Dion Dublin determined to give back to Cambridge United after joining board of directors
You would have thought that there would be little left that could surprise Dion Dublin in the footballing world.
A seasoned pro of 22 years, a Premier League winner, a Golden Boot winner, capped by England, playing for giants Manchester United and Celtic and now a media pundit, given all those experiences and more it is difficult to imagine that much could catch him off guard.
But that was not reckoning with the club where his professional career took off.
An autumn day at the Abbey Stadium, working for the BBC on a feature about Cambridge United with Mark Bonner and strikers Paul Mullin and Joey Ironside, was to present a new challenge and opportunity.
“We were just chatting about the season, how it was going to go, Joey and Paul were scoring loads of goals and playing really well,” explains Dublin.
“Godric (Smith, a United director) pulled me aside and said ‘listen Dion, can I put something down on email for you just to have a look at, we’ve got an idea we’re thinking about for the club and we just thought we would throw it at you’.
“So I said no problem at all, do it. As I was finding out more about it, my smile was getting bigger and broader – it was a nice feeling.”
Dublin had been invited to join the club’s board of directors.
“It was a surprise, but it was one of those surprises that made me smile,” he says.
“They looked after me a long time ago when I was a boy trying to make my way in the game, become a pro and score goals.
“My first thought was ‘yeah, they helped me, I’ve got to help them out. What can I bring to the table?’. It was a very quick answer and decision by myself.
“I’m really happy and proud.”
The young Dublin had moved to the Abbey on a free transfer after being released by Norwich City in 1988 and, while the term can be too casually thrown around at times, it is no understatement to say that by the time he left to join Manchester United for £1million, he had become a legend in the eyes of U’s fans.
During his four years with United, he helped them win the 1990 Division Four play-off final, with the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Chesterfield at Wembley, and the Division Three title the following year, grabbing 73 goals for the club.
He was part of the famous John Beck side that earned the club’s highest finish in the Football League, fifth in Division Two, when they missed out on promotion to the Premier League in the play-offs and also scored in the FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal in the same 1991/92 campaign.
“It’s a natural affinity,” says Dublin of his bond with the U’s.
“I think it’s the club that sucks in their old players. So many players from my era have an affinity with Cambridge United, a strong affinity – Liam Daish, Chris Leadbitter, Johnny Vaughn, Gary Clayton. They all have a love for Cambridge United, all of them.
“I think it was that batch of players that I was fortunate enough to play with that have an affinity with Cambridge United.
“A lot of those players back then were starting out like I was starting out, and it was kind of our first big break in the professional game and I think that is why we were so successful.”
It set Dublin off on a career with an impressive list of accolades.
He earned a Premier League winner’s medal with Manchester United in 1993 and, while at Coventry City, shared the Golden Boot for the most goals in the top flight in the 1997/98 season with Chris Sutton and Michael Owen.
It was on the opening day of that campaign that he scored a hat-trick –he is one of only 10 players to achieve that feat, the latest being Bruno Fernandes in Manchester United’s 5-1 win over Leeds United 10 days ago. There were also four caps for England to boot.
It does beg the question as to whose results Dublin is looking out for when working on BBC’s Final Score but, as he points out, each club holds special memories in their own right.
“Eilidh Barbour (the host) decided to remind me that Accrington were one up, and I thought ‘no’. I had to pretend to be happy when I was talking and I knew that the boys had gone [a goal] down,” says Dublin.
“Obviously I’m looking for the Cambridge result, I’ve got a massive affinity with Norwich City as well as I started my career there and finished my career there – I have a lot of time for Delia Smith and Michael (Wynn-Jones).
“I can go through every single club I have played for professionally, and there is something that I achieved there which is very special.
“Manchester United, I scored on my debut, I got in the England squad when I was at Coventry City, I scored seven goals in my first three games at Villa, scored on my debut for Millwall, and I played for my home town of Leicester as well.”
All of those moments and more could now come to the benefit of Cambridge United.
From his 22 years as a pro, Dublin hopes that his knowledge of what he calls “inside the circle of football” will help to inform the board’s decision-making processes through his own experiences.
“Obviously there are going to be other sorts of mundane decisions that the board have to make, but important all the same,” he says.
“I’m pretty sure they will be asking me stuff about my 22-year career and what would you do here and what would you do there. I’m happy to help any way, but that experience is the football side.”
United have taken a dynamic approach with regards to shaping how they are run and their role in the game.
Godric Smith is on the panel of the government’s fan-led review into football and Ian Mather is an integral part of Fair Game, which believes English football should be reformed based around four principles – sustainability, integrity, transparency and community
They have also got strong communications with the fanbase through groups such as Cambridge Fans United and the Cambridge United Supporters’ Panel.
Dublin was inducted into the Cambridge United Hall of Fame in 2017 – on the night he described why the 1990 play-off medal means more than the miniature Premier League trophy for winning the top flight with the Red Devils in 1993 – and, with his appointment to the board, it feels they have further strengthened the bond with supporters.
“At the moment, the way that Cambridge United is run is absolutely spot on,” he says.
“It has had its moments where it hasn’t been run in the best way, but it’s stable, it’s successful, they have a very good manager, the manager and Ben (Strang, the sporting director) are bringing in some very good players, and there are some good young players as well.
“The long-term plans are good. Round pegs in round holes with regards to players, staff and board members that are all bringing in their own little skills to the table.
“It just feels like a solid business and a solid football club, and it’s just nice to be a part of.”
Dublin wants to use his standing in the game and the wider world to help the club however possible, with the priority being to remain in League One this season.
“I know that Mark won’t be wanting to hear this, but staying in League One would be huge – he’ll want to win it. Mark will want to win League One because that’s the kind of person he is,” says Dublin.
“I just believe that stability, revenue, fans through the door, getting 6,000-7,000 people again in the stadium week in, week out, every home game, would be amazing.
“I’m an ex-footballer with 22 years in the game, I’ve never been on a football board before, it’s all new to me and they are treating me with kid gloves at the moment.
“They are easing me in nicely, they are teaching me the ropes and any questions they ask I will try to give them the right answer to help the club move forward.”
He added: “It just feels like it is on a very secure fitting. I’ve spoken to Shaun (Grady, chair of the U’s board) many times, and they are just very nice, down to earth people.
“They are not trying to pull up any trees, they are just trying to nudge the football club into a good place.”
It will be no surprise to hear that you know Dublin will do all he possibly can to make sure that the U’s reach and stay in that ‘good place’.