In football history, few men have ever been so synonymous with the club they played for as William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean and Everton. Just as mention of Pele instantly conjures the name Santos, or Alfredo Di Stefano Real Madrid, so Dean and Everton seem intrinsically linked.
For 13 years, Goodison became ‘Dixieland’, ruled on and off the pitch by his effusive personality. On it, Dean’s goals defined Everton’s fate and helped bring them an array of trophies. Off it, Dean the man was – as one colleague remembered – ‘bigger and better than life’, his extrovert character a colossal presence in the dressing room yet also somehow transcending the traditional barriers that existed between players and fans. Perhaps this was because Dean was both an Everton player and supporter himself.
Schoolboys idolised him. Grown men idolised him. His own team-mates idolised him. Even decades after his death, Evertonians still idolise him – the magnificent statue bearing his likeness is each Saturday transformed into a shrine to the greatest goalscorer football’s founding nation has ever seen.
A SCOUSE LEGEND, Dean’s roots nevertheless lie on the other side of the River Mersey, in Birkenhead. Born in January 1907, the young Dean quickly emerged as a local footballing prodigy. The nickname ‘Dixie’ – which he disliked, preferring to be called Bill – may have originated from his boyhood, when friends dubbed him ‘Digsy’. Never the most naturally athletic or tallest of players, he honed incredible shooting power and aerial prowess, and was said to ‘hang’ in the air awaiting crosses.
From an early age football took all of his spare time, much of which was spent practising his heading. ‘When I was 12 or 13 I used to practice by tossing the ball onto a low chapel roof and heading it as it dropped,’ he later recounted. ‘Once the ball was on the roof it was out of sight and I only had a split second when it came back into vision. I then tried to head the ball into the opposite direction to that which I was running. I got so good that I could hit virtually any square of the net later on!’ Dean also possessed a fearsome shot: in one game one of his ‘bullets’ was said to have broken the goalkeeper’s arm.
As a schoolboy he played for an array of teams – Laird Street School, Birkenhead Boys, Parkside, Birkenhead Melville and occasionally Upton Hamlet and Wirral Railways – sometimes playing two or three games on a single day.
Tranmere Rovers signed him in 1923, pitching him in the first team before his 17th birthday. He established himself during the 1924/25 season and was a phenomenon, scoring 27 league goals in 27 appearances. Newcastle and Arsenal were said to be interested in the young star, but for Dixie there was only ever one team: Everton.
The young player’s love affair with Everton began as a seven-year-old, when his father, a railway man, took him to Goodison in its 1914/15 Championship-winning season. From that day he knew his destiny lay to Goodison.
Everton's secratary-manager Tom McIntosh had already seen the teenager perform well on a number of occasions across the Mersey. He recognised that his outstanding ability both in the air and on the ground fitted in with the club's credo (later professed by Will Cuff) that,
It has always been an unwritten but rigid policy of the board, handed down from one generation of directors to another, that only the classical and stylish type of player should be signed. The kick-and-rush tupe has never appealed to them.
In March 1925, Everton paid £3000 for the 18-year-old. As the Daily Post put it: ‘He is a natural footballer with a stout heart, a willing pair of feet and a constitution that will stand him in good stead.’ At the time of his transfer Dean had scored 27 of Tranmere’s 44 goals and they were second bottom of Division Three North.
Everton were faring scarcely better in the top flight, sitting in 20th place, a single position over the two relegation spots. At the campaign’s conclusion they had scored only 40 times, conceding 60 and finishing 17th. Dean added two goals to that measly tally in his seven appearances. His debut, a 3-1 defeat at Arsenal on 21 March 1925, passed without him finding the net, although that was soon rectified when he made his Goodison debut against Aston Villa and hammered home the first of his 383 Everton goals, a feat marked by a standing ovation from the Goodison crowd.
Dean began the 1925/26 season in the reserves, missing the first four first-team matches of the campaign. Recalled in mid-September, Dean took a few weeks to settle and then the goals started to flow at a rate that would barely subside through the rest of his Goodison career. His first hat-trick came against Burnley on 17 October 1925 and another a week later at Goodison against Leeds. By the end of the season he had scored 32 goals in just 38 games and the roar ‘Give it to Dixie’ came to reverberate around Goodison whenever an Everton attack started. A new star had been born.
