The Last Act of the Cannonball Kid

James Corbett 23/08/2014   Comments  [Jump to last]
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Exactly two years ago my grandfather, Charles Mills, or Didi, as he was known by my family, passed away at the age of 88. He was a great Evertonian and great man, and his death continues to leave a huge void in my life and those of his friends and family. I wrote about Didi and his relationship with Everton the day after his death.

The months that followed were one of the saddest, most difficult periods I have encountered. It wasn’t so much his passing, more the inescapable sense of desolation: the emptiness, of being haunted by the loss of someone that you’ve shared so may of your defining moments with; so many of which happened inside the four stands of Goodison Park.

Sometimes during dark episodes of your life what you need most is a hero. In the days after his death our family pondered whether Everton’s epic opening day performance against Manchester United might breed a full-on assault on the top of the table. It would have been lovely if Everton had overcome two trophyless decades in the year after my grandfather’s death by winning a cup, but that was not to be.

In any case the best heroes, I think, arrive when you’re least expecting them. Life takes unexpected twists and a chance encounter with an Everton legend two months after my grandfather’s death brought unexpected solace. He was a man whose charisma and heroism had lifted so many people’s lives during one of the darkest periods of Everton’s history. More than 50 years after he last pulled on an Everton shirt he was still as beloved and omnipresent as he had been in his heyday. It was, of course, Dave Hickson.

This is the story of how my grandfather’s death led to a new friendship, a new collaboration and a way of easing my mourning. Maybe it was Dave’s last act of heroism. Certainly it had a big effect on me.

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Dave Hickson portrait from 1953

Dave Hickson, 1953

Every football-supporting family has its Charlie Mills somewhere in its sprawling tree. Football, I learned soon after falling in love with the game as a child in the mid-1980s, is not just about what happens on the pitch. It is about tradition, shared experience, community, history. My grandfather offered a link between an Everton past that went back to the club’s virgin days in the nineteenth century when his own grandfather, an Irish immigrant from Tipperary, watched the first generation of royal blue heroes and my own son’s generation in the twenty-first century, where footballers are global icons and multimillionaires.

Evenings at Didi’s home in Crosby before a roaring fire, a glass of single malt to hand, would be spent recounting times gone by at Goodison. He attended his first game in April 1928, weeks before Dixie Dean plundered his historic 60th goal of the season. He witnessed some part of seven of Everton’s nine league titles, was at three of their five FA Cup victories – the last with me, when he was aged 70, dancing down the steps of Wembley Stadium – and by my reckoning attended at least 1,500 Everton matches. He saw every Everton great, from Dean and Ted Sagar to Tim Cahill and Mikel Arteta. He saw and experienced so much, not just in football, but in life. But it wasn’t at Wembley, or Goodison or Old Trafford or Villa Park, that he encountered some of his greatest moments as an Evertonian. It was high up on the windswept moors of East Lancashire.

Let me take you back. It is a spring night in Oldham. It is April 1954. Everton are not in a cup final, or on the brink of a league title, but ensconced in the Second Division, a dark place where they have resided for the past three seasons.

Fourteen years earlier it had been so different. Then they had won the league title with a team that included Tommy Lawton, Ted Sagar, Joe Mercer and the incomparable T.G. Jones, a man my grandfather claimed was the best player he saw in 80 years watching Everton. That team seemed set to dominate a generation. But three games into the 1939/40 season war had come and changed everything. For seven years there was no league football. My grandfather, aged 15 in 1939, came back – via Somaliland, Malaya, Egypt, Palestine and all places in between with the RAF – a man; his beloved champions returned as a diminished force.

Poor management imposed calamity on his fallen heroes. Mediocrity and then disaster followed. In the real world there was austerity, rationing, smog. The late 1940s and early 1950s were hard times in more ways than one. Then in 1951 Everton were relegated for only the second time in their history.

Just as everything seemed lost, so there came hope. Five games into life in the Second Division an outrageously brave centre forward was introduced from the reserves. With his distinctive quiff and the looks of a Boy’s Own hero, he captivated Goodison with his swashbuckling play. He was fearless, at times playing like a human battering ram. He gave people belief where there was none. His name was Dave Hickson.

Dave Hickson debut telegram from Dixie Dean

A telegram sent to Hickson on the occasion of his debut from Dixie Dean

He was, recounted my grandfather in a brief memoir he wrote of his years as an Evertonian, ‘inspiring, fearless – never a Dixie or a Lawton, but what a successor! The games he finished with his head covered with blood were numerous. It was just what the team needed – inspiration.’

Dave dragged a mediocre Everton team by the scruff of its neck and by April 1954 had pulled them back to the brink of where they belonged – the First Division.

