Ask any Evertonian who grew up during the 1950s – that darkest of decades in the club’s history – to name their favourite player and the answer is likely to be familiar and enthusiastically uttered. ‘Dave Hickson was my all-time hero,’ Billy Butler once told this author with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a young boy, ‘and, like a lot of Evertonians, I went to see him when he was playing for Liverpool as well.’
Hickson, the only man to ever turn out for all three Merseyside teams, captivated the city during the 1950s with his outrageously brave centre forward play. A swashbuckling cavalier, he played like a human battering ram, running through opposing defences with the verve of a Boy’s Own hero. With his trademark blond quiff, he looked the part too. But despite being idolised from all three sides of the Mersey, scoring a total of 169 goals to the delight of the masses at Anfield, Prenton and Goodison, he neither won a major trophy nor international honours.
Without question, it was at Everton where Hickson became the firmest favourite, his endeavours winning him a place among the pantheon of Everton greats. Like his illustrious forbears, Sam Chedgzoy and Joe Mercer, he was a son of Ellesmere Port and had come under the charge of Dixie Dean as a teenager while playing for the Cheshire Army cadets. Spotted playing non-league football by Cliff Britton, he was signed in 1948, but his early Everton career was put on hold so that he could complete national service.
On his return he was a prolific Central League player – once scoring five in a reserve game against Sheffield Wednesday – and travelled with the first team as twelfth man on a number of occasions. But despite Everton playing some of the worst football in their history, suffering relegation at the end of the 1950/51 season, the madness that pervaded Goodison at this time meant that Hickson never got his chance until the start of the 1951/52 season, when he was aged nearly 22. He made his debut against Leeds United in a 2-0 victory, taking the place of Harry Catterick, and a week later scored his first goal in a 3-3 Goodison draw with Rotherham.
It was soon clear to watching Evertonians that Hickson was a player very much in the mould of the traditional English centre forward, a player, who, like his revered contemporaries Nat Lofthouse and Stan Mortenson, was a man they could vest all their hopes and aspirations in. Tall, lean, strong and supremely brave, Hickson possessed a ferocious shot and was formidable in the air. He relished battle, seeming to revel in scrapes with opposing defenders and referees too – he was always a player to attract the opprobrium of officialdom. And scarcely have there been braver players to pull on an Everton shirt: like Andy Gray three decades later, he was a player who would put his head where lesser men shirked putting their feet. ‘I would have died for Everton,’ he once famously said, and few to witness him play would have disagreed. Often considered a mere bruiser, his attributes as a footballer are often overlooked: he was a talented target man, well able to hold up the ball or bring a colleague into play with a flick or a shimmy.
In this debut season the potential was there for all to see. He finished the season with 14 league goals from 31 outings, but his partnership with the inside forward John Willie Parker held the key to an Everton revival as they averaged more than a goal a game when permed together. Yet it wasn’t enough to secure the anticipated recovery in the subsequent 1952/53 season: Everton finished 16th in the Second Division – the lowest position in the club’s history.
That season would have been far harder to bear, were it not for an extraordinary FA Cup run that brought Everton within touching distance of the final. It also secured Hickson’s place in Everton lore. The FA Cup run started with Hickson scoring twice in a 3-2 third round Goodison win over Ipswich Town, and Everton eased past Nottingham Forest in the fourth round.
The game that captured everybody’s imagination, however, came on Valentine’s Day 1953, when Everton were drawn with Manchester United for a fifth round tie at Goodison; 77,920 crammed in for the famous old ground’s second highest ever attendance. United, possessing the first of Matt Busby’s great teams, were reigning First Division champions and were strong favourites for the tie. Invariably, it seemed, they took a lead through a Jack Rowley goal midway through the first half.
But then Hickson seized the game by its throat. Seven minutes later, he played in Tommy Eglington, who rounded the United left back, Jack Aston, and let fly with a scorching right-footed shot which flew into the back of the United net. It was the Irishman’s fifth goal in as many matches.
Five minutes from the interval, Hickson dived in like a battering ram to try and connect with Jack Lindsay’s cross, but in doing so caught a defender’s boot and had to leave the field with blood streaming from his eye. Half-time came and went without the forward re-emerging. A minute into the second half he returned to cheers with a handkerchief, with which he dabbed his wound.
Shortly after his return, he headed against the upright from a corner, which opened up the wound again. At this point the referee suggested to Peter Farrell, Everton’s captain, that Hickson should leave the field. Although bloodied like a prize fighter, Hickson would hear none of it and stayed.
On 63 minutes came the game’s crucial moment. Chasing Eglington’s ball, Hickson beat one man, sidestepped another and thundered a right-footed shot beyond the reach of Ray Wood and into the United net. It was a worthy winner from the man who was the hero of a famous victory. ‘Not only did he get the winning goal by sheer persistence,’ recorded the Liverpool Echo. ‘But with blood streaming down his face throughout the second half from a cut above his eye, gave a wonderful show of courage and fighting spirit.’ Its correspondent recorded:
Never in my whole life have I seen a player perform with such guts as Davie showed.
