There is a statue that stands tall on the perimeter of Goodison Park, which commemorates the most prolific goalscorer that this country has ever produced. A man whose achievements will never be surpassed; who scored 60 goals in one season, who nearly 40 years after his death is still the yardstick against which all strikers are judged. That man is Dixie Dean.
William Ralph Dean was born in Birkenhead on 21 January 1906. Although the nickname “Dixie” persisted with him throughout his career, he detested the moniker and anybody careless enough to address him as Dixie was forcefully reminded that his name was Bill. As a kid he was known as “Digsy” due to a childhood street game of tag, which involved digging your fist into the back of somebody you had tagged.
At 14, his father secured for him an apprenticeship as a fitter at the Wirral railway company. Fortunately, he was able to play for the Railway team and quickly established a reputation as a goalscoring prodigy. Initially, New Brighton, who were then a league side, offered him a contract but Dean spurned their advances. It was, though, about this time local press reports started to refer to him as “Dixie” rather than “Digsy” and thus the name stuck.
His first club, Tranmere, signed him on professional terms in the summer of 1923 and he made his debut for the reserves in September. His performance so impressed the reporter from the Birkenhead News that he wrote, “Dean was the star attraction.” He made his full league debut against Rotherham but Tranmere lost 5-1 and he was soon back in the “stiffs” to aid his development. It was here, the following month, that his league career nearly ended even before it had started.
On 9 February 1924, Dean played against Altrincham in a Cheshire Senior Cup Tie. He scored two goals but his tormented marker, the opposition centre half, warned him that he would not score anymore. A few minutes later, he delivered a carefully aimed vicious kick between Dixie’s legs. The pain was excruciating. As a result of that injury, he lost a testicle and saw his future paying career placed in jeopardy.
Seventeen years later, Dixie found himself in a bar in Chester when somebody offered to buy a drink for him. Dean instantly recognised the man as Davy Parkes, who he believed was responsible for the loss of his testicle. He laid his former opponent out with one punch. Revenge was sweet. Or was it? Later, meticulous research by biographers of Dean revealed that he had assaulted the wrong man.
Nonetheless, Dean became a regular for Tranmere during the 1924/25 season in the Third Division North, scoring 27 goals in 27 league games, an even more impressive statistic when you consider that Tranmere finished second bottom that campaign. Several clubs were actively scouting Dean, but he only wanted to play for one side: Everton.
On transfer deadline day – 16 March 1925 – Everton signed Dixie for a fee of £3,000, which was both the highest fee ever paid for a Third Division player and also for an 18-year-old. As he recalled in later life, “To join Everton was all that I had been waiting for.” He made his debut for Everton at Arsenal the following Saturday and scored his first ever league goal at Goodison Park, against Aston Villa, seven days later.
The start of the 1925/26 season heralded the introduction of one of the most transformative rule changes of the century, when the Offside Law was altered so that only two players rather than three were now required for someone to be onside. The previous season, 1,192 goals were scored in Division One. The next season 1,703 were scored, with Aston Villa beating Burnley 10-0 in the first game under the new regulation. Dean and other forwards were to benefit immeasurably from this alteration, as he scored 32 goals in just 38 appearances. The future looked bright, but fate had yet another twist in store for William Ralph Dean.
In June 1926, Dixie was involved in a head-on collision whilst riding his new Imperial motorbike through North Wales. He was so badly injured that he was left fighting for his life. Dixie lay unconscious for 36 hours and doctors feared that he might die but thankfully his life was saved, although he had fractured his skull and his jaw.
It looked as though his football career was over but, showing astounding powers of recuperation, he was back playing for Everton just four months later. Metal plates had been inserted into his skull to aid his recovery but were removed once the bones had reset. Despite this, rumours persist to this day that Dean’s legendary heading ability was due to his having a metal plate in his head.
Towards the end of October 1926, Everton fans witnessed Dean’s remarkable comeback as a crowd of 30,000 watched him play a reserve game at Goodison against Blackburn. He reappeared for the first team away at Leeds on 24 October and scored in a 3-1 victory. Before the game, Everton were bottom of the table, and although Dixie netted an impressive 21 goals in 27 games, they finished the season one place off the drop. Not even the most optimistic Blues fan could have predicted what the next season would bring.
Dixie started the season in sensational form. He scored 25 times in Everton’s first 14 matches, including five against Manchester United. Everton led the table for most of the campaign and, in February, Dean smashed the previous record tally of 43 goals, set by Ted Harper of Blackburn two seasons earlier, by scoring a hat-trick at Anfield.
He now set his sights on the tally of 59 goals, notched by George Camsell of Middlesbrough in the Second Division the previous campaign. However, after an unusual barren spell in March when he failed to score in four games by April, Dean needed seven goals to surpass that total with just two games remaining. Impossible, surely.
Dean scored four at Burnley in a 5-3 victory that helped Everton to seal the title, but limped off injured. It all came down to the last home game on 5 May 1928 against Arsenal – and trainer Harry Cooke worked his magic to ensure that Dixie was fit to play. Dean was not about to let this opportunity pass.
Arsenal scored an early goal but within a minute Dixie bundled the ball over the line to equalise. Next, Dean was brought down in the penalty area. He gathered the ball and hit what was probably his worst penalty of the season but somehow it sneaked between goalkeeper’s legs. He had now equalled Camsell’s record but Arsenal fought back to equalise. It remained for Dixie to get the decisive goal.
As the minutes ticked away, every Everton player tried to set Dixie up for that all-important goal with a cacophony of vociferous encouragement urging him on from the terraces. Eventually, on 82 minutes, Everton gained a corner. Winger Alex Troup aimed his delivery at the head of Dean, who towered above the Arsenal defenders and bulleted the ball powerfully into the net. The crowd rose as one to celebrate Dean’s unbelievable achievement. It was his seventh hat-trick of the season.
Every Arsenal player shook Dean by the hand to congratulate him, bar a certain Charles Buchan who was playing his last ever game and appeared to feel his farewell had been overshadowed by Dean’s magnificence. Arsenal equalised later but few Evertonians cared.
It is worth recalling that Dean contributed a further 22 goals in cup and representative matches, giving him a total of 82 goals for the season. At this time, Dean was just 22 years old, a comparative novice in football terms.
After Everton’s surprise relegation just two seasons later, Dixie continued to score goals in a fabulous three-year period in which they were promoted in 1931, won another league championship in 1932 and the FA Cup in 1933, with Dean, now captain, scoring and becoming the first player wearing the number nine shirt to score in a cup final. When he eventually left Everton in 1937, he had accumulated 349 goals in 399 league appearances.
No footballer has ever come close to breaking that record of 60 goals in a season apart from Dixie himself, when he scored 44 goals in the 1931/32 season. It is an achievement that has endured for 90 years and will likely never be surpassed.
Everton broke the transfer record to sign Tommy Lawton as Dean’s eventual replacement in 1936 and, when he arrived, Dean told him: “I know you’ve come here to take my place. Anything I can do to help you, I will. I promise.” Later that year, Lawton boarded a bus and was asked by the conductor, “Are you Tommy Lawton?” Lawton, pleased to be recognised, replied “yes!” only to hear the response, “You’ll never be as good as Dixie.” The conductor wasn’t wrong. Nobody was as good as Dixie.
By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan