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A weekend in crisis: Kilmarnock captain Gary Dicker opens his doors with the club in turmoil for a glimpse of the reality

David Sneyd stays on the Dubliner’s sofa bed as he hears the truth about a life of extremes – both on and off the pitch.

Kilmarnock captain Gary Dicker.
Kilmarnock captain Gary Dicker.
Image: Jeff Holmes

THERE IS NO Christmas tree.

That is the first thing you notice in the small, two-bedroom flat Kilmarnock captain Gary Dicker shares with his 19-year-old teammate Luke Barlow.

It is the weekend before Christmas, they play their final home game of 2019 – a year of complete contrasts – against Motherwell, but there is not much in the way of festive decorations in the block of apartments several of the first team are housed in by the club’s millionaire owner, Billy Bowie.

There is no tinsel, no cards and certainly no fake snow stencilled on the windows.

There is not much of anything.

The walls in the living room are grey and bare, with only a clock – running an hour ahead because it hasn’t been turned back since October – hanging above the black four-seater table and one of two small fridges in the dining area-cum kitchen.

There is a grey bed sheet drying on a clothes horse behind one of the two leather-suede combo couches, and a 32-inch television in the corner. There are numerous bottles of water dotted around, a box of Yorkshire Tea in the cupboards and the finest packet of Fox’s chocolate chip cookies.

There are packets of microwavable rice, plenty of veg and a single bottle of Corona in the bottom of a fridge.

Look out the two bays of windows in the living area and you see the hills of Ayrshire in the distance. From the bedrooms, Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park is directly across the road. Incidentally, Dicker and Barlow share an en suite shower that is in the younger teammate’s room.

dickercouch Gary Dicker relaxes at home with a cup of tea.

“You picked some week to come over,” Dicker laughs, as he greets The42 at the gates to the complex.

Boss Angelo Alessio has just been sacked after six months in charge. The Italian, one of Antonio Conte’s assistants with Juventus, Italy and Chelsea, took over from Steve Clarke, the man who led the club to the Europa League qualifiers before taking the Scotland job.

Alessio endured a disastrous start, crashing out in the first round to Welsh side Connah’s Quay Nomads over two legs. Having undergone a vasectomy a week before the start of pre-season, that result was a far worse kick in the bollox for Dicker.

“A disaster. Everything about it,” he sighs.

With eight wins in 22 domestic games, as well as a manager of the month award for October, the club were without a victory in their previous five, and sitting in fifth place in the Scottish Premiership, when they decided to act – recently-appointed head of football operations James Fowler delivering the news in person.

The stories in the local media centred around Alessio being the victim of a player revolt, a toxic dressing room that had downed tools with senior player supposedly stabbing the Italian in the back.

That’s absolute shite,” Dicker insists. “That has annoyed me because things could have been worse if the players had sacked it off. There are good lads in that dressing room. We have made mistakes and been punished on the pitch, we haven’t been good enough at times, the quality has been lacking but not effort.

“It wasn’t great with the manager. I’ll be honest, it was a shitshow at times. That’s the truth. But the players weren’t the ones who got him sacked. It wasn’t as if the players weren’t having him because he’s foreign or anything to do with the language. You looked at his CV with Conte and it’s top class. Brilliant. But maybe that doesn’t tell the full story.

“Gus Poyet was one of the best managers, coaches, I have worked with. Him and Steve Clarke,” Dicker continues. “Their worth ethic, their organisation of training and the team, their understanding of the game. You wouldn’t believe how many fucking managers haven’t got a clue what they’re doing and what they want to do.

“There’s a difference between having an idea of how you want to play but actually explaining it to the players and getting it across in training.”

That was not one long rant of a player scorned, rather a collection of some of Dicker’s thoughts over the course of the whole weekend, one which he could have easily pulled the plug on when the news broke of Alessio’s sacking last Tuesday.

celtic-v-kilmarnock-ladbrokes-scottish-premiership-celtic-park Sacked Killie boss Angelo Alessio. Source: Ian Rutherford

Roberto Di Matteo, Paul Clement, Nathan Jones and Ally McCoist were some of the first names to have been linked with taking over. Alex Dyer, one of Clarke’s assistants with Kilmarnock and now with Scotland, is in interim charge with the ex-Celtic star Massimo Donati remaining on the coaching staff.

