On 26 May 2003, Sheffield United lined up for the biggest game in their history. Wolves were the opponents and Cardiff was the venue, but the Blades’ biggest player was nowhere to be seen. Some 300 miles away in a pub in West Yorkshire, Dean Windass was seeking solace at the bottom of a pint glass.
He wouldn’t find it. United’s star striker had been dropped from the squad, Neil Warnock favouring the pace of Steve Kabba against a malignant Wolves defence. Windass, whose goals had been the primary reason his club had even made it that far, felt robbed. Unbeknownst to him, the chance for redemption would arrive just five years later.
Perhaps fittingly, Windass was born on April Fool’s Day in 1969. As soon as he could stand on two legs he was kicking a ball, and as soon as he could string two sentences together, he spoke of Hull City. When he wasn’t lining out for Gipsyville Boys, Windass was rapt alongside his father as his beloved Tigers played every weekend at Boothferry Park.
“Dean has got a one-track mind and it isn’t maths,” noted an early report card from his teacher at the Francis Askew school in 1981. Already, his passion for the game outshone trifling academic concerns.
It was just as well, as his family life disintegrated when he was just 13. His parents separated, with his mother attempting suicide after struggling to cope with the fallout. With his father out of the house and his mother incapacitated, Windass was left to fend largely for himself.
Football was a welcome distraction, and at first the game seemed ready to take him under its wing. Beating off competition from a number of boys in the area, Windass was signed as a youth by Hull City when he was just 16. There he cleaned the boots of the seasoned professionals, basking in the discipline and rigour of the team environment whilst honing his game away from the trouble at home.
After two years, however, youth coach Brian Horton broke the news that so many young footballers dread. Windass was undoubtedly talented, but at 17 lacked the frame and physique necessary to compete in the first team. As he would later admit, “At 17 I didn’t even have pubes on my bollocks.” Not for the last time he would be let go, his hopes for a career in the game appearing dashed.
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Suddenly at a loose end, Windass sought gainful employment outside the white lines. At first he worked in a frozen vegetable factory, before graduating to rice packaging. By the time he secured a pay rise as a labourer, he had resigned himself to playing for his pub team every Sunday at the local park.
His luck would change in October 1991. Hull City were in dire straits, their strangled finances forcing them to recruit players from non-league. Coach Terry Dolan had heard rumours of the talented youngster playing for North Ferriby and had dispatched scout Bernard Ellison for a closer look. One viewing was enough for the Hull coaches to make up their mind. Windass was signed on a three-year contract.
He would reward his new employers instantly, scoring on his home debut against Bradford in the Autoglass Trophy. A tireless midfielder with an eye for goal, Windass hovered around the first team for a few seasons, as management fluttered about his best position. Halfway through the 1993/94 campaign, injuries forced their hand, with Windass recruited to play as an emergency striker. He never looked back, two strikes against Peter Shilton’s Plymouth Argyle becoming the first of a 17-goal streak that season.
The next year, bigger clubs began sniffing around. Norwich were interested – so much so that, after the club chairman refused to sanction the deal, manager Martin O’Neill resigned in disgust. Eventually, Aberdeen presented an offer Hull couldn’t refuse.
Twenty years ago, the Scottish League was a natural playground for the likes of Brian Laudrup and Paul Gascoigne, as Rangers dominated the football landscape. Pierre van Hooijdonk’s Celtic were their closest rivals, but Aberdeen were perennial bronze medallists. With the legendary Jim Leighton in goal and youthful prodigy Eoin Jess in midfield, the Dons were desperate to breach the Glaswegian citadels.
Windass settled in comfortably at Pittodrie, his bulky frame adjusting seamlessly to the agricultural football on offer. Things were just as promising off the pitch, with the Humberside-native a notable addition to the club’s drinking culture. In two-and-a-half beer-soaked seasons, Windass carved out a solid rapport with the Aberdeen faithful, but it was one match in November 1997 that Dons fans remember best.
Manager Roy Aitken was under severe pressure and sent his players onto the pitch knowing a result could save his job. Windass was pumped – perhaps excessively so, as he scythed through the Dundee left-back after less than five minutes. By the time he lunged into the same player shortly afterwards, Aberdeen were already three goals down.
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As a straight red card was shown, Windass had time to verbally abuse the referee before punching the corner flag out of its earthly socket. After the game, he was summoned to the referee’s office and presented with a further two red cards and a six-game ban. A day later, the manager was sacked.
