Long before it became known as the Dixie Deans final – at about 11.45am that bright May morning back in 1972 – I was standing with my father waiting for the Hampden gates to open. Scuttling round about us, two boys were plotting their way in to the game. “See you at the wee barrier,” said one to the other as they split up to improve their chances of a “lift-over”. When the masses assembled on the red cinder slopes,
we ended up close to this stanchion, and just before kick-off witnessed the pals being happily reunited. What other remarkable feats would the day hold, we wondered?
Well, the scoreline in that Scottish Cup final would be Celtic (not such a grand team any more, so said the critics, a bit old) 6, Hibs (the coming men) 1, with Deans scoring a hat-trick. For his second, he rounded our goalie Jim Herriot twice and dumped three international defenders on their backsides. “I wasn’t much of a dribbler,” he deadpans, “so that was probably my best-ever goal. Whenever it was re-shown on TV my granny, who didn’t know much about football, would say: ‘Poor laddie having to do that every week – he must be awfie tired.’ I never disabused her of that notion!”
And, of course, he finished off with a somersault that has entered goal-celebration folklore. “I was no threat to Olga Korbut, was I? I suppose I rolled over in instalments. I probably looked a bit, well, unfit. I was one of the stocky guys, for sure, but I aye maintain those hoops made you look dumpier.”
This would be the first and last time I’d turn up for a match so optimistically early. The first and last time I’d be in a six-figure crowd – 106,101. The first and last time a result would reduce me to tears. It would be Deans’ first and last somersault, but not the last time he’d bag three cup-final goals against Hibs. If I could have found it in my broken Hibee heart, though, I should have been magnanimous enough for a tight little smile at his achievement. The ’72 hat-trick was one of the greatest acts of redemption by a bauchly Scottish poacher there’s ever been. So, in Steps Bar in Glasgow’s Merchant City today I’m buying the old Nemesis a drink.
“Vodka and Diet Irn-Bru – cheers,” he says, and mine host George opens up the snug for us. “You should see this room on Fridays,” adds Deans. “It’s hotching with Marks & Spencer girls from across the road.” “You should have seen it ten minutes ago,” quips George. “The Goalie was in.” Andy Goram gone, the dapper Dixie in a smart suit and shiny loafers takes centre-stage to recall how jubilation was somehow extracted from desolation in just 17 days.
Two and a half weeks before the thrashing of Hibs, Celtic were on the brink of their third European Cup final in six seasons. All they had to do, against Inter Milan at Parkhead, was negotiate continental football’s first penalty shoot-out. Deans was to take the first kick. “Still okay with this, Dixie?” said Jock Stein. “Aye boss,” said Deans. And Jimmy Johnstone, the only person ever to address Deans thus, said: “Big man, I’m going to say a prayer for you.”
“Of course,” continues Deans, now 65, “I had to walk from the halfway line to take the kick, something I hadn’t thought about beforehand. That took forever. My feet felt like lead. I broke into a wee jog, then stopped. What was I thinking about? Christ knows.” The 75,000 crowd, possibly sensing his nervousness, fell silent. They didn’t know how to react – this was new for everyone – and Dixie didn’t know how to walk without thinking he was in a cowboy film that was headed for a bad ending. Do not forsake him oh my darling.
“There was mud on the ball so I wiped it off. I was going to hit it low to their goalie’s left but he moved so I lifted it.” Over the bar and, in legend, over the Parkhead roof and the furthest high flats. “I didn’t miss by much but because it kept on rising there were cartoons in the papers about the Apollo 16 astronauts informing Mission Control: ‘Tell Dixie we’ve found his ball.’”
Being the first shootout villain made Deans front-page news and a hack-pack with attendant paparrazi was waiting for him as he birled his car into his driveway, long after his team-mates had commiserated with him and he’d quizzed Jinky: ‘What about that effing prayer?”
“I turned right round and booked into a hotel in Sauchiehall Street to drown my sorrows.” The journos wouldn’t give up the chase, though, and Deans was eventually flushed out by the Scottish Daily Express who stunted up a photo at a desolate bus-stop and headlined their exclusive: “Dixie Deans – the loneliest man in the world.” Then the next game, against his old club Motherwell, Celtic got a penalty. “The chant went up ‘We want Dixie!’ but no way was I taking it. Bobby Murdoch, God rest his soul, stepped up and scored. But that just summed up the Celtic fans; they were brilliant to me.”
A helluva 17 days, then, but, all in all, John Kelly Deans – inevitably nicknamed Dixie after the Everton legend when, like him, he quickly found goalscoring easy – has had a helluva life. Both parents died of tuberculosis when he was young, his father when he was just four – “I’ve no memory of him holding me,” he says – indeed he was the only member of a family of five in Linwood, Renfrewshire, to escape the disease.
He’s just committed his story to print and his ghost-writer Ken McNab – an old colleague so I can vouch for the thoroughness – doesn’t seem to have missed anything. Reaching H in the book’s index I was expecting to find “Hibs” and “hat-tricks” but “homosexual encounter” was a surprise. This dated from his days in junior football when he’d been consigned to the early bath which would be a feature of his career, and his manager, always dapper in a checked overcoat, nipped away from the touchline to proposition him.
Deans’ tale is a tremendously colourful one, with walk-on parts for Eric Morecambe and Bob Marley. The Motherwell years hardly lacked incident and top-hatted chairman Willie Miller handed him an envelope containing £500 to be shared round the team after thrilling wins against Spurs and Stoke City in the Texaco Cup (the Drybrough Cup and the Summer Cup were other quaint byways in Dixie’s journey). Gordon Banks was Stoke’s goalie, and a few months after his 1970 World Cup wonder save from Pele he was foiling a Deans header bound for the same corner. “I was 5ft 7ins but prided myself on my jumping and absolutely loved climbing above big centre-halves, sometimes even more than scoring goals. Mike England was one of the best when he played with Spurs but I horsed him that night.”