The fear was Dicker would go to ground. Not so. Instead, when a text did arrive it is was not to cancel, instead it was to arrange a lift from Glasgow Airport to Kilmarnock, about 35 minutes away.

“Sure we had it organised well before. This is what happens in football,” the Dubliner reasons. “Someone else is always in control and you can feel helpless because of that. That’s how it is. We all know what this game is about by now.

“Sometimes you can think football owes you something but football never owes anyone anything, that’s the reality of it. You think, ‘fucking hell, you climb 10 steps and then you fall back 20’. You’re rebuilding things again and again.

You’re always fighting for something. You fight to get in a team, you fight to stay in a team, you fight against yourself when you’re feeling shit and as if you have enough. Life is tough for a lot of people and that’s no different in football. Everyone has battles in their head that they have to face every day. There all different emotions in dressing rooms every day. That’s life. Life is a battle.”

Dicker, 33, has been through enough over the last decade to speak with authority on the matter. He has been ostracised by managers, cut adrift at the end of contracts and suffered the anxiety of dealing with an injury that others doubted the legitimacy of.

There has been the broken leg, dislocated ankle, and countless more besides.

But he is still standing.

“Because I love football. This is a business and your job, you have to look out for yourself and your family but I couldn’t do what I’ve been doing if I didn’t still love it.”

Dicker has been in Scotland approaching four years, joining Kilmarnock from Carlisle United a week after his youngest daughter, Anna, was born in February 2016.

But Brighton is now home so wife Leonie (pronounced Leenie), his eldest daughter Eva and Anna all returned to the south of England while Dicker has been based in Scotland.

soccer-npower-football-league-championship-brighton-hove-albion-v-west-ham-united-amex-stadium Dicker suffers a broken leg and dislocated ankle against West Ham.

“I didn’t want more upheaval in their lives. It’s not fair on them. We’ve been through so much that you just want to give them the best of what you can. I know we’re not fully happy but we’re as happy as we can be now, and it is not going to be forever. But I know I never have it all to deal with myself because I have Leonie and she is the one who keeps me going.

“She’s so strong and positive. She sees the good side of every situation; I don’t know where she gets her strength from sometimes.”

These past few years have been testing. For example, Dicker had not seen Leonie and the kids in the flesh throughout December until he arrived home to Brighton after training on Christmas Eve, before spending Christmas Day with them, something which he had canvassed for approval on among his teammates in the Kilmarnock dressing room before pleading his case to the club to skip the session ahead of today’s trip to Rangers.

Dicker’s day off was granted and he will get the red-eye flight from Gatwick to Glasgow before leading his side out at Ibrox.

Getting to see his family in person, and not in one of the several FaceTime calls each day – some lasting hours, others just a few minutes – is not something he takes for granted. The strength which Leonie possesses, that Dicker speaks about so evocatively, is borne from tragedy.

He opens up about the two miscarriages between the successful births of his daughters and how that has shaped his outlook since, including going under the knife for a vasectomy. But time and again he returns to the strength of his wife. “She keeps me together, she keeps us all together.”

dickerchairty Gary Dicker (left), John Keast (centre) and Stuart Findlay at the Bonnytown Flyers Christmas awards.

The power and importance of family is something Dicker continually references. His father Dessie was a builder, his mother Margaret a housewife, raising six children in Firhouse. He recalls with fondness the time spent with grandparents Christy and Jane Perry in Templeogue.

Christy, still going strong at 90, even made it over last season for a game.

With the guidance of Pete Mahon at UCD, Dicker went from the League of Ireland to England’s League Two with Stockport County, via a loan spell at Birmingham City, before rising to the Championship from League One at Brighton.

The club transformed during his four and a half years there from 2008-13, yet he was not part of the squad which broke the glass ceiling into the Premier League.

The senior Republic of Ireland squad also remained out of reach. “One cap would have meant everything to me,” he sighs. “That’s the biggest regret of all, that’s what I will think about when I’m finished. Definitely.”

There is some genuine consolation for him that his oldest friend in football, Stephen Quinn, did achieve both of those feats, having risen through the ranks together at Cherry Orchard and trialled at several clubs – Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Aston Villa to name a few.

Those experiences were testing. He remembers the enjoyment of the football but also going into his shell off the pitch in different environments, finding it strange that he had to shower in front of other boys after training and matches.

“And if you weren’t signed by a club at 16, everyone in Ireland would be telling you your career is done, it’s finished, just give up and go get a job.”

