Every so often you’ll find family connections in football.
Gary and Phil Neville, Peter and Kasper Schmeichel, Jay-Jay Okocha and his nephew Alex Iwobi. Perhaps even the tenuous link between cousins Mark Viduka and Luka Modric.
Far less often, though, you’ll find relatives who’ve made such an impression for one team that their contributions are revisited years later. Such is the case for former Brentford captain Michael Dobson who – following in the footsteps of his father George - can lay claim to having done just that.
In fact, the paths trodden by both Dobson junior and Dobson senior – a skilled winger in the late 1960s - en route to the Bees’ first team were markedly alike. Both entered the youth ranks at a young age, both made their first team debuts in their teenage years and both became regulars soon after.
“A lot of what I know about my Dad has come from supporters,” Michael – affectionately known as ‘Dobbo’ during his time in west London – tells brentfordfc.com.
“When I was around the ground, people used to walk up to me and my Dad would be with me and they’d say, “You’ve got some big boots to fill there! Your Dad was a cracking player!” I was always thinking that it would be difficult to follow in his footsteps, but it was a shame, from what I hear, that he didn’t get the opportunity to play at the potential he could have done because of the injuries that he suffered.
“I remember he used to have a picture on the wall and he was really proud of it. It was a black-and-white picture, where the ball was coming over his shoulder and he was volleying it – apparently it went in the net, but I’d never know if that’s true or not!
“But injuries are part and parcel of football and that’s how it happens. That’s how it happened with me because I didn’t get to finish my career the way that I wanted to finish it, which was a shame.”
Two careers that delivered on the talent they’d promised, but two careers ended by injury, likely before they had peaked.
Take nothing away from Dobson, now 38 and residing in Banbury, Oxfordshire; his 211 appearances put him level with Swansea left-back Jake Bidwell and just outside the top 50 on the club’s all-time appearance list. For a time, he was a near-omnipresent figure in the first team, missing just 11 of a possible 138 league fixtures between the 2001/2 and 2003/04 campaigns.
Quite the feat for a player who’d even questioned his ability to earn a professional contract when Ron Noades bought the club and installed himself as manager in July 1998.
He continues: “I’d had a couple of years where I’d really impressed the managers that were there, it looked like I was going to sign my pro contract early and everything was heading in the right direction. Then, all of a sudden, the management changed and I then had to impress a new bunch and that’s not easy as they’ve got their favourites and they bring their own players in.
“To finally get a chance, it was a relief, though I knew it was coming at some point. I was over the moon to finally get my chance and then, once it happened, I knew that was it – you get one opportunity to make a difference and if you don’t take that opportunity, you can quite easily drop out of the team and you are gone.
“It was nice to know that I’d actually made a bit of an impact and to have a good first half-season when I came in, stay in the team and actually be considered a team member, not just a squad member. It was a nice feeling to know that I’d made it and achieved my dream from when I was eight or nine-years-old.”
Around that time, Brentford was not the en vogue club it is today. But having grown up around it from the age of nine, in the years that followed, Michael found himself in dreamland.
First, there was the 2001 LDV Vans Trophy final at the Millenium Stadium – in which he scored the opening goal in an eventual 2-1 defeat to Port Vale - before another trip to south Wales, little more than a year later, resulted in similar heartache - missing out on promotion to the First Division thanks to a 2-0 defeat to Stoke in the play-off final. Memories only now appreciated fully in hindsight.
He says: “I remember a lot, actually, and I don’t think those memories will ever leave my mind. I can remember it like it was yesterday; conversations I had with people, things that happened and I’ve still got video clips. Even someone asked me the other day, “Oh, you were a footballer, weren’t you? Do you have any clips?” and the first clip I saw on YouTube was of me scoring at the LDV Vans Trophy final.
“For me as a youngster at the time, there were a lot of older pros that had their futures mapped out at other clubs, especially after the play-off final. A lot of other players had clubs coming in for them and they knew they were going elsewhere, so knowing that half the team was going elsewhere and we ended up losing that one, for me it was probably a bigger deal than most because I knew I was at that club the next year.
“To be honest, when I played any game, when I crossed the white line, it didn’t matter what stadium I was at, everything was blocked out and I was mentally focused. I wasn’t one to look around in awe, apart from the one time I ever did that in my career and that was at Stoke - I was out on the pitch and they started to sing ‘Delilah’. If you’ve ever been at Stoke when they sing that, you’ll know that the whole place erupts and it sent chills down my spine.
“Other than that, I just played my football, did what I needed to do, didn’t focus on anything else around me, it was just a football pitch. Looking back at it, it’s great to say I played at these places, but at the time it wasn’t quite that feeling. There are not many people who can say they played in stadiums like that on occasions like that.”
Sandwiched in between those two moments, an unexpected trip to Wally Downes’ office in the summer of 2002 - a time of financial uncertainty.
“I had absolutely no idea what was going on at the time,” he says.
“I was happy to concentrate on playing my football. In actual fact, it was through other players going elsewhere and me being the next one in line, really. When Wally came and spoke to me and said he was making me club captain, I didn’t really know what to say!
“After a couple of days of it sinking in, I approached him and said I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be captain and he asked me why. I said that I didn’t feel I was captain material, I wasn’t really the one to shout or eff and blind and I just wanted to get on with my football. He said: “No, I think your football does the talking for you. It’s not necessarily about having someone who rants and raves in the middle of the pitch, it’s about someone who will put in a tackle or bring a team up when they are struggling and I think you are perfect for that.”
