Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rembrandt.
That is the ‘supremely great’ company the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly deemed worthy of the former Everton striker William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean. Yet, Erling Haaland is vying for a place on the list after an explosive debut campaign in England. The Norwegian prodigy has become the first player since Dean to score more than half a century of goals for an English top-flight club in a single season.
However, Manchester City’s number nine still has some way to go to match English football’s original number nine – quite literally; Dean wore the famous digit in the first FA Cup final with shirt numbers.
As Haaland guns after the 63-goal haul Dean plundered across all competitions for Everton during the 1927/28 campaign, here’s everything you need to know about the player that set the record.
Read more on Erling Haaland’s incredible goalscoring records here
Dean had already joined Everton from third-tier Tranmere – turning down newly-monied Newcastle (how cyclical football is) – when he and his girlfriend whizzed along the roads of North Wales on his motorbike in June 1926.
The haphazard manoeuvring of another car caused a crash which left Dean’s girlfriend with an ankle injury and the striker himself in a coma. Nursing a fractured skull, broken jaw and shattered kneecaps, Dean needed just four months to return to Everton’s reserves.
On his first appearance back, he scored. Naturally, it was a header.
The myth goes that Dean’s devastating aerial dominance was enhanced by metal plates that were implanted in his skull. In reality, that was never the case but Dean didn’t do anything to dispel the mystique. “As a matter of fact, I think the skull fracture knitted twice as hard, so they tell me, and it considerably helped with the old heading trick,” he claimed.
If praise from an icon of Liverpool’s bench wasn’t enough, the revered Manchester United manager Matt Busby, who lost to Dean’s Everton in the 1933 FA Cup final from Manchester City’s midfield, took his turn to gawk at Dean’s ability. “When Dixie went up for the ball, he was almost unstoppable,” Busby once gushed. “Defenders were absolutely terrified of him.”
No striker in the history of England’s top flight has ever terrorised so many defenders so relentlessly as Dean in 1927/28. Incredibly, 40 of his 63 goals that term were with his (potentially artificially enhanced) head.
Before New Year’s Day 1928, Dean had already scored 35 goals – all in England’s top flight; the same tally which Haaland matched in May 2023 to break the Premier League-era scoring record.
After Dean nabbed a hat-trick at Anfield, Everton failed to score in their first four matches of March. Yet, Dean powered the Toffees over the finish line thereafter, snatching the league and scoring title with 17 goals across his final eight appearances, finishing the campaign with a hat-trick against Arsenal.
“That’s enough,” Dean supposedly told the referee before the final whistle had been blown, “I’m going off,” sauntering off the pitch to a thunderous standing ovation at Goodison Park. Ten Arsenal players shook Dean’s hand after the match, with Charlie Buchan the one exception. After almost two decades of a career which brought more than 250 top-flight goals of his own, Buchan was supposedly miffed that his final match was overshadowed by Dean’s antics.
Half a century later, long after finishing his career with a gluttonous 310 top-flight goals, Dean attended the 1980 Merseyside derby in the very same stadium. He never walked back through the turnstiles. At 73, Dean had suffered a fatal heart attack. Yet, decades after passing, his unrivalled scoring feats from almost a century ago are still being poured over.
Even if Haaland does surpass the record – which would take a hefty late-season surge – Dean’s myth would still live on for some. As Shankly insisted: “Dixie was the greatest centre-forward there ever will be.”