Instead, by 23, Dicker could buy his first home with an improved contract at Stockport. Six months later, though, he was packing as many of his worldly possessions into his Volkswagen Golf and preparing for the start of a new life in Brighton.

dickerbrekkie Dicker makes poached eggs on matchday.

Along the way there have been pitstops at Rochdale, Crawley Town and Carlisle United, with some experiences scarring and some successful.

Yet it remains the sceptical words of those who told him he would never achieve his dream that helped fuel the fire.

“I just thought to myself: ‘Fuck you, I’ll fucking show you. I’ll do what I have to make a career for myself. I’ll do what you said I couldn’t do’.”

Kilmarnock is the town Johnnie Walker left behind. The famous whiskey company was established here in the 19th century before operations were moved to Glasgow and Fife. More than 700 jobs left the area, over 20,000 marched in protest – including then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond – but big business won out as new owners Diageo pressed ahead.

The town has a population in the region of 46,000. Rugby Park, with its 4G synthetic surface, has a capacity of 17,886.

This season crowds have averaged between 4,000-5,000. Dicker and Barlow wonder aloud about whether the gate will be affected against Motherwell, and if the fans will turn on them. “Will they cane us,” the teenager asks.

“I don’t know,” the skipper replies. “Start well, we’ll have to start well.”

They haven’t got time to worry. It’s Friday morning and they train in the stadium, one of the benefits of the astro turf pitch. Breakfast and lunch is also served there with ‘The Killie Club’ hospitality lounge doubling up as a canteen during the week.

dickerluke Dicker (right) with flatmate Luke Barlow.

 Some in the squad, though, still haven’t quite got used to the new industrial toaster and when they leave several rounds of toast to burn, the fire brigade is called. There is no serious harm done in the end, just a £250 call-out charge.

At the tea and coffee station, there is a choice of sweetened and unsweetened soya, coconut and almond milk. There is regular, too. Some of the youth team players are having breakfast when Dicker makes a beeline for one in particular.

It’s Liam Smith’s last day at the club before he heads to Manchester City on a three-year deal. The highly rated Scotland U16 international was also wanted by Liverpool and Rangers. “Keeping working hard, the hard work never stops,” Dicker tells him as he shakes his hand and wishes him all the best.

As the players make their way out onto the pitch a familiar, eccentric face with a snowy beard has managed to join them. Watt Nichol is a Scottish folk artist who also dabbles in motivational speaking. Former manager Lee Clarke had him address the squad previously and, sensing his opportunity, he has arrived on spec to try and work his magic (and earn a few bob) again.

His services are politely declined and the final session of the week, overseen by Dyer, can begin. From 10.30 to 10:55 there are warm up exercises incorporating jogs, sprints and two groups of keep-ball boxes.

For 15 minutes after that, there is a 10 v 10 game played between the half-way line and the edge of the penalty box with three mini goals 18 yards apart across the width of the pitch.

At 11:08am, the mini goals are removed and a full size one is rolled into position on the centre circle. “Two keepers please,” is the shout from Dyer as the pace intensifies. It’s two touch with corners and set free kicks, and the same shape.

It is clear from the set up and personal in both teams that experienced centre back Alex Bruce, son of Steve, will not be starting against Motherwell.

Dyer interrupts the play for the first time at 11:13, offering instruction on which of the opponents’ centre backs to press and who to allow have possession before pressing on the next pass.

Three minutes later and it is the voice of Donati who helps set up the defence for corners, detailing Motherwell’s range of movements in the box.

At 11:20 the teams switch ends and the game is all-in with no restriction on touches. Seven minutes after that Dyer makes further demands on what he wants in terms of shape.

The game is competitive, the mood positive. One player doesn’t protect a simple pass and the instruction from a teammate is swift. “Flick, flick flick all the fucking time! Hold it in,” is the roar.

“And time!” Dyer yells at 11:32, brining the session to an end. “Well done everyone, thank you, now rest up,” he adds, inviting whoever wants to take part in a final shooting competition. “You don’t all have to stay if you don’t want to.”

Ten remain until the last shot in anger is struck at 11:45. The session is short, sharp and intense, a contrast to the often laboured, unstructured days of the previous regime.

But the serious business isn’t over and, once lunch of lasagne and pasta pesto is devoured, the final game of pool this week can take place.

