By Vince Cooper
SOMETIMES one feat can take a little away from the overall performance of a great player. The 60 league goals Dixie Dean scored in the 1927-28 season is one such. But in Dean’s career it is one of many such feats for he was, undoubtedly, one of the supreme goalgetters of all time and on an international as well as a club level.
William Ralph Dean was the fifth child, and first son, born to his parents William and Sarah and arrived fifteen years after they were married on 22 January 1907. Another daughter would come along later giving young Bill a total of five sisters.
William Sr, a native of Chester, was an engine driver with the Great Western Railway (where he sometimes drove Queen Victoria’s train). He moved to Birkenhead to be closer to his then-girlfriend and future wife Sarah who was in domestic service and it was here that young William was born.
After attending Laird Street School (on the same street he was born) he left home and voluntarily entered the Albert Memorial Industrial Borstal, an ‘institute for delinquents’ primarily because, run by a Scot, it had excellent football facilities. He had to lie to his schoolmates that he was in for stealing as they wouldn’t have believed anyone would attend of their own free will.
At 11 he started playing centre-forward for the school team, some of whom were five years older than him. By this time he already had his first job, as a Milkman’s assistant working from 4 a.m. until 8 a.m. and going around the local farms carrying churns of milk which no doubt helped his physical development during a time when nutritious food was hard to come by.
Dean’s father was an Everton fan and took his son to his first match in the 1914-15 season, the last one before football was cancelled due to the First World War and one in which the Toffees won the title. It was after that visit that young Bill vowed to become a professional footballer, and to play for Everton.
Called up for a trial for Birkenhead Schools he scored six times (playing at outside-right). Immediately after the match he cycled off to play for his school, and promptly scored another six. Next – still on the same day – he went to play for the Moreton Bible Class team and, yes, scored six more. Eighteen goals in three matches in one day.
An early match for Birkenhead Schools came against Liverpool Schools and this time Bill scored just the once – and it was an own-goal in a 5-0 defeat. This proved a rare lapse and on many occasions he scored multiple times for the district side quickly earning a growing reputation, and all this at just 12-years-old.
Dean’s other main sporting interest as a youngster was golf and he got plenty of opportunity to improve his game when working as a caddie at a local club. Such was his prowess that at the age of just 15 his handicap was down to two – he would eventually get it down to scratch. There’s little doubt that he could have made it to the top in the sport but football remained his first love.
Dean left school at 14-years-old in 1921 and was immediately found work at Wirral Railway by his dad who was now working there. Whilst working shifts limited his chance of football practice he quickly found his way into the works team.
After playing in the Cheshire Senior Cup Final where his team were beaten 1-0 by Tranmere Rovers another local team, Penby, offered him 2s 6d a week to play for them in the Wirral Combination. His new team won the championship in his first year and he was given the opportunity of signing for Football League team New Brighton. He refused – saying that he only wanted to play for Everton!
So Dean spent two more seasons with Penby then broke his Everton vow by joining Tranmere Rovers. He signed professional with the club soon after his sixteenth birthday, giving up his railway job and doubling his wages to £4 10s a week.
In his second season he travelled to the North East with his team to play Ashington. He was taken to St James’ Park on the morning of the match where unknown to him, the Tranmere secretary had arranged for representatives of Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Arsenal and Birmingham City to be present, each wanting to talk to Bill about joining them. The 17-year-old rejected them all, preferring to wait for the call from Goodison Park although it is intriguing to wonder what might have happened had he gone to the North East and linked up with Hughie Gallacher.
One incident during his time at Prenton Park stood out for Dean.
“We had lost 2-1 at Halifax,” he later remembered, “One of our lads had a penalty awarded against him and was still mad about it when we caught the train home.
”Unfortunately the referee got into our carriage and the player started arguing with him. Eventually he got so mad, he turned round to an old woman sitting in the corner with a basket of fish, took a kipper and swiped the ref.
”Needless to say he was reported.”
