PAUL Dickov raises his hand and, one finger at a time, strikes off the reasons he shouldn’t have made it as a footballer.
“Too short,” says the 41-year-old, his 5ft 6ins frame perched catlike on the edge of a sofa in Doncaster’s Cantley Park training ground.
“Not quick enough. Couldn’t score goals. Didn’t have any ability. I heard all of them at one stage or another. But that’s what really drives you on. I made a career out of proving people wrong.”
These days, there are no more defenders for Dickov to hassle, no more opponents to wind up and berate. After 21 years, 500 games and 11 clubs, the man nicknamed ‘The Wasp’ finally withdrew his sting in 2011.
But that doesn’t mean he has stopped battling the doubters. Surprisingly appointed player-manager of Oldham in 2010, the Scot was widely written off as a cheap stopgap by a club in dire straits.
By the time he left three years later, Dickov had overcome crippling financial problems – including the withdrawal of primary backers, the threat of administration and the late payment of wages – to keep the Latics in League One.
They even dumped Liverpool out of the FA Cup, a feat for which Dickov was rewarded with a P45.
Now, at the helm of Doncaster, he is doing it again. Hauled to the summit of League One by Dean Saunders and steered to the title under the guidance of caretaker Brian Flynn, Donny’s euphoric fans were distinctly underwhelmed when Dickov was tasked with tackling the Championship.
But while Rovers are far from safe, a 13-point haul in March and four wins from the last six suggests the pre-season relegation favourites may yet bust a few coupons.
“I know there were eyebrows raised when I came here,” says Dickov, who scored 118 goals in 478 games for the likes of Man City, Leicester and Blackburn.
“But I’d learned so much from really difficult circumstances at Oldham. After those two years I felt I was ready for the step up to the Championship. And I’ve just gone about things the way I did as a player.
“I was very lucky to have the career I did. I know that. I didn’t necessarily have the ability that other people had. I didn’t have the skill or the physique. But I had determination.
“All I wanted to do was play at the highest level I could. Be that League Two or the Premiership, I didn’t care. I just wanted to be the best I could be at all times.
“And that’s what I want to take into my management career. It means getting up at 5.30am every day and coming here to the training ground. It means going to games at night and getting back late. It means going and speaking to my peers, the people I respect at every level of the game. And I love all of that. I really do.”
Now he does, anyway. In those early days at Oldham, management felt more like a game of mole hunt; as soon as one problem was solved, another appeared.
“When you’re a player, you think management is easy,” he laughs. “And I was exactly the same. You think a manager just has to sign players, take training and pick the team on a Saturday.
“When I took the job at Oldham, I was buzzing, I was enthusiastic. Then you get chucked in at the deep end and see what it’s really like.
“As a player, you don’t realise the demands on a manager. You’ve got to be a psychologist, a schoolteacher, a mum, a dad, a girlfriend, a bank manager. They were all things that got chucked at me without my really knowing what to do about it.
“It was real sink or swim stuff but having to learn on my feet was great. For all the problems, Oldham was the best learning experience I ever could have had.
“I had to dig deep and it was hard at times. But it gives you perspective. Before, I might have been daunted by trying to keep Doncaster up. Not now.”
That battle is not yet won, although an eight-point cushion with seven games to play has done much to alleviate any serious worries.
For Dickov, however, the most pleasing aspect of his side’s revival is not the results but their increasingly attractive style.
Last weekend’s second goal against Leeds saw Billy Sharp finish an incredible 28-pass move – two more than Argentina famously managed in their 2006 World Cup match against Serbia.
“I’m pleased somebody’s mentioned that,” he said. “It only got about two seconds on the Football League Show.
“It was top class, and the players have got to take the credit. It’s something we work a lot on in training. Sometimes, we are at our worst when we try and score straight after winning the ball. I’m always telling the lads to keep the ball for five, six, seven passes – though maybe not 28!
“It’s a results business but I’m a performance manager. We’re Doncaster Rovers and we’re playing in the Championship. There will be times we get beat.
“A couple of weeks ago we went to Burnley, worked our socks off and still lost 2-0. But they gave it everything and when those players came off the pitch, the first thing I did was shake their hands. Some even got a kiss!
“I just wanted them to know that if they go out there and give everything, I’ll back them win, lose or draw.”
And if those players want a lesson in giving everything, they need look no further than the short, slow, clumsy bloke in the dugout.