Imagine being 15 years old with the football world at your feet. Imagine having played at Wembley in front of almost 70,000 people in the stands and thousands at home on TV and inspired Scotland to a famous victory over the Auld Enemy. Imagine also having literally dozens of clubs beating a path to your front door coveting your signature on schoolboy forms, probably promising all sorts to entice you to join them. It all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it?
The type of watercolour daydream you yourself might have had whilst staring wistfully out of the classroom window during a particularly turgid period of double maths. However, for young Alistair Dick of St Modan’s RC High School in Stirling, this was reality.
One sweltering Saturday afternoon in June 1980, Scotland schoolboys vanquished their English counterparts in a now folkloric televised nine-goal thriller.
Lining up alongside Dick that day were John Robertson – latterly of Hearts and Scotland – and Celtic legend Paul McStay, who would eventually hang up his boots with three league titles, four cup winners’ medals and enough international caps to put him fourth on Scotland’s all-time list.
Amid the early hustle and bustle of that game, Dick came immediately to the fore displaying deft touches and darting movement. Lithe on the verge of scrawny, shirt untucked, sleeves rolled to the mid forearm, Dick was the physical embodiment of the old-fashioned winger. His boyish visage and thick, lustrous mop of blonde hair could well have been the inspiration for casting John Gordon Sinclair in the lead role for 1981’s Gregory’s Girl.
It took a while for Dick to really impose himself on Wembley’s wide open spaces, but when he did, the balance of the game tipped markedly in Scotland’s favour in the opening ten minutes of the second half. With arms crooked, jinking this way and that and with the ball seemingly under his spell, he repeatedly bamboozled the naïve English defence.
He laid on a goal for McStay before clinically rifling home one of his own. Scotland hung on to win 5-4 but Dick – like so many mercurial players – faded from the action just as quickly as he burst into life. This is, perhaps, an apt underscoring of the rest of his career.
Such unprecedented national exposure had scouts from around both Scotland and England scurrying to secure his signature – from 42 clubs, according to Dick. He eventually settled on Tottenham Hotspur; it was a brave and daring decision for one so young to head south for the bright lights of London to join a glamour club, but Spurs had a tradition for nurturing flair players. Their star alumnus was Glenn Hoddle; surely no more fitting role model.
Dick impressed at White Hart Lane, becoming the club’s youngest ever player in 1982 aged 16 years and 301 days, and only a few months later he showcased his talents on the international stage again, this time as a member of the Scotland Under-18 squad at the European Championships in Finland.
Coach Andy Roxburgh had a good crop of fledgling talent at his disposal for the tournament, many of whom would go on to achieve full international honours years later, including McStay, Jim McInally, Gary Mackay and Dave Bowman. The Aberdeen triumvirate – Eric Black, Neale Cooper and Bryan Gunn – were omitted as they were included in Alex Ferguson’s plans for the upcoming Scottish Cup final.
Another of those future Scotland caps, Pat Nevin, who was subsequently named player of the tournament, remembers Dick being a leading light, even among such exalted company: “I’d never come across Ally before, but his name had been bandied around a fair bit in the press. Expectations were high.
“He was a year younger than me, but even so was considered an older hand. We were chosen for a Scotland Under-18s friendly at Fir Park; we played on opposite wings and both of us scored. In one of the newspapers the next day the headline was brilliant. It read ‘Nevin and Dick shine’.”
The pair sparkled again as Scotland not only advanced from a group that contained the Netherlands and a certain Marco van Basten, but also beat a well-respected Czechoslovakia in the final. The following summer Dick was an integral member of an even stronger squad that competed in the 1983 Fifa World Youth Championships in Mexico. In the face of stiffer competition and in very different conditions, Scotland were eliminated at the quarter-final stage.
Fifa’s technical report of the competition notes that the accent on Roxburgh’s team was “not technical” which may go some way to explain why Dick – a purely skill-based individual – started all four games but completed only one.
