By Ryan Ferguson
The name Dixie Dean reverberates through football history. It sounds almost mystical, perhaps crafted by an overzealous fiction writer or a wacky publicist. Likewise, the exploits of the man bearing that moniker are legendary, as if ripped from a childhood cartoon. William Ralph Dean was arguably the most potent centre forward in the elaborate lifespan of British football, and his legacy emits an aura to this very day. That he was born and raised in Birkenhead, and gifted to the world by Tranmere Rovers, is a source of immense local pride. It’s also a tale deserving of greater publicity.
Dean was born on 22nd January 1907 at 313 Laird Street in Birkenhead’s north end. His was a family of railwaymen, with his grandfather Ralph driving the Royal Train of George V and his father William working on the Wirral line. A normal life was expected of William Jr., who served an apprenticeship on the railway as an adolescent, but one passion ruled his life: football.
As a kid, the boy known as Digsy for his aggressive style in games of tag was always seen kicking a ball. His mother owned two chip shops in Birkenhead, and William would rush through the chores to get back out on the cobbled streets, where a rugged brand of football was indoctrinated. It was Dean’s obsession and, ultimately, his passport to a better life.
Dixie, so named as a corruption of the Digsy nickname, attended Laird Street School before moving to the Albert Industrial, a Birkenhead borstal, aged eleven. There wasn’t much room back home, and Dean loved the football facilities on offer at the institute. He continued to play football recreationally, notably for a Birkenhead Schoolboys team alongside future Tranmere and England winger Ellis Rimmer, but joined Wirral Railway as an apprentice fitter in 1921. Dixie worked the night shift so he could play football during the day, and he also starred for a works team before being altered to the possibility of a professional career.
A high-ranking boss on the railway was well connected to New Brighton AFC, then a Football League club of impressive ambition. The Rakers were interested in signing Dean, but he chose to join Pensby Institute instead, presumably to amass more game time at a tender age. Nevertheless, while Dixie played for the local team, a Tranmere evaluator eyed his progress, and chief scout Jack Lee persuaded him to sign for Rovers, then in the old Third Division North. A deal was arranged, and on Wednesday 28th November 1923, the immortal name appeared in print for the first time, as the Birkenhead News reported Dixie’s arrival at Prenton Park.
Dean was only 16-years old, so a stint in the Tranmere second team was deemed an appropriate first step. He dazzled on debut, scoring a goal and inspiring the News to wax lyrical. “Dean was the star attraction,” wrote the sports editor. “Splendidly endowed physically, he has the height and weight and, if somewhat lacking in polish, he has got one strong point: his direct shooting. And the power he imparts to his drives can best be gauged in reference to one last week that hit the woodwork and prompted the explanation by my colleague that the upright was nearly uprooted.”
After many impressive performances, Dean was granted his Football League debut on 12th January 1924, becoming the youngest player ever to appear for Tranmere Rovers at 16 years, 355 days old. Rovers lost 5-1 to Rotherham County, but it was a hallowed date in football history, and an event that should be cherished by enthusiasts of the game around the word. Many people owe a debt of gratitude to Tranmere for unearthing this gem and providing the first platform for his greatness. Without the initial chance Rovers provided, the genius of this player may never have translated into football’s global lexicon.
Tranmere knew they had a budding star, but were careful in managing the youngster’s progress. Again, the club deserves enormous credit for resisting the temptation to throw Dean into the bustle of Third Division football before his physical maturation. Dixie began the 1924-25 season in the reserves, before a vociferous clamour from fans and newspapermen saw him gifted the centre forward spot for good on 13th September 1924. Regular striker Jack Brown was injured and missed the clash away to Doncaster. Dean acquitted himself admirably and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first of his 379 Football League goals came on 20th September 1924 and was the difference in a 1-0 victory for Tranmere over Southport. “Dean took the ball in his stride, cleverly eluded Allen, who had come back to retrieve the situation, and slipped the ball into the net,” reported the Southport Visiter, a rival newspaper. “Rovers’ supporters were frantic with excitement, and the cheering was sustained practically to the end of the game.”
Dean scored nine goals in his first ten Football League games, kick-starting a fabled career and piquing the interest of top clubs, who began pestering Tranmere for his services. One such club was Preston North End, then a relative powerhouse of English football. According to the News, Rovers manager Bert Cooke rebuffed their interest wryly, stating that “If the offer is big enough, the Rovers might consider letting you have a photo of Dean,” rather than buying the player outright. In other words, Tranmere’s star man was not for sale.