Towards the end of the 1924-25 season the call finally came. He had scored 27 times in 27 games for Rovers (the team only scored 44 times in total) and finally Everton, who along with others had been monitoring his progress, came calling in the form of secretary.manager Tom McIntosh. An offer of £3,000 convinced Rovers to part with their young star and, of course, he jumped at the chance to move to the only club he had ever wanted to play for, signing in March 1925.
In action at Goodison
Dean’s all-round game, ability to score with either foot and prowess in the air made him probably the most promising young centre-forward in the country and now he had joined a top team.
In fact it was his aerial ability that made him stand out, throughout his career. “While other lads did all the work with their feet, I found my head was my greatest asset,” he would later say.
”Whenever the ball was in the air I was the master of my opponents. In fact I could head the ball with more precision than the average player could kick it. And I could ‘nod ‘em in’ from 20 yards with bullet-like force.”
By the time he moved to Goodison he had already had to become used to being called ‘Dixie’ a nickname given to him because his dark skin, said some, made him resemble someone from America’s Deep South. He said of the nickname; “How I hated it it in those early days’ claiming it cast doubt about his own parentage and that he would always ask that people call him Bill. But the name stuck, so much so that now, if a footballing youngster is called Dean he is automatically given the nickname ‘Dixie’.
And the man himself came to accept ‘Dixie’, and even used it when signing autographs.
Five days after joining his new team Dean made his debut. It was a trip to London to face Arsenal. Unusually, both teams were fighting a relegation battle and the Gunners spoiled the 18-year-old’s first start, winning 3-1. After scoring on his home debut, against Aston Villa, he was left out of the team. Returning two weeks later he finished the season with seven starts and two goals as The Toffees finished 17th.
Dean trained hard through the summer of 1925, also enjoying his other sporting loves, tennis, cricket and, of course, golf, and was rewarded when he took over the number-nine job from Wilf Chadwick at the start of the new campaign.
He had been left out for the first match of the campaign and scored seven times for the reserves against Bradford. Called up after that performance he proceeded to score 32 times in 38 matches, and this for a team that only managed 72 as a whole and finished in mid-table.
In June 1926 Dean called for his girlfriend of the time to take her for a spin on his motorbike. Driving out towards North Wales they were involved in a head-on collision with a motorbike and sidecar. Bill was unconscious for 36 hours and suffered a broken jaw, concussion and a fractured skull. The Everton club doctor visited him and returned to Goodison with the grim opinion that he would never play football again.
Immediately after leaving hospital he got back on a motorbike; ‘to test my nerve’ as he later said, and fifteen weeks after the accident he was back, playing for the club’s reserves against Huddersfield. Two weeks after he made a scoring return to the first team against Leeds United.
On England duty
Straight back to his best, Dean was quickly banging in the goals again and before the season ended he received his first England call-up. And he recalls finding out: “A friend rang me and said ‘You’re in!’
”I couldn’t understand his excitement. ‘The England team – you’ve been picked’ he explained”.
So, in February 1927, aged just 20, he made his debut against Wales at Wrexham, with Everton teammate Tom Griffiths his direct opponent. He scored twice and made the third in a 3-3 draw. Two months later he scored both goals as England came from behind to beat Scotland 2-1 in front of 111,214 fans, at Hampden Park for the first time since 1904. The match provided a financial bonus for the centre-forward. To set alongside the princely sum of £6 received from the F.A. a wealthy England fan offered £10 per man if they won with an added £10 per goal to each player who scored bringing the centre-forward’s earnings up to £36.
In May 1927 England went on a European tour, playing matches against Belgium, France and Luxembourg. Two hat-tricks and a brace gave him eight goals from the three fixture and brought his England tally to 12 in five games. The three matches during the 1927-28 campaign proved disappointing with the national team getting no points, and Dean getting no goals in the Home International Championship and the Wembley Wizards running out 5-1 winners against the ‘Auld Enemy’. But at club level is was a different story.
21st birthday celebrations. Dixie, known as a competent tap-dancer, no doubt showed off his skills
The 1927-28 season proved the most memorable in Dean’s career. He found the net an astonishing 60 times in the league (with three more in the cup and 82 in all competitions) as his team scored 102 goals in total and won the third title in their history.
