When former Premier League footballer Dion Dublin joined the Homes Under The Hammer presenting team, a fair few eyebrows were raised. He might have played for eight top teams and have four England caps under his belt, but what did he know about property?
It wasn’t just the usual Twitter trolls who sank their claws in – even Dion’s own football buddies couldn’t resist a quip or two.
"It was a surprising move for a footballer, I suppose," he says, with a laugh. "I got a bit of stick off my old team-mates, who said things like, ‘What do you know?’ and ‘I can’t get rid of you, you’re there every time I turn on my TV.’ Even now, people still Tweet occasionally and say, ‘What is Dion Dublin doing?’ But most of it’s been in good humour."
Four years on and Dion’s still going strong, bringing cheeriness and cheesy puns to the daytime staple. It turns out he does know a thing or two about bricks and mortar: in the late 90s, he built up a portfolio of houses, renting them out to supplement his income.
He now gets spotted more for his role on HUTH than his footballing days – 183 goals, it seems, have faded in people’s memories. ‘I’ll be walking around the supermarket and an elderly couple will wait until I walk past and then say, “Oh look, Alfred, it’s him off that house programme,”’ he laughs. ‘All due respect to the older generation, they spot me the most. It’s pretty much daily.’
We meet him today at the BBC’s launch of their FIFA World Cup, where he’s preparing to jet off to Russia and is thoroughly in football-pundit mode. At 6ft 2in, he’s tall and broad, and, when we settle down for a chat, he makes the sofa look tiny.
Dressed in a sharp navy blazer and a black tee, he looks every bit the retired footballer, except for one thing – Dion has zero swagger.
While many of the footballers and pundits at the launch seem a tad flashy, Dion is as down-to-earth now as he was in his days growing up in a council house in Leicester.
"It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, it’s just a job," he says as he leans forward. "Don’t get me wrong, it’s the best job in the world – you get paid to do your hobby. I’m very aware of how lucky I was to be paid to kick a football around. But I’ll never change. You can change your lifestyle, but if money changes you, you’ve got a problem."
Dion’s talents were first spotted aged nine when he was picked to play for Leicester under-10s. But, after a few years of hard training, he found himself leaving school with a handful of O Levels and without a football contract. At 16, he spent a year drifting from job to job, working in a leisure centre, before doing shifts in an ice-cream factory (he admits he sneakily sampled the produce when he fancied it!). By the time he was signed to Norwich FC at 17, he was thoroughly humbled by the opportunity.
"I wouldn’t change anything about those jobs I did," he says. "If you know what it’s taken to get there, you appreciate it so much more than if you’re given it all on a plate. When I first started playing I was earning £27.50 a week, and I’d offer to clean the senior footballers’ cars for a couple of quid. I’d sweep the stands in the off-season and even paint the changing rooms. I like the blood, sweat and tears of working hard for what you have."
When he was picked for the England squad, the first people he called were his parents, "I said to them, ‘All that time you were driving
me around on a Sunday morning and now I’m playing for my country!’"
He still has the letter framed on his wall, although unfortunately Dion was never picked to play at the World Cup.
"I was absolutely gutted when I missed out on the squad in 1998," he says thoughtfully. "But I didn’t show my disappointment to the manager or the other players, because I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. You have to stay positive. I said to the manager, ‘Listen, gaffer, I appreciate your opinion, now get out there and give it a good go for your country.’ Not getting picked for the World Cup is my biggest regret, but it was out of my hands. I’d love to have known if I was good enough."
Sadly, during our interview Dion received some appalling news: his friend and former teammate Jlloyd Samuel had been killed in a car crash that morning, minutes after dropping his young kids at school. Naturally, Dion was devastated, and the interview was terminated.
But a week later, ever the professional, Dion gave us a call so we could finish our chat. He’s unnecessarily apologetic about the way our interview ended, and still clearly very upset.
"We’ve been in the Lake District, my wife Louise and I, plus my dog Maggie,’ he says, his voice softer than when we met last week. "Having heard the news, I just wanted to get away. We just spent a few days doing long walks round the lakes. It’s good for the soul."
Dion is no stranger to loss. A few years ago he lost his mother to breast cancer at the same time that his father was battling bowel cancer, and last year even his beloved dog Frank died of the disease.
"Obviously cancer is important to everybody, it’s a devastating thing, but in recent years it has had a big effect on my family," he says. "It’s a subject close to my heart. What I’ve been through has affected how I feel about life. Things that would have bothered me before no longer
bother me. I enjoy life and try to achieve as much as I possibly can with a smile."
He’s also had some life-changing injuries on the football pitch. In 1992, he broke his leg on his Manchester United debut and spent six months in recovery, and seven years later, he suffered a life-threatening broken neck while playing for Aston Villa. He still has a titanium plate holding three of his neck vertebrae together, and is lucky not to have been left paralysed.
"The accident gave me a totally different outlook on life," he says. "I could have been sat down for the rest of my life, but I wasn’t because I had very good people around me. That’s why I don’t let little things annoy me as much. I know I’m a very lucky man."
Dion’s fiercely private about his family life, and any talk about his grown-up kids is off the table. As chatty and laid-back as Dion is, we can’t help feeling that getting a sense of the real Dion is tricky.
Just as he surprised us all with his property knowledge when he first joined the HUTH team, he also has another hidden talent up his sleeve: music.
Laid up with a broken leg back in 1992, Dion used the time off the pitch to teach himself the saxophone. He became so passionate about music that he even invented a bestselling percussion instrument called the Dube, a cube-shaped drum that has a solid fan base.
"I’m a serial tapper," he laughs. "I’m a nightmare, always tapping. I was annoying so many people that I realised I needed to make something I could hit, so I went to the hardware store and got a hammer, wood and nails and made a box."
We can’t help finishing up the interview wondering what other talents the enigmatic Dion is keeping schtum about. When he tells us he’s currently working on a top-secret project, we honestly are left feeling that nothing would surprise us with Dion…
Dion’s World Cup Predictions
"The usual suspects will do well: Spain, Brazil, and, if the cogs fall into place, Belgium could be really dangerous. Of course England have a chance. I get annoyed with people saying this World Cup is just a learning curve for our team, and that it’s nothing more than a chance for the boys to get some good experience.
Gareth Southgate is the perfect manager and he’s at the helm of a great team. He’s very positive and all the young players respect him.
If England won the World Cup, there would be a delayed reaction of about four days because everyone would be so drunk. I’d like to see everyone being positive and supportive. It’s about whether the players can handle the pressure, and they need our support."
How does Dion spend his Sunday?
Weekend away or Sunday brunch at home?
If the weather’s right then I’d always stay in the UK. I love getting away with my wifeand dog.
Lazy lie-in or up with the lark?
I’d like to say lie-in,but I never really sleep very late. 8.30am would be the latest– once I’m up I justget on with things.
Hungover or fresh as a daisy?
I’m very fortunate that I don’t get hangovers. I like the odd pint of real ale, that’s my treat. That’s my vice, rather than chocolate.
Gym or lazy day?
I like to keep myself as fit as I can. I’ll never be as fit as I was, but as long as a beer belly doesn’t appear I’ll consider myself passable. I wish I could go to the gym more, but I don’t have time.
Cooked breakfast or porridge?
Full English, with everything well done. My wife’s a better cook than me by a million miles. She does most of the cooking as I’m out at work, and always makes sure I’m fed and watered.
The BBC is providing 24/7 coverage of World Cup 2018 across TV, radio and online from 14 June
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