Former Wolves man Tony Dinning on still getting goosebumps at the sight of Molineux
Former Wolves’ Mr Versatile Tony Dinning, proud Geordie and boyhood Newcastle fan, donned his Toon shirt and headed out to a local social club near his Shropshire home to watch the recent Carabao Cup final against Manchester United.
“I was surrounded by Manchester United fans with their shirts on but that wasn’t going to stop me,” laughs the 47-year-old.
“I wouldn’t say I was expecting to win, I was just happy to see Newcastle get to a final after all these years.
“Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved if we had won it even if it meant we finished tenth but it’s great we’ve got to a final and just nice not to be fighting relegation.
“The club is now going in the right direction and hopefully things will continue to move that way.”
As a Newcastle fan, as with Wolves fans, recent history hasn’t always been plain sailing.
He certainly couldn’t be hailed with the chant of ‘you only sing when you’re Dinning’.
But if Newcastle’s day out at Wembley ultimately ended in disappointment, Dinning was a player who showed he had an eye for the big occasion during his 16-year professional career.
He scored a late winner from the penalty spot to secure Stockport a first ever win against Manchester City at Maine Road. He was part of the squad which produced so many giant-killings during a dramatic run to the semi-finals of the League Cup in 1997. He did get sent off in the latter stages of the second leg of the semi-final against Middlesbrough but a quick glance at the highlights on YouTube suggest he was very hard done by following a clash with Fabrizio Ravanelli. Where was VAR when Dinning needed it?
He had a loan spell with Stoke City in which he made five appearances, one of which was a play-off final win against Brentford at the Millennium Stadium which took the Potters to the Championship in 2002. He was back at the Millennium a couple of years later, helping Blackpool to victory over Southend in the final of the Football League Trophy. And all this was either side of being part of the Wigan squad which won the equivalent of League One in 2002/03, the season Wolves went up from the Championship to the Premier League after beating Sheffield United in the play-off final.
And yet amid all this, Dinning’s year with Wolves was fairly mundane in comparison. Through no fault of his own.
The 2000/01 season was one of so many at the time when Wolves just couldn’t get out of the Championship. It was also a time of transition, with manager Colin Lee losing his job a week before Christmas and Dave Jones taking over.
Dinning arrived at Wolves after six hugely successful years at Stockport, featuring not just that epic League Cup run but also promotion to the Championship and subsequent eighth placed finish which remains the best in the club’s history. There were plenty of Wolves connections through those years, not just with Jones the manager but team-mates including Paul Jones the goalkeeper, Eric Nixon, Carlo Nash, Sean Connelly, Paul Cook, Tom Bennett, Chris Marsden, Kevin Cooper and Andy Mutch. Quite a shared alumnus!
But Dinning’s first port of call as a footballer had been with his beloved Newcastle where, having signed schoolboy forms after being scouted at the famous Wallsend Boys Club whose own alumni comprises the likes of Alan Shearer, Steve Bruce and Michael Carrick, he landed his first professional contract.
Still very much in the young and talented bracket, Dinning was unable to make a first team breakthrough which is understandable given Kevin Keegan had been given a remit to spend big as he took the Toon ‘Entertainers’ back to the top-flight and a third placed finish. Those formative years, however, remain special.
“This was back when there was only the one transfer deadline in March and Newcastle were spending a bit of money,” Dinning explains.
“These days, if a club gets a few injuries then they might need to play the young lads as there is no option to bring people in, but back then teams could go out and buy whenever they needed to.
“But when I look back, would I have been ready at that age to play at that level? I doubt it.
“I still had some very proud moments, pulling the shirt on for my home club, and captaining the reserves at St James’ Park.
“Even that alone is something I could only have dreamt of as a kid.
“But it came to a time when I needed to play football and I needed to move on – I wanted to be playing football on a Saturday afternoon and not on a Wednesday night for the reserves.
“I’d had a short loan spell with a team called Djurgardens in Sweden but Kevin Keegan was great with me when the time came to move on and I was given a free to go and find another club.
“That club was Stockport, where I had some incredible times over the six years with a really good group of players and decent managers.
“It will always be the favourite club I played for, because I learned so much in those six years and it turned me from a boy into a man.
“We had some really good times there, especially beating all those big boys in the cup, which are games which are still talked about to this day.”
There is one game, and Dinning performance, which certainly made its mark on Wolves during his final season at Edgeley Park.
Boxing Day in 1999, when he fired home a superb free kick before then County striker Ian Moore, a half time substitute having arrived late due to traffic, notched a second half brace to clinch a 3-2 win.
Dinning also scored in the return fixture, a 2-2 draw at Molineux, but another draw at the start of the 2000/01 campaign would prove one of his last in a Stockport shirt as he made a £700,000 move to Wolves.
He would go on to play in both midfield and defence under Lee and Jones – at Stockport he had played in every position including as a stand-in goalkeeper – but always maintained his eye for goal.
He scored on his debut, a 4-0 win over Norwich, and was on target five times in his first 13 Wolves appearances.
The team, however, were unable to ever hit the sort of consistent groove which would have sustained a proper push for promotion, hence the managerial change and a finishing position of 12th, a considerable distance shy of the play-offs.
“I was delighted to join Wolves, it felt like I had arrived with such a brilliant stadium and massive fanbase,” Dinning recalls.
“It was really easy to fit in as well with a good manager and a good group of lads with the right balance of experience and younger players like Lee Naylor, Joleon Lescott and Proudy (Adam Proudlock).
