JOHN ROBERTS wrote for the Daily Express, The Guardian, the Daily Mail and The Independent, where he was the tennis correspondent for 20 years. He collaborated with Bill Shankly on the Liverpool manager’s autobiography, ghosted Kevin Keegan’s first book, and has written books on George Best, Manchester United’s Busby Babes (The Team That Wouldn’t Die) and Everton (The Official Centenary History).
As Matthew Engel once wrote in the British Journalism Review: “I suspect posh-paper sports writing changed forever the day John Roberts left the Daily Express to join The Guardian in the late 1970s, was handed a piece of routine agency copy and picked up a telephone to start asking questions.”
By John Roberts
9 March 2010
In conversation with Dixie Dean: Part Two
DD: [In 1928] we had quite a good, hard-working team, and I would say that there would be about nine comedians in the team, and they were all kidding each other and that sort of thing, and, of course, [the team spirit] paid off.
I wanted nine goals in three matches to get 60. On the Saturday I scored two against Aston Villa at Goodison. I thought to myself well blimey, I only want another seven from two matches. So when we go off to Burnley, the next thing I know the ball has started running a bit my way and before half-time I’d scored four. And, of course, our supporters, they were going off at the deep end. Oh, by the way, I went off the field then at half-time.
I pulled a muscle stretching, so I didn’t go on in the second half. My old trainer Harry Cooke, from that night, from the Wednesday night until the Friday, he was with me at home, my home in Alderley Avenue, Birkenhead. Old Harry kept putting clay plasters on [the muscle] until the Friday night, even leaving one on overnight as well. Old Harry cured it and on the Saturday, of course I was fit.
JR: So if it hadn’t been for that, you might not have been playing?
DD: That’s a fact, because we’d already won the League. But, of course, the spectators could see this other three, [thinking] if I can two get two against the Villa and four at Burnley I must be able to get three against this other mob at home.
JR: And that day you went there were 60 odd thousand in the ground.
DD: Yeah, they shut the gates.
JR: Geordie (George) Camsell, he got his [record 59] goals [for Middlesborough] in the Second Division the season before, but that wouldn’t diminish the quality of what he did or the merit of his goals. I mean, he might have been in the Second Division but it was still an enormous thing for him to do, wasn’t it, to score 59 goals?
DD: Yeah…yes, he was a nice lad Geordie. As a matter of fact I got my calling up papers for the army from the north-east, up near Bishop Auckland, and it was there that I heard that old Geordie had snuffed it.
JR: The Everton team of that time, it was all geared up for attacking football wasn’t it? What would you have? Obviously a goalkeeper, two backs…
DD: … three halves, five forwards.
JR: What qualities were expected in the centre forwards?
DD: Solid, hard-working…not to be afraid. You’ve got to take all the risks, which I did. I had just over 15 operations. But I was quick at healing.
JR: The right temperament too. You never let yourself lose your temper or anything like, you never got…
DD: I wouldn’t argue.
JR: You must have had big defenders trying to provoke you, pushing you, shoving you, kicking you, they’d be calling you names, the old procedure.
DD: You’d get [your own] back a bit … There’s a case at Blackburn, where they had a big fella there, [Bill] Rankin, and there was a corner kick coming over. And just when I’m going up to head this, he’s got two fingers in the back of my football trousers, in the negligee. And he pulled me down, you see, and he’s behind me, and when he knows that I haven’t gone up for it, he turns around, and says ‘He doesn’t ruddy well get that one.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘You did, thank you very much. Look where it’s gone.’
It hit him, hit his shoulder and went in the net.
JR: And he didn’t even know he’d done that, did he? He was too busy watching you.
DD: Yes, he was pulling, watching the ball, trying to watch the ball, and pull my knickers at the same time, pull me down.
JR: There was a funny goal you scored at Villa where the sun helped you a lot…when you saw the shadow.
DD: Yeah, that was [Fred] Biddlestone, I think, the Villa goalkeeper, and this ball was pumped right up the field from Hunter Hart, the centre-half. He belted it and, er, I’m watching this ball ten yards outside the penalty area, and all of a sudden I can see the shadow lengthening, knowing then that the goalkeeper had come out of his goal. So instead of me breasting it down, or footing it down, taking it on, I jumped up and flicked it with the back of my head, and it dropped in the empty net. And then he said: ‘How the bloody hell do you get these goals?’ I said: ‘Er, that thing there gave me that.’ He said: ‘How do you mean?’ I said: ‘Well, look at your shadow there…’ Oh, Christ! ‘Don’t bring your shadow with you next time!’