On one team is Dicker and winger Rory McKenzie. On the other is Scotland international Stuart Findlay and summer signing Dom Thomas.

There is no let up. Every shot is taken with care, when either play confers with their teammate the jibes are swift. The teams trade games until the decider at three apiece. By this point, Dyer and his staff are all watching. A handful of players, too. Findlay, who is still a few weeks away from full fitness because of a hamstring injury, is in flying form.

“A good group,” Dyer insists. “Things will get better with this group.”

dickerpool Dicker takes his shot in a game of doubles.

Whether he will be the man to lead them in the New Year remains to be seen. “I’m just happy being part of a football club,” he adds.

 Another roar, as Findlay looks set to clinch the decisive frame when he attempts to squeeze the black by two reds covering the pocket. The shot is missed, the balls disperse kindly for Dicker who pots them both. Before he has a chance to complete victory with the black, Findlay drops his cue in disgust and heads for the toilet.

Thomas, his teammate, has his head in his hands. Dyer is laughing. “It’s over now, done.”

There is no teasing from Dicker, he focuses on the final pot and, with Findlay peering around from the toilet door he has left ajar, he watches just in time to see Dicker slot the black. He and McKenzie embrace, Findlay and Thomas then share a consoling hug.

The mood around the club is not as flat as previous weeks but, by 13:10pm, all is quiet as players head home for the day. Dyer and his staff retreat to their offices to finalise their plans for tomorrow. He worked with Motherwell’s Jake Carrol while assistant to Chris Powell at Huddersfield Town and is complimentary about the former St Patrick’s Athletic defenders’ abilities.

Dicker’s sole focus has not yet switched to tomorrow’s game. We make the short walk back to the apartment and before he has a chance to relax there is a FaceTime call from home.

Leonie has informed him the roof has been blown off the kids’ treehouse. With a hammer in hand, she is preparing to fix the job.

Anna runs to the screen to see her Daddy.

“What happened to the tree house,” he asks.

“It just fell off,” she replies.

“Have you been to see Frozen again?”

“Yes!”

“Was it good?”

“It was great, Daddy. It was really great.”

“Wish me luck fixing this roof,” Leonie continues.

“Well ring me when you’re done with your DIY,” Dicker laughs.

He is here, 500 miles away in Kilmarnock, for them. There was a time when it looked as if his career, his life, would be far simpler.

Never mind your future being written in the stars, Dicker’s was programmed in the Sat Nav when he was eventually able to leave Stockport County for the south coast. He had enjoyed good times under Jim Gannon, earning promotion via a Wembley play-off final in 2008, but when the club fell on hard times and was on the road to administration, Dicker was ostracised along with Cork native Leon McSweeney.

soccer-npower-football-league-championship-nottingham-forest-v-brighton-and-hove-albion-city-ground Punish them was a phrase used by former Brighton manager Gus Poyet. Source: Mike Egerton

Eventually he was able to secure a loan move to Brighton, at the time mired in a relegation scrap, and when he went to buy a Sat Nav to help with the car journey to complete the move, the one he purchased already had Brighton pre-programmed as the destination on the screen.

“No word of a lie. I’d just bought a house six months before that. I’d negotiated a new contract myself and made sure to get enough of a signing bonus to help with the deposit. Then your life changes in an instant.”

There was a sourness with the way his time at Stockport came to an end and, with no clause in the contract preventing him for playing against his parent club on the final day of the season, Dicker made the decision to line out for Brighton in a game they needed a result from to avoid relegation.

“We stayed up and I remember Leon running on the pitch with my nephew in a buggy when there was a pitch invasion. He was cast aside there and leaving too. I loved it down there. The weather was unbelievable, I was living at the marina right in town, beside the sea, it didn’t feel like England. The vibe was great.”

A world away from the environment at Stockport, where Gannon impressed with his work on the training ground but not with his man-management abilities. “He would say how he recused you from the shit heap. He was like that. Football wise he was great but he wasn’t able to combine it with dealing with people properly,” Dicker feels.

“The best managers, personality-wise, they’re leaders. They could tell you anything and you would think their right.”

Gus Poyet is Exhibit A.

His influence on the club was like a tornado, no one escaped the effects of his methods and his rule. “It was the most enjoyably season I’ve had in football. We were dominating the ball, beating teams four and five nil. We had people chasing the ball and the manager got a buzz out of that.

