Later today, a former English international centre-forward will play at centre-back for his club and try to stop the world's most exciting striker from doing what both men love most: scoring goals. "I've gone from being the creator to being the destroyer," jokes Aston Villa's one-time top marksman Dion Dublin, who has been charged with the unenviable task of keeping Arsenal's Thierry Henry quiet.
In fact, "unenviable" is not quite the right word. "No," Dublin interjects, "bloody impossible task is a more appro-priate way of describing my job. I'm a striker through and through, so you'd have thought I would understand what Henry is trying to do on a football field, but I couldn't tell you how to mark him. I wouldn't have a clue. Nobody does. There's no way to stop him, and that's what makes him the best in the business."
Honesty has always been Dublin's greatest asset. The Leicester-born player may not possess the pace of Nicolas Anelka or the finishing ability of Ruud van Nistelrooy, but he has an unquenchable thirst for learning. Most professionals, particularly those approaching the end of their careers, would want to play in their usual position or quit the game altogether. Not Dublin. With Juan Pablo Angel and Darius Vassell keeping him out of the front line, he has left his 16 years as a highly rated striker behind to re- invent himself as a dependable defender.
Dublin is too modest to say so himself, but it is no surprise to the Aston Villa faithful that the club's recent turn-around in fortunes has coincided with his positional switch. "The nicest thing about being asked to move to centre-back," the 34-year-old explains, "is that I now get a reward for my efforts during the week. When I train from Monday to Friday, I want to be in the team at the weekend. I need that fix. It's in my blood."
Sitting on the bench is clearly not an option for the player. Unlike other strikers, such as Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Arsenal's Kanu, Dublin has to be involved. "If I'm being totally honest," he says, "all I want to do is play. Maybe that's why I've done OK at centre-back. I want to be picked for the first team every Saturday, and if I have to earn my place by doing a job at the back, then that's what I'll do. I'd play centre-mid if I had to, and you can write that just so that the manager knows."
David O'Leary needs no reminding of Dublin's enthusiasm. He recognises the burning desire of a player who has fought his way up from Fourth Division football with Cambridge United as well as back from a career-threatening leg break while trying to make a name for himself at Manchester United. Nor does O'Leary, who was a world-class centre-back for Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland, need to be told what makes a good defender.
"Dion is a hungry player," the former Leeds United manager says, "and I feel that he has what it takes to be a Premiership centre-half. If he takes care of himself, the move could add two years to his career."
Dublin's defensive qualities, in fact, have long been known. He once replaced Sol Campbell when playing for England in a pre-France 98 warm-up game against Belgium in Morocco. O'Leary, though, has had the confidence to make the switch permanent.
"It was definitely the manager's idea," says Dublin, who narrowly missed out on the final squad for France 98 and went on to earn his fourth and final cap just after the tournament. "I don't know exactly how it came about, but I wasn't getting a chance at centre-forward, so he decided to have a look at me in defence during training. He liked what he saw and threw me in the starting XI one day in October."
Dublin was shocked, because he was not expecting to be given the nod on the day Wayne Rooney's Everton came to Villa Park. Shocked, too, because he never expected the two positions to be so different. "You might have thought that centre-forwards and centre-backs, what with them operating in the same spaces on the pitch, would be similar roles," Dublin explains, "but the players are actually thinking in completely opposite ways."
This could leave a striker-cum-defender totally confused. Should he defend like a striker, or attack like a defender? "It can be a bit tricky," Dublin admits, "because you've got to remember what hat you've got on at the time. But having played both roles has also been very helpful. Most of the time, I'm thinking like a centre-forward in order to give myself an extra two or three yards as a centre-back. If I'm defending against someone like Alan Shearer, I'm thinking where I would want that ball to be played if I was in his shoes. That allows me to get there before him, or maybe just get a toe in. It's not been straightforward, but I'm enjoying myself now."
Perhaps so, but how does a man who has scored more than 100 goals in the Premiership get his kicks these days? Does he not miss making the net bulge?
"Well, I'm a striker at heart," says Dublin, an accomplished saxophonist who hopes to become a full-time jazz musician when he hangs up his boots, "so I still want to score goals. But I get my thrills in different ways now. A good day's work for me is a clean sheet. I get just as much pleasure from keeping a good striker out as I did from scoring goals. As a striker, you can make mistakes and get away with it; as a defender, you make one mistake and it's usually a goal. That's why the clean sheet is the buzz."
Around Villa Park, the current excitement is a run that has seen the club climb from the relegation zone towards the European places. And then there is the two-legged Carling Cup semi-final against Bolton Wanderers.
"These are massive games for us," Dublin says. "Since I joined the club [for £5.75m in November 1998] we've under-achieved. We've had good enough players here, but we just haven't performed. That's why I think that if we do get to the final in Cardiff and then go on to win this Cup, a lot of people will just say, 'About bloody time. Aston Villa are long overdue a trophy'." So too is Dublin.Reuse content