A title winner
Dean started the season by scoring 17 times in the first nine games (he also got four in the Football League’s 9-1 thrashing of the Irish League). His next two starts were fruitless,, failing to find the net in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool and firing more blanks for his country as they lost 2-0 to Ireland (Everton were busy beating West Ham 7-0 on the same day) but he returned to form in his next game with a hat trick and then did the same in the following outing. Two more followed in the next match and the league season record, set by George Camsell of Middlesbrough in the second flight the year before, looked on.
In fact breaking the record had looked a tall order when Dean was on 53 with just two games remaining. Then he scored four times against Burnley although he suffered a thigh injury. Trainer Harry Cooke actually moved in with the star man for the week before the final fixture and he responded, firing a hat trick against Arsenal at Goodison, reaching his target with a header from an Alec Troup corner and beating Camsell’s mark despite playing only 39 of the 42 matches.
The reaction to the goal rocked Goodison. ‘Stork’ writing in the Liverpool Echo said: “The scene was amazing.
“The crowd leapt to its feet, and the cheer must have been heard in Dean’s home town, Birkenhead.”
Having set the new mark what else could the centre-forward, still only 21, achieve?
On England’s 1928 summer tour Dean scored four goals in two matches whilst in the following season’s home internationals he managed just one goal in the 2-1 win over Ireland at Goodison while Everton slumped to a poor 18th in the table and the star centre-forward scored ‘only’ 26 times.
The next campaign was even worse as, despite another 23 from Dean, Everton were relegated after finishing bottom. They bounced straight back and, in fact won two titles in a row, taking the 2nd Division crown in 1930-31 and following this by winning the championship in 1931-32. In the two campaigns the hit-man scored a total of 84 goals.
In 1932 Dean, still only 25 made his 16th and final appearance for England in the 1-0 win over Ireland at Bloomfield Road. It does seem surprising that he was never called up by his country again and that he won only 16 caps.
Perhaps the most memorable of the international goals was his final one. It came at Highbury against Spain and their much-vaunted goalkeeper Ricardo Zamora, reputedly the best-paid footballer in the world at the time. England ran out 7-1 winners with Dean scoring one and having a hand in three others.
Dean brings the FA Cup to Goodison
More success was to follow on the club front with Dean, now skipper, leading his men to triumph in the 1933 FA Cup, scoring in the 3-0 final win over Manchester City.
Leading his team out
Of course, the club’s biggest rivals throughout Dean’s time at the club were Liverpool with Reds goalkeeper Elisha Scott becoming a great rival – and also a great friend.
Before Merseyside derbies Dean would later recall: “I used to post a little tube of aspirins to him on Thursday so he would receive them on Friday.
“I used to put in a note that read ‘Get yourself a good night’s sleep – I shall be there again on Saturday!”
Everton players admire the Dixie waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s
By this time Dean was married to Ethel and she had given birth to the first of their four children, William Jr who would later be joined by Geoffrey, Ralph and Barbara.
After the cup win Dean continued his prolific success as a marksman but injuries, including an ankle problem that resulted in an operation to remove bone chips, started to slow him and he was finding it tougher to stay fit.
Within a year of the cup win the player was shocked to learn that the club were already looking for his replacement. Toffees Chairman W. C. Cuff admitted that: “Although he has recovered physically, we are convinced that this has left a mental effect on him”.
Hibernian offered big money to take him to Scotland but Everton refused and the skipper gradually worked his way back into form.
Dean was now in sight of Steve Bloomer’s record of 352 league goals and he received the ultimate accolade from the great man himself.
”Dixie is the best centre-forward ever, and I saw all the old-timers”, said Bloomer. “He has something the others never possessed, especially in the way he evades centre-halves.
”There have been plenty of other good headers, but few possessed his ability in the air, for every time he heads the ball the goalkeeper has to stretch for it”.
