In Grand Sumo there are three prizes awarded to the combatants at each tournament; one for outstanding performance, one for technique and one for Kantō-shō – the fighting spirit prize for the fighter who fought the most tenaciously and to the best of his abilities.
If this prize was awarded in football, one player who would most certainly have scooped the award on many occasions was Paul Dickov. In my many years of watching the Blues I never saw him give anything up, he squeezed every last drop out of the abilities he possessed and never left the field without having given everything. Only when he came up against City did you really appreciate what a nightmare of a player he was to play against and what an ultimate professional he was.
All the way through his City career Dickov was battling to get a starting berth up-front. As City went on the rollercoaster ride up and down the leagues between 1996 and 2002, managers came and went, some fancied him – in particular Joe Royle – others, such as Frank Clark, less so. Then ultimately under Kevin Keegan, he fell out of favour and left for Leicester City. A look at his overall total number of City appearances show that nearly a third were from the bench. In spite of this, a constant throughout that time was his relationship with the City fans, they appreciated what he brought to the team and his place in the club’s history seemed assured. Leicester did play Dickov as a starter in the 2002-03 season and they were rewarded with 17 goals in his 42 league starts – his best single season haul – and promotion to the Premier League as runners-up in the First Division.
Dickov and newly-promoted Leicester visited the City of Manchester Stadium in its first season as our new home on the 9th November 2003, just a few days after a frustrating 1-1 draw in the UEFA Cup with Polish side Groclin Dyskobolia. City were trying to build on good start to the season and most of the 46,966 crowd expected a City win. This was how it looked early on with a very attacking home side pushing on and Leicester dropping ever deeper, then in the twelfth minute a clearance was gathered by Dickov on half way, he battled away to retain the ball, it squirted out due to a Joey Barton challenge and fell to Jordan Stewart. As three defenders backed off to the edge of the box, the wide man got the ball onto his favoured left foot and curled a shot into the bottom corner from outside the box past young Kevin Ellegaard, who was making his debut in goal, replacing David Seaman who had failed a late fitness test.
The game then returned to its familiar pattern, with City attacking and Leicester defending. Chances came and went, Steve McManaman fluffed one in the box, Nicolas Anelka poked one just wide and a Paulo Wanchope header went just over the bar, all frustrating the home crowd.
Leicester, buoyed by their lead, were a little more adventurous at the start of the second half, they got a crucial second goal in the 53rd minute and it was Paul Dickov who was at the heart of it. Dickov chased a through ball and got behind Distin, he laid it off to Muzzy Izzet to cross from the right, then went down in the box holding his face. Referee Mike Riley pointed to the spot, he had spotted what most fans watching the ball had not seen, that Distin, irritated by the terrier Dickov, had pushed him in the face inside the box. Dickov got to his feet and amidst a cacophony of booing, some from the crowd who thought he had faked an injury and others for referee Riley (who was never that popular in the blue side of Manchester) he slotted the ball into the bottom right hand corner then slid on his knees in front of the away fans in the South Stand.
Some City fans felt betrayed by these actions, thinking that a club legend shouldn’t celebrate to such an extent against his old club. The young City keeper was not having a debut to remember behind an increasingly wobbly defence, Leicester were now enjoying themselves and grabbed a third just five minutes later. They worked the ball around, created space wide right and swung in a cross which Marcus Bent headed in unchallenged. Game over.
Robbie Fowler was thrown on for Wanchope and Anelka continued to plug away looking for a breakthrough but it never came. City just hadn’t turned up on the day, they could have gone into the Champions League spots with a win, but instead they gave Leicester their first away win of the season. The league campaign started to change from this game; they would not win another league game until the 21st February 2004 – a run of thirteen games. By then, rumours were circulating regarding the state of the finances behind the scenes and how the search for new investment was on with debts increasing. Things were looking bleak again and manager Kevin Keegan stated during that time that City looked like a team who had forgotten how to win.
By the time the teams met at what was then known as the Walkers Stadium on a warm April afternoon, Leicester were deep in the relegation zone and City were one of the few teams they could catch. There was a full house for the clash, Leicester had nothing to lose and put City under pressure, hitting balls from all angles into the box towards Les Ferdinand and James Scowcroft looking for the second balls and knock downs, with the ever industrious Dickov buzzing around. It was a proper relegation match, but not a game for the purists. Thankfully City held firm now and with David James in goal, they managed to repel the early onslaught and as Leicester pushed on, gaps started to appear for Anelka and Wanchope to exploit on the break. Anelka nearly put City ahead when he pounced on a poor goal kick from Ian Walker but couldn’t get round the keeper, who saved at the striker’s feet. Then, just on half-time, Wanchope was brought down about 30 yards away from goal and up stepped left back Michael Tarnat for the free-kick. He hit one of his thunderous left foot shots all along the ground and into the net.
In the second half Leicester threw caution to the wind trying to get back in the game. Marcus Bent came on for Ferdinand as they got even more direct and City meanwhile couldn’t seem to take advantage of the gaps which opened up at the other end. It felt inevitable then in the 66th minute when Leicester equalised. Walker launched a long kick downfield, Distin, under a challenge from Bent, didn’t clear it and on the first bounce Scowcroft headed the ball up and over James and into the City net. Pure route one stuff.
Leicester continued to hit it long, Dickov and Bent missed chances to put the Foxes ahead, as did Anelka again for City, and the tension just increased. Then, for the hundredth time, Leicester launched it downfield, Izzet ran on to a second ball and it looked like he headed it on for himself. His momentum took him into the box where Tarnat took him out, referee Andy D’Urso gave a penalty and pandemonium broke out. The replay showed Izzet had knocked it on with his hand not his head, most of the City players saw this and were incensed, causing them to argue between themselves and the referee.
The referee didn’t change his decision and after an age the ball was finally placed on the spot. It was Dickov again stepping up to take it. Trying to block out the angry din being generated by the livid away fans, he ran up and hit the ball to the left, far too close to James who pushed it away, then Trevor Sinclair got the rebound first and hit it into Row Z. Dickov fell to his knees in despair.
City hung on for the point and then made sure of their Premier League safety by beating Newcastle 1-0 at home the following Saturday thanks to a Wanchope goal. Leicester went down in the last relegation spot.
Paul Dickov would return to City in May 2006 after his contract at Blackburn Rovers expired, but he was dogged by multiple injuries and his appearances were limited. As fans, we were just glad to see him back in a sky blue shirt and most forgave him for the knee slide celebration in the Leicester game. Supporters always want to see the players give their all for the City cause, just like we imagine we’d do if we’d been lucky enough to pull on the blue shirt.
Paul Dickov typified that desire in spades. By his own admission, he knew his limits and he knew he was never going to be the greatest goal scorer of all-time, but he also knew he could make up for that with his ability to battle, and boy did he battle! His tenacity always came to the fore no matter who he played for and I was glad that for the most part it was with City. In a City Hall of Fame I would always award Paul Dickov with the Kantō-shō prize for fighting spirit.
Written by Richard Donlan
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