Ex-Stoke, Watford, Leeds, Notts County man Carl Dickinson: I played badly at Portsmouth - eating McDonald's on three-and-a-half hour drives to be with young family hugely backfired

Zac Dickinson’s fledgling football career is progressing encouragingly with Stoke’s under-12s.

Thursday, 17th February 2022, 6:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th February 2022, 6:43 pm
Carl Dickinson with Pompey team-mate Herman Hreidarsson against Brighton in January 2011. The on-loan Stoke defender had two Fratton Park loan spells. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Carl Dickinson with Pompey team-mate Herman Hreidarsson against Brighton in January 2011. The on-loan Stoke defender had two Fratton Park loan spells. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

A fleet-footed winger or striker as opposed to his father’s combative nature and defensive tendencies, the youngster maintains a proud family link with the Potteries.

Dad Carl featured for both Port Vale and the Potters, while is presently player-manager of table-topping Stoke-based non-leaguers Hanley Town.

There were spells away from the family home in Upper Tean, Staffordshire, including two loan moves to Pompey, where the left-back totalled 44 appearances amid disappointing personal performances by his own frank admission.

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Carl Dickinson made 44 appearances for Pompey over two loan spells. Picture: Allan Hutchings

Indeed, it was six days into his first Fratton Park spell in August 2010 when the Dickinson family welcomed first-born Zac into the world.

A moment still cherished, yet Carl Dickinson concedes being torn between family responsibilities and footballing duties had devastating consequences on his Pompey career.

More than 11 years on, it remains a source of immense regret.

‘I was disappointed in myself that year at Pompey, if I am honest. I didn’t play as well as I wanted,’ Dickinson told The News.

Carl Dickinson was recruited by Steve Cotterill in August 2010 from Stoke for his first Pompey loan spell. Picture: Steve Reid

‘The move happened really quickly. I had just walked off Stoke’s training ground and Tony Pulis said: “Pompey have come in for you and I think it will be a great move. How do you feel about it?”. I replied “Yes, let’s do it”. That was it.

‘At the time, with Stoke being in the Premier League, I wasn’t going to be playing. So I was really excited about Pompey, this massive club whose atmosphere always stood out whenever shown on Sky.

‘I was ready to jump into my car and get it sorted as soon as possible.

‘What I hadn’t considered, however, was my little boy was about to be born – and how much the constant travelling to our Staffordshire home to see my family would affect my performances.

Stoke's Carl Dickinson celebrates with the fans winning promotion to the Premier League following a goalless draw against Leicester City in May 2008. Picture: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

‘We had a little apartment in Fareham, but our family home was in Staffordshire, while my wife’s parents are from Burton upon Trent, around 25-30 minutes away.

‘She wanted to be close to them after Zac’s birth and needed help at times. It was our first child, none of us knew what we were doing.

‘I was up and down the motorway whenever I could, often driving past midnight, eating junk food in my car on the long journeys. It was three-and-a-half hours on a clear day. I was doing it for my family, for my wife, for my new-born son.

‘However, it took its toll on me and contributed to me not playing well for Pompey. It backfired.

Carl Dickinson celebrates following Pompey's 1-0 triumph at Millwall in October 2010. Picture: Steve Reid

‘I was performing badly, living on my own in Fareham at times, not eating right. If I had just chilled out more and realised what had got me to the level I was playing at in the first place, then I would have been okay.

‘I was young, I should have fully committed to staying in Portsmouth all the time. Experienced players can cope with the travelling, but I was aged 23 and unaware of the consequences.

‘I just kept thinking “Why are you playing badly?”. My answer was to get into the gym and work even more, yet I was trying too hard rather than taking a step back and reflecting on what I had previously done right.

‘I was almost overthinking every pass, every header. I never realised how much I was letting the situation affect me until I came away from Pompey.

‘To this day, it’s still a bit of a bug that I wasn’t able to perform as well as I could.’

New boss Steve Cotterill had experimented with Matt Ritchie at left-back in the opening two matches of the 2010-11 campaign before clinching Dickinson’s signing.

Carl Dickinson (front row left) poses for Movember with Pompey team-mates and colleagues David Nugent, Ricardo Rocha and Linvoy Primus (back row), and Joel Ward and Chris Neville (front row)

Pompey represented the Stoke youngster’s fifth loan spell by that stage, having also turned out for Icelandic club Vikingur, Blackpool, Leeds and Barnsley, and would generate the most appearances.

However, by February 2011, Dickinson had lost his place to veteran Hermann Hreidarsson as his form dipped, subsequently restricted mainly to substitute outings.

As Pompey finished 16th in the Championship, of the left-back’s 39 appearances, he started just two of their last 20 matches – both in midfield.

Dickinson added: ‘Following Tuesday night Pompey games I’d drive back, not getting home until 3am. Then, after a Wednesday off, I would set off at 6am to drive back down to train on Thursdays.

‘On those journeys, I’d be in my car eating rubbish, not really taking care of myself in terms of the nutritional side of things – and it all adds up.

‘They’d be takeaways such as McDonald’s, Costa and Starbucks, all that nonsense. It’s completely different now, you can actually go to the services and have a healthy meal.

