By JACK CHUA
Considered one of the indomitable legends of football, Dixie Dean made his name scoring 60 league goals during the 1927–1928 season – an unheard of feat at the time and a record that was not beaten until decades later.
Today, the Evertonian centre-forward from Birkenhead is remembered as the most prolific goal-scorer England has ever produced – with many comparing him with Lionel Messi and the 1970s champion from Germany, Gerd Muller.
He was such a notable figure in English football history that a statue in his image was erected outside Goodison Park in May 2001.
Behind it, a wall was constructed out of stones engraved with the names of his closest admirers and fans, a testament to his ability to enthrall football lovers, even decades after his death.
His amazing feats during the pre-World War II era may have been a bygone incident to football fans who are interested in more up-to-date developments, but to his die-hard fans they are as instructive and inspiring as ever.
A closer examination of Dean’s life reveals important lessons about the struggle for excellence in pursuing one’s goals. Living through two world wars and a near fatal road accident had not robbed him of his passion for life and for football.
Greatness from humble beginnings
Dean did not hail from a well-to-do family. He was born in 1907 to a train driver father in Liverpool. His first and perhaps, most enduring, exposure to an actual football game came when his father, William Dean Sr. took him to see a match during the 1914–1915 season.
The boy was eight, but by that time he was already an unflinching Everton fan, thanks to his father’s encouragement. That fateful day, Dean had the chance to watch his favourite team play and his heart was set to one day play for them.
Fortune was not on young Dean’s side, however. It would be the last and only Everton match he would see before World War I broke out. Life was difficult, but his family managed to earn a bare minimum by aiding the war effort.
Dean spent his childhood during the war era delivering milk in a large urn to families from a farm in Upton.
Dean studied at Laird Street School during his childhood. He was soon to realise that the quality of education did not afford him a bright academic future. He spent less time on formal education than on playing football – which was, to him, still his greatest passion despite having only seen one game.
Being financially inadequate did not hinder the boy from seeking out opportunities to sharpen his skills. At 11, he was admitted to Albert Industrial School, a Borstal school for delinquent children.
Dean chose to attend the school despite its notorious reputation because it had good football facilities – which enabled him to relive the dreams of his younger days. His parents assented because letting one child go would ease their financial burden.
Find your goal, and do whatever it takes to get there
During his teenage years, his skills would be discovered by several football clubs. This was all thanks to his never-ending determination to one-up himself in the field of his passion.
At the age of 14, Dixie worked as an apprentice fitter for Wirral Railway. His two colleagues pushed the night shift to him because they were afraid of rats that infested the station after sunset – a position he gladly took as he could spend the time practising football by kicking the rats against the wall, as he admitted years later.
More importantly, this arrangement allowed him to prioritise his first love, football, during his free time in the day.
His ability was soon recognised by the sons of Wirral Railway’s managers, who wanted to sign him for New Brighton A.F.C. whose club directors they had family connections with. Dean rejected and joined Pensby United instead. It was here that a scout from the local club, Tranmere Rovers, discovered him.
In one of the games, a foul move from an Altrincham player inflicted a serious injury where Dean lost one of his testicles.
This did not deter him as in the end he went on to score 27 goals in 30 league matches. His outstanding performance won him the envy of major football clubs such as Arsenal F.C. and Newcastle United F.C. Nonetheless, Dixie’s eyes were set on a bigger prize. Everton soon took an interest in his abilities.
In 1925, Everton secretary Thomas H. McIntosh became interested and met him at the Woodside Hotel. Dean signed to join Everton for £3,000 for a season that would prove his money’s worth. He made 32 goals in his first season, impressing his employers and Everton fans thoroughly.
Defeatists see tragedy, champions see challenge
In 1926, he met with a motorcycling accident at Holywell, North Wales. Suffering from a badly fractured skull, doctors were doubtful if he could survive for more than a few hours. Even if he did, many believed that that would end his career.
Dean was soon to prove the doubters wrong as he made an almost full recovery. Optimistic about his health, he rejoined the league soon after for what was to become some of his most well-remembered seasons.
In the 1927–1928 season he scored a total of 67 goals in three competitions – 60 league goals, three in the FA Cup and four representing England in international matches, an unparalleled achievement in English history.
The goals he scored in the league were pivotal in enabling Everton to win the First Division title that season.
Despite a slump to the Second Division in 1930–1931, Dean persevered with his team and finally, succeeded in restoring their winning place in the First Division in 1932 with a total of 42 league goals.
His team also bagged the FA Cup in 1933 thanks to a victory-defining goal he scored during the finals. Dean was not left out in the international scene either, having represented England 16 times, scoring 18 goals in eight games.
Dean went on to play for three football clubs after leaving Everton. The onset of World War II and his declining health led to his retirement in 1940. He went to Chester and ran the Dublin Packet Pub, while spending his retirement days with his wife and four children.
Further indications of his waning health began to show later in his life. In 1972, he was hospitalised for influenza and in 1976 he had his right leg amputated to relieve a blood clot. The latter part of his life was spent bedridden.
Despite his departure from the professional football scene, a testimonial match held in his honour by Everton in April 1964 attracted more than 30,000 spectators – proof that he still held a lasting influence on the English football community.
If his achievements were captivating, the circumstances surrounding his death were also as astonishing.
It happened on March 1, 1980, at Goodison Park when watching Everton play against their archrival Liverpool. Dean breathed his last when he suffered from a heart attack just moments after the whistle ending the match was blown.
Watching an Everton match at Goodison Park was what sparked his passion for football when he was eight, and it became the last thing he witnessed before his final rest.
Many saw this as a fitting death for one of the best English footballers to have ever lived.
Twenty years after his death, his contributions to English football culture made him one of the 22 inaugural inductees into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002.