Elliot Dickman was forced to retire aged 20 but now helps inspire Sunderland's next generation ahead of Under-23 Bilbao clash
A persistent hip injury cut Elliott Dickman's promising football career cruelly short at the age of just 20.
With his hopes of carving out a career at Sunderland in tatters, Dickman quickly set about forging a new career in coaching.
Having risen through the ranks, he is the new Under-23 boss and will tonight proudly lead his Sunderland side against Athletic Bilbao in the quarter finals of the Premier League International Cup.
Richard Mennear caught up with Dickman at the club’s Academy of Light base.
Elliott Dickman will never forget the day he knew his football career was over.
It was back in October 1998, when the tough-tackling right-back decided to call it a day as a result of a troubling hip injury which left him in pain for days after matches.
It left Dickman, who had a year left on his Sunderland contract, heartbroken but he quickly decided he still had a big part to play at the club in a coaching capacity.
Thanks to Peter Reid and his coaching staff, Dickman thrust himself into helping inspire the next generation.
And now, almost 20 years later, Dickman – who has made a huge contribution to the club’s academy – is the new Under-23 manager, having recently taken over from Andy Welsh.
Dickman was on Manchester United’s books before joining Sunderland as a YTS player, playing for the youth and reserve teams before his playing career was cut short.
“I vividly remember the day I had to retire,” Dickman said.
“I played a lot of football for Sunderland, every Saturday in the youth team and Monday in the reserves. I loved playing.
“But it got to the point that by Tuesday or Wednesday I could hardly walk and there was a lot of discomfort in my lower back and groin area.
“The physio at the time was Jeff Clarke, we tried various ways to deal with it. I had to go and see a specialist and they recommended surgery, it would have been a long period out with my right hip and then my left.
“To have that surgery so young would have been a bad idea. Modern medicine has improved, if they had a similar injury now they wouldn’t be out for more than a year.
“Back then the decision was taken with my family, Pop Robson and the coaching staff; was is it better to have the op not knowing what would happen? Or to try and keep your natural hips and be as healthy as you can?
“The decision was made that it was best to cut down, I couldn’t perform to that level on a consistent basis and that is when I moved into the coaching side.
“The club were brilliant. I had a year left on my contract, Peter Reid was the manager and he was fantastic.
“You see these people as superstars and when you are a young player he was the gaffer and there is massive respect, but he touched the human side with me.
“He spoke with me as did Ricky Sbragia, Pop, Bobby Saxton, Ged McNamee, Jeff Clarke and others.
“I felt fortunate, these people were very kind and I am truly grateful – I cannot thank them enough for their support.
“Without that, I wouldn’t be sat here now in this role. Coaching is the next best thing.
“While I was at the club I did the old prelim, then my B and A licence and now I have my Pro licence which is a great honour from a personal perspective.
“The coaching bug was always there,” added the 38-year-old.
Dickman was named Under-23 boss following the departure of Welsh to Wigan Athletic – and it was a proud day when he was offered the role.
“It was an unbelievable moment,” he reflected.
“This club has been a massive part of my life from joining as a young player to then moving into coaching and working through the various age groups.
“It was a very proud moment and I am very grateful to a lot of people – too many people to mention!
“The fact that the club supported me and gave me this opportunity, I will be eternally grateful.
“I first started with the Under-9s, 10s and 11s when the Academy had just started. Ged [McNamee, former long-serving Academy manager] was looking after the schoolboy side then and it was a huge step for the club.
“Every day I was outside with Pop Robson and Ricky Sbragia who were looking after the youth teams, it was a massive variation from Under-8s to Under-17s, 18s but one that I really enjoyed and I learnt an awful lot,” added Dickman, who spent two years at the FA National School at Lilleshall as a teenager.
Dickman was a schoolboy for Manchester United at the time but spent two years at Lilleshall as part of a select group of players – and it sparked his interest in coaching.
He added: “The coach Keith Blunt, who sadly passed away recently, was excellent and I remember as a teenager being really interested then in the coaching.
“I have had the coaching bug ever since.”
Sunderland’s youngsters have been reaping the rewards ever since as Dickman prepares his Under-23 side for the Bilbao clash.
Victory tonight at the Stadium of Light would see them advance to the semi-final stage (KO 7pm).
Dickman said: “It is great for us; different tactics, ways of playing and great for their development.”
George Honeyman, who was on the Sunderland bench against Southampton, is in New York with the first team, but the likes of Rees Greenwood, Tommy and Ethan Robson, Joel Asoro and Josh Maja will feature tonight.
Entry is £3 for adults and £1 for fans aged under 16 and over 65. Turnstiles 1-8 and 17-24, located in the West Stand will be open from 6pm.