Saints farewell interview: Lee Dickson
In the summer of 2008, Saints were riding on the crest of a wave that was rolling towards England's top flight.
Having spent a blemish-free year in National League One during Jim Mallinder’s first season in charge, the club faced a new challenge.
And it was a sizeable one.
Saints had to find a way to not only compete in the Premiership, but to consolidate.
They had a group of players who were clearly far too good for the second tier, but could they be counted upon to ensure relegation troubles didn’t haunt the club again?
Mallinder faced a big off-season, working with the players he already had and integrating the ones he felt would be up for the fight of re-establishing Saints among England’s elite.
Among the group he brought in was Lee Dickson, a 23-year-old scrum-half from Newcastle Falcons.
Dickson would be tasked with adding extra energy to a side eager to make its mark and show it belonged back among the big boys.
And he certainly did what it said on the tin, adding spark and enthusiasm to the Saints backline as they cemented their Premiership status with an eighth-placed finish, ending the season a place below Wasps, but one above Saracens.
From then on, Saints really started to motor, making their way into the top four in every season up until the 2015/16 campaign.
And Dickson was a staple feature of the squad, whether starting at No.9 or bringing his unique brand of enthusiasm from the bench.
This summer, he will exit Saints after nine years at Franklin’s Gardens.
And the 32-year-old, who will take up a player-coach role at Bedford Blues, knows his time in Northampton has made him the man he is today.
“It’s quite hard to sum up nine years of your life at a club,” Dickson said.
“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster really.
“I came here as a 23-year-old and I’m leaving nine years later having won a lot of trophies with the club.
“We’ve had a few downs along our way, but I’ve met some great people, great friends and played with some unbelievable players.
“I’ve enjoyed it, but I think it’s the right time to move on to the next chapter of my life and where I want to go.”
But before he gets stuck into life at Goldington Road, Dickson will take time to reflect on what he has achieved since that summer of 2008.
He not only ensured Saints became a real force again, but he helped them to win plenty of trophies.
He has two Challenge Cup winners medals, from 2009 and 2014, an Anglo-Welsh Cup winners medal, from 2010, and, of course a Premiership winners medal, from 2014.
The catalyst for those successes was clearly the team culture that was built at the Gardens.
And Dickson played a huge part in that, with the talkative No.9 a big figure in the dressing room, so much so that he was eventually handed the captaincy for the 2015/16 season.
“The team culture we had, the characters we had was huge,” Dickson said. “We had the likes of Chris Ashton, Soa (Soane Tonga’uiha), Brian Mujati - big stalwarts here, big characters off the pitch.
“We were so together over the years and it’s just been brilliant with the lads.
“When we first came up from the first division, I think there were 12 or 13 of us that came in at the same time and it was completely fresh to everyone.
“There was a freedom to just go out there and play. No one gave us a shot and we developed together, we all believed in the game plan together.
“We went on to win trophies and in years gone by after that, we were building and building and building.
“We were in the top four, getting to semi-finals and finals and missing out.
“You get to a final, you lose a final, you learn from it and the following year you go and win it. It’s the culture of rugby.
“The past two years have been difficult for us because the Premiership’s developing and it’s getting harder and harder every year.”
The past two years have indeed been difficult for Dickson and Saints.
But back to that later.
Let’s lead with the good times and ask Dickson which season at Saints was his favourite.
“In the year of that Heineken Cup final, I think we were playing the best rugby we’ve ever played,” said Dickson, who was left in tears after Saints surrendered a 22-6 half-time lead to lose 33-22 to Leinster in the Heineken Cup final at Cardiff in 2011. “We had the freedom, the players, the togetherness, the off-field togetherness.
“But you can’t say it’s one season.
“Over the years, we’ve been very successful, played some great rugby and I can’t look past winning the double in 2013/14. That was a very special year.”
But it is often said that sportsmen and teams learn more from failures than from successes.
And that agonising Heineken Cup final defeat, along with the 2013 Premiership final defeat to Leicester Tigers, in which Dickson scored, clearly set Saints up for the double-winning campaign of 2013/14
“It definitely did,” Dickson said.
“Disappointments always make you the man you are.
“You’ve got to learn from what’s happened on the pitch.
“You get upset, you go away, you’re mad, you have a bad summer but you come back with the mindset of wanting to get back to finals and wanting to win them.
