Football / FA Cup Semi-Finals: Mr Gentle relishing a giant encounter: As a youth Kerry Dixon was rejected by Luton but has now returned as a revered figurehead. Joe Lovejoy reports

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THE FA Cup has given us so much romance the old pot should be decorated in pink ribbon this season, and if the year of the underdog runs true to form, Luton Town will beat Chelsea at Wembley this afternoon - with Kerry Dixon scoring the winner.

The Premiership was overrun by Endsleigh opposition in the run-up to these semi-finals, and neutrals everywhere will be rooting for Luton, whose further progress would set up the classic little and large final.

David Pleat, that most rational of Hatters, believes his team are fully capable of raising their game again, as they did to see off Newcastle United and West Ham, and is looking forward to 'cocking another snook' at the privileged minority.

The television money dividing the haves from the have-nots has turned league football into a handicap system, he says, and 'it's very enjoyable if you can do your bit for the lower half of the handicap'.

It would be 'the final blow for the underdog' if Luton and Oldham Athletic were to go back to Wembley next month for the real thing.

For the First Division to be represented, it will require another substantial contribution from the man who has all the makings of the archetypal Cup hero.

If Dixon was to put out the club with whom he won fame and gambled away a fortune, the headlines would dwarf anything Oldham and Manchester United might throw up tomorrow. It would also suggest that Andy Warhol had it only half right, and that fame comes to us all in more than the one five-minute spell.

The bustling blond striker with Clark Kent manners and aerial ability to match enjoyed his first starburst at the 1986 World Cup, when he substituted for Gary Lineker after 85 minutes with England leading Poland 3-0.

Two days later, with a place in the starting line-up on offer, he spent Friday the 13th playing tennis with John Barnes and put himself out of the tournament, and Bobby Robson's plans, by injuring himself with his own racket. He was to get one more cap - his eighth - but there is a tide in the affairs of men, and Dixon had missed the flood.

He went back to Chelsea and fuelled his reputation as the Nearly Man by missing out on a big-money transfer to Arsenal when George Graham was lighting Highbury's fuse, then narrowly failing to beat Bobby Tambling's scoring record before Ian Porterfield showed him the door.

Typical. Nothing has ever come easy to a lethargic, sometimes cumbersome centre-forward who was told by two clubs that he would never make the grade in professional football. He had to work as a toolmaker for four years before he was finally able to prove them very wrong.

To mutual amusement rather than residual resentment, it was Pleat who rejected him first. Born and raised in Luton, where he has always had a home, Dixon was on schoolboy forms at Kenilworth Road until the age of 16, when he was told that he was not good enough for an apprenticeship.

He takes up a story which has Alan Harper, another of Luton's old hands, feigning tears of pity. 'David Pleat was the youth team manager, under Harry Haslam, and at 16 he told me I wasn't good enough. I was all the more disappointed because of the youth team we had that year, 10 of the 12 who played pretty regularly got taken on.'

Grounds for a grudge? Not with merry Kerry. 'I wouldn't question the gaffer's judgement,' he says with an all-is-forgiven smile. 'Many a shrewd judge has made the odd mistake. It was just one of those things. He made a decision and who knows, perhaps he was right.'

A second opinion had not been encouraging. 'Tottenham picked me up a year later, when I was playing for Chesham United, and then Peter Shreeves said I wouldn't be good enough. I went off to Dunstable and did enough for Maurice Evans to take me to Reading. That was my start.'

Pleat remembers his damning verdict on the adolescent Dixon all too well. He has been reminded of it often enough. 'Kerry was the least outstanding schoolboy in a very talented kids' team. I think we took on eight or nine of them, but I decided Kerry wasn't right. We had a very good young striker called Godfrey Ingram who looked the better bet.

'Kerry was an arrogant boy when he was 15 and 16 - he thought he was better than he was. He's changed. He's a humble man now. I'm not sure what happened.'

Arrogant? 'Possibly true,' says Dixon, grinning at the memory of his 'cocky' youth. 'I never suffered from a shortage of confidence, but we get wiser as we get older. Or we should do.'

Maturity saw the brashness pass, and Pleat now calls him the 'figurehead' at the front of the team. Those early doubts were dispelled long ago, and he has been an admirer of Dixon, the man, for many years.

'Going back an era, I used to ask Steve Foster who he rated among his opponents. He said Kerry and Mark Falco were good, traditional centre-forwards who punched their weight, fairly, at the back post.'

If Dixon's attitude had been suspect at schoolboy level, the suspicions had proved to be groundless. 'No one who has worked with him has ever complained. He has always been a conscientious worker. The younger players listen to him, and he deserves their respect after what he did with Chelsea and England.'

