On 1 March 1980, a lunch involving some of English football’s greatest figures was held at a hotel in the city centre of Liverpool. On that afternoon, legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly addressed the assembly to pay tribute to one of his fellow top-table guests, and said: “Without doubt, he is the greatest centre-forward the world will ever see. He belongs in the company of the supremely great, like Beethoven, Rembrandt and Shakespeare.”

The man he was referring to was William Ralph ‘Dixie’ Dean. A few hours later, the great man passed away at Goodison Park, the scene of so many of his finest hours, while watching a Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool.

This campaign Lionel Messi has rightfully attracted global platitudes for breaking a host of goalscoring records. On 20 March, he became Barcelona’s leading marksman in official competitions. On 11 April, he confirmed his status as the top scorer in a single Spanish season, and on 2 May his goals earned him the title of the highest scorer in a single European season. Yet the one record to evade him has been Dean’s record of scoring 60 league goals in a season, which he achieved in 1927/28.

Yet the contrast between the two players could not be starker. In March 2010, France Football declared Messi as the world’s richest footballer, with an estimated annual income of £29.6m. At the peak of his career, Dean earned just £8 per match. While Messi began his youth career with Newell’s Old Boys at the age of eight, Dean had to lie to gain admittance to play for a young offenders institute team, who played more matches than his school’s side. Whereas Messi moved to Barcelona’s La Masia academy to continue his footballing education, Dean practiced hitting a moving target by striking scurrying rats while working as an apprentice fitter on the railway. Yet his rudimentary training methods served him well. After scoring 27 goals in 30 appearances for Tranmere Rovers, he was transferred to Everton at the age of 18 for £3,000 in 1925.

A year after signing for the club he supported as a youngster, Dean’s professional career was almost brought to an abrupt end. He suffered a fractured skull, broken jaw and eye injuries as a result of a motorcycle accident. After 36 hours of lying unconscious, Everton’s club doctor believed he would never play football again. However, his recovery surprised everyone and he was soon home, riding a motorbike and playing football. Just four months after the crash, he turned out for Everton reserves and marked his return to action with a trademark headed goal.

“Although he was a humble man, he was incredibly single-minded: he simply wanted to play football and score goals,” Dean’s biographer, John Keith, told FIFA.com. “He used to say: ‘My job was to get the ball into the net as quickly as I possibly could and as many times as I possibly could. And he did. In the days before World Cups and European Championships and their respective qualifiers, Dean played 16 times and scored 18 goals for England, and scored 349 times in 399 appearances for Everton.”

To play against him was a delight and a nightmare. 

Sir Matt Busby on playing against 'Dixie'

The zenith of Dean’s remarkable career came on Saturday 5 May 1928 during a 3-3 draw with Arsenal. Needing a hat-trick on the final day of the season to break George Camsell’s record of 59, he got off to a great start when heading home after five minutes. Everton surged forward after the restart and were awarded a penalty when Dean was fouled in the area. He mis-hit the resulting penalty, but the ball slid through the keeper’s legs and the record had been equalled.

He had 83 minutes left to score another and, with Everton already crowned English champions, the sole focus was on Dean. As the minutes went by, tension mounted. With seven minutes to go, Everton were awarded a corner. Alec Troup sent the ball across and Dean rose above the Gunners’ defence to head home. He marked his achievement with a simple bow, but Goodison Park went wild. The apocryphal story is that when the goal went in, the pigeons and the seagulls at Liverpool’s Pier Head (three miles away) were dispersed by the noise.

With the advent of radio, Dean was arguably English football’s first superstar. A waxwork of him was created at Madame Tussauds, a painting of him was commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery and his face even appeared on British stamps. Crowds came to see him play golf at celebrity tournaments, sponsors queued up to offer him commercials, although he refused to accept promotional work unless the entire Everton squad benefited. Such was the esteem in which he was universally held that American baseball star Babe Ruth once asked to meet him before a match at White Hart Lane.

Former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, who played against Dean on a number of occasions said: “Who could ever have seen him play and not seen greatness? He hit the ball with his head as hard and as accurate as most players could kick it. Defences were close to panic when corners came over. There cannot be another. If there could be, the ‘new’ Dixie would still score a great pile of goals. He would out-jump, out-time any defender or any number they could pack into the area. He was a thorough sportsman. To play against him was a delight and a nightmare.”

Towards the end of his life, Dean was often asked whether he felt anyone could break his record. “Yes,” he said. “Someone might get more than 60. But I’d like to pass on my old spirit. Just the spirit. If I could do that then I think someone could creep up there somehow and score those goals.”

Messi was ten short this time around, but he has a definitive target for the 2012/13 campaign, 85 years on from Dean’s remarkable achievement. Perhaps with the ‘Dixie spirit’, a fitting heir will at last be found.

*A stage play about the life of Dixie Dean, entitled The Dixie Dean Story, is performed regularly. For more information, please click on the link on the right hand side.

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