“We did that.
“Every year, we’ve had a disappointment and then come back and done something massive the following year. That’s down to the players.
“The players have learned, gone away over the summer and come back with unbelievable attitudes to go and win it.
“It’s just one of the best things you can do in rugby.
“Winning trophies, whether it’s the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the A League, is great, but winning the double with your mates, who you see week in, week out, you have the ups and downs with, there’s no better feeling.”
Dickson, who earned 18 England appearances to add to the stack of outings for his club, received fresh motivation in the summer of 2013.
Not only was he spurred on by that Premiership final defeat to Leicester, which came after Dylan Hartley’s first-half dismissal, but he had a new rival for his starting spot.
Samoa star Kahn Fotuali’i arrived from Ospreys with the reputation of being a world-class scrum-half.
And the friendly rivalry the two men would develop over the season to come would play a big part in pushing Saints towards the silverware they craved.
“For the first five or six years I was at Saints, I played every game no matter what,” Dickson said.
“When Kahn came in, I had to refocus my mind a little bit.
“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career to be fair.
“When he came in, everyone was talking about him, no one was talking about me and I had to refocus.
“Again, it comes down to Jim and Westy (Dorian West), who stuck by me and it brought the best out of me.
“We did a rotation policy and it worked very well.
“He helped me massively with my game, opened my eyes up to a lot of things and I’ll always thank Kahn for that.
“I speak to him a bit and he’ll always be a friend.
“He helped me along my way and now it’s time for my next chapter.”
While Fotuali’i clearly had a big influence on Dickson, so too did the coaches.
With Saints enduring difficult campaigns in 2015/16 and the season just gone, Dickson was one of the men who came under fire.
Plenty of criticism came his way, with his performances put under the microscope.
He responded by upping his game and scoring six tries in as many appearances between February and March of 2016.
But despite the fact that purple patch didn’t last, the Saints coaches stood by their man.
As they had throughout a Northampton career that encompassed 256 matches and 165 points.
“Jim and Westy gave me the opportunity to come here,” Dickson said.
“I came here very late and I knew Jim and Westy from England days. They’ve always stuck by me when people said I wasn’t the right choice.
“I’ve had a lot of people not agree with me as a player and say that I’m not good enough to be here.
“Players have come and gone, but the coaches have stuck by me and put their fatih in me.
“When I got to 26, I finally broke the England stuff and got in. That was purely from hard work.
“When people tell you you’re not good enough, I’m very much about sticking it up to them and going out there and proving them wrong. I think I’ve done that.
“Jim and Westy allowed me to do that as well.”
Mallinder and West have been subjected to plenty of criticism of their own of late.
But Dickson insists that they are the men to bring glory back to the Gardens.
“A million per cent, with the players they’ve got and the players they’ve brought in,” said the Germany-born scrum-half.
“I think Phil Dowson (who will return to Saints as an assistant coach this summer) is going to add something massive to the club.
“He’s a great bloke, a good person to have round and he’ll be brilliant here.
“With the players they’ve got on paper, there’s no better.
“They’ve just got to find a way of putting it together week in, week out and they’ll be back challenging next year.”
Saints have drafted in South Africa scrum-half Cobus Reinach, who will compete with countryman Nic Groom and Tom Kessell at Saints next season.
Meanwhile, Dickson will be looking to help Bedford do the business in the Championship.
“I just think it was the right time to move on,” Dickson said.
“It was a decision that’s been made and it’s not my place to comment on that.
“I’ve wanted to get into coaching, the club have been good to me over the years, but it’s my time to move on.
“I’m not getting any younger, I want to coach and Bedford is an unbelievable club.
“When I met them, it was a decision made straight away that I was going to go there.
“Things happen, they (Saints) are getting people in and I’ve got to move on.”
But Dickson will never forget his time at Saints, which he feels saw him change from a boy to a man.
“I came as a 23-year-old immature lad, I was just married and now I’m leaving as a 32-year-old, married, three kids, big family man,” he said.
“With age, you just realise what’s important in life.
“Every time I played for the Saints, I put 100 per cent in, no matter what.
“I did it for my family. When you have children, everything you do is for them.”
And Dickson’s children will certainly be proud of what their dad achieved during his time at the Gardens.