Billy Bingham set a new British cash record in August 1974, when he paid Burnley £300,000 to sign their elegant England international midfielder, Martin Dobson. The value of the deal matched that which brought Bob Latchford to Goodison Park the previous February and it was hoped that the two big-money buys would bring success back to Goodison after the break-up of Harry Catterick’s 1970 Championship winning team.
Dobson started out as a centre forward, but as a youth player with Bolton Wanderers was not offered professional terms at 18. Several years earlier, Alan Ball had suffered a similar fate at Burnden Park, before making his name elsewhere in Lancashire, with Blackpool, ahead of a record move to Everton, and so history would repeat itself for Dobson.
Taken on by Burnley, under the managment of Jimmy Adamson the six-foot-tall player was moved into central midfield. This was to be such an inspired switch that he became, at the age of just 21, club captain. Dobson made his England debut in 1974 against Portugal, in Sir Alf Ramsey's last match in charge. Seen as almost a continental-type player, with calm, fluent distribution, but who almost strolled around the pitch, his doubters wondered whether such a player could be accommodated within the hustle of the modern game.
Attention heightened after Billy Bingham paid Burnley a record fee in August 1974 and the midfielder initially struggled. Dobson admitted years later: ‘I found it difficult to adapt from a small town club to one in a big city and didn’t do myself justice at first.’
Indeed the high-tempo style of play under Bingham was very different to that played at Burnley. Although Everton challenged for the league title in Dobson’s debut season, it was only after an absence over the Christmas period that Evertonians saw the best of him. Bryan Hamilton later attributed a tendency to fall out of games to Dobson ‘probably playing better with the ball than without it’, and it was acknowledged that Dobson played his best when the Blues were dominating proceedings.
GOODISON saw the very best from Dobson after the signing of Bruce Rioch in December 1976, who complemented his style of play superbly. Duncan McKenzie said: ‘[Dobson] oozed ability and almost had the look of a continental-type player when he was on the pitch. Martin was very elegant on the pitch and would be the perfect complement to Rioch. A playmaker to his hard man.’
Despite making the League Cup Final in 1977 before finishing third in 1978 and fourth in 1979, playing in the shadow cast by Liverpool Everton were perpetually seen as second best, no matter how well they played. Dobson was sold back to Burnley at the end of the 1978/79 season for £100,000. At the age of 31, Everton were only prepared to offer him a two-year contract when the midfielder wanted three years. In all he played 230 League and Cup games for Everton, scoring an impressive 40 goals including a hat-trick in the League Cup tie against Wimbledon – an achievement somewhat overshadowed by Bob Latchford’s five goals in the same game.
It was brilliant coming to Everton,’ he said in 2007. ‘That was another level for me, playing for a big-city club in front of 40,000 fans. I’ll always be grateful for the support that the Evertonians gave me, they are so passionate and want you to succeed.
ALTHOUGH it was felt that he was coming to the end of his career Dobson continued to played for another five years at Turf Moor, helping Burnley to the Third Division title in 1982 and appearing alongside a young Trevor Steven. In March 1984 he moved to Bury as player-manager where he spent five years, gaining promotion in 1985, but after failing to re-negotiate a contract he was subsequently out of the game for two years. He returned to management with Bristol Rovers in 1991 but left after just three months saying, ‘I went there with a lot of enthusiasm and plenty of ideas but the bottom line is results and the team just didn’t get them.’
Subsequently Dobson held positions on the peripheries of the game – a spell as Bolton youth coach in the mid-1990s, most recently scouting work for Ipswich. In 2007 Dobson published a football novel for teenagers. Now in his sixties, he still attends Goodison regularly from his home in Lancashire.