’t think his pars defect was on the same level as mine. I know he was out for a long time with his, but I was out for two years down in Plymouth not getting the right treatment and knowledge to know what was actually wrong with me. Now you could go and see a specialist and they could quickly say what’s wrong, but back then it was a little bit of an unknown quantity.

“I know they used to get that injury a lot with gymnastics; it’s basically an over-use injury, doing too much, too young. I picked that up at Plymouth when I was a young, skinny kid so I was getting pushed, but I wasn’t physically developed to a level for that workload. It’s one of those things, people pick up injuries and I’ve still managed to grind out a career. I say 26, but probably 25 was when I still had a career but I had to change my game and I maybe lost a bit of power and my knowledge had to take over.

“The higher you go up, they are more powerful, more athletic and can obviously push themselves a lot harder through 90 minutes. That’s just the way it is – the people at the top are better specimens, maybe. I’ve had six hernias since then, my ankle re-constructed, all because my pelvis tilts that way from my back. It’s just one of those thing I knew I had, but I’ve managed it and I’ve done OK to still be going. When you are younger, you just dream of having a career and that’s what I’ve managed to do.”

Short loan spells with Yeovil, Leyton Orient and Bradford during the 11/12 and 12/13 seasons gave Ryan a stretch of first team football again, but it wasn’t until the 2013/14 season that his spark returned and, ultimately, 2015 when he could finally settle once again after what turned out to be a turbulent time. It’s testament to his character that he prevailed.

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“After being extremely settled at Brentford, I’d not experienced anything different and then I found myself out of the team at Southampton, tried coming back to Brentford maybe on loan and Scotty tried getting me up at Rotherham.

“But around that time I needed my ankle reconstructed and that was another year out. The injury situation and me not playing at Southampton kind of inter-locked; you look at it and think I wasn’t involved, but a lot of it was coming back from injury trying to get myself going. I then went to Colchester after my ankle surgery and that was the season to get myself going and I didn’t have too bad a season, but that club was going in a different direction where they just wanted to bring their kids through the youth setup and they were changing their way.

“They offered me another year, but I wanted two years and I ended up going to Crawley for two years. I got player of the season that year but we got relegated. I had another year, but Yeovil phoned up and asked if I wanted to come home. I’d just had a baby and I knew that, body-wise, I was never going to kick on and have a great career again, I just knew. I knew I was going to be a lower League One or League Two player at that point. It was just about, at that time, getting home for my family. I’d just had a little girl and you know what it’s like in the south west, you are in the middle of nowhere. I needed to move them home because we wouldn’t have really coped having a kid around London with just us two.

“It then just became about making it a job really and trying to be successful at Yeovil, but they were really struggling financially; I was going into games where I was the only player over the age of 22 and having to lead the team and it was just like leading a bunch of kids. They were balancing their books and that happened for a fair few years. Those three years went pretty quick to be fair and I’m now 32 and it was move away – there were still a couple of London clubs in the league that I could’ve joined, but Torquay is closer to home and I’m happy now just to see out my career here and hopefully get the club back on track.”

Back in the south west now, as he mentioned just there, Ryan is part of Gary Johnson’s Torquay squad, who are hoping to bounce back to the Conference at the first time of asking; at the time of writing, they hold a seven-point lead over Woking with just five games remaining.

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Owing to injuries – he’s suffered a broken leg and concussion this season alone – and several divisional changes, Ryan’s role has changed with age. Primarily a central midfielder now, the pace may have slowed somewhat, yet the hunger for involvement and success is still alive and kicking.

“At Yeovil because if I bombed forward, we would get exposed, it’s as simple as that. We weren’t strong enough to take the risk of our full-backs going forward and I can’t do that for 90 minutes anymore, I have to pick my times.

“Moving to Torquay, I didn’t want to, as bad as it sounds, be playing Conference South at left-back and watching games, I wanted to be in the middle of the park, affecting games at this level. That’s where I originally got brought in to play, but I’ve been used everywhere: left-back, left-mid, centre-mid and I think it’s just one of those where I’m happy to contribute wherever, as long as we are winning. It’s a good area and a good football club.

“I’ve got another year next year and I think that’s the aim, maybe, double promotion and compete next year at the top of the Conference, but the first thing is making sure we can shake off Woking, really. I’m settled in Plymouth and we are setting our roots now. I’m doing my coaching badges in the summer and I’ll hopefully stay in football, but the most important thing now, really, is my family, my friends and enjoying my life.”

Originally featured in BEES Issue #21 v Ipswich (10 April 2019)

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