Many great footballers have appeared in the royal blue of Everton. Many more will. Yet it is unlikely that any will surpass the achievement of one William Ralph Dean, known now as ‘Dixie’ – not that Dean appreciated the moniker.
Signed for just £3,000 from Tranmere Rovers, Dean notched 32 goals in his first full season at Goodison Park. A motorcycle crash in 1926 put his career in serious doubt, but his destiny awaited. A mere fractured skull, broken jaw, concussion and eye injuries wouldn’t stop him. It was the 1927/28 season, at the midpoint of which Dean turned 21, that would seal the striker’s place in the history books.
Dean started the campaign in some style, scoring in each of Everton’s first nine games. The Blues had narrowly escaped the drop the previous season, but after only losing four games by the turn of the year, they were in the title race. Early highlights included a 5-2 win against Manchester United in which Dean scored all five goals, and a 7-0 thrashing of West Ham which the talismanic forward did not even feature in.
Everton’s title charge and Dean’s quest for goals were closely intertwined. When Everton went nine league games without victory, the Birkenhead-born forward only scored in two of them – a consolation in a 4-1 defeat to title rivals Huddersfield Town, and a scintillating hat-trick in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool that took his tally to 43 for the season.
The Toffees had a dire March, failing to score in the first four matches that month. But Dean regained his scoring touch, and Everton began amassing points just as Huddersfield began to falter. First came a brace in a 2-2 draw with Derby, then another in a 4-1 defeat of Blackburn. Another came against Bury, then two more against Sheffield United, then another put past Newcastle.
With three games to go, the league goalscoring record was in sight. George Camsell had hit 59 goals the previous season as Middlesbrough cantered to the Second Division title, but his milestone was already in jeopardy of being surpassed. Dean needed nine goals in Everton’s last three games of the season, just as the Toffees needed to keep the Terriers from snapping at their heels. A brace helped Everton to a 3-2 win at home to Aston Villa, before Dean struck four times in a 5-3 defeat of Burnley.
That turned out to be enough to seal the title. Huddersfield were beaten by Villa on May 2, meaning Everton went into May 5’s game at home to Arsenal knowing skipper Warney Cresswell would collect the First Division trophy come full time. But Dean had unfinished business – a hattrick was required to seal immortality.
The official joint programme for both Everton and Liverpool set a jubilant tone. “When we come to consider in detail the performances of the team this season, we cannot but admit to a feeling of astonishment mingled with admiration at their notable success.” Liverpool, meanwhile, were pleased to have staved off relegation – they lost 6-1 to Manchester United on the final day, meaning United leapt from the bottom of the table. Everton had finished nine points clear of fourth-place Derby, who themselves were only seven points clear of bottom club Middlesbrough, 18 places below them.
But that wasn’t the topic of debate in L4, nor was the fact Everton as a team were one goal short of reaching a league century. Could Dean do it? If anyone could, it was him.
Up to 60,000 people crammed into Goodison to see if their hero could make history. Arsenal, who would finish 11th, were not considered to be a major threat. But they themselves were motivated, not just by the fact that the game marked the farewell of club legend Charlie Buchan, but also the determination to do what so few teams could do – stop Dixie Dean.
The net was bulging after just three minutes. But, to the shock of the crowd, it was Arsenal who had taken the lead. James Shaw drove in an effort from 25 yards out which trickled through the legs of Everton goalkeeper Arthur Davies. A mere minute later, Everton were level. A Ted Critchley corner was flicked on, and there was Dean to glance the ball home.
Everton’s number nine was wasting no time in reaching the milestone; just minutes after scoring his first goal of the day, Dean was felled by Gunners defender Bob John. Penalty. Dean converted to level with Camsell – incidentally with his first and only goal from the spot that season. With seven minutes gone, he needed just one more goal.
It was then that the goals dried up. Everton charged forwards in search of a two-goal cushion, but Gunners stopper Bill Paterson was equal to every attempt. John was doing his utmost to keep Dean at bay, and even when the Arsenal man was beaten, the goalpost was not. Much against the run of play, it was Arsenal who would strike next. Joe Hulme shaped to shoot, but Everton’s Jack O’Donnell put in a foot. Unfortunately for O’Donnell, the ball careered into the net to make it 2-2.
Half time came and went, the murmurings over Dean’s prospects providing a constant buzz. The tension built, and while both sides had chances to take the lead, suddenly all windows of opportunity seemed to have been bolted shut after four goals in the first period.
William Dean had beaten much worse odds before. Arsenal were not just standing in the way of waves of Everton attacks – the march of fate itself was against them. They could not hold.
Seven minutes left on the clock, and Alec Troup whipped in an outswinging corner. Up leapt Dean, who planted his header, firm and true, into the net.
The all-important goal was met with one of the earliest renditions of the now-fabled Goodison Roar. “Someone ran onto the pitch and tried to kiss me. I’d never seen a supporter run onto the pitch until that day” said the man of the hour. The pitch invasion told the story. The fans cared not for the final moments of the match, in which Arsenal grabbed a last-minute equaliser. Even Cresswell collecting the league trophy was a sideshow. Goodison was in full Mardi Gras mode, awash with delirious fans, rocked to its foundations by the noise. Everton were the champions and Dixie Dean had become a legend in the truest sense of the word. It was an all-too-rare storybook ending to “the most wonderful season the game of football has ever known”, according to Everton chairman William Cuff.
(And you thought Bill Kenwright was a chairman with a penchant for hyperbole…)
William Dean was truly a force to be reckoned with. Everton’s fortunes would veer like a drunk driver in the years to follow, but the Birkenhead boy was consistently brilliant. The statue that stands tall outside Goodison – and that hopefully will make the short trip to Bramley Moore – is an eternal reminder of a true great, who wrote his name into folklore on that May day in 1928.
“We were aiming to stop him,” mused Arsenal’s Hulme. “But that was easier said than done.”