Everyone has their faults, of course, and the big man is something of a gentle giant. 'He's never been a dirty player, and he could be called under-aggresssive at times. How aggressive he'll be this time I don't know. He's got a testimonial pending at Chelsea.'

Dixon needs no reminding where his affiliations and duties lie. 'Playing against Chelsea for the first time since I left makes it a very special day - an emotional day. But it will be an emotional day from the Luton point of view, as well. I want Luton to win so much. I know what it means to the people of this town, just as I know what it means to fans of Chelsea. Whoever gets to the final, I hope they win it.'

Thirty-three in July and playing for an impoverished club from the wrong end of the First Division, he had not expected another game of such importance.

'I wish it was the final, but it's still a fantastic chance for both clubs to show what they can do. Luton play good football. We've got a decent mixture of youth and experience. Chelsea have had a season which is not bad by their standards, but neither has it been a particularly good one. If they were to end it with a Cup final everything else would be forgiven and forgotten - bar relegation.'

He had left Stamford Bridge with regret, but without rancour. How would he describe the emotions he went through at the time, the man from the Mirror wanted to know. Was he 'heartbroken' or 'gutted'? (delete as appropriate).

'Sure it hurt, but two clubs had told me that I wouldn't make it as a professional footballer, and you've got to keep things in perspective. I wasn't heartbroken and I wasn't angry. Disappointed is the best word. After nine years I didn't want to go, but Ian Porterfield told me I wasn't part of Chelsea's future, so I had to move on.

'I'd like to move into management at some stage, possibly coaching first, and in an ideal world, Chelsea would have been my choice for that, but when you've got three years left on your contract and they tell you your services are no longer required, what can you do? I wasn't to know Porterfield was going to get the sack. I thought: I'm not finished as a footballer yet, I've got to keep going.'

Was he playing as well as ever when Porterfield lost faith? 'My goals record says I wasn't. Strikers are judged on goals scored, and mine tapered off in the last couple of years at Chelsea - 15 in 68 League appearances.

'You can't argue with the figures, but goals taper off for various reasons, not just age. You can get 35-year-olds still scoring at the rate John Aldridge is, and 'Rushie' is still getting them for Liverpool at my age. Much of it is to do with the service you're getting, the style of play and who you're playing with.'

The failure to break Tambling's record, a driving ambition, was his greatest disappointment. 'It wasn't so much leaving - I accepted that. It was the fact that I was nine short of the record and it was there to be broken. Through my own failings I didn't get them in those last two years, when I should have done.

'It was there for the taking. One hundred and ninety three for me and 202 for Tambling. . .' A sad shake of the head and the thought trails off into a pregnant pause, full of if-onlys.

If tactics and team-mates had been wrong towards the end at Chelsea, things were to go from bad to worse with a move to Southampton in July 1992.

'They just didn't suit my style of play. It didn't help that I had a few injuries at key times. I played the first six games and then got injured and was out for about a month. Then I played another two games and got injured again and it went on like that. After Christmas Southampton went on a good run, Ian Dowie scored a few goals and the manager, Ian Branfoot, kept faith with him. I couldn't argue with that. I never got back in.'

After two goals in just nine League appearances, the pounds 575,000 signing was allowed to come home to Luton. On a free transfer.

'Basically,' he says, 'Southampton's style was more direct than I liked. It was a case of chasing balls played into the channels, and anyone who has seen me play will know that's not my strength. I don't mind chasing the odd one, but chasing them continually isn't me.'

Luton's composed passing game was much more to his liking, and with nine League goals in 23 starts he has done well enough to earn a new contract for next season.

Pleat, the instigator of the midfield 'diamond' in his Tottenham days, is again putting it to good use, with two old sweats, Alan Harper and David Preece, performing the anchor and playmaking roles, Paul Telfer and Ceri Hughes supplying width and Scott Oakes striking from deep.

Dixon is revelling in the space he gets as the lone forward. 'At the start of the season, there were all sorts of players coming and going, and the results weren't good, so the manager was continually changing the team around, and he came up with this formation which seemed to suit me. Certainly it suits Scott Oakes.

'One guy wanted to play full- back and ended up on the wing, another wanted to play central midfield and was put on the other wing. Somehow it all just fell into place and the team started playing some lovely football. Whether it was luck or a master strategy by the manager, who knows?'

If there is any doubt, Pleat deserves the benefit of it. His typically imaginative deployment was too good for Newcastle and West Ham, and it is not just sympathy for the underdog that warrants a modest investment in Luton today.

(Photograph omitted)

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