If Evertonians had been surprised by the sale of Bobby Collins to Leeds United in March 1962, more than a few eyebrows were raised at the man who replaced him. Dennis Stevens possessed a reputation as a solid, workaholic inside forward, but was neither considered a spectacular player nor of the same calibre as the lamented Collins. His early days at Everton were marred by a vociferous faction of the Everton supporters blamed him for the departure of their hero. Stevens soon won them over.
Born in Dudley, Stevens began his career with Bolton Wanderers, forming part of a potent Bolton attack with Nat Lofthouse. In May 1958 he was at the centre of one of the most poignant games in English football history, when Bolton met Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. Three months earlier eight United players had perished in the Munich air disaster, including Stevens’ cousin – the great and much-lamented Duncan Edwards. Against all odds, a makeshift United made it to the final, but sentiment was dispensed with: Bolton won 2-0 in the game ‘nobody wanted to win.’
Stevens £35,000 arrival added grit and guile to the heart of the Everton team. Like Collins he was no giant, standing just 5ft 7inches tall, but was a similarly strong man who added much needed bite to the Everton midfield. Neither possessing the artistry or skill of Alex Young or Roy Vernon, Stevens’ task was less in supplying the magic than assisting the magicians. He was a tireless runner and always willing to assist in both attacking and defensive duties. Given such attributes it was unsurprising that at Burnden Park he had been greatly admired by a young trainee, named Alan Ball.
Evertonians soon warmed to his energy and work rate and he quickly won over the boo-boys. For thirty months, Stevens was ever-present in the Everton team and would emerge as the unsung hero of the 1962/63 league title triumph. Older fans likened him to Stan Bentham, whose graft and workrate had been so indispensible to Everton’s flair players in the 1930s. At Bolton he had suceeded Lofthouse as their most potent goalscorer, but many of his attacking responsibillities were shed for the benefit of the team. Often he served as a minder for less physical players, such as Alex Young and Roy Vernon. One fan of the era later recalled in a letter to the Guardian: ‘[He] used to run a yard or two ahead of a player dribbling the ball (usually Alex Young). As he was technically within playing distance he used to get away with it game after game, and Everton won the championship. I suppose the Americans would call it “running interference”. I think it was probably illegal even then, and was certainly against the spirit of the game.’
Following the arrival of Fred Pickering, Catterick reshuffled his pack and Stevens dropped back to wing half. But he was now in the veteran stage of his career and the Everton manager started to look to the future. Brian Harris regained his place as wing half, and a young Colin Harvey was deployed in Stevens previous role. He remained an Everton player until December 1965, but made just a handful of appearances in his final year at the club. Oldham paid £20,000 for him, and after fifteen months at Boundary Park he returned to Merseyside, playing out his career with Tranmere Rovers.
‘Dennis had strength, courage, experience and shared the DNA of Duncan Edwards,’ recalled Alex Young. ‘Like many players of his type he was under-rated and unsung. In a later era I’m sure he would have been better appreciated.’