It’s hard not to look at Rob Dickie’s career in the last two years and think Reading may have made a mistake in allowing him to leave. Sold to Oxford United in January 2018, the centre-back has become an integral part of the Us side battling at the top of League One, making his 100th appearance for the club earlier this year. He was named as stand-in captain before lockdown, having worn the armband against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, and is reportedly attracting interest from numerous Premier League and Championship clubs.
Dickie, who made just one appearance for the Royals as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the 2015/16 season, told The Tilehurst End:
“I was disappointed my career at Reading came to an end the way it did, without really playing any first team football or being able to show the fans what I was made of. But I just never felt as if I was ever going to get a chance. I needed to be wanted somewhere and made to feel important.
“I needed some stability. As much as I enjoyed my loan moves, you never feel settled. Oxford have given me that, and I’ve loved my time here so far.”
A change of scenery had first been on Dickie’s mind the previous season, when Reading recalled the defender from his loan spell at Cheltenham Town in League Two, where he had been playing every week.
“Reading said they wanted me to come back and train with the first team,” he says. “I was happy playing regular football at Cheltenham, but when Reading told me that I thought it was quite a big deal and that I might be involved on matchdays. Unfortunately that never happened and I was left to play under-23s football.
“That was when I started to get a little bit frustrated and I wasn’t really enjoying it. Obviously I love playing football, but when you go from playing in front of crowds to playing games at training grounds, it can be quite tough. I was expecting it to feel a bit different when I got back to Reading and be part of the first team, but it never materialised into anything.
“That’s when it hit home for me that maybe I needed to move away from the club. As much as I was appreciative of all the coaching and all the schooling that they had given me, it was time for me to move away from Reading.”
It was a difficult decision to make for a player who had been at the club for 14 years since the age of eight. A Reading fan, Dickie grew up in Wokingham and was spotted by Lee Herron at one of the club’s community programmes. There weren’t many better places he could have picked for an education in football.
“From when I signed with the academy, the standard of coaching was always good throughout all of the age groups,” Dickie says. “You also had a real connection with the staff. Whatever coach you worked with, you felt like they all really cared for your development.
“When we got a bit older and started going to Hogwood one day a week, even the first team seemed to look after you a little bit as well. They never came over and did any coaching or anything, but you got the sense that throughout the whole club, everyone cared about all the players no matter how old they were.
“Eamonn Dolan was obviously very instrumental in that. He had such a big influence on everyone. He was the kind of guy that whenever he walked in the room, you knew about it. You find yourself sitting up a little bit straighter, you stop your conversations. He had such a greater character and presence. He was so well-respected, and rightfully so.
“My experience with him wasn’t so much the football side, I don’t think I was ever really coached by him. But he taught me respect, discipline and hard work. One of his big things was however you carry yourself off the pitch is generally how you’ll tend to carry yourself on it.”
Dickie was part of the under-18s side that reached the FA Youth Cup semi-final in 2014, playing every minute in the competition and putting Reading ahead in the first leg against Fulham with a powerful header from a corner. The young Royals were knocked out in agonising fashion as the Cottagers scored a 90th-minute winner in the second leg.
“We had a lot of talented players in that group,” he says. “The likes of Liam Kelly, Jack Stacey, Aaron Kuhl, Tariqe Fosu, Sami Fridjonsson and my centre-back partner Dom Hyam. But what really worked for us was Eamonn’s philosophy that we had to work hard. David Dodds had an influence on that as well, and everything just sort of clicked in that season.”
At the age of 18, Dickie signed his first professional contract at Reading that summer, but was keen to go out on loan to experience senior football for the first time. “I couldn’t get anywhere near the under-23s side,” he recalls. “However old I’ve been, the only thing I’ve wanted to do is just play football. The reason you train hard all week is for the game on the Saturday, and when you’re not getting that game it can be really tough and frustrating.
“Now that I think about it, not getting into the under-23s at that time was a little bit of a blessing, because it allowed me to go out and play first-team football quicker than some of my teammates.”
Dickie would sign for Basingstoke Town in the Conference South for the second half of the 2014/15 season, and played a key role in the team, finishing third in the league and qualifying for the play-offs. He then spent the following campaign with Cheltenham Town, helping the Robins lift the National League title with an impressive 101 points. Dickie suggests that this time spent out on loan was crucial for his development:
“Going to Basingstoke was a real shock to the system in terms of how much it really means to players. If you win on a Saturday, that helps pay their mortgage or rent. I felt that responsibility myself. It put me out of my comfort zone, but it was great to be playing under those sorts of circumstances. I learnt a lot about myself that year.
“If I hadn’t gone to Basingstoke, I wouldn’t have got that next loan move to Cheltenham because they wouldn’t have seen me play any senior football. [Cheltenham manager] Gary Johnson told me exactly that.”
The National League season finished a week earlier than the Championship that campaign, meaning Dickie returned to Reading ahead of the final-day fixture away to Blackburn Rovers. The Royals lost 3-1, but by making his debut as a half-time substitute at Ewood Park, Dickie became the 39th graduate of the club’s academy.
