Villa's Greatest Heroes: Dion Dublin

"Memorable," is Dion Dublin's understated description of his first sixteen days as an Aston Villa player.

He made his debut just two days after signing from Coventry for £5,750,000, and marked it with two goals against Tottenham Hotspur in a 3-2 win - the other Villa goal a rare strike from Stan Collymore.


A week later, I remember playing football early on a Saturday afternoon and going to watch the scores come in on Ceefax (ah, for those days...) in the pub afterwards. Villa were away at Southampton, and drawing 1-1 when we arrived; it was nice to see that the opening goal had again come from the new signing before, as we walked through the door, Matt Le Tissier levelled things.

Before we'd been served our drinks, though, Dublin had added his second to put Villa ahead. A Paul Merson strike put the game beyond doubt before the big man completed a rout and his hat-trick, all before we'd been back to the bar. Sorry to go on at length about half an hour spent in the back-room of a boozer, but the clarity with which events come back to me underlines just how "memorable" those Dublin strikes were. Saints, incidentally, must have been sick of the sight of him - he'd found the net at The Dell in his last match for Coventry a fortnight earlier.

Four days later the striker was one of three Villa players representing England, as Paul Merson found the net and Lee Hendrie came off the bench to hit the post in his solitary cap. Dublin walked away from the match with an assist, and was back on the goal trail three days later, bagging a brace as Villa lost to Liverpool and a Robbie Fowler hat-trick. Three blanks followed before another brace against Arsenal won the game; Villa were 2-0 down to a pair from Dennis Bergkamp before Julian Joachim pulled one back and Dublin took control. I remember the Holte shaking.

None of those goals, though, were the pick of Dublin's career. Nor were any of his strikes for Manchester United, Coventry or Celtic. "The best, if not the most spectacular, was for Cambridge versus Chesterfield in the 1990 Third Division play-off final," he told FourFourTwo magazine earlier this year. "A near-post header, the only goal of the game, and it meant so much because we'd played 56 games that season. We earned it."

The young Dublin spearheaded a meteoric rise at Cambridge, who went from the Fourth Division to the brink of the old First in successive seasons from 1989 to 1992. "We had the closest bunch of players I've ever seen and if it wasn't for a play-off defeat we'd have gone from the old Division Four to the top-flight," reminisces Dublin. "It would never happen today."

The lad who had failed to make the grade at Norwich before being bumped out to Cambridge on a free transfer, though, was still rising. Alex Ferguson - no Sir back then - paid out £1,000,000 to take him to Old Trafford. From Cambridge, where they "grew long grass in the corners so those long balls would hold up for our wingers," to a team determined to win their first title in 26 years is quite a jump, but one Dublin appeared more than ready for.

He made his full Manchester United debut against Southampton, and scored - The Dell was always a happy hunting ground. But a week later disaster struck. Making his first start at Old Trafford, against Nottingham Forest, Dublin broke his leg and damaged his ankle ligaments. He was ruled out of action for five months. In his absence, United went out and signed a Frenchman who had managed nine league goals for Leeds the previous season, and over the next five years would go on to be the best player to play in the Premier League.

As United soared - competing, ironically, with Aston Villa for the title - Dublin worked hard to get back from injury. He returned with a flurry of goals for the reserves, and managed five more appearances for the first team before the end of the season. That left him with seven as United pipped Villa to the title - three short of a medal. But Alex Ferguson had other plans.

"You needed ten to win a medal, but Sir Alex called me into his office and said that if I hadn't broken my leg I'd have played a lot more games, so he was getting a medal made for me," remembers Dublin. "That meant a lot."

Appearances, though, were still hard to come by, as Cantona blossomed into United's talisman and the league's best player. Eventually, when Coventry offered to double United's investment, all parties agreed it was for the best, and Dublin moved to Highfield Road for £2,000,000.

The following four years saw Dublin prove Alex Ferguson right: he was more than capable of playing top-flight football. 61 goals in 144 league games, and double figures in the cups, made his stay at Coventry a happy one, and earned him the first of his four caps for England.

