Looking Back

'I heard 5 explosions' - When an English footballing legend came to Sligo

Remembering Dixie Dean’s stint at the Showgrounds.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘In the Shadow of Benbulben: Dixie Dean at Sligo Rovers’ by Paul Little.

In the shadow of Benbulben mountain lies the town of Sligo, the town’s train station and a gathering crowd. It’s the morning of Friday, 27 January 1939. Reports say there may have been as many as 2,000 people there to greet the greatest superstar ever to visit the town.

It’s incredible really. In the 1930s, to consume soccer, you played it, went to watch it or you read about it. Yes, perhaps you might have seen snippets of matches in the cinema on Pathé News, but that’s all they were, snippets. So for a man who many had probably at best just read about to draw such a crowd on a bleak January, west-of-Ireland morning speaks to the status of William Ralph Dixie Dean.

So the people came in their droves. The club’s hierarchy came. The Sligo Champion came. Mayor Conlon, a member of the Sligo Rovers committee, came — and they waited.

Doubtless many present were there because they didn’t really believe. Probably came to snigger and giggle at the most outlandish news the town had ever heard. Others came because they wanted to believe, wanted to see their town on the map, wanted the excitement, the madness.

And the train duly arrives, steaming slowly into the station as if deliberately building the excitement and the tension. And there is a swell of excitement as the passengers alight. Eyes strain, necks crane. The welcome is ready.

But Dixie Dean does not come. William Ralph Dixie Dean is not on the morning train from Dublin. And one can only imagine the disappointment, the shock, as the train empties and the platform clears and the biggest star ever to come to Sligo doesn’t in fact come to Sligo.

Imagine how the club officials must have felt? Hearts in mouths. Had it been a ruse? Had they been set up? Were they going to look like fools?

And the fans and the people? Ah, sure it never could happen. What on earth would football’s greatest centre-forward be doing coming here? Had everyone lost their heads?

Perhaps the report in the Irish Independent the previous Tuesday, stating that Dean had only agreed to help find players for the club and that he had ‘definitely declined to make a personal appearance’, was true after all?

But then a phone call from Dublin, an update and an apology. And relief all round. Dixie Dean said he was coming, and Dixie Dean is coming — but on the later train. He’ll be there at 6.40pm. Sincere apologies for the misunderstanding.

The former Everton man had taken the opportunity while in Dublin to visit an old friend — Dean was renowned for his loyalty to friends — the former coach of Bohemians FC and former Evertonian, Billy Lacey.

6_dixie_team_showgrounds The Sligo team pictured during the Dixie Dean era.

Volt in The Sligo Champion reported on the player’s eventual arrival in his ‘Soccer Causerie’ column the following Saturday.

‘While hundreds cheered a welcome to “Dixie” Dean at Sligo station last Friday night, the famous centre-forward tired, yet smiling and happy, told me that the ovation he was receiving was just like an English cup final.

Immediately after he stepped off the train, he was surrounded by vociferous men, women and children. Following his failure to arrive on the early morning train, there was keen disappointment felt in the town which was quickly banished when the evening train steamed into the accompaniment of exploding fog signals.

Rarely, if ever before, did Sligo accord such a royal welcome to anybody. With difficulty, the hero of the hour was brought to the Railway Hotel where he was introduced to members of the Rovers Management Committee.’

The Irish Independent reported on Dean’s arrival in similarly excited fashion.

‘Scenes of extraordinary enthusiasm were witnessed at Sligo G.S.R. [Great Southern Railway] Station on the arrival from Dublin yesterday afternoon of the 6.40 train, which brought to the Sligo Rovers’ team the former English international centre-forward, Dixie Dean.

‘Over 2,000 people, representative of all classes in the town, thronged the platform. As the train steamed in, fog signals were exploded on the line, and the crowd cheered vociferously.

‘Dean was with difficulty escorted to the Great Southern Hotel, which adjoins the railway premises, and later went to the Café Cairo, Wine St., outside of whose doors a dense mass of townspeople continued to wait for several hours for a glimpse of the famous footballer.’

In Dean’s own account, the fog signals in his honour certainly left an impression — betraying perhaps a slight trepidation at being an English man in a country that had fought so long and so hard to escape the rule of London.

‘They told me there was a big reception waiting for me there and when the train was a mile from Sligo, I heard five explosions. I looked across at the Sligo official and said, “These IRA blokes aren’t very good shots, are they? They’ve missed five times!”’

‘In the Shadow of Benbulben: Dixie Dean at Sligo Rovers’ by Paul Little is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.

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