Dean was always more than just a goal machine though, and part of his enduring appeal are the stories about him, which on Merseyside are legion. One that persists even decades after his death concerns his mythical heading power. On a motorcycling outing during the 1926 close season Dean was involved in head-on collision with another bike. For 36 hours he lay in a coma, having suffered an appalling array of injuries, including a fractured skull and jaw. Although he made a full recovery, a legend emerged that Dean had had a metal plate inserted into his forehead, enabling him to use his head like a battering ram. The story was nonsense, but since Dean could head the ball as powerfully as some players kicked it, it was unsurprising some fans thought it true.
THIRTY THOUSAND PEOPLE turned out to see Dean’s return for the reserves in October. On a sodden pitch, with a heavy ball, any fears of the long-term effects – psychological or physical – were soon forgotten when he powered home a header from a Ted Critchley corner. Thomas Keates marvelled: ‘The romance of Dean’s recovery and the amazing increase in his skill are psychological, physiological and supernatural occurrences.’ During the 1926/27 season Dean scored a further 23 goals in 30 league and cup appearances, but once more Everton’s woeful defence let them down (conceding 94 goals) and they slumped to 20th position, a single place off relegation.
At the end of the 1924/25 season, the Football Association had changed the offside law in order to promote attacking play. The number of opponents required between the attacker and goal line was now reduced to two from three.
IT SEEMED a minor alteration, but the impact on the ‘goals for’ columns was dramatic. In the Football League the number of goals scored rose from 4,700 in 1924/25 to 6,373 the following campaign. As defences struggled to get to grips with the new rule, it was a boom time for strikers. George Camsell was the first major beneficiary, scoring an astonishing 59 goals for Middlesbrough in the Second Division during the 1926/27 season.
Spurred on by Camsell’s feats, Dean began the 1927/28 season in mesmerising fashion. By the end of November he had played 15 matches and scored 27 times. His haul included hat-tricks against Portsmouth and Leicester, plus all five when Everton beat Manchester United at the start of October.
By Christmas Everton were top of the Football League and Dean started the New Year with 35 goals. 1928 brought more goals: two against Blackburn on 2 January; another brace against Camsell’s Middlesbrough on the seventh.
On 22 January Dean celebrated his 21st birthday and a week later he scored another two goals in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Arsenal, which ended in a 3-4 defeat.
When Everton met Liverpool at Anfield on 25 February his tally stood at 40 goals. Up against his great friend and rival Elisha Scott in the Liverpool goal, he hit a hat-trick, which pulled him level with Ted Harper’s First Division record set two years earlier.
It took Dean a further month to beat Harper’s tally, with a brace against Derby County on 25 March, which sealed a 2-2 draw. Camsell’s record, which had been spoken about among Evertonians with confidence just a month earlier, now seemed to be slipping away from Dean.
In the last nine games of the 1927/28 season, Dean needed to score 17 times to attain the magical 60 – and one of those matches would be missed through international duty. Odds of 10,000–1 against Dean breaking the record were supposedly offered locally but, undeterred, he went back to doing what he did best: scoring. Fourteen goals in seven starts followed. Everton had already lifted the First Division title: to beat Camsell’s record all Dixie needed was a hat-trick at Goodison on the last day of the season, 5 May 1928, against the mighty Arsenal. Such feats belonged to the pages of Rover and The Wizard, comic book fantasy. No mortal could possibly manage such feats, could they?
The day got off to a bad start and Goodison was silenced when Arsenal took a 1-0 lead on three minutes. Two minutes later the hush turned to elation as Dean equalised with a typically stupendous header – from outside the Arsenal area. One down, two to go, and on seven minutes Dean made it 2-1 from the penalty spot.
Camsell’s record had been equalled, but with almost the entire match remaining Dean struggled to beat it. Chances passed and Arsenal equalised, but still the magical 60th goal would not come. Then on 82 minutes Everton got a corner. Alec Troup, provider of so many of Dixie’s goals, swung it in and Dean stooped to head his 60th goal into an empty net.
