Goalscoring Busby Babe Alex Dawson was my first Brighton hero

ALEX DAWSON remains the youngest player to have scored a hat-trick in a FA Cup semi-final.

He was just 18 years and 33 days on 26 March 1958 when his perfect treble (header, right foot and left foot shots) for a makeshift post-Munich Manchester United helped to secure a 5-3 win over Fulham in a replay in front of 38,000 fans at Highbury.

Eleven years later he scored twice for Brighton & Hove Albion in what for many might have been a meaningless Third Division match against Walsall.

But for me, it was the beginning of a lifelong journey supporting the Albion. It was the very first Brighton game I saw and the burly Dawson, wearing number 9, became an instant hero to an impressionable 10-year-old.

Little did I know then of the famous background of the man who played a big part in Brighton’s 3-0 win over the Saddlers that afternoon.

What I’ve learned since makes him even more of a hero, and it’s evident that fans of other sides he played for remember him with great fondness too.

Returning to that 1958 match, it was just six weeks after the Munich air disaster that claimed the lives of eight of United’s first choice team –Dawson’s pals – so youngsters and fringe players had to be drafted into the side to fulfil the remaining fixtures that season.

Thirteen days after the accident, Dawson took his place beside survivors Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg and scored one of United’s goals as they beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the fifth round of the Cup. He scored again as United drew 2-2 with West Brom in the sixth round, before winning through 1-0 in a replay to go up against Fulham in the semi-final.

Dawson told manutd.com five years ago: “In our first game with Fulham (played at Villa Park), Bobby Charlton scored twice in a 2-2 draw, and I was put on the right wing. I was a centre-forward really and when we played the replay at Highbury four days later, I was back in my normal position.

“Jimmy (Murphy) said before the game: ‘I fancy you this afternoon, big man. I fancy you to put about three in.’ I just said: ‘You know me Jim, I’ll do my best,’ but I couldn’t believe it when it happened.

“The first was a diving header, I think the second was a left-footer and the third was with my right foot.

“Nobody can ever take that afternoon away from me. It was a long time ago, of course, and it’s still a club record for the youngest scorer of a hat-trick in United’s history. Records are there to be broken and I’m surprised that it’s gone on for over half a century.

“I’m a proud man to still hold this record. Even when it goes, nobody can ever take the achievement away from me – I’ll remember that afternoon for as long as I live.”

Also in the United side that day was Freddie Goodwin….and he was the manager of that Brighton side I watched for the first time v Walsall in February 1969.

Born in Aberdeen on 21 February 1940, Dawson went to the same school as United legend Denis Law, but his parents moved down to Hull and Dawson joined United straight from Hull Schoolboys.

Dawson and future Preston and Brighton teammate Nobby Lawton were both on the scoresheet as United beat West Ham 3-2 in the first leg of the 1957 FA Youth Cup Final and Dawson scored twice in the 5-0 second leg win. West Ham’s side included John Lyall, who later went on to manage them.

On redcafe.net, Julian Denny recalled how Dawson once scored three hat-tricks in a row for a United reserve team that was regularly watched by crowds of over 10,000.

He scored on his United first team debut against Burnley in April 1957, aged just 17,

and in each of the final two matches that season (a 3-2 win at Cardiff and a 1-1 draw at home to West Brom) to help win the title and secure United’s passage into Europe’s premier club competition.

They were the first of 54 goals in 93 United appearances, but was it all too much too soon? Some say Dawson’s career with United may have panned out differently if he hadn’t been thrust into first team action at such a young age.

Was he mentally scarred by the loss of those teammates, in the knowledge he could well have been with them on that fateful journey?

Let’s not forget he was just short of his 18th birthday when the accident happened. In an interview with Chris Roberts in the Daily Record (initially published 6 Feb 2008 then updated 1 July 2012), he recalled: “I used to go on those trips and had a passport and visa all ready but the boss just told me I wasn’t going this time. I had already been on two or three trips just to break me in. I know now how lucky I was to be left in Manchester. The omens were on my side.”

Dawson went on to describe the disbelief and the feelings they had at losing eight of the team, including Duncan Edwards several days later.

“We were all so close and Duncan was also a good friend to me before the accident,” said Dawson. “Duncan was such a good player, there is no doubt about that. He was a wonderful fellow as well as a real gentleman.

“I will never, ever forget him because he died on my birthday, February 21, and before that he was the one who really helped me settle in.”

Dawson gradually became an increasingly bigger part of the first-team picture at United, making 11 appearances in 1958-59 and scoring four times. The following season he scored 15 in 23 games then went five better in 1960-61, scoring 20 in 34 games.

He was at the top of his game during the last week of 1960 when he scored in a 2-1 away win at Chelsea on Christmas Eve, netted a hat-trick as Chelsea were thumped 6-0 at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, and then scored another treble as United trounced neighbours City 5-1 on New Year’s Eve.

A fortnight later he had the chance to show another less well-known string to his footballing bow…. as a goalkeeper!

It was recalled by theguardian.com in 2013. When Tottenham were on their way to the first ever double, and had an air of near-invincibility about them, they arrived at Old Trafford having lost only once all season, and had scored in every single game.

Long before the days of a bench full of substitutes, when ‘keeper Harry Gregg sustained a shoulder injury, Dawson had to take over in goal.

Dawson excelled when called upon, at one point performing, according to the Guardian’s match report, “a save from Allen that Gregg himself could not have improved upon”.

The article said: “Tottenham’s attempts to get back into the game came to naught and Dawson achieved what no genuine goalkeeper had all season: keep out Tottenham’s champions-elect. In the end, there were only two games all season in which Spurs failed to score, and this was one of them.”

Tottenham’s north London neighbours, Arsenal, finished a disappointing 25 points behind Spurs in 11th place, but United manager Matt Busby had been keeping tabs on the Gunners’ prolific centre forward David Herd (Arsenal’s top scorer for four seasons), and in July 1961 took him to Old Trafford for £35,000. It signalled the end of Dawson’s time with United.

When the new season kicked off, Dawson had a new apprentice looking after the cleaning of his boots….a young Irishman called George Best. In his 1994 book, The Best of Times (written with Les Scott), Best said: “Alex Dawson was a brawny centre forward whose backside was so huge he appeared taller when he sat down. To me, Alex looked like Goliath, although he was only 5’10”. What made him such an imposing figure was his girth.

“He weighed 13st 12lbs, a stone heavier than centre half Bill Foulkes who was well over 6ft tall. What’s more, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on Alex – it was all muscle.”

Best’s responsibilities for Dawson’s boots didn’t last long, however, because in October that year, Busby sold the centre forward to Preston for £18,000.

During a prolific time at Preston, Dawson scored 114 goals in 197 appearances, and became known as The Black Prince of Deepdale. In the 1964 FA Cup Final at Wembley, Dawson scored in the 40th minute but Preston lost 3-2 to a Bobby Moore-led West Ham United.

The Preston captain that day was his former Man Utd teammate Nobby Lawton, who he subsequently joined at Brighton.

Lawton, now no longer with us, mentioned “that great striker Alex Dawson” in an interview he gave to the Lancashire Evening Post, published in May 2004.

“I’d known Alex since we were both on the groundstaff at Old Trafford,” Lawton recalled. “He was a bull of a centre-forward and was a Deepdale hero.

“He’s a lovely man and I was best man at his wedding. He hasn’t changed at all, and we are still great friends.

“Alex and the rest of the team would have graced any Premiership side today.”

Clearly Preston fans felt the same way. Albertan on pne.net in 2012 said: “Alex Dawson was a super player … He was the complete centre forward – powerful, mobile and lethal with either foot or his head. He was also brave, committed and characterful.”
While sliper on the same forum added: “In his prime Dawson was a powerhouse and great to watch. I can safely say I’ve never seen a better header of a ball at Deepdale.”

Curlypete recalled: “You could literally see goalkeepers tremble when Dawson was running at them, it was either the ball, ‘keeper or more likely both who ended up in the net.”

In 1967, Dawson took the short journey to Bury FC where his goalscoring exploits continued with 21 goals in 50 appearances. I was intrigued to see in a team photo of the Bury squad before the 1968-69 season, a young Lammie Robertson sitting at Dawson’s feet.  I shall tell more of Lammie in an upcoming post on this blog.

In December 1968, the aforementioned Freddie Goodwin had just taken over as Brighton manager and he paid Bury £9,000 to make his old United teammate his first signing at the Goldstone.

Dawson certainly arrived with a bang on the south coast, finding the net no fewer than 17 times in just 23 games, including three braces and four in an away game at Hartlepool.

The following season, Goodwin added Alan Gilliver to the strikeforce and he outshone Dawson in the scoring stakes, although the Scot still scored 12 in 36 games.

As is so often the case, it was a change of manager that marked the end of his time with the Albion. With Goodwin departed for Birmingham, replacement Pat Saward didn’t give the old-timer much of a look-in and he went out on loan to Brentford where he showed he could still find the back of the net with familiar regularity.

Greville Waterman, on bfctalk.wordpress.com in July 2014, recalled: “He was a gnarled veteran of thirty with a prominent broken nose and a face that surely only a mother could love, but he had an inspirational loan spell at Griffin Park in 1970 scoring seven times in eleven games including the winner in that amazing late, late show FA Cup victory against Gillingham.

“Typical of the times at Griffin Park, he departed after his loan spell as apparently the club was unable to agree terms with him. A classic example of both parties suffering given that Dawson never played another Football League game and Brentford lacked a focal point in their attack until the arrival of John O’Mara later that same season.”

Released by the Albion at the end of the 1970-71 season, Dawson’s final footballing action was with non-league Corby Town.

Nevertheless, he could look back on a fantastic career as a goalscorer, with a strike rate the envy of many a modern day forward.

Pictures: Top: Alex Dawson portraits – in the 1969-70 and 1970-71 kits.

 

 

  • A montage showing Dawson:
    • scoring the first of his goals in the 1958 FA Cup semi final
    • in a Bury line-up (from the Bury Times) with future Albion forward Lammie Robertson also encircled.
    • powering a header for the Albion.
    • in a portrait from pnefc.net.
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