Name: Alan Dickens
Date of birth: 3 September 1964, Plaistow, England
Position: Midfielder
Debut: Division One, Notts County 1-2 West Ham United, 18 December 1982
Final game: Division One, Liverpool 5-1 West Ham United, 23 May 1989
Appearances: 234

They both graduated through the West Ham United Academy and they each netted debut goals on equally explosive winning starts to their Hammers careers during the 1982/83 season.

Nearly three decades on, Alan Dickens and Tony Cottee are back at the Boleyn Ground, sitting side-by-side, watching today's claret and blue starlets taking on Manchester United in the FA Youth Cup, on a cold Wednesday night in January.

"I always enjoy coming over here to watch the youth team because I find it quite interesting to see how all the kids are doing," says Dickens, who helped West Ham United to lift the trophy in 1981. "I like it when the youngsters come through and then go on to play for the first team."

A product of the famous West Ham production line, the mercurial midfielder made a dream start to a Hammers career that was destined to span 234 league and cup appearances, when he was given his first-team chance at Notts County in December 1982.

Certainly, the 18-year-old wasted no time repaying John Lyall's faith in him, when he responded with a seventh-minute strike that put the East Enders on the road to a 2-1 victory.

Alongside home-grown talent such as Cottee, George Parris, Alvin Martin and Geoff Pike, Dickens went on to book his place in the record books as one of the Boys of '86, when the club achieved its highest-ever finish of third just three seasons later.

"I think it's a West Ham tradition to bring their young players through," continues Plaistow-born Dickens, who netted 30 goals during his time in the claret and blue. "It's always been like that right the way through but, sadly, there are too many clubs that don't do that any longer. Sure, Arsenal have brought one or two of their kids on but when you look back on last summer's World Cup squad, we had nine of our former players - including Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe - in there. West Ham fans always like to see that."

After moving across London to join Chelsea in summer 1989, Dickens also had spells with Brentford and Colchester United before finishing his career on the local league circuit and then deciding to take the 'Knowledge' as London taxi driver - a road also followed by former team-mate Steve Potts.

"I've been driving the old cab around for 15 years now, so it's been a long time. One day, I was driving along the Strand, when I suddenly looked across the road and there was Stevie just grinning at me but, to be honest, that's the only time I've ever seen Pottsy out and about in his taxi. I think that might be because he's quite lazy!" jests the unassuming 46-year-old, who has long since swapped the hustle and bustle of Upton Park's midfield battleground for the safe haven of a seat in the upper tier of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand.

"We've been season ticket holders for four or five years now," reveals Alan who comes to the games with sons Luke and Sam.

"My two boys really enjoy it - they sing 'Bubbles' and all that, although this season, Luke has gone down behind the corner flag at the bottom of the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand to sit with his mates amongst all the 'hardcore' supporters.

"Recently, it's all been a little bit disappointing out there. Having played in the middle of the park myself, I like to see my football played through midfield, with the ball being passed around nice and quickly but, unfortunately, they've not done that too much this season.

"I've enjoyed watching Mark Noble play, though, while Freddie Sears has come in for the last five or six games. After going out on loan to Scunthorpe United, he came back into the side at Fulham on Boxing Day and although I wasn't quite sure at first, Freddie's done really well.

"Likewise, James Tomkins has come back into the side and done really well, too. I think he needed to be rested because he's still only a young kid and he was put in a difficult position but now he's come back into the team and he's again showing that he's going to be a really good player."

As a London cabbie, Dickens knows only too well that the clock is ticking as West Ham look to head down the road to safety, but having been involved in a relegation dog-fight himself, he believes that time is still on Avram Grant's side.

"The 1988/89 season was a bit like this season, when we were struggling in the league but still managed decent runs to get to a League Cup semi-final and the sixth round of the FA Cup, " he recalls. "Tony Cottee, Frank McAvennie and Paul Goddard had all left by then and we really struggled to score goals.

"I can remember the first leg of the League Cup semi-final against Luton Town at Upton Park," continues Dickens, looking back on a last-four encounter with the Hatters, who had Roy Wegerle and Mick Harford to thank for putting them on top. "Then Danny Wilson got a late penalty to give them a three-nil win."

Wegerle and Harford also netted in the return leg to send the Kenilworth Road outfit to Wembley but the primary focus for West Ham was now centred upon staying in the top-flight.

"We went on a little four-match run and beat Millwall, Newcastle United, Luton and Sheffield Wednesday before getting a victory at Nottingham Forest in our penultimate game, too," says Alan recalling a win-or-bust final match of the season at Anfield, where Merseyside was still in mourning in the aftermath of the horrific Hillsborough disaster.

"That last game at Liverpool was the worst possible fixture because they were a great side and were still going for the title. After a bit of an early fight they eventually beat us five-one and, unfortunately, we went down.

"We had probably left it all a little bit too late, but looking at the current season, I think that West Ham have still got a great chance of staying up."