‘You talk about explosions and loud applause,’ an ageing Thomas Keates recalled. ‘We have heard many explosions and much applause in our loud pilgrimage but believe us, we have never heard before such a prolonged roar of thundering congratulatory applause as that which ascended to heaven when Dixie broke his record.’ Dean marked his 60th goal with a simple bow, but Goodison went wild. ‘Somebody ran on the pitch and stuck his whiskers in my face and tried to kiss me,’ he recalled. ‘Well! I’d never seen a supporter run onto the pitch until that day.’ He was congratulated by the Arsenal players and the first man to shake his hand was Bill Paterson, the Arsenal goalkeeper. ‘I looked at Dean and he seemed shocked,’ he remembered. ‘I smiled and, God forgive me, I went over and shook hands with him.’
The final minutes of the season were played out amid wild cheering. ‘It was the signal for the pantomime dames and gentry to take up their stance,’ remembered the watching Will Cuff. ‘The crowd raced onto the field, the game appeared as if it would never be restarted. Players leapt into the air; nobody cared a brass farthing for the remaining minutes of the match.’
IN ALL DEAN HAD SCORED in 29 of his 39 First Division appearances – eight singles, 14 doubles, five hat-tricks, a four and a five; 29 at home, 31 away; 40 from shots, 20 from headers. Only West Ham and Sunderland escaped his goals and they each featured in two of the three games Dean didn’t play. But just how great was Dean’s achievement? There is an idea that defending was far more lax in the 1920s, but actually the notion that defences were uniquely generous pre-war is false. In winning the First Division in 1928 Everton scored 102 goals; but even in the early 1960s such a tally was regularly trumped. As Premier League champions in 2010, Chelsea scored 103 times in just 38 games. Yet no individual has come within a sniff of Dean’s 60-goal record.
Modern defending may be more sophisticated, but Dean had to contend with unrestrained violence. As a youngster he lost a testicle after one horror tackle, while the Everton trainer, Harry Cooke, collected pieces of Dean’s cartilage from the numerous operations he underwent. Conditions and equipment were rudimentary too. Games were often played on quagmires and the boots Dixie wore are more akin to today’s health and safety footwear on building sites.
Aston Villa’s ‘Pongo’ Waring (another Birkenhead boy) came nearest to Dean’s 60 with 49 top-flight goals in 1930/31, but nobody else has ever come close. Only Arthur Rowley scored more league goals than Dixie’s career total of 379, but while Dean played most of his career in the top flight, only two years of Rowley’s career were spent outside the lower leagues.
DEAN went on scoring. He had already made the first of 16 England appearances a year earlier, and would score 18 goals for his country. Staggeringly he only played four more times for his country after the age of 21, the last of these appearances coming in 1932 against Northern Ireland.
For two years after his 60-goal haul, Dean would be troubled by persistent injuries that would ultimately have disastrous consequences for Everton. With his appearances restricted by rheumatism and an ankle operation, Everton finished the 1928/29 season 18th, a position considerably worsened after an alarming run of eight defeats in their last nine games. Despite a stop-start campaign, Dean still managed a highly credible 26 goals from 29 league appearances.
However, the 1929/30 season would be an unmitigated disaster for Everton. An injury-ravaged Dean bagged 25 goals from 27 league and cup appearances, but goals weren’t the problem: Everton scored 80, but conceded a disastrous total of 92. They finished the season bottom, albeit just four points off 14th-placed Arsenal, and were relegated for the first time.
When the players reported for pre-season training on 1 August 1930, first there for duty was Dean – an annual custom he maintained throughout his Everton career. It was a sign of intent, and with Everton’s maestro putting his injury problems behind him, few anticipated the stay in football’s second tier to be a long one. Unburdened by his injury woes, Dean went on the rampage, scoring 39 goals in 37 matches as Everton lifted the Second Division title, and a further nine in the FA Cup, where they reached the semi-final.
MORE RECORDS came Dean’s way. He completed his double-century of goals on 8 November 1930 in only his 207th appearance. He was 23 years, 290 days old – exactly the same age as Jimmy Greaves when he completed the same feat more than 30 years later. He was presented with a commemorative medal and the Daily Post noted: ‘It is a fine record considering his comparatively short career. No footballer in history had a record of such consistency in league soccer, or ever will, perhaps.’ On the day Dean scored his 200th Everton goal with a brace against Bradford City, Everton were guaranteed promotion back to the top flight.
