Dickov rehearses angry little man act for old friends

Blackburn's pest of a striker follows his manager in playing with fire and playing to strengths
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Strange is the change that can come over a footballer once he crosses the white line. Mark Hughes, soft-spoken and genial off the pitch, immediately sparking into life on it, was a prime example. Now, as manager for the past six months of Blackburn Rovers, he has become dependent on another of the breed.

The little 32 year-old Glaswegian Paul Dickov offers not only experience, but aggression and goals, which in the circumstances is just as well; without his nine Premiership strikes this season (next best, Brett Emerton with three) the Lancashire club would still be sitting in the relegation zone occupied when Graeme Souness baled out last September. As it is, successive victories over Norwich City and Everton have hoisted them to 14th place and allowed them, for the very best reasons, to concentrate on the Cup, in which a semi-final place would be the reward for winning at home this lunchtime against Dickov's previous club, Leicester City.

With a good few friends from last season left in the visiting team, despite the inevitable post-relegation cull, he might be expected to share a laugh and a joke on the Ewood pitch today. Do not bank on it, for the television cameras are more likely to close in on a growl or a snarl.

As he admits himself, the affable Dr Jekyll encountered at Blackburn's training centre on Friday will be transformed into a footballing Mr Hyde come kick-off time: "A lot of people who know me off the pitch do say that if they come and watch me play, they can't believe the change in me. They think I'm a horrible little man. That's only because I want to do as well as I possibly can in every game I play in. It builds up throughout the week in me. I want to win, and if that comes across as me being an angry little person, so be it. I know my limitations but try to play to my strengths. I give my all, and if the centre-back playing against me gets a hard time, then all the better."

It is the sort of attitude that has kept him in demand at Premiership level 15 years after becoming a trainee at Arsenal, where in the queue behind Ian Wright he was limited to 26 appearances in six seasons, plus a place on the fringe of the 1993 FA Cup-winning squad "as about 44th man". A £1 million transfer and six years at Manchester City - as mixed as only life at City could be - followed, then a move to Leicester, where he scored 11 goals last season.

"It was a fantastic two years there, and I have got a lot to thank them for. I had a great relationship with the fans, players and management. In fact, although there were a lot of Premiership clubs interested last summer, if I hadn't signed for Blackburn, I would have stayed at Leicester. That shows how much the club means to me. In the end I felt I owed myself the chance to play at the top level for at least another season, and hopefully longer, but it was a hard decision to take."

Inevitably, his time with today's opponents will be remembered for the ill-conceived club trip to La Manga, which ended with Dickov, Keith Gillespie and Frank Sinclair under arrest after allegations made by three women. The charges were subsequently thrown out, but it was a troubled time, and one he is normally reluctant to talk about.

"Micky Adams and the staff, especially [chief executive] Tim Davies, were fantastic," Dickov said. "Maybe there were a few other people at the club who didn't trust us as much. We knew we'd done nothing wrong, but when you go through something like that, it makes you mentally stronger and makes you realise what's important in life. Sometimes it gives you a bit of a reality check. Myself, Keith and Frank are always going to get tagged with that, which is unfortunate, but we have all got to live with it as best we can. Obviously I have had setbacks in my career, with Man City and the La Manga incident, but it's how you react to it, and there's a great desire to prove people wrong."

Being remembered as an FA Cup winner would be a more desirable tribute. After being drawn against four teams from lower down the ladder - Cardiff City, Colchester United, Burnley and now Leicester - Blackburn are understandably beginning to feel that this might be an outstanding chance to reach the Cup final for the first time since 1960.

"Why not?" Dickov demanded. "I am not just going to say we will take one game at a time. We have got a great chance on Sunday, just as Leicester have. Then the semi-final is a one-off in which anything can happen. I am a bit of a dreamer like that."

The dream will drive him on this afternoon, desperate to be playing his part despite barely being able to train these days because of a persistent groin injury. That is the sort of attitude to endear any player to a manager, and Hughes, one of the great FA Cup warriors, is full of praise for the man who has carried Blackburn's attack all season.

"For a number of weeks, we've had to wrap him up in cotton wool and get him ready for games," Hughes said. "He's got real desire to put himself out and play. We've struggled for goals this season but his contribution's been fantastic. He's had to bear a heavy workload, which he's done manfully, without complaint."

Jonathan Stead, briefly a sensation when Souness bought him from Huddersfield Town last season, was supposed to provide the support - and height - in attack, but went 22 games without scoring before snatching the winning goal at Everton last Sunday. "He's had a difficult year," Hughes admitted, "though it's well documented that the second year is always difficult. That's affected his confidence, but his goal last weekend will kick him on, and everyone was delighted with him there."

There is delight, too, around Ewood, about how the new manager has slowly revitalised an ailing side since succeeding Souness five games into the season. It has been effective - not a single defeat by more than 1-0 since October - though not often pretty: the manner in which Robbie Savage, Aaron Mokoena and company set about Chelsea last month suggested that they might become the new dogs of war.

The squad's disciplinary record is much the worst in the Premiership, and Dickov's contribution to it is six yellow cards. Should Leicester unwisely decide to mix it this afternoon, the "horrible little man" and his new mates will be ready.