In the quarter-final, at Aston Villa, Hickson’s late thunderbolt was the only goal of the game. Afterwards he was lifted off in a throne of hands and arms by fans who had invaded the pitch. But in the semi-final against Bolton at Maine Road, Hickson found himself upstaged by Nat Lofthouse, England’s ‘Lion of Vienna’. Again, he had to leave the field through injury, and when he returned Everton were 3-0 down. Tommy Clinton missed a penalty and Bolton scored a fourth before half-time. Although Everton staged a second-half comeback, scoring three times, Bolton’s lead was insurmountable. It was, Hickson would recall, ‘the biggest disappointment of my career’. Never again would he come so close to winning a medal.
Hickson returned with a vengeance during the 1953/54 season, hitting 25 league goals as Everton won promotion back to the top flight. ‘On the night we gained promotion,’ he would recall, ‘I said that the club would never go down again. That’s been proved right and I’m proud of everything they’ve achieved ever since.’
He and Parker resumed their prolific partnership in the 1954/55 season, scoring 31 league goals between them, and for a period Everton were considered League Championship dark horses, but faded to tenth after losing seven of their last ten matches. However, the failure of the Everton board to invest in the team meant Everton were never likely to make a sustained challenge for honours. Some of Cliff Britton’s managerial decisions left much to be desired too. After Everton lost the opening two games of the 1955/56 season he dropped Hickson and Parker. Hickson demanded a transfer and two weeks later he was an Aston Villa player, sold for £19,500.
‘He should do his new club the power of good and if he can finally conquer his rather pugnacious temperament – which he genuinely tried to do all last season – he has it in him to finally become one of the best centre forwards in the country …’ recorded the Liverpool Echo. ‘Hickson always gave to his last ounce of endeavour to the Everton cause. Many a time his great fighting spirit and sheer determination helped to achieve victory in a game which had seemed to be irretrievably lost.’ Yet it was an unhappy experience and after netting just once in 12 Villa Park appearances, he was sold to Bill Shankly’s Huddersfield Town two months later.
Without him Everton floundered, finishing the 1955/56 season 15th, the same position that they ended the subsequent campaign. Supporter unrest was now palpable. Britton left the club, but the parsimony of the board outraged fans. They needed someone to assuage this opprobrium, and in Dave Hickson they got him. His £6500 return from Huddersfield in the summer of 1957 delighted supporters, and probably the directors too, who could count on a handsome profit.
Hickson reclaimed the famous number nine shirt ‘kept warm’ for him by Jimmy Harris, George Kirby and Derek Temple and once again led the Everton forward line like a hero. Yet after a good start to the 1957/58 season, Everton faded and finished 16th, as they did the 1958/59 season. By now Hickson was nearing the veteran stage of his career and John Moores’ millions were starting to make an impression on the Everton squad. After a stuttering start to the 1959/60 season, Hickson again found himself dropped.
If his 1955 transfer to Aston Villa attracted outrage it was nothing compared to what followed. In November 1959 Hickson was sold to Liverpool for £12,500, where he would be reunited with incoming manager Bill Shankly. Fans on both sides of the Mersey divide were incensed. ‘I protest at the abominable treatment afforded Dave Hickson. Everton supporters know that Hickson is not the best centre forward in football, but of the centre forwards on Everton’s books he is by far the best,’ wrote J.D. Pierce of L11 to the Football Echo. ‘It seems ridiculous that other players in the team can play badly and still retain their places while Hickson, who has played his heart out (and incidentally, is leading goalscorer) should be dropped.’ ‘Whether Hickson joins Liverpool or not, I want to express the disgust of some Liverpool supporters of 30 years standing that the club should even consider a player who has been discarded by Everton Football Club (twice), Aston Villa and Huddersfield,’ complained W. Parker of L8. ‘After talking grandly of Clough, Baker and Holton, Liverpool have come down to this,’ moaned A. Alan of L18, while A.A. Drury of L4 wrote,
Everton will never be the same without Davy, and if he goes to Liverpool I, and I am sure many more, will willingly pay 2s to Liverpool just to watch him.
This indeed was the case and many Evertonians went to watch him from the Kop. In 1961 he dropped out of league football, joining Cambridge City. Within a year he had returned to the Football League, with Bury. In 1962 he returned to Merseyside with Tranmere Rovers, later playing out his career with Ballymena and in non-league with Winsford United and Northwich Victoria.
Now in his eighties, he is still part of the hospitality team at Goodison, hosting visitors with the boyish relish he once attracted from its terraces. His quiff, now greyed, is still a popular sight around the ground on match-days, and Hickson remains as irrepressible as ever. After suffering a heart attack prior to Everton’s game with Sunderland in November 2007, he was rushed to hospital and asked by nursing staff whether he expected to be playing in that fixture. Without missing a beat, he replied, ‘Only in the last ten minutes.’