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The grand venue said plenty. That people swarmed from wall to wall, many dressed in blue or clutching scarves, all sharing tales either first-hand or passed down, left no doubt. Dave Hickson was a bona fide Everton hero.
Entered in to respectful silence, his coffin, predictably draped in club colours, journeyed out from Liverpool’s vast Anglican Cathedral, as requested, to cheers, applause and the immeasurably appropriate tune ‘Forever Everton’.
On Saturday, Goodison Park will pay its own tribute to Hickson, as Evertonians come together to remember the one they called the ‘Cannonball Kid’; a player who captured hearts and minds with his passion and, perhaps more than any other, earned adoration for his resistance to defeat and commitment to the cause.
Recalled often for a famous statement in which he told how he would have broken bones for all his clubs but given up his life for Everton, Hickson told no bluff.
Crossed the forbidden path through Stanley Park to Anfield he may have, but Hickson was Blue through and through – a fanatic who fell under the Club’s spell and remained transfixed right up until his passing on 8 July.
David Hickson was born in Salford on 30 October 1929. A budding footballer, he dedicated his childhood to the game before signing up to try his luck with Ellesmere Port Town shortly before his 14th birthday.
It was there the youngster, already noticeable for the mop of blonde hair that would become his trademark, stood out to scouts of Everton.
Asked if he would attend a trial, Hickson spent hours scrubbing his boots, keen as he was not to let any blip scupper his golden chance. On arriving at the club’s gates, he was greeted by Joe Mercer and TG Jones - in his own words: “two outstanding names in Everton history.” He was hooked.
Hickson sailed through his trial and was promptly signed up to begin his apprenticeship with Everton’s ‘C’ team. From there he worked his way up into the reserves before national service put an unwelcome halt to his progress.
“I had to do two years in the infantry,” he recalled in 2010, talking to the Everton matchday programme on the eve of his 80th birthday. “Everton tried to get me off but my forms had gone through already apparently so they couldn’t. I ended up going off to Egypt to the canal zone. It was an experience, but I felt like I missed a couple of years when I could have been in the team.”
He needn’t have panicked. On his return to England, Cliff Britton, the manager, was keen to add Hickson’s natural enthusiasm and robustness to his team.
That he notched five goals for the reserves against Sheffield Wednesday in only his third game back only hastened his promotion and, just a week later, the 20-year-old Hickson travelled down to Charlton as 12th man. “It wasn’t like it is today back then,” he said of the experience. “We didn’t have subs so I couldn’t get on. I was just happy pushing the skips and helping the kit man. That’s how it was back then.”
His patience paid off and on 1 September 1951, travelling Everton fans got their first true glimpse of Hickson in a 2-1 win at Leeds United’s Elland Road. Tommy Eglington scored twice but the debutant impressed, laying on one of the goals while fizzing with the will to win to which fans would quickly become accustomed.
Hickson’s next outing was a 3-3 draw against Rotherham at Goodison Park and this time he grabbed the opener as 44,838 saluted a new goalscoring treasure. By the end of the campaign, he would have played 33 games, scoring 14 times. Two years later, he helped Everton back into the top division – ‘my favourite season’, he once recalled – and went on to take his tally to 63 goals in 139 league outings before news broke that shocked Evertonians to the core. Their hero was leaving.
It wasn’t of his own volition. To the day he died he remained uncertain of the exact circumstances but he put his departure down to a boardroom split. “I won’t hide from it,” he said, “I got booked quite a lot and at the time it wasn’t the done thing.
“Walter Winterbottom [the manager] once said if anyone was booked they wouldn’t play for England – that was the time. I don’t know for sure but I felt somebody [at Everton] wanted me out and that’s the only thing I could put it down to.”
He joined Aston Villa but spent just 12 weeks with the Midlanders before deciding it wasn’t for him and switching to Huddersfield Town, where he was a teammate of a young Denis Law. His time at Leeds Road was more successful and after netting 28 goals in 54 league games a chance to return ‘home’ emerged. “It was great,” he reminisced. “I never wanted to leave in the first place.”
In two more seasons, he would take his record for the Toffees to 111 goals in 243 games - a haul that still has him sixth on the all-time list of Everton scorers.
It was a record of which he was immensely proud, though, tellingly, asked why Everton above all other clubs was so special to him, he once gave the simple response: “Playing in front of a crowd of Everton supporters.” He considered himself among them.
And in them he had instilled memories that would earn him an eternal place in the annals of Club history. Fans of a certain vintage, still talk of his display in an FA Cup fifth round victory over Manchester United in 1953 when he left the pitch bloodied following a collision with a post, only to return with his head heavily bandaged and notch a famous winner. It remains arguably the most gutsy performance ever delivered by an Everton player.
It was his aerial prowess that made Hickson so deadly – a skill he honed with the help of none other than Dixie Dean, the man whose shadow has loomed over every post-war Everton forward, while training with the army cadets. “It all came from Dixie,” he explained. “He was a great header of the ball and when he coached me for the Army Cadets he worked hard with me and showed me everything he knew.”
His 1959 exit to Liverpool was tough to take. He confessed often to being troubled by what Evertonians would think. “I did worry. I was sorry to leave Everton. But I was being left out for one reason or another and all I wanted to do was play.”
He scored twice on his Anfield debut as a crowd 15,000 higher than Liverpool’s average for that season turned out to watch. He amassed 36 more goals across a further 59 league appearances but Everton remained his true love.
Asked in that 2010 interview what prompted him to utter his most famous of words, he replied without hesitation. “That’s how I felt – and I still do. It was just something that came out in an interview but it wasn’t pre-determined. As a lad growing up I watched and then had the privilege to play with some of the great players. So that’s why about Everton I feel the way I do.”
Hickson left Liverpool for Cambridge City in 1961 as his career began to wind down, and also had spells at Bury and Tranmere Rovers – making him the only player to turn out for all three professional Merseyside clubs.
After retiring in 1964, he took up a job with Ellesmere Port Council before being welcomed back to Goodison Park in the late 1990s to work as a tour guide in the week and a lounge host on matchdays. It was a role he honoured past his 83rd birthday and right up until the end of last season.
“I wouldn’t miss the game for the world,” he told me back in 2010. Somewhere, somehow, you imagine the Cannonball Kid will be looking in on Saturday.
This tribute first appeared in the Everton matchday programme. Grab yours outside the stadium, at Everton Two or from your local Liverpool newsagent.
- Dave Hickson: A Tribute 104 2 23/08/2013
- 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' 23 3 22/03/2013
- Back From The Brink 5 0 04/03/2013