Everton travelled to Oldham on the last day of the season needing a win to secure promotion. If they scored six goals they were Second Division Champions. My grandfather recalled:

In a hired charabanc with all my mates we arrived at the ground. The gates were shut and thousands were outside. The stewards were shouting, ‘Sorry lads. The ground is overcrowded already.’
For the first ‘and only’ time we joined the mob. The gates crumbled and we all entered in one mad rush, just in time to see our first goal. Another three came before half-time. Mission accomplished.
The next ‘plan’ after the game was to find a pub. Late April, it was still light, but with about 55,000 Scousers well and hell bent with the same objective it seemed hopeless. Outside one pub, with about 100 trying for admission, the manager came out. ‘No more in, lads, but I can fix you up in the back garden. Any trouble now and you’re out.’ We tipped our coach driver who, after our ‘natural agreement’, led us to the garden and kept his promise of drinking lemonade. That was until about 3am when he managed to get us out with the help of the proprietor.
It then dawned on me that 3am was the time that I started work – in Liverpool. Nemesis threatened.
I was put down in Queen Square (our then premises) to be met by my Dad – then my boss. His first words were ‘You’re late’ (It was only 3.15am) and ‘You’ve been drinking again.’ (Is the Pope a Catholic?)
One of his fellow directors came to my aid: ‘Come on Charlie – it’s only a one off.’
‘It had better be – otherwise he’s out,’ came the reply.

It had been, he recalled as he poured another whisky in his front room half a century later, ‘probably one of the greatest nights of my life’.

To my grandfather Dixie Dean may have been incomparable, Tommy Lawton his hero, Roy Vernon and Alex Young eulogised. But Dave Hickson represented something different: he restored pride in hard times and offered hope when there was none. To a young man making his way in a difficult post-war world, it meant more than anything else.

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52 years later, in late-2006, now both old men, Dave and my grandfather came face to face.

Aged 82, Didi was stooped and increasingly frail by then, a little forgetful at times. He had given up on going to Goodison – though never on Everton – a year earlier, when the club moved his season ticket reserved seat to make way for corporate seating. He was finding the crowds a struggle by that stage and the spectre of another flight of stairs to watch James Beattie was too much.

Losing that part of his routine left a great void in his life that we tried to fill in other ways. One December morning I and two of my brothers took him to Goodison Park for a behind-the-scenes tour. We were the only visitors that sunny winter’s day. Our host? Bequiffed, immaculate, endearing – you’ve guessed it.

For two hours, far more than our allotted time, Dave showed us every nook and corner of the Old Lady. He was patient and kind with my grandfather, helping him on the stairs. Afterwards we sat and drank coffee with him and he listened patiently to the recollections of an old man. We talked about that day for months afterwards. It made our year.

I like to think that Dave saw that my grandfather was a little lost, that he needed a hero’s touch, but I probably realise now he was a little like that with everybody.

I saw Dave every now and then after that day, and always thanked him for his time. We discussed doing a book on one occasion, but it came to nothing.

Then in October 2012, I was with him at a dinner at Goodison Park. Dave was nearly 82 by then, the same age as my grandfather when he was shown around Goodison. Dave was increasingly frail and Pat had passed away a couple of years earlier. It was two month’s after my grandfather’s death. I too was a little lost without him.

‘How’s about we do that book?’ he asked.

I’m so very glad that he asked. His subsequent company and friendship over the last months of his own life helped me through a difficult period and eased my own sadness. I was born 40 years too late to ever see him play, but I too finally got the chance to revel in the aura of a football great.

Dave Hickson during World War II

Hickson during World War II

What was Dave like? It was difficult to reconcile the rabble-rouser and hard man of contemporary reports with the sweet old man that no one would say a bad word about. I always found him funny, self-deprecating, generous. Everybody knew him. Everybody loved him. He was obsessed with football. He loved Everton. He loved the Everton chairman Bill Kenwright like a son, and considered his family as an extension of his own. He took enormous pride in the ambassadorial role he had held with Everton for nearly two decades. Even though he was frail and not in the best of health, he was insistent that he would fulfil his match-day duties.

He dearly missed his second wife, Pat, who had passed away in November 2010. Following her death Everton filled an increasingly large personal void in his life. At times he would get very emotional about both of them. He lived his life from Everton match to Everton match, and would draw comparisons between the hard-working teams of David Moyes and those in which he had played himself. I asked him who in modern football he most resembled as a player and he replied, ‘Victor Anichebe’. In a late-1990s interview with the author Becky Tallentire, he had answered ‘Dion Dublin’.

Like the Moyes era, the Everton teams of the 1950s always fell just short. Dave was convinced 2013 was going to be the year Everton again lifted the FA Cup. Looking back now, it would have been a fitting send-off for the Cannonball Kid, but they couldn’t manage it. Dave was devastated by their quarter-final defeat to Wigan in March 2013.