Dean eventually equalled Bloomer’s mark in August 1936 and went past it against Sheffield Wednesday at Goodison Park on 3 September 1936 with boyhood friend and former Tranmere teammate Ellis Rimmer, now of Wednesday, the first to congratulate him. He went on to finish the season as Everton’s top scorer for the last time.
In 1937 the club bought Tommy Lawton from Burnley. The veteran said to his new 18-year-old clubmate; ‘I know they’ve brought you in to replace me. I’ll do whatever I can to help you’. Lawton eventually took his place, not just at Goodison but also for the national team and as the country’s most-feared number nine.
Soon enough the club decided Dean’s services were no longer required. After the player himself went to the board and reported that Blackpool wanted to sign him, he left Goodison for Notts County shortly before the March 1938 transfer deadline for the same amount – £3000 – Everton had paid Tranmere Rovers for him 13 years before, having scored almost 400 goals (Including five three times and 37 hat-tricks) for the club he loved.
The parting would appear to have been less than happy with Dean blaming club secretary, and later manager, Theo Kelly for the difficulties. “This chap Kelly had no time for the older lads, especially me,” Dixie would later recall, “I just couldn’t get on with him.”
Dean’s last appearance in an Everton shirt was a goalscoring one – of course – in a Liverpool Senior Cup semi-final against non-league side South Liverpool on 9 March 1938. 48 hours later he was gone.
Dean of Notts County
The move to County only came about after an audacious bid from Liverpool was turned down. The Reds were facing a relegation battle as the 1937-38 season drew to a close, and enquired after Dixie’s services. The Everton directors, no doubt mindful of the repercussions such a move might have among fans, quickly and summarily rejected the enquiry stating; ‘the board refuse to part with him to a club in this city.’
There was also an enquiry from Blackburn Rovers but Dean headed to Nottingham and, after making his debut in a 2-1 defeat at Queen’s Park Rangers, spent a little over a season at Meadow Lane, a time in which he was bedevilled by injuries managing just a handful of starts.
The next move was to Ireland where he joined Sligo Rovers in January 1939 for a brief and successful spell, helping them reach the Irish Cup final and finish runners-up in the league.
The club contacted Dean to ask if he knew of a good centre-forward they could sign and he recommended himself! He played seven times for the club, scored 10 goals and created a huge amount of interest in both the team and the game. In fact, for his expected arrival the Mayor and a brass band were present as the train rolled in. The only problem was that Dixie wasn’t on it as he was arriving a day later!
When he did arrive he received the same reception and is said to have thoroughly enjoyed his brief spell in the north west of the country.
On leaving Sligo he returned to England and was playing for Hurst (now Ashton United) in the Cheshire County League but had made just two appearances when the outbreak of the 2nd World War brought his career to an abrupt end.
Host at the Dublin Packet
His next job was working in an abattoir until he was enlisted in the Army in 1940, joining the infantry as a private in the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment. He transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment where he became a mechanic instructor. After he was demobilised Dean took over the Dublin Packet pub in Chester which he ran successfully until 1961 when he returned to Merseyside. His last job before retiring was as a security guard.
With fellow Everton greats Tommy Lawton and Alex Young
In 1964 Everton recognised the great man’s achievements at the club by awarding him a testimonial between teams representing England and Scotland. Over 34,000 fans turned up to pay tribute.
Bill Dean with his grandson
In 1976 he had his right leg amputated after suffering a blood clot and, confined to a wheelchair, moved in to live with his daughter on The Wirral where he doted on his grandchildren.
Admiring a painting
On 1 March 1980 he suffered a heart attack whilst attending an Everton v Liverpool match and passed away at the age of 73.
The Dixie Dean statue
In 2001 a statue was erected at the Park End of Goodison bearing the inscription ‘Footballer, Gentleman, Evertonian’.
Dixie with another Merseyside legend
When his league career came to a premature end (he had a total of 13 serious injuries which required operations), Dean had a goals-to games average of .867, the best-ever and highly unlikely to ever be bettered. Add in 18 goals in a paltry 16 international matches and it is understandable why many lists of the greatest ever centre-forwards begin, and end, with William Ralph Dean.