By then, many people were paying the admission just to see him play and it was reckoned Dean was adding 5,000 onto the average gate. It was known that some fans asked at the turnstile, ‘Is he playing?’ If the answer were negative then they would go home. One biographer has pondered that if that were the case throughout his Everton career it would have yielded the club an additional total of two million on their gates.
Off the field his pleasures included a pint of beer and a cigarette, which merely added to his appeal. Tales of him drinking ten pints in the Wilnslow pub opposite Goodison the night before scoring a hat-trick are mostly apocryphal, but he remained a man of the people and was frequently seen socialising with fans. Although easy-going, certain things nevertheless riled Dean. He hated what the German Nazi Party represented, and when Everton visited Dresden on a pre-season tour in 1932, he refused to let his team conduct a Heil Hitler salute in front of a crowd that included Hermann Goering.
Dean became Everton captain for the 1931/32 season and went at First Division defences mercilessly. He scored 45 league goals – the third-highest tally in top-flight history (behind his own record and Pongo Waring’s 49) – as Everton romped home to their fourth league title. Dean scored five in the 9-3 win over Sheffield Wednesday on 17 October and again when Everton beat Chelsea 7-2 on 14 November. Comparisons were soon made with the 1927/28 season and whether Dean could break his own amazing record – but this time, despite his staggering tally, the goals were shared.
Amid an inconsistent defence of the league title in 1932/33, solace was found in the FA Cup, the only honour Dean was still to win. He scored in the third round (a 3-2 win over Leicester), the fourth round (Bury, 3-1), fifth round (Leeds, 2-0) and the sixth round (Luton 6-0), but not when Everton met West Ham in the semi-final at Molineux, Ted Critchley and Jimmy Dunn grabbing the goals in a 2-1 victory.
The final – Everton’s first appearance at Wembley – was notable for being the first match where players’ shirts were officially numbered – Everton wore 1– 11; Manchester City 12–22 – so that Dean, doyen of centre forwards, became the original number nine. All afternoon Dean tormented his opponents. As Matt Busby in the City half back line put it:
To play against Dixie Dean was at once a delight and a nightmare. He was a perfect specimen of an athlete, beautifully proportioned, with immense strength, adept on the ground but with extraordinary skill in the air.
Jimmy Stein opened the scoring shortly before half-time after Dean pressured the City goalkeeper into dropping the ball. Dean scored a second, powering home the ball and goalkeeper from Cliff Britton’s centre, and Jimmy Dunn completed the rout ten minutes from the end.
At the age of 25 Dean had now accomplished everything in football. ‘I’ll never forget going up to the royal box at Wembley to collect the FA Cup,’ he recalled. ‘I received it off the Duchess of York [the late Queen Mother]. She congratulated me and said it was a very good game. She really smiled and said she had enjoyed it. That made me feel so proud. I was walking ten feet tall because it meant I had won every honour in the game. That cup medal completed my collection.’
Although he continued to be a formidable force, by his own impossible standards Dean was a declining force after 1933. Injuries persistently blighted him. He made just 12 appearances in 1933/34, as Everton slipped to 14th, but still scored nine goals – including his 300th league goal.
A REVIVED Dean returned for the 1934/35 season and scored 26 goals in 38 appearances as Everton finished 16th. But this was an Everton side in transition, prone to unexpected lapses (as witness the double-header with Sunderland – Everton beating them 6-2 on Christmas Day and losing 0-7 the following day), and never in serious contention for the league.
Dean was again blighted by injury through the 1935/36 season, but still found the net 17 times in 29 appearances. Of lasting consequence to the forward’s own prospects was the death of secretary-manager Tom McIntosh in December and his replacement with the machiavellian Theo Kelly. A self-publicising and egotistical man, Kelly’s relationship with Dean was destined to failure.
In the short term, a resurgent Dean did not let this impair his goalscoring. He was to grab 24 goals in 36 appearances in 1936/37, passing Steve Bloomer’s league scoring record at the start of the season.
By now Dean had entered the veteran stage of his career. Still aged only 29, although he had retained his instinct in front of goal, he was stockier and slower and injuries had impaired his movement. A long-term replacement in Tommy Lawton had been bought mid-season from Burnley, and although Dean took the young forward under his wing he sensed that Kelly was trying to oust him.
