When Johan Cruyff phoned Ally Dick in 1986 to gauge his interest in joining Ajax, the great man was probably expecting a more enthusiastic reaction than “Eff off, ya dumpling.”
The young Scot was not intentionally disrespecting one of football’s great icons; he just assumed one of his pals was on the wind-up.
Thankfully, the penny soon dropped. It was, genuinely, Ajax coach Cruyff on the line. And within a couple of days, Dick was in the Netherlands playing three post-season friendlies against amateur teams.
“The first, we won 15-0 and I laid on five or six goals,” he recalls. “We had guys like Ronald Koeman and Marco van Basten in the team. At the end, Cruyff came up to me and said ‘We want you to sign’.”
European medal & a defining injury
Left winger Dick had Britain’s top clubs scrambling for his signature after he starred in Scotland Schoolboys’ 5-4 win at Wembley in 1980. He reckons “40 or 50 clubs were on the phone” the next day, including boyhood favourites Celtic.
Eventually, he joined Tottenham Hotspur and became the club’s youngest ever first-team player in 1982 at the age of 16. The same year, he was part of Andy Roxburgh’s Scotland squad that won the European Under-18 Championship in Finland.
An appearance in Tottenham’s Uefa Cup final win over Anderlecht in 1984 should have been the highlight of his fledgling career, but Dick tore ligaments in his right knee shortly after coming on and was forced to play through the pain until the end of extra time. The effects of that injury would remain throughout his career.
After further injury problems, Chris Waddle’s arrival in 1985 signalled the end of Dick’s time at the club.
It looked like Rangers would be his next destination, a move that would have made Dick the Ibrox club’s first high-profile Catholic player three years before Maurice Johnston claimed that label.
The winger was keen and so was manager Graeme Souness, only for the deal to break down.
“I made the mistake of telling one of my mates, who told his mate, who phoned a newspaper,” Dick says. “Two days later the headline wasn’t ‘Ally Dick signs for Rangers’, it was ‘RC [Roman Catholic] signs for Rangers’.
“Souness phoned me and said things had got a little out of hand so they were just going to shelve the move for the time being.”
‘Van Basten would bump me into traffic’
The Rangers manager would still be involved in Dick’s next move, though.
Shortly after the Ibrox deal faltered, Souness was contacted by Cruyff with a view to signing Davie Cooper. The Ajax icon was rebuffed but was sent away with a recommendation that he take another Scottish winger. “That’s why I got a very strange call out the blue from Ajax,” Dick says.
The Ajax squad of that 1985-86 season reads like a who’s who of Dutch footballing royalty – Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp. They were all in the early stages on their paths to greatness, though one team-mate stood out above all others.
“I learned very quickly that this wasn’t just my pal Marco, this was Marco van Basten,” says Dick of the legendary striker. “Even then, rumours were going around that he had signed a deal with AC Milan.
“When I arrived, I didn’t have a car so Marco used to pick me up. We got on well and he was always messing around. When I eventually did get a car, if he was driving behind you he would bump you into the middle of the traffic. I’d get a fright and turn around and there’s Marco killing himself laughing.”
Training with Cruyff & fading fast
Dick’s relationship with Cruyff was not so easy. For all his talent, the Scot was an introverted character, so penetrating the ego of his coach was tough for a quiet boy from Stirling.
“Cruyff had an aura about him. He was a very serious guy and he was still playing in training, and even at 41 he was still a great player,” says Dick.
“I liked the arm around the shoulder, being given a bit of confidence, but I didn’t get that from him. I was maybe 21 or 22 at the time; if I had been a slightly different character I would have approached him more. I kick myself now because when you get that chance… but it just wasn’t me.”
After a promising start at Ajax, Dick’s knee was left “black and blue and the size of a football” after a Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Olympiakos. There were doubts over whether he would recover and, although he did return after the best part of a year, his pace was gone, along with the confidence to go into tackles.
Between his failing body and the three-foreigner rule, Dick’s opportunities were limited and his Ajax career petered out. He did feature in the 1987 Uefa Super Cup final and was an unused substitute in the 1988 Cup Winners’ Cup final, but his spell in Amsterdam was one of unfulfilled promise.
‘I’m lucky I did what I did’
His time at the top of the game was over at just 23. He played on, but not at the same level. There were spells in England, Australia and South Africa before Dick finished his career with Alloa in 1997 aged 32.
“I wouldn’t change a thing, though,” he says. “I was lucky that I managed to cram a lot in. I travelled the world, I met great people, played with huge clubs.
“Those first few games in Amsterdam, playing in front of big crowds, you’ve got the lovely Ajax strip on, I was standing thinking, ‘I’m playing with Ajax, Johan Cruyff’s my manager, I’m standing next to Marco van Basten’ – it was such a wonderful experience.
“A lot of people think I could have done more, but I’m lucky I did what I did.”