JR: You were born in Birkenhead?
DD: I was born in Birkenhead, but both sides of my people belonged to Chester. My randfather, Ralph Brett, he drove the royal train.
JR: During the reign of George V?
JR: Were there other railwaymen in the family?
DD: My dad was on the railways from when he was 11.
JR: What were your schooldays like?
DD: Well, it was war time you see, so you were grafting all the time. I used to take milk out. I’d be up at half-past four in the morning and go down and get the ponies and the milk floats, then I’d come out to this place in Upton, between Upton and Arrowe Park, and Burgess’ Farm was there. We used to collect the milk in the big urns and take it out to people’s houses, serving it out of the ladle. And not only that, you had an allotment, and that was in school time. And there was no such thing as pinching and stealing and all that bloody caper. In those days, you were growing all that stuff and you needed it for the war time.
JR: It was all part of the war effort was it?
DD: Yes. It was in Birkenhead Park. We all had an allotment set to us. A couple of us would have a nice piece of ground. Get the old spuds in, cabbages in, onions, everything that we wanted, lettuce.
JR: Would you take them home, or would it go…
DD: No, the Council took all that. We got a bit ourselves of, course.
JR: So at school you just had to take what lessons you could, I suppose?
DD: My only lesson was football.
JR: Is that right?
DD: That’s right…nothing else. I used to give the pens out on Friday afternoons…the ink, and the chalks. That was the only job I had in school.
JR: What about the lessons?
DD: I never had any lessons.
JR: Did you never learn maths or English?
DD: No, nothing.
JR: Well how did you learn to read or write then?
DD: Oh, I can write as good as anybody. I just picked it up. And then when I left school, then I was on the railway, same as my dad. My mother, she’d come to Birkenhead to go in service, and my dad packed up in Chester and he came down to Birkenhead. Got a job on the Wirral railway, and he was on the Wirral railway until he retired.
I served my time in the sheds as an apprentice fitter. The other two apprentice fitters, they didn’t like the night job because there were too many bloody rats around there, coming out of the Anglo-oil company and the Vacamoil company…rats as big as whippets. So I took their night job, and of course, I could always have a game of football then.
JR: You’d play football and then go working at the railway sheds?
DD: Yeah. My manager at the Wirral railway, his two sons were doctors, and they were also directors of New Brighton Football Club. Whoever it was that told them, I don’t know, but the general manager of the railway sent for me and asked me would I care to go to New Brighton. Now my mind, you see, was always on Everton.
JR: Did you used to watch them as a boy?
DD: Only seen them once. My dad took me there when I was eight. Watching that blue and the stands and everything I thought, blimey, what a place! Anyway, I told the general manager of the railway that I wasn’t thinking about going anywhere yet. The next thing I know I’m playing out here in Wirral for Pensby United. Then this fella approached me one day and asked me did I want to go to Tranmere and have a game there. I got lucky in the sense that I went there, I did get to Everton from there. But at Tranmere I didn’t fancy Bert Cook, who was the secretary, manager, trainer…everything. He was one of those soft soapers, until he finished with you.
JR: And the big clubs were watching you…
DD: Oh, eight or nine teams. Newcastle wanted me. Arsenal wanted me. Anyway, one afternoon I cleared off to the pictures and when I got home my mother told me Mr McIntosh from Everton had been and was waiting for me at the Woodside Hotel. I ran the two and a half miles there. I couldn’t get there quick enough. Mr McIntosh asked me did I want to play for Everton, and that was that.
JR: What was your share of the £3,000 transfer fee?
DD: Tranmere promised my mother and father three hundred quid. They were satisfied, I was satisfied and then a fortnight later Tranmere sent for me. I went up there, they handed me this cheque for thirty pounds. So I said to them: ‘Hey, you’ve missed an ‘0’ off this.’
‘Oh, no, I’m sorry’ Bert Cook said, ‘but that’s all the League will allow.’ I went to see Mr John McKenna, the chairman of the Football Association, and I told him, and he said, ‘I’m afraid you’ve signed, and that’s it.’
To be continued . . . Part three is here
Some material from the interview also appears in ‘Everton: The Official Centenary History’ and ‘The Legendary Dixie Dean’ CD book.