Dixie Dean – ‘Never Passed, Never Bought a Round’

By Neil Adamson 20/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

My grandparents were unhappily married for over 60 years. They ended their days in a neat, one-bedroom flat, staring at a television with the sound turned off. My grandfather didn't like to hear the people on screen talking. Like people in the flesh, they irritated him.

The story of how my grandparents met is not one I've heard told with any romantic ardour. Theirs was a casual meeting at the dog track. My grandmother, in her early twenties and, by all accounts, an attractive and stylish young woman, was working behind the bar. My grandfather, a professional footballer with Everton and an inveterate gambler, had one eye on the greyhounds' rapid progress and another on the barmaid. A man of few words, he doubtless summoned the courage, fuelled by several drinks, to ask my grandmother out amid the roar of the winning punters.

In my version of their first date, some time in 1931, my grandmother waits patiently outside the Forum cinema in Liverpool, dressed like a Gainsborough Pictures starlet. For the purposes of mood, a thin veil of smog has enveloped the city. My grandfather, clutching a bunch of flowers, emerges from this man-made mist, his James Cagney features betraying no suggestion that he's 10 minutes late. Perhaps this is their first tetchy altercation. Or perhaps my grandmother let his tardiness slide, already sensing that this was a man who was indifferent to chastisement.

There must have been a courtship that followed. They would meet to go to the cinema or to go for a drink in one of the city's smarter pubs. My grandfather liked to drink. Not for the camaraderie of the lounge bar or the spontaneous singsongs; he was, intrinsically, a lone, stoic drinker. The alcohol, it seemed, had helped him overcome his anxiety at leaving his Scottish home so young, to come and live and work in a foreign place, with none of the reassuring matriarchy that had shaped him. He was not a drunk or an alcoholic, but the pub, like the betting shop, was always on the day's agenda. My grandmother was not above going to pubs, but I can't imagine it was her preferred habitat.

Perhaps they spent evenings at my grandmother's parents' house, making small talk in the parlour. Her parents approved of the match. He was, after all, smartly dressed, well educated and quietly charming. That he was playing for one of the top football teams of the day, Everton, and was a minor celebrity locally, must have given him extra cachet.

Their marriage warranted a small piece in The Liverpool Echo. A photocopied clipping confirms my grandmother's striking looks. My grandfather's outline, fused with the church wall by the intensity of the camera flash, has been crudely touched up with pencil, giving him the vaguely artificial look of The Sunday Post's roving reporter, Hon. As they watch their friends sign the register, they are both smiling. In later years, this was not a common sight.

My grandfather's football career had faltered at Everton. He didn't like to train. He didn't take instruction well. As a professional footballer, this was problematic. Everton's minute books from the era during which my grandfather played are available to read online. There are several brief passages that mention him, an air of displeasure easily decipherable beneath the copperplate. The club scout's recommendation that he be snapped up immediately from Partick Thistle is one of the few high points.

A matter of months after arriving, he's been reprimanded for an "incident" at the club's Christmas party. What he did, very likely after drinking heavily, is never mentioned, but it's serious enough for him to be hauled in front of the Chairman and made to explain his conduct. It's hard not to sympathise with a young man, away from home for the first time, living in digs in the city centre, who turns to booze as a coping mechanism. Doubtless he would have been scornful of such psychology, amateur or otherwise, but it's certain the Everton regime conflicted with his sensibilities.

By the end of his second season at Everton, where he'd made just 15 first-team appearances, the club have lost patience with him. So eager are the club to get shut of him, his name features again and again in the minutes as a possible makeweight in proposed deals for coveted players. He still features regularly in the reserve team, but it's clear he's a peripheral figure. The final entry in the club's minutes is disturbingly terse. He's to be sold to Hamilton Academical and will not – the word ‘not' is underlined several times for emphasis – be allowed the player's traditional percentage of the transfer fee. What my grandfather made of this is not recorded, but it must have grated. Undoubtedly, it was a small windfall denied him. Their relocation expenses gone, a planned bet scuppered.

There are no minutes that record my grandmother's reaction to this either. She must have known she had made an alliance with someone who was, as they say politely, difficult.