“It’s the sort of challenge with the size of the club and the pressure and expectation that I relished in the same way as we at Stockport always relished taking on the top teams and causing upsets.
“Those sorts of challenges inspired me, and I never got nervous before games – the bigger the crowd the more I enjoyed it because the more people who were watching, the more I knew I had to be on my game.
“But it turned into one of those difficult seasons at Wolves.
“We started well, got a few decent results but then hit a bad patch and Colin lost his job.
“Dave came in, changed the fortunes around a little bit but not enough to make the play-offs.
“I picked up a shoulder injury where I missed a month or so but it turned into one of those seasons which you hate, both as a player and as a fan.
“That’s because it just petered out, we were in the middle of the table and couldn’t go up and weren’t going down - we were going nowhere.
“Everyone had confidence in Dave in what he was going to do and what he was brought in to do and that season was just about sorting things out.
“For me, even though that season finished in mid-table, I still look back fondly on my time at Wolves.
“I remember growing up and listening on the radio with my Dad to a midweek game when Wolves beat Newcastle 6-2.
“Molineux is just one of those grounds which you want to play at, and, even now, driving down the A449 when it comes into view, it gives me goosebumps.
“I still remember the music that was played when we used to run out, and I still enjoy getting the chance to play in charity matches at the stadium when we can – Wolves Allstars is the only team from my former clubs I have played for since finishing.
“It was a strong dressing room, and it’s such a shame things didn’t pan out the way we would have liked when I was there, but they did go on and get promoted a couple of years later.”
Dinning himself never quite made it to the Premier League. As both he and Wolves made a decent start to his second season, a bid for £750,000 came in from Wigan in the division below. With Jones keen for a reshuffle, it was a bid that the club accepted, and when that happens, more often than not, a player knows where his future lies.
There were those promotion successes after departing Molineux with Wigan, on loan at Stoke, and the Football League Trophy success with Blackpool.
Dinning also enjoyed his football at many other ports of call, including another loan spell with Walsall, and, in chalking up almost 550 appearances and scoring 63 goals, it was certainly an impressive career.
A skilful midfielder with high levels of technical ability and calmness and composure on the ball, there is perhaps an argument that Dinning was one of those players who was ahead of his time.
Think perhaps that sweeper role deployed by Conor Coady, or three-pronged central midfielders where he could display his range of passing, and maybe the modern game would be more suited to a player of Dinning’s style and prowess.
He does, however, have no regrets.
“People have sometimes said to me that I should have played in the Premier League and I’d like to feel that when I played against Premier League teams, I always held my own,” he suggests.
“I certainly always enjoyed those games and felt comfortable on that sort of stage.
“Both Wolves and Wigan got into the Premier League a couple of years after I had left and that opportunity never quite happened for me.
“No one took a chance on me in that respect but, when I look back, I thoroughly enjoyed my career and was fortunate to play for some great clubs.
“I have heard a lot of players say that when you are in your career, you kind of don’t realise the extent of what you are doing and it is only at the end, when you look back, you think, ‘yeh I did o-k there’.
“That’s probably how it is for me really, and I really enjoyed my time and still love the game and still watch as much football as I can.”
Dinning rounded off his career in non-league, including with Hednesford and Stafford Rangers, and actually worked as assistant-manager to former Wolves striker Lee Mills for a time at Bridgnorth Town.
He had started his coaching badges, and also had a spell with Shrewsbury Town’s Academy, but ultimately decided not to pursue it as a career and step away from the game from a career point of view.
Instead, he now works as a bathroom fitter, running the company RT Bathrooms with friend Rob, which, whilst perhaps somewhat removed from the glitz of glamour of a life in football, is more readily suited to a normal existence.
And also means more time to spend with his children – 23-year-old son Ted, 21-year-old daughter Jessie and 17-year-old son Billy, whom he can watch playing rugby at weekends.
“I did think seriously about coaching and had got some of the badges but it just got to a stage where I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted to do,” he explains.
“As I got older and started to learn more about the workings of football and whether I wanted to be a part of it, in the end I decided not to chase it.
“I then moved into something completely different and the business is going well, and I enjoy the work that we do.
“The difference to football is that there is more of a structure – we know when we are going to work and how the week looks whereas as a player, and as a coach, you are always off to different places with a lot of travelling and so on.
“Doing this makes life a lot more ‘liveable’ if that makes sense, and most importantly it means there is more time to spend with family and it’s not the case that all of a sudden, the kids have grown up and I have barely seen them.
“Having weekends free to see them and spend time with them when I can is great, whilst also still watching a fair bit of football of course!”
And watching is no doubt what Dinning will be doing on Sunday afternoon as Wolves travel to St James’s Park to do battle with Newcastle.
The club he has always supported and started out with against the club he graced for a season and of whom he still has very fond memories.
Whilst enjoying Newcastle’s resurgence over the last year, Dinning has also been heartened by Wolves’ recent improvement under Head Coach Julen Lopetegui, a total of 17 points from 11 games including last weekend’s vital win against Tottenham.
“I think he has steadied the ship really well which I am sure was the aim and then being able to build on it in the summer,” he says.
Dinning will certainly be an interested observer on Sunday afternoon, and if you’re out and about in Shropshire, who’s to say you might not bump into him enjoying the game?
Whether he’ll be wearing a Newcastle shirt or a Wolves shirt is open to question!