Throughout his life, Alex Dyer has been many things to many people.
A team-mate at various clubs, an apprentice painter at Blackpool’s old Bloomfield Road ground, sir to the kids he taught at a special needs school, best man to Chris Powell, and even an unofficial adopted son to Sheila and Colin from Hull who cooked his dinners, did his washing and recorded him Eastenders on their VHS machine.
Now, they just call him gaffer.
Here to celebrate Black History Month, the Kilmarnock manager talks to BBC Scotland about his route to Rugby Park, the special bond between him and Scotland manager Steve Clarke, and his hopes for the future as the focus in football falls on tackling racism.
Newham, painting, and Eastenders with Sheila & Colin
Dyer’s rise to prominence, at least in Scotland, came in 2017 when he arrived in Ayrshire as assistant to Clarke, a colleague and friend for well over a decade. Yet to attribute his success to the Scotland boss is doing a disservice to the credentials of the 54-year-old Londoner. Make no mistake, Dyer’s path was built on firm foundations of hard work and respect.
“I was born in the east end of London, in a place called Forest Gate right near West Ham,” he told the Chris Iwelumo Meets podcast. “It was rough at times obviously as we were in the borough of Newham, which they always say is one of the poorest in the land, but we didn’t see it that way. Everyone was the same, they all worked and played hard.”
Snapped up as a kid for Watford, his move north to Blackpool in 1983 would set Dyer on a playing career that would span a dozen clubs and 18 years. He talks of cleaning boots and painting the stadium between training sessions during four years in the seaside town, and before at the age of 22, Hull City came calling for the young defender.
“People treated me well,” said Dyer. “I had a neighbour when I was at Hull City, Sheila and Colin. It was the first house I’d bought and every time I went out I left her with a key. When I came home she’d done my washing, she’d done the works. Two old people who had worked hard all their lives but never had any kids.
“They’d wait for me to come home from an away game at the middle of the week. I’d get in around 12 or one o’clock and I’d have food waiting for me. They’d bring me in. She knew I loved Eastenders and Coronation Street so she’d tape them on the VHS.”
Teaching kids & taking calls
After he called time on his playing career – which took him to clubs including Crystal Palace, Charlton and Notts County under Sam Allardyce – a calling to get back into the game came in the form of, well, a call, for Dyer.
While working as a teacher at a school in London, Alan Pardew phoned and offered the chance to take on a fitness coaching role with the youth team at his boyhood heroes, West Ham.
“I remember I was doing playground duty and I said to the kids ‘look it’s Alan Pardew!’ and they all got on the phone and gave him a little bit,” said Dyer.
It was at Upton Park that he was first introduced to Clarke, who had joined the Hammers as assistant manager to Gianfranco Zola from Chelsea in 2008. Three years later Dyer, now reserve team coach, would follow friend Powell to firstly Charlton as his assistant, before going on to Huddersfield Town for just over a season in West Yorkshire.
“It was 15 months before I got myself back into the game again,” he said. “I went back to a school to work with troubled kids. Kids in the community who had lost their way, then I worked with some special needs kids which was rewarding, fulfilling, but was hard work. You have to try and think of their parents, because they have these kids when you send them home. They are such good kids but they are hard work.
“And then I got the call from Mr Clarke.”
Few could have predicted the impact the pair would have at Rugby Park. They took over with Clarke’s boyhood club bottom of the Scottish Premiership, and by the end of the following season, the pair had hoisted Killie to a third-place finish.
“To be fair to his word, he always said to me ‘Al, if I get a chance to back into football and work we will work together’,” said Dyer.
“He rang me up and said he had a job. I asked him ‘Where you going?’ and he said ‘err… Scotland. It’s a bit far, though…’ and I went ‘Ah, that’s alright. No problem man, I’m coming with you’.
“I learned so much and he took me to another level.”
‘I’m not Scottish but I was proud to wear the badge’
With Clarke going on to replace Alex McLeish as Scotland boss in May 2019, there was always one man who would accompany him. Dyer remained at Rugby Park as assistant to the incoming Angelo Alessio, but doubled up as coach to his new adopted country.
“It was nice because he wanted me to come with him to Scotland. For me that was one of the best moments of my life. To work with a national team, I was so excited,” he said.
“I’m not Scottish but I’m still proud to wear the badge, so it was a wrench when I had to give it up.
“Steve Clarke is an outstanding human being. I’m so proud. Even though I’m not with with Scotland now but to see what they’ve done lately is brilliant. It’s good for the nation.”
Alessio’s tenure at Kilmarnock was as brief as it was unsuccessful, his pre-Christmas exit coming after just one win in his last eight games. The Rugby Park board would turn to Dyer, first as a caretaker, and then on a permanent basis.
Almost a year on, the Englishman is thriving in the role with Killie fifth in the table. Being the only black manager out of 42 in the SPFL, Dyer smiles at the notion he is some sort of role model, a tag hammered home by his wife.
“I just want to do my job and for people to recognise I’m doing my job. She’d say ‘no, you are a role model and you can’t think like that, you have to do the right things and say what’s in your heart’.
“I like to think people look at me, black or white, and think ‘he can do that job, why can’t I?’. I know we talk about Black History Month and what’s happened in the past and is still happening to this day, it’s not right. But we still have to do the right things to make it better for the young ones coming up.”
Dyer has not hidden his views on the issue of race lately, with him disagreeing with the view of Queens Park Rangers director of football Les Ferdinand that the impact of taking a knee “has been diluted”.
But the Kilmarnock manager has underlined his belief that the message, sparked by the Black Lives Matter campaign, is one that needs emphasised.
“A reporter said to me a few weeks ago about Les Ferdinand and his club not taking the knee,” said Dyer. “I said it’s not about me who’s in a good position. It’s about the general public who are not; the man or woman in the street still getting abused and cursed down or not getting a job when they are meant to get the job.
“It’s for the general people who go through everyday life and get knocked down for the colour of their skin, and that is not right.”
The Chris Iwelumo Meets Alex Dyer podcast will be available on Wednesday 21 October. To listen and subscribe, visit BBC Sounds.