Dickens reflects on Saints stay ahead of return to Franklin's Gardens

So strong was Alan Dickens' connection with Saints, one of his sons cried when he heard the news that his dad would be exiting Northampton.

Alan Dickens in action during his playing days at Saints
Alan Dickens in action during his playing days at Saints

But this Friday, Dickens, who ended an 11-year association with Saints in November, will be back at Franklin's Gardens.

That is because the 44-year-old is now head coach of England Under-20s, who face Ireland in a Six Nations clash at the Gardens.

It will be an emotional return for Dickens after he took the decision to commit to a fresh challenge following a long stint as a player and coach at Saints.

Alan Dickens and Co helped Saints to win the Challenge Cup in 2014

"It will be a special moment but what I also quite like is that after walking off the pitch from training, the (England Under-20s) players have been saying what a fantastic ground the Gardens is," Dickens said.

"Some of them are saying that in their opinion it's the best place to play rugby in the Premiership, saying how good the pitch is and the facilities as well as the support.

"When it's full, it's a fantastic venue to play rugby at.

"It's great to play in front of supporters who are knowledgeable and who will always support the teams that play there."

Saints did the double in 2014 as they claimed their first Premiership title

While Dickens is obviously focused on this week's match, there was no way we could speak to him without looking back on his time at Saints.

It could be considered an extremely successful one as the likeable former Sale, Leeds and Saracens man made Northampton his home.

Dickens was not only a scrum-half for Saints, having played for the club between 2008 before his retirement in 2010, but he was a mentor in many forms.

He enjoyed roles as Academy manager, attack coach, backs coach, interim head coach and, most recently, defence coach.

Alan Gaffney teamed up with Dickens to help steer Saints to safety during the 2017/18 season

And Dickens' contribution should not be underestimated, particularly during the 2017/18 season when he took over the interim head coach role following the departure of long-serving director of rugby Jim Mallinder.

Saints were on the slide, suffering defeat after defeat.

But Dickens, alongside Australian Alan Gaffney, who arrived as technical coaching consultant for the second half of the season, steered Saints to safety.

"I was very fortunate that I worked under Jim Mallinder because he's the most successful DOR the club has ever had," Dickens said.

"When Jim left, it was a difficult place to be in but I was asked to do a job by (Saints chief executive) Mark Darbon and when you're employed by a club and asked to do a job, it's your responsibility to do the job and move on.

"I wanted to make something good come of it and we did scrap, we got some good results towards the end of the season and we managed to stay in the league because we were in a precarious position.

"As a DOR at Saracens, Gaff (Gaffney) was fantastic with his attention to detail and he brought that to the final six months.

"He's someone I hold in high regard and get on with and it was my suggestion so I was pleased when he came over."

Dickens did enough to earn a place in Chris Boyd's coaching team, taking over the role of defence coach in 2018.

But he eventually decided the time was right for him to move on when the RFU came calling.

"Any decision you make is always tough and you have to weigh up the pros and cons," he said.

"A wise man once told me one of the keys to coaching is longevity.

"How I view that is that I need to experience different roles.

"I've done different roles at Northampton, but only Northampton.

"I've been Academy manager, I've coached the attack, the defence, the backs and been interim head coach.

"I've done a lot of roles at the club and I needed to go and challenge myself in a different environment to improve my skill-set.

"I can do that with the Under-20s in the RFU."

So has Dickens missed life at Saints since his departure?

"I've been very busy so I've not had a chance to think about it, but Northampton was a massive part of my life for 12 years," he said.

"When I told my third son, who is 10, that I would be leaving, he burst into tears because it's all he's known.

"My kids are all Saints fans.

"I'll always have fond memories at Northampton and I'll always wish them well, but from my point of view, it was time to move on to a different challenge."

But with Saints' Academy churning out talent these days, Dickens is certainly not far removed from life at the Gardens.

"Hoppers (Saints Academy manager Mark Hopley) reckons I talk to him more now I've left than I did when I was at Northampton," Dickens said, laughing.

"Across the board in the Premiership, the academies are doing a good job and we've got a lot of talent.

"Northampton have had about seven or eight Academy players in this year and a lot of the other academies are doing the same."

And Dickens has actually been to watch a Saints game since his departure - but it wasn't in Northampton.

"Every year, my brother-in-law and friends have done a European trip and the one at Leinster in December was the one they'd pre-booked," he explained.

"When I left Saints, they put me under massive pressure and said 'you need to come with us'.

"I was there as someone who was just watching the game and I enjoyed the atmosphere that is the build-up to a big game. It's probably something you don't get to see often."

Dickens was part of a Saints journey that took the club from a newly-promoted team to champions in the space of six years.

And he takes some time to recall where his journey with the club all began.

"I think they were looking for a slightly balding, slightly ageing, third-choice scrum-half and I fitted the bill," he said, jokingly.

"My very first year as a professional player (at Sale), Jim Mallinder was my DOR so I knew of Jim from that.

"I also had a connection with Steve Diamond at Saracens and he went to a recruitment role at Northampton.

"I knew they were looking for a scrum-half, they were building, they'd just got promoted into the Premiership (in 2008) and I was fortunate they offered me a contract.

"I only signed a one-year deal but 11 and a half years later I was still there.

"I've always said it's my family's club because the Dickens side are from Northamptonshire and I was fortunate enough to play for the Saints."

Dickens' transition from player to coach may have been a natural one, but it wasn't necessarily easy doing it at the same club.

"It was probably a natural progression because I was a qualified teacher," he said.

"I taught PE for a couple of years so it was probably a natural move for me.

"The most difficult thing in those early years was probably Chris Ashton - and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

"He's a top bloke and I'd never knock him because he's a good man and someone I get on well with, but there was plenty of banter.

"One of the most difficult things when you go from playing to coaching is the connections you have with the players previously.

"Your role changes and obviously the dynamics change in the relationship so it was a tough first two or three years when I first started.

"But I'm sure it's the same for most coaches when they make that transition at a club they've played at."

Dickens enjoyed some lows, but he enjoyed far more highs.

So what was his Saints highlight?

"The day that I left the club, I spoke to the players and the staff and my favourite memory was the Premiership play-off semi-final (against Leicester Tigers) at Franklin's Gardens in 2014," he said.

"The atmosphere in the crowd that night was fantastic and you could see the outpouring of emotion.

"It was a fantastic thing to be involved in and it was a highlight of my time as a coach at Northampton."

And now Dickens is hoping to create some special memories with the England Under-20s.

He has enjoyed getting his teeth into his new role and it is certainly a contrasting one to the job he had at Saints.

"It's a different challenge and one I'm currently enjoying," Dickens said.

"It's definitely different because it's not got the day-to-day involvement you have at a club, but it's one that is challenging and enjoyable.

"Currently it's actually pretty similar because we're going week to week with the games, but before that there's a lot of planning and a lot of meetings.

"The first job when I came into the role was to get around the clubs and introduce myself as a priority.

"Another priority was getting to know the players as quickly as possible.

"That's what I've done so far and after the Six Nations there will be another chunk of time where we're not in competition and a lot of that will be spent preparing for the World Cup in Italy."

Dickens is clearly savouring his fresh start, but could we see him back in the club arena one day?

"Who knows?" he said.

"The job I'm doing at the moment I'm enjoying.

"I need to learn and this job allows me to go and do and see different things.

"It helps me to improve as a coach and an all-round person."