We would usually meet in the Nags Head pub in the Cheshire village of Willaston, across the road from his home. He would sup halves of Guinness and order off-menu, insisting that he was only served child-sized portions. ‘Make sure they bring lots of ketchup,’ he would say. ‘I love ketchup!’

We would talk for two or three hours, always about football, but – despite being there under the premise of working on his autobiography – not just about him. He was rarely critical about a colleague or opponent. Although his memory was sometimes hazy, his knowledge of the game was huge. Sometimes he would come out with a detail or an incident that had happened 60 years previously. As a journalist it is your duty to be sceptical, to question, to check. Sometimes I couldn’t believe things that I was hearing, but I would look it up later and invariably Dave would be right about a long-forgotten moment or incident or player.

Dave Hickson aged 9 months

Dave Hickson aged 9 months

At the same time he had an official history of himself – centred around the 1953 FA Cup run, promotion the following year, and his status as a number nine icon – that he liked to recount and refer to. He joked about his still magnificent blond quiff, and would describe the technique of rubbing soap and Vaseline into his hair to hold it in place. Although 50 years older than me, he possessed around 50 times the amount of hair, so such information was largely lost on myself.

As his biographer, transcending this official version of his life was sometimes tricky. There were parts – such as his messy departure from Liverpool, after he fell out with Bill Shankly – that he wouldn’t discuss, or would just gloss over. I sensed at times that he felt slightly ashamed of his poor disciplinary record, but he would never exactly say so. He probably came closest to the truth about this in a 1955 interview when he said he did not attempt to ‘justify’ his disciplinary record, ‘but would like to say in partial extenuation that everything I have done has arisen solely out of my desire for the success and well-being of the club that has employed me’.

He came from an era before footballers’ non-footballing lives were of public interest, and although he was always happy to talk about Pat he was insistent that the rest of his family were not discussed in the book.

His sense of humour could be wicked. With dark irony he would joke about completing the book ‘before they carry me away in a box’. Sometimes he would make a play on being a befuddled old man when really he knew exactly what was going on. On one occasion he had been asked by a friend of a friend to obtain a large Everton flag that could be wrapped around the coffin of a young Evertonian who had recently passed away. The chairman of a nearby supporters club was summoned and they reviewed a selection of Everton banners for the task. These had been made up for away games, and were large enough for a coffin – larger than those available in the club shop, anyway – but many boasted completely inappropriate slogans.

‘What about that one?’ said Dave, innocently pointing to a flag emblazoned with ‘Kopites are Gobshites’.

‘I don’t think the Reverend would like that, Dave.’

‘Suppose not,’ he said. ‘What about that one?’

There was an impish glint in his eye as he pointed at a banner bearing the Everton crest and the legend ‘We will never have your shame’.

‘Dave, the last thing this poor lad’s family are going to see are the words “We will never have your shame” as he’s lowered into the ground.’

‘Suppose so,’ he said, a roguish grin betraying the fact that he was merely winding us all up.

The Everton flag he eventually settled upon bore the dictum of his old teammate and friend Brian Labone: ‘One Evertonian is worth twenty Liverpudlians’. Whether, as a former Liverpool player, he consciously believed that motto is another matter. Dave was always very respectful towards his former club and also Tranmere Rovers, something that was reciprocated by the Red and White fraternities.

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Dave graced the Everton colours for 243 games, scoring 111 goals. He is sixth among Everton’s all-time leading goalscorers. He never won anything, he never really came close to international recognition – a feat harder in an era of heroic centre forwards than it is today. He played for all three Merseyside clubs. He performed numerous heroic acts on the pitch. But the extraordinary thing about Dave Hickson was not really his feats on a football field, it was his effect on other people. People loved him, even those too young to see him play. He was idolised by a generation of fans. Everywhere he went, he was recognised, loved.

Everton team photo

Everton team photo from the 1950s

Speaking at his funeral Bill Kenwright recounted, ‘I have a big photo of him in my office and I say, “That was the man who for a lot of kids like me – post-war kids in Liverpool, frightened, a bit shy, timid – looking for a hero, we found one in Dave Hickson.”’

Even during his career, those watching him recognised that he was making history. His most famous game came on Valentine’s Day 1953, when in an FA Cup fifth round tie in front of Goodison’s second highest ever crowd, he returned to the field with a gaping head wound to score the winning goal for Second Division Everton against the League Champions, Manchester United.