The strapping forward scored his first Football League hat-trick on 25th October 1924 as Rovers beat Hartlepools United 4-3 at Prenton Park. “Give it to Dixie!” chanted the crowd of over 6,000, serenading the greatest drawing card Tranmere had ever possessed. Dean went on to score 43 hat-tricks in his career, including two more for Tranmere, but the first would always occupy a special place in the game’s heritage. That it happened in Birkenhead, for Tranmere Rovers, is something we should celebrate for all eternity. The local boy did good.
Soon, the phenomenon of Dixie Dean spread throughout the country, as fans across the land looked forward with relish to his visit. With powerful dribbles and prodigious scoring, Dixie was the most sensational act the nascent Third Division had ever seen. After one particularly sharp display, The Halifax Daily Courier wrote that “Town’s defence crumbled in front of the swift thrusts of Dean and his men. He dribbled half the length of the field to equalise, and is without doubt a coming star.”
As opposing supporters began to applaud his daring play, it became apparent that Tranmere couldn’t retain his services for much longer. Cooke wanted a record fee for the Third Division, commensurate with Dean’s impact. Newcastle United showed a willingness to pay such an amount, and Cooke even took his prized asset to St James’ Park, but Dixie had his heart set on Everton, the club he supported as a boy. He scored on his last appearance for Tranmere, away to Darlington on 14th March 1925, before a fee was agreed between the Merseyside neighbours. It was either £2,900 or £3,000, depending on the source you trust, which was indeed a record for a player in that league. With the money, Tranmere were able to clear debts on the purchase of Prenton Park, a privilege that may not have been possible without Dean.
“The deal was completed at the Woodside Hotel,” wrote the News. “Many are asking how the Rovers can hope to rise to higher spheres if the club parts with really promising young players, and of course this is a rather pointed question. The pity of it is that the responsibility comes back upon the public, for had the Rovers been given support more in keeping with a town the size of Birkenhead, things may have been different.”
It is worth contemplating what may have happened if Cooke somehow found a way to keep hold of Dean. Perhaps his scoring exploits would have fired Rovers up the league system and into global renown. Perhaps he would have scored sixty First Division goals for Tranmere instead of Everton, carving an unforgettable legacy on Wirral rather than in Liverpool.
Here, there are clear parallels with the Boston Red Sox of baseball selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees and then waiting almost nine decades to win another world championship. Indeed, Dean eventually met Ruth, who also grew up in a tough town before embarking on a life of greatness across the Atlantic. Ultimately, there was never much hope of Tranmere keeping Dean, purely due to finances. However, the romantics among us can always daydream of what might have been.
Unfortunately, Dixie held a long-term feud with Rovers long after his playing days were finished. It stemmed initially from disagreements over his first wage at Prenton Park, and encompassed his move to Everton. Dixie wanted a £300 bonus, only to receive £30 in line with a mandate from Football League chair John McKenna. Dean donated his portion of the transfer fee to a Birkenhead hospital.
Although history has judged Tranmere as miserly in this matter, mythology has congealed into accepted wisdom over time. Evidence shows that the club operated within all Football League rules at the time. In all instances, from the wage to the transfer bonus, Dean got the amount he was entitled to based on his age and experience, then the most prominent barometers set by the Football League.
Similarly, according to local tales, Dixie never stepped foot inside Prenton Park until 1970 following his transfer. Again, that is incorrect. There was a large ceremonial dinner in that year heralded as a homecoming, but Dean partook in occasional exhibition games and charitable events at Tranmere well before that.
Ultimately, the relationship ended in less than perfect terms, but there will always be an inextricable link between Dixie Dean and Tranmere Rovers. Even today, and for many centuries to come, people eager to relive his story cannot do so without stumbling upon our humble club, which delivered unto the masses a transformative star. The first steps and games and goals of Dixie Dean came in Birkenhead, his beloved home town. The first boots and kits were bought here, too, just as his bullish style was fashioned on the streets and playgrounds of Wirral. Then there was the first Football League matches and hat-tricks and adulation, all experienced wearing the famous shirt of Tranmere.
Perhaps we should do more to honour Dixie Dean, the greatest player who will ever represent our club. But perhaps the football cognoscenti should also do more to honour Tranmere Rovers, without whom an immortal player may never have received his chance.