Dibble still diving among the mud and studs

Wrexham's veteran goalkeeper is not sure what haunts him more: a famous gaffe or his old mullet and moustache. Phil Shaw talks to one of the game's great survivors
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The Independent Football

There have been international caps and cup final heroics, an epic championship and the endorsement of no less an authority than Sir Alex Ferguson. But unfairly, ridiculously, if Andy Dibble's long career has produced a defining image, it is one to rank alongside the day Gary Sprake threw the ball into his own net or when a third Welsh goalkeeper, Neville Southall, staged a sit-down protest against a goalpost.

There have been international caps and cup final heroics, an epic championship and the endorsement of no less an authority than Sir Alex Ferguson. But unfairly, ridiculously, if Andy Dibble's long career has produced a defining image, it is one to rank alongside the day Gary Sprake threw the ball into his own net or when a third Welsh goalkeeper, Neville Southall, staged a sit-down protest against a goalpost.

Picture the scene. Dibble is playing for Manchester City at Nottingham Forest in 1990 and stands, like a waiter bearing the port, with the ball resting on the palm of his right hand. Before he can release it, Forest's Gary Crosby appears from behind him, stooping to head the ball before running it into the net. The referee awards a goal. Television carries one man's indignation and bewilderment around the world.

"People still bring it up when I go to grounds with Wrexham," says Dibble, now nudging 40, as he prepares for today's League One game at Tranmere Rovers. "They always throw that at me. I can never escape it. When I go on holiday with my wife and children, and we're on a plane, you can guarantee it'll come up on the 'sporting bloopers' video."

Dibble has moved on, literally as well as emotionally, Wrexham being his 20th club. Yet the Forest farce still rankles. "Some people argued I wasn't in total control of the ball because I didn't have both hands on it, but I'd already caught it and was looking to throw it out," he says. "Roger Gifford was the referee and we've had a laugh about it over the years. But I was proved right: nowadays, Crosby would be booked for ungentlemanly conduct. I sent the glove to Steve Sutton [the Forest keeper] for his testimonial auction, so some good came out of it."

A readiness to look on the bright side is a prerequisite for membership of the net-minding brotherhood. Dibble's natural resilience has been tested by some serious setbacks. However, apart from representing Wales only three times due to the consistency of Southall, he has few regrets. Certainly none at all over what was considered, in south Wales a quarter of a century ago, his sacrilegious choice of sport.

"I played rugby union at school. Our PE teacher was Terry Cobner, who was a British Lion, and heaven help you if he caught you with a round ball. I was capped at schoolboy level against England at Twickenham, playing second row. But my dad was a very good amateur keeper for Newport County and Bristol City, and he was still playing in the Welsh League at 44. Deep down, they knew I'd follow him into football."

After a debut for Cardiff City at 17, Dibble became part of what he terms "the golden age of goalkeeping". He had admired Southall, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and Dai Davies. After Luton Town paid £125,000 for him, he was playing against them. "I was battling for a place with the late Les Sealy, a real personality who I learned a lot from," he recalls.

"Fortunately, I was the man in possession when we reached the League Cup final against Arsenal in 1988. In those days there were 100,000 for such games, and although I'm a patriotic Welshman, I don't think you can beat the old Wembley for atmosphere and occasion."

With 12 minutes remaining and Arsenal 2-1 up, it seemed the spectacle was all he would have to savour. "Nigel Winterburn then stepped up to take a penalty, but I managed to save it and we had two quick strikes to win it 3-2. To have beaten Arsenal, one of the great clubs, in a major final - well, even now it seems like a dream."

After joining Manchester City for £240,000 he stayed almost a decade and developed an enduring affection for the club. But Tony Coton's presence meant he often went out on loan, one deal taking him to Rangers as they closed on Celtic's record of nine consecutive Scottish titles. Ferguson, whose son Darren is a Wrexham team-mate, reputedly recommended him to the Ibrox manager, Walter Smith.

"I was thrown in at Celtic Park, of all places. We won 1-0, which virtually clinched it. I'm reading Paul Gascoigne's book and it's bringing back fantastic memories. I was privileged to be with a great club and players like Gazza, Ally McCoist, Stuart McCall and Brian Laudrup.

"I didn't play enough games to earn a medal, but when we went on a trip to Toronto some of the boys had a few too many drinks and decided to have tattoos done. I said: 'No way, my wife would go bananas.' But they kept saying 'You need something to remember us by', and Coisty and Ian Durrant wrote 'Rangers FC: Nine in a Row, 1997' on a scrap of paper. I woke up the next day with it on my shoulder."

His upper torso would soon be marked again, though not of his own volition. While trying to tie up a move to the new American league, he turned out for Barry Town at Carmarthen in the League of Wales.

Dibble winces as he takes up the story. "After 15 minutes I felt a terrible burning sensation. I'd no idea what it was and played on in pain. It turned out to be hydrated lime that the local council had used to mark the pitch. The scarring was horrendous. I ended up having a skin graft from my left thigh and received £20,000 compensation in court.

"Keepers are always in the wars. When the back-pass rule came in, I broke a leg in a friendly in Dublin with City. I wasn't sure whether to kick the ball or pick it up, and neither me nor this guy from the League of Ireland XI was going to pull out. With Wrexham at Peterborough last year, I collided with a striker and my arm was so badly damaged that I needed a titanium plate inserted. I don't take pride in my catalogue of injuries, only from the way I've fought back from them."

In between those escapades, he was sent off after 40 seconds for Stockport County against Norwich City, which, he ventures impishly, "may be a record". He was also fined £500 by the Welsh FA for responding to "vile abuse" from the crowd when appearing for Wrexham at Hartlepool United, "the only one of all my ex-clubs where I didn't have a good rapport with the fans". Only last weekend he was booked for handling outside his area.

Denis Smith, the Wrexham manager, recognises his value as a character, custodian and coach. He has given him responsibility for helping to develop the young players, a path Dibble intends to pursue if he ever stops plunging around among the studs and the mud.

"I'll keep playing as long as I feel fit and well. Denis understands my training needs. He realises I can't go out and work flat out for two and a half hours any more, but I do train hard and regularly. He knows I like the odd glass of red wine, but he's also aware that I look after myself."

Occasionally, like when he saved three penalties in Wrexham's victory in a Carling Cup shoot-out at Hull recently, it seems the years have hardly touched him. Something, usually the mention of Gary Crosby, always brings him back to reality. Last week it was a letter asking him to autograph a picture. "There I was, with a mullet and a moustache, standing next to Joe Jordan. One of the lads said 'Blimey, you're showing your age'."

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