I took it on that basis and once I started to become a captain, I then realised that vocally I needed to be a little bit stronger and I think that came with it. It was bizarre and I wasn’t expecting it at all, but there were then the pressures of being the captain. When things go wrong everyone looks at the manager; when they go beyond the manager, they look at the captain who needs to pull the team together. There was a lot more pressure on my back at that point in my career.”
The arrival of Martin Allen in 2004 essentially spelled the end of Michael’s time in TW8. Though the former West Ham midfielder helped to pull off ‘The Great Escape” at the end of the 2003/04 season, Michael openly admits the pair “didn’t see eye-to-eye” and when his former boss Steve Coppell signed him on-loan at Reading at the end of the 2005/06 season, it was a chance to put himself in the shop window; he’d subsequently made just 31 appearances over Allen’s two full seasons in charge. Poignantly, he has never returned to Griffin Park since.
Heading out on loan did end up assisting his future prospects, with Walsall his next - and, ultimately, final – destination. The fresh start – initially, at least – passed like a dream, with Michael captaining the Saddlers to the League Two title in 2007. But, at the age of 27, his world was rocked when he was forced into retirement having suffered from persistent knee issues.
“As much as I was trying to hang on to play as many games as I could to prolong my career, I knew it was coming to an end,” he recalls.
“There wasn’t anything too major, it was just the fact I’d had four knee operations on my right leg and two on my left. A lot of them were just cartilage, so I had a hell of a lot taken out and on my left leg, I had microfracture as well, which was probably the main injury. Every time you have an operation, it does more damage to your knee and because of the lack of cartilage, I had what they call osteophytes, where the bones, rather than being rounded at the end, were growing outwards and it caused quite bad arthritis.
“I was playing through pain a lot, couldn’t see my kneecaps anymore and it got to a point where it was starting to become a chore going in to play football every day, rather than the excitement of playing football every day.”
“I remember the day I went to see the specialist. I’d finished my career at Walsall and I was hoping that the summer break would give me time to let my knees recover. I was going to sign for another club, I’d trained with them and everything was going to plan, but I played a pre-season game and my knees ballooned again. I’m not the kind of person to sit on the physio bench and claim money, that’s not what I was there for.
“The manager said to me not to worry and that they’d get me back and I said I wouldn’t sign on the dotted line until I’d had my knee checked out because I didn’t want to be that kind of player. I went to see two specialists in Windsor: one was a rugby knee specialist, the other a football knee specialist. That was through the PFA and both of them agreed that if I carried on playing at that level, I’d be in a wheelchair by the age of 30 and that was the moment I knew it was time.
“My life changed a few seconds after hearing that, but it was a weird feeling. I was devastated that I couldn’t play football anymore, but I was in so much pain for the last year of my career and unable to see my knees, that it was almost a weight off my shoulders.
“It’s very difficult playing a game and not playing to your potential because you are hindered by something that people in the stands don’t know about. I went through a lot of pain and I gave my body to whatever club I was at, but a lot of people never got that or never knew that because it was never released.”
Now, with 11 years having elapsed since his premature retirement, Michael’s football career is a far-off memory. Nevertheless, as his Dad did before him - when he coached with Ealing Council – sport has remained the most prominent aspect of Michael’s life.
“I couldn’t just sit and mope, so the moment I knew that was it, I got straight on the phone and trained to become a personal trainer and sports massage therapist. I did it as a crash course, so I was in there from eight in the morning until six at night training and within three months I was fully qualified.
“I set up my own business at the end of that year and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, really. It took a couple of years to really get going, but because I wasn’t the kind of person to blow my money when I was a footballer, I put a lot away and I used my pension wisely to set myself up.”
A foray into football coaching is unlikely to ever come into contention – “It’s not my cup of tea,” says Michael – but other than his day-to-day work, there’s something occupying his attention year after year. In memory his Dad, he takes on a gruelling physical challenge annually. This year it’s an eye-watering 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks; it’s easy to see how the trim physique is maintained.
“When I finished football, I wanted to keep myself fit because you see a lot of footballers who end up being overweight because they’ve gone from training every day to not doing anything. I didn’t want to do that, so being a personal trainer, I had to do that and I started running. It wasn’t great for my knees but because football had been taken away from me, I didn’t want to give up everything that was physical.
“After years of running, people used to ask me if I’d ever thought about running in races, but I said I was happy to run for enjoyment. All of a sudden, because I lost my Dad young – he was 58 – it made me think about the future and how easy it can happen, how your life can just go like that. It got my thinking about maybe raising money for a cancer charity, so I decided to bite the bullet and enter the London Marathon as the only race I was ever going to do.
“I went through the ballot, didn’t get in and I was devastated because I just assumed I was going to get in, even though the ballot is near enough impossible. When I got the results that I wasn’t getting in, I said I’d do it through the charity and had to raise £2000 to race. It was my first-ever race – I’d never done a 5k, 10k, half marathon – so I jumped in at the deep end. I did that and from then on, I decided I wanted to focus my mind and the anger of losing my Dad so young on helping others so I’ve decided to do a charity challenge every year.
“They’ve snowballed over the years so, believe it or not, the marathon was nothing compared to what I’ve done since! I don’t really know what I’m going to do from here – next year will be pretty epic! It’s my way of remembering my Dad and hopefully helping out others if I can raise some money along the way – I think I’ve raised over £12,000 since 2012, so if I can help others and make their lives a bit more comfortable, then it’s a good thing.”