Friday 18 January 2019

Dicker eyes national call-up as life gets better by the seaside

Ex-UCD star Gary Dicker has found a place and his form at third-tier Brighton, writes Seán Ryan

WHEN Gary Dicker tells you that he has "got here the hard way, but it has paid off", you could be forgiven for thinking he was a veteran. However, the Dublin-born midfielder, now starring with League Two leaders Brighton, is a mere 24.

What sets him apart from most Irish emigrants to English football is the fact that he had the chance to go over as a teenager, but couldn't bear being away from home, and instead opted for a soccer scholarship with UCD.

Dicker now claims that his time at Belfield was the making of him. "I went to UCD from Cherry Orchard," he recalled. "There were five or six of us, including Conor Sammon, and I got into the team when I was 17, and that helped me an awful lot. I grew up so much playing against a lot of good older players every week. Pete Mahon and Eddie Wallace brought us in, and gave us a chance. They were a massive influence on me, and I matured a lot there."

He admits that he still felt the disappointment of not going to England while he was at UCD, and this was reinforced when he was called up to the under 21s and roomed with Stephen Ward, who had gone from Bohs to Wolves.

There was also the example of Stephen Quinn, who had graduated to the Premier League with Sheffield United. "I played in midfield at Cherry Orchard with Stephen. He was more the attacking player and I used to sit in front of the back four. Then at UCD I was more attacking as I played with Tony McDonnell. I can play so many systems now and I'm suited to most roles in midfield. At Brighton, we play three in midfield, two sitting and one attacking, and I play in a sitting role. I prefer to be setting up chances than trying to score."

After two seasons with UCD, Dicker's chance came when he went on loan to Birmingham City with winger Paddy Kavanagh. Neither of them made the first team; Kavanagh is now back in Ireland playing for Shamrock Rovers, but Dicker was signed by Jim Gannon for Stockport County, who were in League Two.

It was the start of a roller-coaster four years, which looks like yielding a second promotion this season. "I got promoted from League Two in my first season at Stockport," he recalled. "There were three other Irish players there -- Leon McSweeney, Stephen Gleeson and Conrad Logan -- and we were promoted after winning the play-off final at Wembley, beating Rochdale 3-2."

The following year, Stockport went into administration and, as one of the club's better paid players, Dicker was offloaded on loan to Brighton. This led to a couple of bizarre scenarios.

"When I joined Brighton, they were in the relegation zone and looked dead and buried, but we ended up playing Stockport at the end of the season to stay up, and we won 1-0. With Stockport in administration, I wasn't being paid, and Brighton didn't pay me until the end of the season, so I played a few months without pay."

However, his reward was a two-year contract with Brighton, but that didn't look too promising when they once again started last season "scrapping away around the bottom of the League One table." All that changed with the arrival of Gus Poyet as manager.

"I've been lucky to have had good managers, but all round Poyet is the most professional, and he has turned the club around on and off the pitch. It's exciting times now, with the team at the top of the table and a move to a new ground in July."

The arrival of a new manager can bring a certain amount of uncertainty to players, and Poyet's arrival was no different.

"It was weird the first day he took a training session," explained Dicker. "We had a game between ourselves and it felt like a trial game. It was like being a youngster again."

Dicker was one of those who made a good impression on the former Uruguayan international, for he has been a mainstay in the first team this season, as Brighton's form has turned from relegation fodder to Championship contenders.

"He took a gamble on us, but he has us organised and playing the way the game should be played, which you don't usually see in this league. He's great to play for, and you don't see his nasty side too often.

"The nearest was when we lost 3-1 at Hartlepool. He wasn't too happy at half-time, but he isn't one to rant and rave about nothing -- he's good at getting his message across." Dicker is hoping to play in the Championship next season, preferably with Brighton, but he is one of 11 players out of contract this summer. "To win two promotions in four years would be great for me. We don't fear any team, but Southampton are possibly the biggest threat because of the size of their wage bill.

"While it would be nice to get my contract sorted, I think I'm in a good position as I'm playing for a top-of-the-table team. Still, I'd prefer to stay here and play in that new stadium."

He has one other ambition, which he reckons would be helped by promotion. "To get into the Irish squad you have to be at least at the top end of the Championship, and that's what I'm hoping for. When I see fellas I played against like Keith Fahey and Kevin Doyle doing so well, I see no reason why I can't get to that level myself."

Dicker's international career didn't get under way until he was called up at under 19 level by Sean McCaffrey, so he is anxious to make up for lost time. In the history of Irish football, late developers have often proved our best servants, so Dicker has plenty of role models to follow.

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