Sligo agog when Dixie Dean came to town
Other greats like George Best and Bobby Charlton also graced the League of Ireland over the years
George Best lining out for Cork Celtic, he joined the club for a brief period, two years after leaving Manchester United.
England international and former Everton footballer Dixie Dean in his Notts County strip in 1938. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
It was 75 years ago this week that 2,000 or so curious and excited locals turned out at Sligo station to see former Everton and England striker Dixie Dean step off the train from Dublin.
He wasn’t a huge man and he must have been slightly lost amongst the crowd but the scale of his fame was truly remarkable at the time and expectations for the 32-year-old in the town must have been high.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that either the fans or club itself club felt short-changed when he left again after that season’s cup final.
Dean scored 10 goals in seven league appearances for Rovers, including five in one game against Waterford, along with one in four cup outings – against Shelbourne in a final that went to a replay which the Dubliners eventually won. Seventy-five years and hundreds of footballing imports on, it’s hard to think of many players who caused more of a stir here.
“He was a big, big attraction on the sort of scale Messi would be now,” says club historian Anthony Kilfeather. “And he was treated accordingly, everywhere he went everything was free and when he left it was with a £60 pound bonus that was meant as a thank you.”
While he was here, Dean delivered on and off the pitch; with some impressive displays augmented by plenty of PR work and a talk given to a packed-out venue in Killybegs when the team played a friendly there that is reckoned to have spawned a long-standing support for the club in Donegal.
Over the years that followed, not every chairman who looked across the Irish Sea for a fading star to light up the league here got quite such a return on his investment.
There always tended to be a few high-profile imports plying their trade around the league but the whole thing reach a slightly crazy crescendo in the mid to late 1970s when, in the space of barely a season or two the likes of George Best, Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Johnstone, Gordon Banks, Terry Venables and, perhaps most implausibly of all, Germany’s hugely prolific striker, Uwe Seeler touched down, togged out then took off again.
These top-end signings generated headlines and an immediate boost to the gate receipts as when Best made his debut for Cork Celtic against Drogheda United on December 28th 1975 and 12,000 turned up at Flower Lodge.
The Belfastman, who had left Manchester United almost two years previously, is said to have received £500 for playing while the crowd handed over around £6,000 to see him. It should have been a mutually rewarding relationship but the club had expected to make more and disputes with other clubs over the splitting of away gates combined with generally poor performances by Best, meant that he only played here another couple of times.
Charlton, for similar money, did rather better in his four games with Waterford but didn’t prove to be as big an attraction. Still, there was little of the fuss about the former England international either.
“I found him very down to earth,” says his then team-mate, Mick Leech. “I used to travel down to games with him from Dublin. There were three of us actually: me, him and the club secretary (Noel Wallace) and it was just like any three lads heading off to a game together really.