Windass had time for another four red cards, before Mally Shotton paid a club-record fee to bring him to Ofxord United in July 1998. The U’s were at the wrong end of the table but Windass’ 18 goals alerted bigger clubs to his talents. Bradford made their offer and Oxford accepted.
At Valley Parade, Windass would be reunited with a manager he first met years earlier by chance at a Centre Parcs in Nottingham. Paul Jewell was only 34 but he was a manager going places, and was building a team around the likes of Darren Moore and Peter Beagrie as the Bantams vaulted towards the Premiership. Windass was signed as competition for the main strikers but his performances eventually yielded a place in the starting line-up, as he helped his teammates to an automatic promotion place on the last day of the season.
That summer, Jewell looked to imbue his side with proven quality. The ageless Dean Saunders arrived from Benfica, alongside high-profile captures such as Lee Sharpe and Gunnar Halle from Leeds. Still, everybody expected them to go straight down. Even the manager baulked at optimism, insisting that 17th place would be “mission accomplished”.
Windass, however, didn’t care. Rejected at 17, he was now a Premier League player rubbing shoulders with Thierry Henry and David Beckham. He, like many of his Bradford teammates, sought to relish the occasion irrespective of their league position. Windass had even foregone his annual holiday in favour of training through the summer, so committed was he to making the most of his latest opportunity.
In truth, Bradford were awful, with Soccer Saturday’s Rodney Marsh admitting that he would shave his ghastly locks if they managed to stay up. Predictably, then, the Bantams went on a fine run towards the end of the season, winning four of their last six games to secure Premier League status. By the time David Weatherall scored a winner against Liverpool on the final day, Windass had already reached double figures for goals, and Marsh had shaven his head in full view of the Valley Parade masses.
The next year would be less successful. Benito Carbone’s big-money arrival unsettled a stable dressing room, whilst Jewell walked out after a disagreement with chairman Geoffrey Richmond. His replacement was Chris Hutchings, but by the time Bradford were relegated at the end of the season, Windass had already jumped ship to Middlesbrough.
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Terry Venables had resolved to an easy life after Euro 96 but even he couldn’t ignore Bryan Robson’s cries for help in the north-east. Arriving at the Riverside on a temporary basis, Venables snared Windass’ signature halfway through the 2000/01 season, with the player describing the move as the biggest moment of his career.
It was another false start. After injuring his back before his debut, Windass was frozen out by new manager Steve McClaren, who sent the Hull man on loan to Sheffield United in order to make room for new signing Massimo Maccarone. Aged 33, an inauspicious career seemed set on a downward drift. Signed on an initial one-month loan, Windass walloped three in four appearances for the Blades, his performances convincing Neil Warnock to extend to the arrangement until the end of the season.
When Warnock left him out of the award for the playoff final, however, Windass reneged on his desire to move to the club on a permanent basis. Bradford City may have been mired in relegation trouble, but they offered regular football and – more importantly – fidelity.
Despite reuniting with Robson once more, Windass was unable to prevent the Bantams from being relegated in his first full season, as financial difficulties loomed heavily. With most of the club’s stars having departed years earlier, a team of journeymen and youngsters began the 2004/05 season looking to revive a flagging institution.
They wouldn’t manage it, with continuing fiscal issues meaning the club were forced to defer several wage payments. Windass found himself loaning money to the club’s lowest earners, staving off the threat of unpaid mortgages and barely-populated dinner tables. His contribution on the pitch was equally vital, 33 goals making him the Football League’s top goalscorer. A further 20 goals followed the next year, but two incidents in particular reminded fans of his penchant for the unsavoury.
Windass has regularly admitted that he would do anything to win a football game, but Cheltenham’s John Finnigan would still have been surprised when he squeezed his testicles during a routine home win in September 2006. Finnigan, perhaps understandably, reacted violently to the provocation, being sent off for his response as Windass smirked knowingly from the field.
Even that, however, wouldn’t be the most comical intervention from the Bradford maestro that year. In January, Bradford entertained fellow promotion hopefuls Brentford at Valley Parade, an entertaining 3-3 draw sending most punters home happy. Except, of course, a certain Dean Windass, who had grown irksome at referee Darren Drysdale’s pernickety display.