‘This chap Kelly had no time for the older lads,’ Dean would say. ‘I just couldn’t get on with him. He was secretary but I didn’t care what he was. I knew what was happening. He wanted to get rid of me and also one or two other people who looked like being in with a chance of becoming manager one day.’
Three games into the 1937/38 season, Dean was dropped and Lawton handed the number nine shirt. He was to play just twice more for the first team, his 399th and final game coming at home to Birmingham City on 11 December, 1937. He continued to play for the reserves, eventually winning a Central League Championship medal, but Kelly had cut off any prospect of his returning back to the first team. Dean recalled: ‘Kelly started telling lies about me and things got worse. He wanted to have that manager’s job and definitely wanted to get rid of me. I could see that. So I had it out with him and decided to move on.’
On 11 March 1938, the unthinkable happened. Dean was sold to Notts County for £3000. Astute as ever, Kelly made certain that Everton recouped the money paid to Tranmere thirteen years earlier. ‘I didn’t want to leave Everton,’ Dean said years later. ‘But Kelly was the reason I did leave. It wasn’t on account of Tommy Lawton arriving – it was nothing to do with that. That fella Kelly just didn’t want me there long.’ Disgracefully, though, Everton’s greatest ever player was allowed to leave without a farewell or thanks. Perhaps understandably, he did not return to Goodison for many years.
DEAN’S SPELL in Nottingham was brief and not entirely auspicious. He played out his career in Ireland with Sligo Rovers where he won the Irish FA Cup, returning to Britain on the outbreak of the war.
Although one of the most revered players in football history, like most of his contemporaries Dean’s extraordinary exploits never made him rich. He earned the statutory maximum basic wage of around £8 a week – worth about £375 in today’s money. By contrast, in the same era the baseball player Babe Ruth earned $80,000 each year ($1,000,000 today) – 25 times as much as Dean. On his retirement he ran a Chester pub, the Dublin Packet, but gave it up in 1961. Aged 54, Dean was given a job by the Everton chairman and Littlewoods pools magnate John Moores – but there was no glamour: he was a security guard, then porter in Littlewoods headquarters. Moores, nevertheless, granted Dean Everton’s first ever testimonial game in 1964, which raised £10,000.
On 1 March 1980, Dean, along with Bill Shankly, was a guest of the journalist John Keith at a lunch in Liverpool. Keith recalled: ‘Shanks stood up and eulogised Dixie, coming out with a wonderful quote, “Dean remains in the company of the supremely great, like Beethoven, Rembrandt and Shakespeare.” Dixie actually started to cry.’ Afterwards the men reconvened to Goodison, where Keith was covering the Merseyside derby for the Daily Express. It was a bad-tempered match, won 2-1 by Liverpool, but the result was soon forgotten. News had broken that Dean had collapsed with a heart attack during the game and died in Goodison’s gymnasium. ‘It was an amazing, incredibly poignant day,’ said Keith. ‘With Shanks’ speech, Dixie had heard his own obituary.’
It was somehow fitting that Dean spent his final moments at Goodison, for being an Evertonian was elemental to his existence. Despite all his goals, it was his pride at being taken to Evertonians’ hearts that brought most pleasure. ‘I’ll never forget the Everton fans for the way they treated me, not only when I was playing but long after I left the club,’ he said late in his life.
I felt that these fans belonged to me and I belonged to them. I was born and bred an Evertonian and I knew I would never change.
As to the 60 goals, even at the end of his life Dean was adamant that the record was beatable. ‘People ask me if that 60-goal record will ever be beaten,’ he reflected. ‘I think it will. But there’s only one man who’ll do it. That’s the fella who walks on water. I think he’s about the only one.’
KEITH, JOHN, Dixie Dean: The Inside Story of a Football Icon, Robson Books, 2001
ROBERTS, JOHN, Dixie Dean: The Forgotten Tapes, Trinity Mirror, 2008
ROGERS, KEN (ed.), Dixie Dean Uncut: The Lost Interview, Trinity Mirror 2005
UPTON, GILBERT, Dixie Dean of Tranmere Rovers, 1992
WALSH, NICK, Dixie Dean: The Life of a Goalscoring Legend, MacDonald and James, 1977