‘As a result, I probably wasn’t as light as I should have been, I put on a bit of weight. I was going into games feeling tired because of what I was eating, which then led to poor performance.

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‘You don’t feel as strong, your feet aren’t that quick, you don’t feel as fit. I count myself as a fit lad, I’ve always relied on it for my game, but I just wasn’t right.

‘I’d think “No, you’ll be okay, crack on, you’re young, you can deal with it”. I couldn’t though, it took its toll on me and affected my games for Pompey.

‘Don’t get me wrong, there were some good performances from me here and there, but, in terms of the whole season, I was disappointed in myself because I knew I could have played a hell of a lot better and offered a hell of a lot more.

‘In terms of the set of lads and the atmosphere around the place, I loved it at Pompey, but I also don’t think we performed all that well as a group, especially considering the talent in that dressing room.

‘I probably jumped into that move too quickly, without realising what the effects it would have on me. With hindsight, I should have taken a bit more time to decide.

‘You have to make these mistakes to learn from them and, when I see younger players doing the same thing, I try to explain, using my experiences to get the message across.

‘I love the fact I’ve been out on loan to some great clubs, but I would advise any young lad that when you go to these places you must take care of yourself.

‘You need to be aware of the travelling distance, what you’re eating, where you’re going to be staying, who you have around you. I just jumped into it straight away because it was Pompey.

‘It was entirely down to how I looked after myself, nobody else. There was ever going to be a full-time move to Fratton Park, I simply hadn’t performed very well.’

Dickinson’s association with Pompey hadn’t been severed, however, despite his disappointing season.

The full-back returned to Fratton Park for a second loan spell in 2012-13, a campaign blighted by administration, takeover battles and culminating in the club’s potential liquidation at the High Court.

A staggering 54 players were used over a campaign which ended in relegation from League One, with most employed on month-to-month deals, such were the crippling financial restrictions.

Among them was Dickinson, who was signed by Michael Appleton on a month-long loan in October 2012.

His second south-coast spell consisted of five matches, five defeats and four yellow cards, while suspension ruled him out of the final scheduled match of an unhappy stay.

Dickinson said: ‘I loved my first season at Watford in 2011-12 under Shaun Dyche, finishing 11th in the Championship. Then the Pozzo family takeover happened and a lot changed.

‘Shaun was sacked, Gianfranco Zola was appointed, and I wasn’t playing or anywhere near the squad. I just wanted to go and play football – then Michael Appleton approached me.

‘I knew the club, Guy Whittingham was still there from the first time, who I got on really well with, and, although I was aware they’d gone through some tough times with finances, I decided I’d go and play games for a month.

‘However, it was the wrong move at the wrong time. At the end of that month I was almost relieved to get out because I’d never seen so much craziness in my life.

‘I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing, some of the stuff was mind boggling.

‘Lads not knowing if they were going to get another deal at the end of the month, they had families too. For them it was about surviving this week or this month and then seeing what happened.

‘Appleton also left two weeks into my stay, I have never seen so much happen inside a month of football in my life, it was frightening.

‘At least I could get into my car and go to a different club, whereas other lads were struggling, not knowing where the next payment was coming from.

‘It was one loan move I was happy to finish at the end of the month. I decided my time with Portsmouth Football Club as a player was officially done.’

Dickinson, however, would encounter Pompey again, although, on this occasion, it would be a promotion party.

Paul Cook’s men ventured to Notts County in April 2017, knowing victory and favourable results elsewhere would secure a return to League One.

Dickinson was on the Magpies’ bench that day, occupying a prime view as substitute Jamal Lowe netted twice in the final 17 minutes to earn the Blues a 3-1 triumph.

‘I remember it well because I wasn't happy about not playing!’ he added.

‘But do you know what, it was fantastic seeing those Pompey fans travelling in their numbers and having something to cheer about. I took something from that.

‘Afterwards, we took a few beers to Pompey’s dressing room, said congratulations, and got out of the way, letting them enjoy themselves. They didn’t want me hanging around.

‘That was such a good Pompey squad, they deserved promotion. You have to take your hat off to them for such an achievement, shake hands like men, have a beer, and let them celebrate.

‘It’s a fantastic club and I really do hope they can get back up to the Championship again.’

Following three seasons with Yeovil, Dickinson was appointed player-manager of Hanley Town in May 2021.

He has overseen their rise to the top of the Midland Football League Premier Division, where they reside 15 points clear of second place, nursing just one league defeat.

Living and working in Staffordshire, the 34-year-old is revelling in family life.

He said: ‘My lad’s in Stoke’s under-12s at the minute, he’s doing really well and loves his football.

‘Zac’s either a winger or striker, I’m not letting him drop back and be a defender, he can be a match winner and score all the goals!

‘My job is with Hanley Town, which is 15-20 minutes from my doorstep, so I get to do all the school runs, take my boy training, watch him on a Sunday, and take my little girl Lola to gymnastics.

‘Football will always be a part of my life, it will never stop, I can’t help but love it.

‘But it’s also nice to be at home and have a proper meal with the family every day of the week.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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