This might sound like boasting but Deans is a thoughtful fellow in conversation and mindful not to overdo the Jinky anecdotes. “Others knew him for longer than me,” he insists, although Dixie was a regular visitor to the home of the wing genius when he was stricken with motor neurone disease (Jinky: “For f***’s sake, big man, no you again!”) and still looks in on his widow Agnes every couple of weeks. He’s also first to mention the break-up of his first marriage and how drink took its toll on his wife and, briefly, himself.
His Motherwell stats were 78 goals in 158 games but he was also sent off six times. “Sometimes for handbags, others for typically bad forward’s tackles. I was a hothead but I wasn’t dirty.” Nevertheless he was serving a six-week ban in 1971 when Celtic bought him for £17,500 as a replacement for Willie Wallace, moved on to Crystal Palace along with John Hughes after the shock League Cup final defeat by Partick Thistle.
The transfer involved a football hack go-between, a secret assignation at Lourdes Grotto in Carfin, Lanarkshire, and a £50 fine for Celtic for their purchase of a banned player – “The only time that’s ever happened,” says Deans. Rangers had shown an earlier interest in him which cooled, he claims, when the Ibrox hierarchy discovered his mother was Catholic. Nevertheless, a photo of him signing for Jock Stein prompted suspicion among some Celtic fans about his true allegiances. “I was wearing my painter’s hat; it had the Rangers crest on it. I never scored against the Gers, which probably made the conspiracy theorists think I was going easy on them. But the truth is I was a St Mirren fan. In 1959, my mum took me up to Paisley Cross to see the Buddies bring back the Scottish Cup.”
Deans’ relationship with Stein was absolutely fascinating. The Big Man signed him and fined him. Stein dropped him and confessed he wished he’d got hold of him two years previously, to turn him into the best striker there had ever been. But he also kept him out of European games and, Deans is convinced, conspired to restrict his Scottish caps to a mere two. Then in 1976, after 132 goals in 184 games in those unflattering hoops (and only one sending off, while in the reserves), Dixie was himself shifted on, to Luton.
His debut at Kenilworth Road caused chairman Eric Morecambe to waggle his specs with delight. The new striker with the short, fat, hairy legs netted a double. His time there was short but he packed a lot in, including a stint as an emergency goalie and a “square go” with a Bolton centre-half called Sam Allardyce resulting in another dismissal. It was in Australia, pioneering the National Soccer League with Adelaide City, that Bob Marley, unknown to our hero, sought an audience with him to ask: “Are you the Dixie Deans who used to play for Celtic?” So let’s return to those days ...
The Parkhead initiation wind-up came on a trip to Malta. “Start up a song and the whole plane will join in, Dixie. The Big Man aye likes that,” urged his new team-mates. Deans was left murdering Ten Guitars on his lonesome. “Christ, I hope you can play better than you can sing,” muttered Stein.
“But I think Jock liked me,” he says, “and when I went to chap on his door for being made a subby, like that Inter Milan game, he’d say: ‘You’re my secret weapon, Dixie, you’re going to come on and win the game for us.’ That made this wee guy feel ten feet tall. I didn’t win it, and I’m aye reminded of that, but that Celtic team doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.”
He talks warmly of his team-mates for what was the second half of the nine-in-a-row run, including Kenny Dalglish (“the greatest”), the equally-rotund Pat McCluskey and the enigma that was George Connelly. A Scottish dressing-room of the 70s could be a tough place for sensitive souls and Deans describes how the classy half-back tried to book a flight out of Bermuda after one too many taunts over the whereabouts of his wife back home.
“Mind you,” he adds, “I know I really infuriated Jock as well. He didn’t like my moustache and when I came in one day with it half shaved off for a joke he fined me again – five quid. I smoked and he didn’t approve of that, so when he was around me he’d pretend to have a coughing fit. And of course he was teetotal but I liked a drink. Many’s the time I’d be enjoying a wee bevvy and the cry would go up: ‘Is there a John Deans in the bar?’ It would be Big Jock going: ‘Get your arse out of there!’ He had spies on every corner. Jinky probably got more fines then me but I must have ran the wee man close. When the pair of us were on a night out we wouldn’t eat so when we were weighed at training – this happened most days – it didn’t show. Saying that, I could never get down from 12st 4lbs, not even when Jock told us: ‘No chips after Wednesday.’”
But Deans, who re-married, has no regrets. “I’d have to hold up my hands and say that on the socialising side I probably over-indulged, but I had a wonderful time at a fantastic club run by a guy who was right 99 per cent of the time and the other one per cent thought he was right.” Deans missed out on four cup finals under Stein, but not – unfortunately – the one in ’72. His mother didn’t see his greatest successes either, passing away the day before his 19th birthday. “I wish I’d dedicated that win to her. In my junior days, when she was ill, she had to be carried along the road breathless to my games. She was my biggest fan. But you didn’t do that sort of thing back then. It was ‘Heids doon, get on.’”
And if you were Dixie, Hibs would be back for their ritualistic tanking soon enough. In 13 matches against my team, he scored 18 times. “Sorry about that,” he says. “Hibs were a great team back then, a real threat to us, but I absolutely loved playing against them. I saw Sloop [John Blackley] the other day and said sorry to him, too. He tried to kick me and missed.”
There’s Only One Dixie Deans is published by Birlinn (£16.99).