On the following Monday the Liverpool Echo correspondent – foretelling my own experiences, and probably those of a generation of Evertonians – wrote in the style of a grandfather recounting a story:

I never in all my life seen a player wi’ so much guts as young Davie showed. Wi’ the blood streaming down ’is face ’e got stuck into ’is job like as if ’is very life depended on it. Twice the referee suggested ’e should go off for attention but Dave waved ’im aside just like a teetotaller refusing a drink.
Well, I’ll grant ’em Liddell were a great player, but that day our Davie were as much a match-winner as Liddell at ’is best.
That game against United is always called ’ickson’s match.

He left Everton for Aston Villa in 1955, upset at being dropped. He returned via Huddersfield two years later before leaving under acrimonious circumstances in November 1959 to Liverpool. At Anfield he experienced the most prolific spell of his career, but never got along with Bill Shankly, who inherited Hickson as he had done when in charge of Huddersfield, and left for Cambridge City. There were spells at Bury, then Tranmere – he became after Frank Mitchell only the second player to turn out for all three Merseyside clubs – and two brief spells in charge of Ballymena.

In the mid-1960s he entered civilian life, working as a rat catcher for Ellesmere Port Council. He still considered himself a footballer, even as an old man. I once asked him how he old he was when he finally stopped playing, meaning as a professional. ‘Seventy-seven,’ he replied, without missing a beat, ‘and that was only because I had my heart attack.’ Even after last pulling on his boots, he lived every game in his head.

His team, ‘The Over the Hill Mob’, were well known for partaking in charity matches across Merseyside, and it was as a veteran that he finally played at Wembley, turning out in pre-match encounters before Everton’s run of 1980s FA Cup finals. During the summer he played tennis and cricket until in his seventies.

Dave Hickson with Alex Young

Dave Hickson with Alex Young

Although he lived his life through football, like a lot of old players in civvie street, he did not venture back to Goodison very often. That changed in 1994 when he retired from his job on the council and two days later took a call from Bill Kenwright with the offer of an ambassadorial job at Everton. ‘How would you like to come back, son?’ were the words that Dave recounted again and again, with pride and wonder.

Thus began the final chapter of his life, as an official icon; a living, breathing part of Everton history, who prowled the corridors and anterooms of Goodison day in, day out for the rest of his days. With Pat he worked energetically for charities, notably the Lily Centre and the Everton Former Players Foundation, who – in accordance with Dave’s wishes – will receive the royalties from his autobiography. In 2011 his contribution to these causes saw him made a Citizen of Honour of the City of Liverpool.

Hickson with Dave Watson, Tony Grant, Joe Parkinson & Michael Branch with Veterans Cup

Hickson with Dave Watson, Tony Grant, Joe Parkinson and Michael Branch with the Veterans Cup

So often old heroes are shunted aside, forgotten about or, worse, exploited. Not Dave. Everton treated him like the legend that he was and he repaid that with the same commitment he had shown while a player during the 1950s. Everybody connected with the club recognised that. Everybody knew him, everybody loved him.
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When I sat down to write Dave’s life story, I realised it could not be a conventional autobiography like those of Neville Southall and Howard Kendall, that I had also ghosted. Work on it was seven months down the line when Dave passed away in July 2013. Many of the interviews needed to complete an autobiography had been finished, but some of the finer details, the verification, the approval for aspects of his story, were still to be undertaken. Some questions were carried to the grave unanswered. At times I had to take up the story and fill in gaps (which are italicised in the final work).

However, I was fortunate that Dave kept a great cache of letters and documents, and also that he was a good looking fella too (If he hadn’t existed one feels a comic book artist would have to draw him). With the contributions of fans, friends, teammates, artists and brought together by the expert creative skills of Thomas Regan – another fine Evertonian, who runs a creative design agency in Liverpool – we have produced a very visual book, that in some ways is like the Boys Own Annual players like Dave gave rise to.

What made Dave such a unique and fascinating figure was not just the heroics he performed on the pitch, but the humility and small acts of kindness he showed off it. He had a huge effect upon very many people. People like my grandfather, people like Bill Kenwright; Evertonians, Liverpudlians, kids from Ellesmere Port. Their stories and their responses to the Cannonball Kid are worthy of inclusion because they bring context to his story and colour some of the blanks in the life of a Merseyside football legend. I hope I’ve done Dave proud, as he did all of us.

James Corbett


The Cannonball Kid

This is an abridged version of James Corbett’s introduction to The Cannonball Kid, out now and published by deCoubertin Books, priced £18.99. Royalties from the book are to be donated to the Everton Former Players’ Foundation and the Lily Centre in accordance with Dave’s wishes.

Copies of the book will be on sale at St Lukes Church prior to Everton’s match with Arsenal on Saturday at the special price of £15. James will be on hand to sign copies and answer any questions.

The book can also be ordered online from deCoubertin Books for the special price of £15.99 with free UK postage.

Follow @james_corbett




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