On Dick’s return to Spurs the following season he gradually broke into first-team reckoning, so by the time Keith Burkinshaw’s side had qualified for the 1984 Uefa Cup final, he was the established understudy to Republic of Ireland international wide man Tony Galvin. Although he missed out on selection for the first leg against Anderlecht in Brussels, he made the bench for the decisive second leg at White Hart Lane.
With only 13 minutes remaining of normal time, Tottenham were chasing an equaliser both on the night and on aggregate. The manager turned to the 19-year-old to help stretch the opposition defence and create the chances needed to take the game into extra time.
Eager to get involved, Dick’s exuberance got the better of him as his touch was erratic and he strayed offside more than once when well placed to make an impact. Then, with full-time approaching, came a moment which was pivotal in his embryonic professional career.
Tussling with Belgian wonderkid Enzo Scifo – himself only 18 at the time – Dick’s right knee buckled, but with Spurs having already made all their permitted substitutions, he was told to stay on the pitch. Hampered by what turned out to be torn ligaments, the remainder of the final, which Tottenham won on penalties, largely passed him by.
“I remember, after the game, saying to the physio, ‘my knee, my knee’, and he said, ‘ah, don’t worry about it. Come in tomorrow and we’ll sort it out. Just go and enjoy yourself tonight’. So I went out with my mate to a club near White Hart Lane. I just remember hobbling about all night with a bottle of champagne in my hand. The next day, I was in hospital, having an operation,” Dick told Scotland on Sunday in 2011.
More injuries soon followed, severely limiting his first-team opportunities. When new boss Peter Shreeves signed England winger Chris Waddle from Newcastle United, Dick must have known his time in north London was over before it had really got going.
Author and journalist Adam Powley remembers Dick from his debut against Manchester City in front of a packed White Hart Lane in spring 1982: “The dreaded label of being the next Glenn Hoddle was unfair in a number of respects and saddled him with quite a burden. Also, it wasn’t completely analogous. Although he played wider and further forward, the expectation was – given the talent around him like Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Mickey Hazard – that he would fit into that. In his debut he was substituted to a standing ovation and there was talk that his mum and dad were flown down from Scotland specially for the occasion. Despite all the stories about this young kid and how good he was, that day was about as good as it got.”
Fortunately for Dick, his stock was still high. With a European winners’ medal in his pocket he was at least keeping up with his peers from Scotland’s youth international success of a few years earlier. To underline that, his next move was as unlikely as it was bizarre.
Initially, Graeme Souness wanted Dick to move to Ibrox, and when the young winger informed the Rangers boss of his religious background, he was assured that this would no longer be considered a barrier. The interest leaked, prompting the Daily Record to splash the headline “RC (Roman Catholic) signs with Rangers” across its back page. It was as premature as it was sensationalist; the move never happened, and it would be another three years before the Mo Johnston furore broke that Old Firm taboo.
Souness did supposedly have a hand in Dick’s transfer though. The great Johan Cruyff – now manager at his beloved Ajax – called him to enquire about the availability of Davie Cooper. Given short shrift, he was tipped off about Tottenham’s young Scot and the similarities between the two. A phone call and a five-day trial later, Ally Dick became an Ajax player.
In 1986, that would have been considered a step up from Spurs. One only has to look at the Amsterdam club’s roster to see why – Frank Rijkaard, Arnold Muhren, Marco van Basten and a young Dennis Bergkamp; not to mention several other members of the Netherlands squad that would go on to win the European Championships in 1988. With Cruyff at the helm and such talent rolling off the production line, the parallels with the era of Rinus Michels and Totaalvoetbal were obvious.
Yet again, Dick, below, made a solid first impression at his new club, quickly becoming a first-team regular. Relocating to a different country with a strange language (although most people would have spoken English) may not have affected him immediately, and the football culture was certainly unlike anything he would have experienced back in Britain. Double training sessions replaced afternoon drinking sessions; the emphasis on better dietary and fitness preparation was more important than a player’s golf handicap. Nevin – no stranger to being perceived as “odd” among his fellow pros at the time, simply for having interests in music and the arts – recalls that Dick was similarly the type of character that just didn’t fit in with the crowd: “A number of people used to say he was a bit of a weirdo; a bit strange. I got called that a lot of the time too. In fact, it probably would have suited him going over to Ajax where the culture was very different at the time.”