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After the match, Windass was leaving the stadium car park when he spotted the official departing with his colleagues. He couldn’t resist the opportunity, winding down his car window to scream” “Don’t give up your day job, you prick!” Even his son Jordan offered a shot across the bow, calling the shellshocked referee a “duck egg”. The next day, Windass was charged with bringing the game into disrepute and banned for five games.
Incidents such as these play perfectly to the image that most have associated with Windass throughout his career. The funny name, the square-set jaw and the northern accent play easily into the hands of the mocking crowds. His repeated transgressions didn’t help him of course, but Windass’ technique and dedication transcend half-baked assaults on his demeanour. He was, by any standard, an exceptionally talented footballer.
All of this explains why no incident, no matter how unsavoury, could dim the affection with which Windass would be held by the Bantam faithful. Despite receiving a whirlwind of criticism for a horror tackle on Bournemouth defender Neil Young, by the time he departed in January 2007 he was the club’s third highest scorer in all competitions and an unfettered hero.
Phil Brown has always been a character, but even he may have thought twice before committing to sign Dean Windass for the second half of the 2007/08 season. Hull City, however, were in crisis. The club’s top scorer was Jon Parkin with a meagre six strikes, and relegation was a real possibility. Change was needed, however drastic.
Windass answered the call without hesitation, ignoring the advances of Roy Keane and Sunderland for the chance to go back home. His brash self-belief immediately galvanised his teammates, eight goals keeping the Tigers purring in the division for one more year. Little did he know that he was about to embark on the greatest season of his and his beloved club’s 104-year history.
Survival was the aim once more as Hull City kicked off their campaign versus Plymouth on 11 August 2007. A 3-2 home defeat, however, spoke warily of a season most believed would be wrought with difficulty.
Twenty-one wins and 65 goals later, the Tigers prepared for a playoff semi-final against Aidy Boothroyd and Watford. After Nicky Barmby opened the scoring on eight minutes in London, it was Windass once more who effectively sealed the tie, a neat volley on 23 minutes rendering the return leg immaterial. Another four goals at the KC Stadium meant that Hull faced surprise package Bristol City for a place in the Premier League on 24 May 2008.
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Over 86,000 people descended on Wembley for a match worth an estimated £60 million. As the noise levels rose in the bowels of the stadium, Phil Brown kept his players sequestered in the expansive changing rooms. Some read their match programmes, others listened to their headphones. Most were quiet, readying themselves for the biggest ninety minutes of their career.
The game itself was desperate, the ball suspended in the air as players jostled listlessly on the field for possession. The match needed an inspiration. On 38 minutes, it got it.
Barmby collected an aimless long ball before forwarding it to Fraizer Campbell. The Manchester United loanee slalomed past two Bristol defenders before lofting a reverse to the heavy-set blonde camped on the edge of the area. Dean Windass had already scored 200 goals. His perfectly-executed volley would be his 201st.
By that time, Windass was already exhausted, and only half-jokingly asked the bench for a substitution. As 45,000 amber shirts erupted however, he set off like a man possessed, arms raised towards the teeming mass who had decamped from the Humberside to see their heroes make history.
The game was finished after that, but the drama wasn’t. Ian Ashbee had played for his club at every level in the English game but as he embraced the man who brought him to the Premier League, the emotion overwhelmed him. Windass, meanwhile, sat alone for a few moments in the centre circle, his phone in one hand and a customary pint in the other.
Sadly, that was as good as it got for the combustible Yorkshireman, whose goal against Swansea in the League Cup in August offered little recompense for a year where he found himself sidelined. Forgettable stints at Oldham and Darlington followed, but by then his legacy was already confirmed.
Like many former professionals, Windass found the transition from the locker room to everyday life difficult. His problems with alcohol and depression have been well-documented, his attempted suicide even more so, as a divorce coincided with the tragic passing of his father. After a stay in the Sporting Chance Clinic, he emerged with the tools to seek a better life. He now works as an ambassador for his hometown club, a fitting role for a man so intwined with his city and team.
Hull may have had a difficult season in 2016/17, but they’ll always have the memory of their blonde bombshell firing them into ecstasy in the Wembley sun. Upon his retirement, Windass was asked how he’d liked to be remembered: “Something along the lines of ‘Deano was a daft bastard, but he could play a bit’.” For fans of Bradford and Hull in particular, he means a whole lot more than that.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45