Of all the many footballing records that might never be broken, few look more untouchable than that of Dixie Dean. His goalscoring exploits of 1927-8, when he scored an astonishing 60 goals in the league alone, look set to remain in the history books for many years to come. They were indeed so great that Bill Shankly, not noted for his enthusiastic support for the blue half of Merseyside, once said “Dixie was the greatest centre forward there will ever be. His record of goalscoring is the most amazing thing under the sun.”
At the start of the season Everton fans had limited cause for optimism. The previous year they had finished third from bottom (the bottom two being relegated), with only four points sparing them from the drop. They did though have, in Dean, a frontman who had already proven his potency at the highest level. Since his move from Tranmere in 1925 for a fee of £3,000 he had never stopped scoring. 32 goals in 38 games in his first full season at Goodison had been followed by 21 in 27 in his second, but few could predict quite how prolific Dean would be in 1927-8.
In 1925 the landscape of the game was radically altered as a result of the change in the offside law. The early years of the twentieth century had seen the beginnings of more cunning defensive practices. While the game’s nascent years had seen frequent offside calls that had been an unintended consequence of the first laws of the game these faults had been quickly modified to prevent the excessive break down of attacks. However, as time went on, some defenders realised that by clever use of the offside rule they could cut out significant numbers of attacks before they even started. The first team to use effectively the offside trap were
The technique was perfected by Newcastle though and particularly defenders Bill McCracken and Frank Hudspeth. Such was the renown of the
The result of this change in the years that followed was a boom in goalscoring numbers as defences struggled to adapt to the new system. The first man to take real advantage of the change in the laws and the resulting confusion was George Camsell. Playing for second division Middlesbrough, Camsell struck an amazing 59 league goals in the 1926-7 to secure promotion for the Teeside club.
Dean started the 1927-8 by scoring Everton’s fourth in a rout of Sheffield Wednesday and never stopped from that point on. After his first 9 games he had already notched 17 goals, netting in every one of those games and scoring all Everton’s goals in a 5-2 demolition of Manchester United. In April Dean equalled the top flight goalscoring record, set by Ted Harper of Blackburn in 1925-6, when he scored his 43rd goal of the campaign in a 3-3 draw at Anfield.
Going into final games of the season the record appeared to be beyond Dean. With 4 games remaining in the season he was on 50 goals in 35 games. Even at his incredible strike rate this appeared to be asking too much. A single goal in a win over Newcastle helped Everton’s title chances but appeared to hurt his hopes of the record. Dean followed that with a brace in a 3-2 victory over Aston Villa to leave him needing 7 in his last 2 games. The first of those came against Burnley where he was marked by England captain Jack Hill. Despite the attentions of his national team colleague Dean was unaffected and scored 4 before half time, before having to be withdrawn with a leg injury.
That victory clinched the title for Everton with Huddersfield, their nearest rivals, imploding in the final weeks of the season. The injury to Dean though threatened his hopes of surpassing Camsell in the final game of an amazing season. Their opponents Arsenal were already assured of their top flight status and a midtable finish (an incredible closing table saw Spurs relegated on 38 points while Arsenal finished tenth out of 22 teams with just 41 points), so everyone arrived at Goodison in anticipation of Dixie Dean’s heroics. The fact that it was the final match for Charlie Buchan, one of the greatest forwards of the era, in a career spanning back to 1910 was forgotten in the excitement. All thoughts were purely on Dean and the record.
The match did not start as the spectators had hoped though as within two minutes of the game starting Shaw scored for Arsenal with a powerful shot which Davies fumbled between his legs. This did not put Dean off his stride. His first was a powerful from the edge of the area after a corner from Critchley. Minutes later Dean was sent clean through on goal, only for Butler to bring him down from behind in the box. Dean naturally took the penalty himself and fired it between the keeper’s legs to put Everton ahead. With ten minutes remaining until half-time O’Donnell, the Everton full-back, put through his own net to level the scores at 2-2.
The atmosphere as the players emerged for the second-half was filled with anticipation. The Everton team were desperate to see Dean pass the record, while Arsenal defended doggedly to prevent them. At times Dean was surrounded by markers, intent on doing everything in their power to stop him scoring the vital goal. Despite their best efforts Everton simply couldn’t fashion a clear chance for Dean and were running out of time in which to do so. Patterson in the Arsenal goal was also keen to deny Dean tipping a number of speculative efforts around the post.
With five minutes remaining Patterson tipped a shot from George Martin over the bar, and Alec Troup raced over to take the corner. Dean positioned himself just outside the area as the corner was drifted in to the box before charging in with a ferocious header which left Patterson flatfooted. The crowd erupted with spectators bursting forward to congratulate Dean on his achievements. A late Arsenal equaliser from Shaw could not spoil the crowd’s mood and none could fail to marvel at the incredible achievement of the Everton striker. Since that day no player has ever come close to surpassing Dean’s record in the top flight and it is doubtful they ever will.