A clue that my grandfather's obstinacy was genetically hard-wired lies in a story concerning one of his brothers who, in his spare time, managed the local amateur football team. His reluctance to name the team until the last minute, meaning unused players couldn't plan their weekend's activities in advance, drove his young squad to near murderous mutiny. Badgering him in the local pub to name his starting eleven for Saturday, he still wouldn't budge. I imagine him with a wry smile on his face, amused by the heated reaction to his silence. Things, as they often can when large groups of men are drinking heavily, turned ugly.

My grandfather's brother, very possibly incapacitated by drink, was taken from the pub and marched – one version has him carried aloft, but I suspect this is dramatic embellishment – to a nearby railway bridge. He was either rolled down the embankment or tossed, like an old mattress going in to a skip, on to the tracks below. Either way, he was now lying, prone and heavily sedated by alcohol, directly in the path of the night train to Edinburgh.

In the hours or minutes that followed, he managed to crawl away from the line. Not quite far enough, as it turned out, and he lost a foot as a result; the mail train making a cut of surgical precision as it thundered past. Another brother, minus the same appendage via an industrial accident, though right, as opposed to left, refused to split the cost of a single pair of shoes. Once again, the family's propensity for cruel obstinacy was laid bare.

My grandmother's Scottish in-laws idolised their son, but were indifferent to his English wife. Their objection may well have been on any number of grounds – religion, big city ways, appearance – even if nationality seems the most obvious. My grandfather had been spoilt prior to moving to England. His family saw no reason why his wife shouldn't continue to facilitate this. My grandmother rebelled, albeit subtly. They now had a young son. In later years, the same level of adoration was heaped on him as he became my grandfather's natural heir to the role of male icon.

Her family were no pushovers themselves. Their house was a social hub for the local clergy and her father something of a consigliere to the city centre's Catholic priests. I've never seen a picture of my great grandmother, but there's a striking one that survives of my great grandfather. It could easily be the dust jacket photo for a celebrated author of the early twentieth century. There's a hint of George Bernard Shaw in the white haired, bearded gentleman who stares down at the camera, pipe theatrically poised in mouth.

She must have been relieved to leave Scotland when my grandfather signed for one of Ireland's top teams, Waterford. He enjoyed Ireland. He played well, kept himself in shape and immersed himself in their more enlightened drinking culture. They won the championship in the first year he was there and he netted seventeen goals. His shot was so powerful, local stringers christened him "Cannonball", which sounds like something straight out of the pages of The Dandy. It's hard to picture him on the cover of the cover of the annual, around the Christmas dinner table, laughing uproariously as he pulls a cracker with Keyhole Kate.

Many years later, approaching his dotage, my grandfather could not be drawn on his footballing days. Dixie Dean, with whom he played alongside at Everton, is one of English football's true legends. My grandfather summed him up in a single, biting appraisal: "He never passed to anyone and he never bought a round." It's not difficult to imagine which of these failings rankled with him the most. His shooting foot was now cursed with a bunion and the solitary time we coaxed him in to a shot on goal – two apple trees at the bottom of our garden – the profanity that followed echoed around the neighbourhood. The way he shaped himself to take the shot was still impressive, even if the effort didn't quite match his glory days.

My grandmother's contribution to the annals of his playing days does not, unsurprisingly, paint him in the best light. On a summer tour of Denmark with Everton, he was so offended by a pair of pyjamas his mother had packed for him, he ditched them from the window of a moving train. A bewildered farmer must have plucked them from the hedgerow days later, wondering how a set of St. Michael's finest nightwear ended up snagged there.

My mother was born during the Waterford sojourn. Perhaps her arrival prompted the move back to England, where my grandfather signed for Ipswich Town. He never kicked a ball for the club – his contract was terminated within days of his arrival. Like the Christmas night out affair at Everton, only my grandfather knows what led to such a prompt end to his career at Ipswich. Maybe he didn't like the cut of the club's jib or maybe they didn't like the cut of his. Either way, his football career was over. There was no multi-million pound pension pot, no lucrative management job and no TV punditry in the offing. This was 1930s England. Jobs of any kind were difficult to come by.

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