He wanted you to make it hurt. He would say it all the time. ‘Make them suffer, make it hurt, punish them’. He demanded it in training, too. We’d do a six v three possession drill and wouldn’t allow the three chasing the ball to get out.

“Again, it was ‘make them suffer, punish them’. Then when it came to games we would be able to do the same. He said it all the time, ‘make them suffer’. But he didn’t just say we’re going to play that way.

“He was great at showing people what he wanted and how to get it, that is the hardest thing as a coach. You’d hear X, Y or Z we’re going to play out from the back? Yeah? But how. What if this happens? What if that happens? Poyet would give the answers in training, it was brilliant.”

Off the field, instead of just team bonding sessions among players, Poyet would insist on evenings where players’ partners could also go for meals or to see a show in London.

“He was old school, though. At the end of the season there could be no wives or girlfriends walking around the pitch, only kids. The partners had to stand at the tunnel and take pictures.”

If there is a story that sums up Poyet’s competitive spirit, it is the one which involves Millwall’s former Ireland international Andy Keogh, a broken toe, and the refusal to allow Brighton’s club doctor to provide a pain-killing injection as a favour to allow him play against his side.

“Their physio rang ours to say their doctor wasn’t able to make the game,” Dicker begins. Championship games are supposed to have a doctor from each team there. Andy had a broken toe and when our doc went to Poyet to tell him what he was doing on the night of the match, he was just like ‘no you’re not, they have their own, leave him’.

Keogh was like ‘where’s that fucking manager of yours’ but we said it to him, best of luck trying to convince him, he’ll just tell you to fuck off. And he did! The manager’s attitude was ‘fuck yis, fuck them, it gives us an advantage. If they beat us, they beat is, that’s the game.’

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“That’s how ruthless he was. The game was 2-2, one of their lads did an injection celebration when he scored, which was funny to be fair. But the manager would take that kind of stuff, he liked that.”

Dicker’s career was on upward trajectory under Poyet until he suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle following a collision with West Ham’s Kevin Nolan in October 2011. The incident, live on Sky Sports, left him ‘biting the ground in pain’ and five months out injured.

Poyet ensured that the same surgeon who had operated on Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard would also look after Dicker. The surgery cost £40,000, but the real price was that he fell down the pecking order in terms of a possible Ireland call.

kilmarnock-v-celtic-ladbrokes-scottish-premiership-rugby-park Dicker in action against Celtic. Source: Ian Rutherford

“Sometimes you get a break in your favour, sometimes you don’t. Playing for Ireland would have meant so much. I do think about what it would have been like. I used to sell the programmes at the old Lansdowne Road.

“I would do it behind the goal where the rugby pitches were. We would come into the stand after and try somewhere to sit.”

Dicker recovered from the injuries. He took pride in returning and not breaking down with other niggles. He gave up drinking alcohol his rehabilitation work but when Poyet was shown the door following play-off failure against Crystal Palace, the Dubliner was called in by the Brighton owner and informed he would not get a new contract.

Instead of another tilt at getting to the Premier League, Dicker, who married Leonie that same summer in 2013, was unemployed. He bided his time and waited for a club on a similar level to Brighton.

The phone never rang.

A month into the 2013/14 campaign he took up Rochdale’s call in League Two. In January 2014 he moved on to Crawley Town to be nearer to Brighton, before heading to the north of England on a two-year deal with Carlisle United.

Leonie and Anna relocated. Brighton gained promotion to the Premier League and, while former teammates like Ashley Barnes, Glen Murray, Bruno, Lewis Dunk and Leonardo Ulloa all thrived in the top flight, Dicker’s career hasn’t reached those same heights.

“Sometimes you can end up in place that you never imagine. From being on the bench of a Championship play-off semi-final against Crystal Palace, to then back down to reality and League Two. For a year and a half it affected me, that’s the truth.

It’s difficult to take, you come so far and get knocked back to a level where you started at, but that is the way things have panned out for me. You back yourself to perform at the highest level but that hasn’t happened for me. It would drive you mad if you let that be the only thing you think about.

“Of course, sometimes you think ‘if only I got the chance to do it’, but it is not something that I am killing myself about anymore.”

 

***

This Friday afternoon is ticking by and there is a 3.30pm appointment which Dicker is adamant he will not be late for. The Bonnytown Flyers is a football team for locals with various disabilities. It was set up by John Keast, a retired social worker, five years ago and, every Friday night since, they get together for a kickabout.

