A flavour of Ashford author Paul Little’s remarkable ‘In the Shadow of Benbulben: Dixie Dean at Sligo Rovers’
In the winter of 1939, Dixie Dean – the greatest footballer of his generation and one of the game’s first international superstars – came to play for Sligo Rovers of the League of Ireland. Dean played half a season for the Bit O’ Red, a run of games that saw him line out twice against Wicklow’s finest at the time, Bray Unknowns.
The two games somewhat bookended Dean’s time here – the first on a cold February Wednesday was his second appearance for his new club; the second was Sligo’s last home game of the season, days before a Dean-inspired Rovers side were to feature in their first ever FAI Cup Final.
The two fixtures also served to neatly illustrate Dean’s progression in his time in Irish football. The legendary English international and Everton great had arrived at Rovers having essentially come out of retirement. Fifteen years as a professional appeared to have taken their toll when Dixie hung up his boots the previous autumn after a disastrous period with Notts County. The great striker, who had played 433 times for the Toffees and scored 383 league and cup goals, left the Blues under a cloud in 1938 having fallen out with the club secretary Theo Kelly.
The move to County was an unhappy affair. A string of injuries meant that Dean only managed to play nine times for the Nottingham side before a foot injury saw him call time on his career. Or so it seemed.
The life of a footballer in the 1930s was very different to what we see today. For one thing, a salary cap meant that even the best players couldn’t earn more than £8 a week. For another, once your career was over, well, that was that – you were of no monetary value to the game, there were very few paying roles within football that you could aspire to, and so, it was more than likely that you’d need to find another job.
Dean had tried to put in place plans for his retirement, opening a sports shop on Merseyside in 1937. But the business failed; the player learning the harsh reality that his fame would not guarantee an income in the real world. His first job on hanging up his boots was as a talent scout – and it was in that less than salubrious role that he came to the attention of Sligo Rovers.
In the winter of 1938/39, the westerners found themselves out of contention for the League of Ireland title, with Shamrock Rovers almost out of sight at the top of the table. So, the club’s committee turned its attention to the FAI Cup, a competition it had yet to win and one that offered lucrative paydays if you could put together a decent run, especially if that run saw you reach the Dalymount final.
But goals had been a problem in their league season to that point, and so, Rovers set about finding a centre forward to drive their cup ambitions. The club had some links to Merseyside, and Dean was contacted to see if he could find them a goal scorer. Dixie set about the job, but unable to find a suitable candidate or one who fancied the move, he had an idea – what if he offered his services as a player?
It was a gamble for both parties. But the answer from Sligo was never truly in doubt – and the rest is history. One of the most revered footballers of all time came to play in a small, provincial market town of just 13,000 souls in the far west of Ireland – and one of the great stories of Irish football was put in train. A tale retold in my book In the Shadow of Benbulben: Dixie Dean at Sligo Rovers.
Bray Unknowns, the forefathers of the Wanderers, were the second team in the league to face Dean. His debut on Sunday, January 29th, drew a record attendance to the Showgrounds, saw Dixie score and Sligo Rovers win over Shelbourne.
However, there was a mixed reaction from members of the assembled press. The match report in the Sligo Champion was effusive in its praise for the club’s new signing. But, whilst praising his unquestioned mastery of the football, there were concerns voiced about his mobility and fitness in some of the national papers.
Those doubts were magnified three days later at Shelbourne Park when Sligo suffered a surprise defeat against the Bray boys. The Unknowns were enduring a poor season, having lost 8 of their 11 league games. The fixture had been hastily moved from the Carlisle Grounds as the Wicklow side sought to cash in on the Dean effect. It was a sensible bit of business, as a crowd of over 4,000 were said to have paid in (although some reports suggest the attendance was far larger as many fans had gained entry unrecorded when a gate into the ground was forced!).
And the Bray club’s opportunism off the pitch was to be matched by its players on it. The “home” side took an early lead – one that they took with them into the dressing room at half time. Despite Dean’s prompting, Sligo had been poor in the first period, and their situation was not helped when the England man suffered a nasty head wound and had to leave the field of play for a lengthy spell to have his head bandaged.
Much to the large crowd’s delight, Dean emerged to rejoin his teammates for the second period. However, Rovers failed to shake off their torpor and were soon to concede a second. Dean soldiered on, and got his side back into the game, heading in bravely from a corner. But try as they might, the visitors were unable to bag an equaliser, ultimately conceding a late third and leaving Dublin disappointed.
Doubts about Dean’s fitness had not been dispelled, and the Irish Independent reported his performance “had not been an inspiring one.” Bray, however, will have cared very little – a win in such a high-profile game was very welcome, as were the gate receipts, which were reported to be of an unprecedented level for a midweek league game.
However, when the clubs next met in late April, the story was very different. With Dean now more familiar with his colleagues, Sligo had begun to purr. The westerners had put six past Dublin strugglers Brideville in their previous fixture and according to the match report on their comfortable 2-1 win over the Wicklow side, they created enough chances in the first 45 minutes to have won three matches.
That said, they had failed to find the back of the net with any of them. With the FAI Cup Final only a week away, it was perhaps unsurprising that Sligo played very much within themselves and seemed a little distracted at times.
But then Dean stamped his class on affairs. Leaner and more mobile, the great centre forward looked a different animal to the February version, and he proved it emphatically, bagging a well-taken brace in the second half to put the Unknowns to the sword. Indeed, Dixie’s greater sharpness was noted across the FAI Cup Final previews in the papers over the days that followed, with the majority of the football scribblers tipping the Englishman to be the central figure in their Dalymount clash with Shelbourne.
The Bray games only tell a small part of Dean’s League of Ireland story. But they go some way to showing that while the legendary English international came to Ireland with a decent pay packet in mind, he certainly left no one short changed. Indeed, the four months with Sligo, which he described as some of the most enjoyable he had in his storied football career, were to leave an indelible mark on the player, the club, the town and the wider Irish game.
In the Shadow of Benbulben: Dixie Dean at Sligo Rovers by Ashford author Paul Little is available in Bridge Street Books in Wicklow town and all good bookshops.