The enduring image of Johnny Dixon is as the beaming skipper of Aston Villa, perched jauntily on the broad shoulders of his team-mates Peter Aldis and Stan Lynn while brandishing aloft the FA Cup at Wembley in 1957.
The veteran inside-forward had just played one of the games of his life, proving colossally influential as the Midlanders had upset the form book by overturning the First Division champions Manchester United, thus denying Matt Busby's exhilarating young side the achievement of becoming the first in the 20th century to win the League and Cup double.
Not only had Dixon set up both Villa goals in the 2-1 victory for Peter McParland, but he had also lived up to his reputation as an inspirational leader, lifting his comrade's spirits after the Irish winger was barracked by enraged United fans following a controversial incident in the sixth minute on which, arguably, the outcome of the contest was to turn.
McParland had hurtled recklessly into the Red Devils' goalkeeper, Ray Wood, who suffered a fractured cheekbone. As substitutes were not permitted in those days, the stricken custodian spent most of the match as a passenger on the wing, centre-half Jackie Blanchflower taking over between the posts. The Villa man, a rumbustious performer but an honest one and certainly not malicious, might have been distracted by the inevitable vitriol from the terraces, and was himself dazed by the impact. But Dixon acted decisively, putting an arm around McParland, stressing that the collision had been an accident, that it was all part of the game – and the upshot could hardly have been more positive for their team.
Yet central though that occasion was to the Dixon career, it should not be allowed to obscure the scope of his attainments at Villa Park, which extended for nearly a quarter of a century from the moment in the summer of 1944 when he was recruited as an amateur from non-League Spennymoor United. After 18 months of impressive displays in unofficial wartime competition, he accepted professional terms in January 1946 and seven months later, aged 22, he made his senior debut at home to Middlesbrough on the opening day of the first post-conflict League campaign.
He scored his first goal in his third top-flight game, at Derby a week later, breaking his nose in the process but brushing aside suggestions that he might leave the action, thus confirming manager Alex Massie in his opinion that his acquisition was as courageous as he was skilful, industrious and determined.
It wasn't until the middle of the 1948-49 season that Dixon cemented his berth in a strong Villa side which usually finished in the top half of the First Division. He revealed himself to be a dynamic, direct performer endowed with seemingly limitless stamina, comfortable in possession of the ball but invariably eschewing unnecessary elaboration in favour of doing the simple thing well. In addition, he was combative in the air, passed imaginatively, could double as a winger and was a reliable finisher – witness his ultimate total of 144 goals in 430 Villa appearances.
Dixon entered his prime at the outset of the 1950s, forging a productive inside-forward partnership with his fellow north-easterner Tommy Thompson, finishing as the club's top scorer in four out of the decade's first six seasons. He was at his most prolific in 1951-52, when he was ever-present, netting 28 times in 43 League and FA Cup outings, giving rise to demands from the Midlands press that he be picked for England. Sadly, he was never to be awarded the cap he coveted, suffering an injury shortly after being called up by the national manager Walter Winterbottom for one training squad and never getting another chance.
Dixon, a calm, courteous individual, was too modest to voice his own disappointment, but the new Villa manager Eric Houghton had no such inhibitions, later declaring: "Of course Johnny Dixon should have played for England. Plenty of worse players did!" Further proof of the shrewd Houghton's regard was evident in his appointment of Dixon as captain, a role for which he was naturally suited. A dedicated professional, a teetotaller and non-smoker, he set an impeccable personal example, especially to the club's youngsters, but also to senior colleagues, not least in the seething cauldron of emotion that was Wembley throughout most of the 1957 final.
That day he shone as a player, too, delivering a perfect cross for McParland to register the first goal witha high-velocity header midway through the second half, then nodding against the angle of post and bar six minutes later, enabling the rampant Ulsterman to grab the second with a thunderous volley.
Years later, Dixon recalled: "With about 10 minutes to go, I realised suddenly we were going to win. For 13 years I had been at Villa Park without winning a thing. Now the Queen was going to be handing me the FA Cup. I nearly burst into tears on the spot." In fact, he was a tad premature in his reflections as United's Tommy Taylor set up a tense finale with a goal seven minutes from the end, but Villa held out to claim the famous old trophy for the first time since 1920.
Though by then in his 34th year, Dixon continued to offer sterling service, but began to fall prey to nagging fitness problems and he was sidelined for part of the demoralising 1958-59 campaign which culminated in relegation from the top tier. Still, he remained potent enough after switching to right-half to earn the Terrace Trophy as the supporters' player of the year, and there was considerable disappointment when injuries limited him to only four senior appearances as Villa became Second Division champions at the first attempt.
Come 1960-61, his last campaign, he scored in his only game, a 4-1 home win over Sheffield Wednesday, attaining a painful symmetry by playing on with a broken nose, as he had so early in his career. Afterwards Joe Mercer, by then the Villa manager, ventured the thought that his resources would be so much the richer if Johnny Dixon was at the beginning of his playing days rather than the end. There were no dissenting voices.
Dixon remained at Villa Park for six more years, coaching the youngsters, before becoming an ironmonger in the Midlands until his retirement in 1985. Still he remained astonishingly fit for his age, playing for the Villa Old Stars team deep into his sixties, and protesting vehemently whenever his manager summoned him from the action to take a breather on the bench.
John Thomas Dixon, footballer; born Hebburn, County Durham 10 December 1923; played for Aston Villa 1944-61; married (one son, one daughter);died Tamworth, Staffordshire 20 January 2009.Reuse content