This is their Christmas party and Dicker, along with his pool rival from earlier in the day, Stuart Findlay, meet club stalwart Mark ‘Gally’ Gallagher, whose nephew is one of the players, outside the stadium to walk the 10 minutes through the town to hand out presents.

It’s in the upstairs of the Braehead Bar and the DJ is racing through the Christmas tracks before one of the players decides it’s time for an impromptu karaoke session. The players mingle and pose for photos as they hand out the presents, and chocolate Santas.

One of the recipients is clearly not a Killie fan and, instead of having his picture taken with Dicker and Findlay, simply makes a beeline for his gifts before returning to his seat, throwing his backpack over his shoulder and exiting with a smile and a wave.

This is not an official club engagement, simply a favour to ‘Gally’, whose official title is facilities manager but who is one of those club devotees who has done so much more over the last two decades.

Killie is a community club and this is just one strand. An hour or so later over dinner in the Park Hotel, which is sandwiched between Dicker’s apartment block and the stadium, there are more well-wishers.

kilmarnock-v-celtic-ladbrokes-scottish-premiership-rugby-park Kris Boyd suffered the loss of his younger brother. Source: Jeff Holmes

From the hotel manager to passing guests, the captain makes the time for those who wish to stop and chat.

When we head back to the apartment, Hibernian’s clash with Rangers is just underway. The team WhatsApp group has been pinging with details of Chris Sutton’s criticism of the squad for their role in Angelo Alessio’s sacking.

“Just someone who doesn’t actually know what went on or what he’s talking about,” Dicker shrugs.

Rangers go a couple of goals up early on. There are another couple of Face Time calls to home, Leonie rings when the girls are being put to bed, and Dicker settles down to watch the rest of the match with a cup of tea and a packet of Fox’s chocolate chip cookies.

He treats himself to two, The42 must confess to milling another four.

Steve Clarke, Dicker’s former boss, is at Easter Road when he appears on the screen looking dour. “That’s actually his happy face believe it or not,” he laughs. “He has such a dry sense of humour, you don’t know if he’s serious or joking.

“He just has something about him as a manager. He has a presence, you believe in him. You’d do anything for him. He understands his players and realises how to get the best out of them. As a coach, he can get his messages across and everyone knows what is needed.”

Dicker’s flatmate, Luke Barlow, is cooking an omelette on the pan and has sweet potato fries in the oven. “I would have loved to have worked with him (Clarke) for longer,” the 19-year-old centre back adds.

“I was just breaking in last season, I was in and out of training with the first team. He was class, I loved his sessions and how he was with the players.”

Barlow is from Bury, north of Manchester. He was at Crewe Alexander from the age of seven before getting released at 17. This is the second, and final, year of his contract. He is in the matchday squad for the game with Motherwell so takes that as a sign of progress under Dyer.

Like the rest of the squad he is waiting to find out the new manager to get a sense of what his future holds. He’s not yet out of his teens but is already one of the lucky ones, having secured a deal at Kilmarnock after impressing in an exit trial with other released players and then on two subsequent trials at the club.

“Every day is an important day because you’re self-employed at the end of the day,” Dicker offers.

I’m miles better off as a player by being released. It’s the best thing that has happened. I’ve had to grow up big time. Living away from home, living on my own, it’s made me much more independent.”

Barlow was not in the Kilmarnock dressing room when the club’s former striker, Kris Boyd, had to deal with the death of his younger brother Scott by suicide. Dicker was and, as one of the more senior pros, he had developed a strong relationship with the SPL’s record goal scorer.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever been involved in. Kris never missed a day of training. Now he might not have ran around when he was here, but still. He wasn’t in that day. No one knew why.

“Stuff then began to come out in the papers about what happened. He came in the next day and spoke to the group himself, which took a lot of courage. I don’t think I could do it. He told us all what happened.

“There were lads welling up. I was gone. I don’t know how he wasn’t. The hurt he was going through. The pain he was going through, it’s hard to see someone you know going through that. He explained how he didn’t know too much about the illness.

“He spoke to everyone and said don’t be afraid to speak to anyone if they were struggling. He went and spoke to the younger lads too.

When you cross the white line, nobody knows what’s going on in your life. You’ve just got to get ready for the Saturday. That’s all the matters in football and it’s not until have kids and a wife and greater responsibilities that you realise what’s most important.”