He finished joint top scorer in the league with Chris Sutton and Michael Owen in 1997/98, but missed out on a place at the World Cup to the latter. John Gregory had seen enough, though, and paid the best part of six million pounds to capture him from Coventry. Dublin left with the fans' best wishes and with many friends, not least Gordon Strachan, who would later take him to Celtic at the age of 37.

His first season at Villa saw him finish with 15 goals. His second was set to be even more prolific, with 13 in the bag before Christmas. "Dion Dublin in the air," was the call around Villa Park, as goal followed goal. Unfortunately, disaster was waiting around the corner - and far more severe than the broken leg that had marred his United career.


One week before Christmas day 1999, Aston Villa came from a goal down to beat Sheffield Wednesday at Villa Park. But four minutes after Ian Taylor had given his side a 2-1 lead, Dublin ran headfirst into Gerald Sibon and broke his neck. It could have cost him far more than a few months out of football.

"If I'd moved and caught a nerve, I could have been in a wheelchair," says Dublin, now a spokesman for MySpine.org, Spinal Reasearch's online community. "I have three men to thank: Jim Walker, the Villa physio, who kept me still after the initial impact, club doctor Barry Smith, who took an hour to find the best surgeon, and Andrea Jackowski, who did the operation."

"There are certainly things which are far more important than being able to kick a bag of wind around," said Gregory at the time. "It's a major blow losing Dion, but it hardly compares to the stark reality which is that he could have been in a wheelchair. That's how bad the injury was."

The treatment involved fusing three of Dublin's vertebrae with a titanium plate. It's the sort of thing that ends careers if not lives, but, astonishingly, Dublin was back on the Villa bench in just one week over three months. A week later he came off that bench in an FA Cup semi-final.

I remember every single up and down of that game at Wembley. I had my head in my hands when Eidur Gudjohnsen glided through the Villa defence and pulled the ball back; I only knew Dean Holdsworth had fired into the crowd when I heard laughter around me. And I remember the roar - part passion, part disbelief - that greeted Dion Dublin in the 70th minute.

Just under an hour later, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, 'With eight confident strides and one strong strike with his right foot, Dion Dublin swept Aston Villa into their first FA Cup final since 1957.'

'If anyone deserves to feature in the last final at the old Wembley,' said scribe Henry Winter, 'it is Dublin.

'When Dublin's penalty whistled home, Villa celebrated as if they had claimed the old pot itself. When Dublin emerged from beneath a scrum of jubilant team-mates, he was sought out with particular relish by Gareth Southgate, now rescued from a run of six losing semi-finals with Crystal Palace, England and Villa.' Even Benito Carbone, who had thrown something of a hissy-fit when replaced by the big man, threw his golden boots into the crowd as a memento for two lucky fans.

Perhaps Dublin has some sort of magic healing power - "The surgeon looked at my X-rays after six weeks and said if he had looked at them blind, he would say they were three months after the injury. That was how quickly I was healing," he remembered later - but he could do nothing to stop the season ending in disappointment, with Chelsea scoring the only goal of the last game at the old Wembley.

Two more seasons with Villa followed, with seven games on loan for Millwall halfway through the second proving his worth to the Midlands club; Peter Crouch, the arriving Juan Pablo Angel and Darius Vassell struggled in his absence, while Dublin scored three in seven for Millwall. He was promptly recalled to Villa Park, handed a starting place and responded with goals to take him to sixty strikes in four seasons in claret and blue before the end of his contract.

Given that Villa thought they were releasing a veteran, and one who had suffered such a dangerous injury, it is astonishing to think that Dublin only retired this year, playing for Leicester, Celtic and Norwich, winning Scottish League Cup and Scottish Premier League winner's medals, and hitting the winning goal in the former. In his last season with Norwich, at 39 years old, he was voted Player Of The Season.

On the fourth of May 2008, nearly a decade after he signed for Villa, Dublin was substituted in a match against Sheffield Wednesday, and left the pitch as a professional footballer for the last time. A standing ovation from both sets of fans, both sets of players and Mark Clattenburg, the referee, was no doubt echoed in more than one claret and blue living room. Quite right, too.