“When I got back to Reading I trained with the first team for the week and Brian McDermott took me away with the squad to Blackburn,” the defender remembers. “I wasn’t really expecting to play, but I was on the bench and then at half-time Steven Reid told me I was coming on.
“There were so many emotions going through me. I was so proud to finally represent the club I had been at since I was a young boy. We lost the game but it was an amazing moment for me. I actually felt like I played quite well to be honest!”
Dickie, then 20 years old, had hoped he would be able to become part of the first-team set-up the following campaign, but that summer brought transition in all areas of the football club. In the transfer market, Reading brought in Liam Moore, Tyler Blackett and Joey van den Berg as options at centre-back.
“Brian McDermott spoke to me after that Blackburn game and he was really pleased with me, and I got the feeling I could potentially be part of his plans the next season,” Dickie says. “But then unfortunately he got sacked that summer.
“Jaap Stam came in and I did still end up doing pre-season with the first team and he was an amazing coach. Very calm, very collected and his coaching techniques were incredible. I feel very lucky to have been coached by him to be honest. As a centre-back, who better to learn from than Jaap Stam? He was hands-on on the training field as well, which was great to learn from.
“Pre-season had gone well, but there were just a lot of centre-backs who were ahead of me in the pecking order. So I kind of got the feeling that I wasn’t really going to be in with a shout.”
Dickie ended up moving back to Cheltenham on loan for the first half of 2016/17, returning to Reading to captain the under-23s to the final of the Premier League Cup where they lost to Swansea City. Another temporary move, this time to Lincoln City, was arranged for the first half of 2017/18, before his permanent switch to Oxford in the January transfer window that season.
A ball-playing centre-back comfortable in possession, Dickie would seemingly have been a perfect fit for Stam’s system, but was never given the chance in a competitive game by the Dutchman.
“I’ve got no bad feelings towards Jaap Stam, I think he’s an amazing coach and I absolutely loved working for him,” Dickie says. “The way he played was perfect for me. Just playing in training brought me on so much, he gave me more confidence with the ball at my feet. He always used to say to us if you ever make a mistake, don’t worry about it. He was asking us to play a certain way, and knew it was risky and knew we were going to mistakes, but let us play with freedom. I really respected that.”
Dickie’s manager at Oxford, Karl Robinson, is another coach who enjoys playing possession football, meaning the defender has been vital to the side over the last couple of years. This season, the club reached the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup and were third in League One before football was brought to a halt.
“A couple of weeks after I moved, the manager that signed me [Pep Clotet] got sacked,” Dickie explains. “It took the club a good couple of months before appointing Karl, but he has been incredible for my career and I’ve loved working for him. In a way, he has similar beliefs to what Jaap Stam had, he wants us to play with freedom. He’s brought out the best side of me.”
Dickie also became a father last summer, which he believes has improved his performances in an Oxford shirt even more. “It’s been incredible. I’m very proud to be a father, I think I’ve taken to it well and I’m loving it. It’s matured me and seems to have got even more out of me on the pitch as well because I now have a family to provide for. It goes back to Eamonn telling us how you carry yourself off the pitch is how you carry yourself on it.”
There is somewhat of an ex-Reading contingent growing at the Kassam Stadium, with Jamie Mackie arriving a few months after Dickie, while James Henry has been there since 2017. Liam Kelly joined the club on loan from Feyenoord in January and, in the same month, fellow Royals academy alumni Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste departed for Brentford, having significantly impressed during their time with the Us.
“[Former Reading owner] Tiger [Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth] is our owner so he had the connections to bring some of the guys to the club,” Dickie says. “Karl had worked with Tariqe at Charlton and had been interested in signing him in a couple of previous windows. With Liam I did put in a good word!
“It was great because I played with Liam at Reading since the age of eight and Tariqe joined when we were 12. Shandon wasn’t at Reading for very long, I don’t think he got a scholarship or anything. But I got to know him really well because we both still live in Reading, so we would drive in together every day. What an incredible footballer he is, by the way. He’s so, so talented.
“We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We’re all the kind of players that they like at Oxford – technically gifted and hard working. It’s worked really well.”
The fate of the League One season still remains unclear, with clubs divided on how to complete the campaign. The promotion race couldn’t be tighter - just three points separate Rotherham United in second and Wycombe Wanderers in eighth. Oxford’s fate hangs in the balance in third. If the Us were to go up, they would face a first derby game with Reading since 2004.
“It would be incredible,” Dickie says when asked about the possibility of the fixture taking place. “I’d love to be part of that. I watched so much football at Reading through the years, and I never really saw that close derby atmosphere. Reading and Oxford are obviously very close to each other, so it would be amazing.
“I’ve always felt that I would like to show the Reading fans what I can do, and see some old faces as well. I guess I’ve always felt like there’s unfinished business at Reading.”
Regardless of what the future holds for Oxford, it is set to be a big couple of years for Dickie, now 24, at whichever club he is playing for. “I’ve always said that I want to play at the highest possible level that I can,” he says. “I’d love to one day play in the Premier League, and it would be great to experience Championship football too. I watched so many Championship games at Reading, it’s a very competitive league and a league I’d love to play in.”