Dicker is sprawled out on the couch as the Hibs-Rangers match enters the second half. It may be far from the ideal scenario with him in Kilmarnock and Leonie and the kids down in Brighton, but it’s what works for them right now.

They are a family occasionally together but always in spirit, and there have been enough testing times over the last number of years to break that. Dicker’s spell at Carlisle United between June 2014 and February 2016 was the most testing.

Graham Kavanagh, the manager who signed him, was sacked soon after and when the metal plate in his leg (inserted following that broken leg at Brighton) was damaged during a game, the initial prognosis was that he had avoided anything serious so was available to play.

Keith Curle, the former Manchester City defender, was in charge by this point, and while the x-ray gave him a clean bill of health, Dicker knew something wasn’t right. A stabbing pain in his right leg persisted and he rebuffed the manager’s attempts at getting him to play.

“I told him I needed crutches, he said I didn’t need them,” Dicker recalls.

This was the beginning of the breakdown in the relationship.

Dicker travelled to see a specialist in London and a new fracture in the leg was uncovered. He began his recovery programme and, as he returned to fitness, found himself ostracised from the squad along with a handful of other players deemed no longer required.

scotland-v-kazakhstan-uefa-euro-2020-qualifying-group-i-hampden-park Steve Clarke (left) and Alex Dyer. Source: Steve Welsh

They were put on a different schedule and it was during this period that Leonie had the first of two miscarriages during the spell at Carlisle. Dicker left a training session to comfort.

“Leonie was going into hospital, she had a miscarriage while I was at training. Nightmare stuff. I didn’t tell anyone at the club because I felt they were messing us about so I didn’t want to tell them my business, I didn’t want to give them an inch. I got a call at 6.30 that night being hauled back in.

“I didn’t want anyone to know my personal life or issues.

Curle wanted to fine him two weeks wages and send him to the youth team. Dicker got his representatives from the PFA to fight his corner, former Manchester United defender Martin Buchan travelling to meet the Carlisle manager to thrash out a compromise.

While all this was going on, Dicker and his wife had far greater stresses to contend with at home.

There were two miscarriages before Anna was born. The first, we went for a scan. There was no heartbeat ton scan. It was not meant to happen for whatever reason. It’s terrible, as blokes, nothing happened to us. Our bodies don’t change, we don’t go through what they have to.

“For that first time, you’re not thinking anything could go wrong, you think of the fairytale. You’re in  bubble.

“Leonie had to have an operation as well because she so far gone. Women, they are a different breed. How they can deal with it mentally, let alone physically. I just don’t know.”

Dicker takes a moment to compose himself. “Even giving birth. It was a tough time with Eva, Leonie went through a lot. There were complications, she lost a lot of blood. Again, she came back stronger from it.

“I just don’t know how. Then after we had been through the miscarriages, when it came to Anna being born we were blessed that we could have it all planned and no complications. My Ma came over. She was in the room. The first time, with Eva, it was just me and I swear to God I was sent to the toilets because they thought I was going to collapse.

“I was in the toilet speaking to myself to cop on and get back in. So I didn’t care if it was a boy or girl the second time, all I wanted was for the baby to be healthy. When Anna was born, I handed her to my Ma and I was a mess. I was balling. The last time she saw me cry was in the Milk Cup as a kid!

“I was still grieving, I suppose. It was such a relief. Leonie, I don’t know how she did it.”

The night draws in and it’s just before 11pm when Dicker makes up the sofa bed for The42. Tomorrow is when the action happens.

 

Matchday. Dicker has made two FaceTime calls before 9am. The first is to the girls, who are already up and painting pictures at home, the second is to the physio to let him know he is struggling with a cold.

“My ears are sore, my nose is blocked and I feel like my body has been battered, other than that I’m grand,” Dicker says.

He receives another FaceTime call from Leonie, who urges him to take a paracetamol. Dicker declines, instead insisting on waiting until he is given something by the club.

An article with Eoin Doyle in the Irish Independent piques his interest. Their stories are similar, footballers who have had to struggle for everything. He makes poached eggs and toast. Kick off is at 3pm, the players are due to meet at the hotel at 11.40.

connahs-quay-nomads-v-kilmarnock-europa-league-qualifying-first-round-belle-vue-stadium Stuart Findlay scores against Connah Quay in the Europa League but the Welsh side still progressed. Source: Anthony Devlin

Dicker is relaxed, even if he’s going through tissues with a snotty nose. He’s bunged up and downing plenty of water.