Four months into Dick’s Amsterdam odyssey, disaster struck in a European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Olympiakos. The dreaded cruciate ligament curse struck again, ruling him out of action for a year. He missed out on a second European winners’ medal as Ajax lifted the trophy by beating Lokomotive Leipzig in Athens, but he did return to the bench for the subsequent Super Cup defeat by European champions Porto.
It soon became evident to the coach and fans alike that Dick was not the same player who had promised so much on his arrival, and with his electrifying pace seemingly dulled, patience began wearing thin.
“Cruyff was as tough as nails and expected his players to give literally everything for the team,” explained Rik Lahbouje, Ajax fan and Dutch scout for St Mirren. “Those that needed to adapt, struggled to do so. It was said that Dick didn’t really like it here. We had expected a lot and we got virtually nothing from him.”
That second season at Ajax was undoubtedly frustrating, resulting in only a handful of appearances for Dick, although it did end with unexpected selection for the subs’ bench in the 1988 European Cup Winners’ Cup final against the Belgian club KV Mechelen. Cruyff had already departed a few months earlier to begin his revolution at Barcelona, leaving his former assistant and Holland team-mate Barry Hulshoff in charge.
With Ajax down to ten men after only 16 minutes and trailing 1-0 around the hour mark, Hulshoff was not compelled to introduce his Scottish winger, preferring tall striker Henry Meijer and Bergkamp in an ultimately vain attempt to draw level.
At only 23 years old, Dick already had medals from a number of European finals. Yet, he had barely made 50 appearances at two high-profile clubs and a combination of injuries and questionable commitment hampered him at every turn.
The Ajax adventure ended, so he returned to England for fruitless spells at Wimbledon and Brighton and Hove Albion before making the bold and unconventional decision to head first for Australia, where he won a National Cup with Heidelberg United, and then South Africa for Seven Stars – a club that ironically later became Ajax Cape Town, an affiliate of the Dutch giants who once employed him.
Life in the sunnier, more sympathetic climes of the southern hemisphere must have suited Dick both from a physical and mental perspective. His legs may still have been young, but repeated catastrophic damage had obviously taken its toll, and who knows what he could have achieved had medical science and better advice been available to him.
But also, if the rumours about his attitude towards football were true, then perhaps some time away in a much less pressurised environment was far more appropriate for a player for whom the game had come so easily to from an early age. It’s hard to be all consumed by anything that you’ve never had to struggle for.
Ally Dick’s playing career finally came to an abrupt end in 1997; not on some dry, dusty pitch in the Australian outback or the Veld of South Africa, but much closer to home at Alloa Athletic’s Recreation Park – how many UEFA Cup winners and former team-mates of the Dutch masters can say that? It was the briefest of cameos in which – according to one Alloa fan – he displayed some of the subtlety you would expect of a player who once graced a much higher level, although just as evident was his greatly diminished mobility.
An ankle injury sustained only ten minutes after coming on as a substitute for the Wasps against Queen’s Park persuaded him that it was time to call it a day, aged 32.
Since retirement Dick has worked for a newspaper distributor and coached at his hometown club, Stirling Albion. He even turned out occasionally for Ajax in Sky Sports’ Masters tournaments, although as he explained in 2011: “I did pretty well, but I thought, you know what, I’m not going to do that again. I hate watching guys with beer bellies running about. I don’t want to be one of those.”
Obviously, serious injuries had a significant hand in curtailing what should have been a stellar career. He has some prestigious medals to demonstrate that, to some extent, it actually was. Yet, he never won a senior cap for Scotland when many of his less-gifted contemporaries from the junior age groups went on to achieve real stardom.
With his youthful good looks and swagger on the field, you can’t help but wonder what a marketable commodity he would be in today’s game if he burst on to the scene in the same way he did in the early 1980s
This feature appears in Issue 9 of Nutmeg, a long-form publication devoted entirely to every aspect of Scottish football. It is published quarterly. Available via subscription at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk.