Dennis Stevens was one of the most widely underrated footballers of his generation, but not by the people who mattered most, his fellow professionals. They knew that the prodigiously industrious, deceptively skilful inside-forward, who helped Bolton Wanders to FA Cup glory in 1958 and Everton to the League title five years later, was a veritable gem.
Many who knew him best categorise his lack of international recognition as, in sporting terms, an absolute outrage, but that never seemed to bother one of the most modest men in the business. He just got on with his job, unobtrusively but effectively, first as a feisty front-runner for the Trotters, then as a midfield workhorse at Goodison Park, forever ready to rescue a hard-pressed team-mate from trouble.
Maybe one reason for Stevens' lack of universal acclaim was that some people, illogically, compared him to the incomparable, his cousin Duncan Edwards, the young Manchester United leviathan who looked set to conquer the football world until his life was snuffed out by the Munich air disaster of 1958.
Stevens was recruited by Bolton when he was 15 and playing for Worcestershire Boys in 1948. He turned professional in 1950, made his senior entrance three years later and pinned down a regular place in the Trotters' top-flight line-up during 1955-56, when the England international Harold Hassall retired through injury.
As a tough and dashing secondary striker to that ultimate example of a bustling centre-forward, Nat Lofthouse, Stevens contributed 13 League goals in each of four successive seasons as Bolton rose as high as fourth in the table, and he was called into the England squad in April 1957 but was not awarded a cap.
However, his FA Cup exploits in 1958 earned him some headlines. First there were goals against Preston North End and Stoke City, then Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-final, before he added another key contribution in the Wembley final against a Manchester United crippled by the depredations of the recent calamity.
With Bolton already a goal to the good, Stevens hit a typically rasping drive which the United keeper Harry Gregg could only palm skywards. As the ball dropped into the Irishman's waiting arms, he and it were barged unceremoniously into the net by the charging Lofthouse. Today any referee would blow for a foul, but in 1958 it was allowed and Bolton had won the trophy, deservedly enough on the run of play despite the controversial circumstances.
Stevens continued to prosper, and when Lofthouse was sidelined in 1959-60 he switched to centre-forward and was leading scorer with 15 goals. By the spring of 1962, just as he was achieving much-merited appreciation from the stands and terraces of Burnden Park, he was sold to Everton for £35,000, a club record for Bolton but still judged as inadequate by Trotters fans who reckoned a 28-year-old in the form of his life was worth plenty more.
Not that the Goodison faithful greeted him with open arms, as he was drafted in to replace local hero Bobby Collins, who had been transferred to Leeds United. Soon, though, Stevens won them round with his combination of expertise, honesty and sweat, playing the first 112 games after his arrival without a break, and proving the perfect foil for more exotic attacking talents such as Alex Young and Roy Vernon.
Stevens did most of his work in a much deeper position than the two illustrious marksmen, proving a study in perpetual motion, tearing around the pitch chasing, tackling and occasionally shooting, as if his very existence depended on it. Standing only 5ft 7in but exceedingly strong, he didn't believe in lost causes and for all his assurance on the ball, it was often his sheer vigour which left the deepest impression on opponents. Stevens didn't major in moments of magic, but the cumulative effect of his relentless but perceptive labour in the engine room of Harry Catterick's well organised team was a colossal factor in Everton's League championship triumph in 1962-63, his first full season as a Toffee.
In 1964-65 Stevens moved back from inside-forward to wing-half as Catterick reshuffled following the arrival of centre-forward Fred Pickering from Blackburn Rovers, and soon the ageing Midlander was having difficulty in resisting the high-quality challenge of the thrusting young Merseysider, Colin Harvey.
Accordingly, in December 1965, the 32-year-old Stevens joined Third Division Oldham Athletic in a £30,000 deal, and applied himself with typical practicality in aiding the Latics' escape from relegation to the bottom division that season.
In March 1967 he switched to Tranmere Rovers, whom he helped to secure promotion to the Third Division that spring, only for a back injury to end his career during the following campaign.
Thus Stevens left the game without a full cap, his representative honours being limited to a pair of England under-23 appearances and an outing for the Football League, all during his Bolton days. But when this delightfully unassuming fellow left football to set up a gents' outfitters in the Harwood area of Bolton, he could do so with the admiring words of an old Burnden Park colleague, the forthright Tommy Banks, ringing in his ears. Said the indefatigable England full-back: "They used to queue up to clobber Stevie – but they had to catch him first!"
Dennis Stevens, footballer: born Dudley, Worcestershire 30 November 1933; played for Bolton Wanderers 1950-62, Everton 1962-65, Oldham Athletic 1965-67, Tranmere Rovers 1967-68; married (two sons); died Bolton 20 December 2012.
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