There is a final Face Time call with Leonie and the girls at 11.10 and both he and Luke make their way across.

Ten minutes later and the first sound check from the stadium’s PA announcer is deafening even within the apartment.

At 1.45, Luke makes his way back to the apartment. He hasn’t been included in the squad. He doesn’t seem overly surprised.

The mood around the ground is not one of anger. There is a stand with information about local adoption and fostering agencies. Kids sell lotto tickets, fans queue for tickets for today’s game as well as collecting away tickets for the away trip to Rangers on St Stephen’s Day a few days later.

Motherwell are having a decent season and a win will take them to third place. The crowd take their seats and the mood is positive. “This is Alex Dyer’s blue and white army,” the stadium announcer begins.

“There is only team in Ayrshire!

“Let’s get right behind the lads!

“Because together….”

The crowd take over…

“WE ARE KILLIE!!!”

Motherwell win 1-0.

It is Jake Carroll’s second-half free-kick which proves enough. Kilmarnock rally after falling behind and should have equalised through striker Eamonn Brophy, but he somehow blasts over from eight yards with the goal at his mercy.

The fans clap the players off.

The year ends on a low note in front of the home support.

Dicker faces the media after the game. They ask him about the supposed player coup. He rejects it. “I’m not having half the crap that’s been floated about this week to be honest with you.”

We leave the stadium and he signs autographs for a gaggle of kids. We’re back in the apartment by 6pm. Dicker plonks himself on the couch and settles in for the night.

Two minutes later and there is a FaceTime call from home.

“Daddy, guess what?”

“What?”

“The elves have moved”

“Those sneaky elves!”

“Bunny and Sparkles!”

“Have you had a good day?”

“I miss you, Daddy.”

“I miss you too, princess.”

Manchester City v Leicester is on the telly and Dicker fancies a Dominoes. “Fuck it, we lost. I need to treat myself.”

Once that game finishes he switches over to Liverpool’s World Club Cup final. A boyhood Liverpool supporter, he reminisces about the time his eldest sister, Ann Marie, clobbered him with the bulky zip of his beloved Liverpool tracksuit top and busted him at the side of his eye.

He remembers scoring tickets for Celtic’s Uefa Cup final in Seville and travelling with his mother on a supporters’ coach from their holiday resort in Benalmadena.

He predicts a long famine for Manchester United and doesn’t seem at all unhappy by the prospect.

As we sit and chat about everything and nothing, he laughs at the sudden memory of his wedding night in Powerscourt, and how it was the same night as England’s World Cup game with Italy in 2014.

They rented a screen so Leonie’s side of the family could support their boys. “And I did warn them that people would celebrate if they lost.”

Italy won 2-1. Memories of his wedding bring him back to Leonie, and as he begins to discuss the process of his vasectomy last summer it’s impossible not to wince.

“We went in. Leonie watch it all. I didn’t watch it. I was lying on the bed, there’s a sheet over you and they cut the part for your balls, obviously. I was chatting away, they numb the left side, the first injection goes there and it wasn’t sore.

“There’s a tube that goes from there up to the stomach, the doctor literally cuts it in half, singes it at either end and puts the tubes away from each other. Once that side is done, it takes around 10 to 15 minutes, they do the right side as well.

The doctor explained the right side is always a bit harder and when the second injection went in, oh my god, it was like 50 knives going into my bollox! The sharpest pain. I got stitched up on either side with dissolvable stitches either side and was able to walk out.

“Leonie had said, after everything she had been through it was the least I could do. It was hard for me to argue.”

At 7pm Dicker receives another FaceTime from Leonie showing Anna doing handstands in the sitting room. “Headbanger,” he laughs.

After City beat Leicester, Liverpool are crowned world champions and the Dominos arrives and is eaten, it is the performance of Fallon Sherrock in the PDC World Championship that stirs Dicker back into life.

“Brilliant.”

“Fantastic.”

“Incredible.”

“Nerves of steel.”

But his defeat, now a few hours old, will continue to linger. “I’ll be going to bed staring into space thinking of it. It’s not as bad as you question everything but it does have an impact, of course it does. It’s not that you get used to losing, no one does, but you know that you have to move on from it.

That will be to Rangers at Ibrox today. But before that Dicker will get to be with his family on Christmas Day. Together around the tree.

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