I’ll admit to being sceptical at first – although the Plymouth game was not the most convincing start by any means. Honestly, it seemed like we’d just signed another defender who wasn’t good at defending. So, if you were to tell me in that moment that 7 months later we would be talking about him as arguably the best centre-back we’ve had since Clint Hill left, I would’ve laughed in your face.
I always find that the step up to this current iteration of the championship for defenders tends to be a lot harder than most other positions on the pitch. The league will throw you Premier League ready strikers – Adam Armstrongs and Ivan Toneys – modern-day complete strikers that will tear you to shreds at the slightest opportunity. Link play, dribbling, movement off the ball and clinical finishing, you cannot afford to switch off against these guys who seem destined for English football’s top table.
Then the next week, you’re up against the Adebayo Akinfenwa’s and Chris Martin’s of the world – strikers from a football era gone by, still slumming it out trying to earn another one year deal in a world of false nines and wide forwards. The variety in this league is unlike any other; footballs ‘next big things’ bypassing players in the twilight of the careers like ships in the night, every Saturday at 3pm. Oh, to be a championship centre-back.
A year ago, I spoke to a former player-turned-academy coach, who told me that of the current crop of academy players ‘all the box-to-box midfielders are full backs now and all the defensive midfielders play at the back.’ The latter is perhaps most evident; the modern game is stockpiled with central defenders that are excellent on the ball but lacking in the key defensive attributes. Unfocused man-markers that are eager to jump into the tackle, but make up for it by being comfortable playing out from the back.
This is absolutely not a knock on teams that build their attacks from their back-lines; football is a constantly-evolving ball of energy, powered by both the on-going technical improvement of players and innovative tactical insight from managers. The best teams in the world – Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City – have had domestic and European success building their attacks this way.
But the problem lies in teams that try and force ideas that are far above their stations. It’s become almost clichè to see out-of-fashion and unemployed English managers lament the fact that ‘everyone wants to play out of the back!’ But like most things in life, there’s an element of truth in everything; some teams simply do not have the personnel to play out from the back successfully. What is the point of a ball-playing defender if only the first two words of the title apply?
Rangers were guilty of this. For five years, the only thing resembling a ball-playing centre-half at QPR was Grant Hall; a player of the year winner in 2015/16 that struggled to find fitness thereafter. Hall also struggled to find his man during opposition set-pieces, or sustain concentration long enough to keep the Adam Armstrong’s or Chris Martin’s of the world at bay.
Alongside him was a combination of either Nedum Onuoha, Toni Leistner or Joel Lynch – guys that, for all their defensive solidity, weren’t exactly blessed with technical ability. And also, Joel Lynch. So, you have a situation where you have one player who can carry the ball but not defend, one player who can defend but can’t carry the ball, and a team lacking serious identity. And also, Joel Lynch.
Upon Mark Warburton’s appointment, Yoann Barbet was added to the list of Grant Hall partners and eventually seemed like an upgrade. After a shaky first season, in which the Frenchman switched from being a defensive juggernaut to footballing terrorist on a gamely basis, Barbet seems to have really found himself as part of a back 3. Perhaps a player of his ability was always more suited to having 2 defenders alongside him, but I’d propose another suggestion.
Rob Dickie is very good at football. Ridiculously good. He embodies all the nitty gritty parts of a central defender, and raises the level of his team-mates around him. He’s not especially quick, but has enough about him to not get caught in behind as often as, say, Geoff Cameron on Wednesday night at home to Barnsley (just a hypothetical, that one). He has a strong frame and doesn’t get bullied by the ‘traditional’ target men. He’s shown, at home to Blackburn, that he can hang out with the league’s very best strikers. Plus, every now and then he ventures forward and picks out the type of world class pass that Macauley Bonne can head home at Derby away. What more could you ask for?
The influence of this £2.5m former Reading academy player can not be understated. We are by no means defensive titans, but to have conceded 19 less goals than at this stage last season is a remarkable change in fortunes. Rangers have 10 clean sheets, more than the entirety of last seasons total of 6. Sure, you could argue that Seny Dieng’s emergence as one of the best keepers in the league has helped that – but how many times have you watched us this season, compared to last, and thought ‘we look really solid here’.
How far can he go? Maybe that’s a question for another day, but when I look around football at the moment, I can see Dickie hitting the levels of a Lewis Dunk or Tyrone Mings. At 25, there may not be enough progression time for Dickie to ever reach the very top, but a solid, mid table Premier League career with a couple of England caps? Not a bad return at all.
But all of this is hypothetical and problems for another day. What’s important, is the present and the foreseeable future – on top of that, I can’t see him leaving the club in the summer so the point is moot, for now. Dickie has shown that he is comfortable at the highest level of football that he’s a played at thus far. With one impressive campaign in the books, he’ll surely be aiming to go up a gear once again next season – and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.
Written by Micah Chudleigh