13 of football's greatest-ever No.9s – and the brilliant stories behind them
1. The shiny foreigner: Alfredo Di Stefano
- Matches: 709, Goals: 519
He scored loads (307 in 396 official games for Real), but Di Stefano was also a manager’s dream: he could defend stoutly, put chances on a plate and connect play in midfield with his calm passing
So good, he was at the centre of a row between the two outstanding players of last century. “I really don’t know if I was better than Pele,” said Diego Maradona. “But Di Stefano was.” The Brazilian hit back by claiming that Di Stefano was also superior to Diego. Petty point-scoring aside, it's evident that the man in question was a ruthlessly efficient No.9.
Dubbed ‘the Blond Arrow’ for his direct, incisive play, the Argentine-Spanish schemer married graft (“I always saw football as a game in which you must run and sweat”) with a tactical awareness ahead of his time: he was pivotal in Real Madrid’s ascendancy, playing (and scoring) in all five of their 1950s European Cup wins, while his bustling on-pitch movement helped inspire modern tactics.
He was far from a pure No.9. He scored loads (307 in 396 official games for Real), but Di Stefano was also a manager’s dream: he could defend stoutly, put chances on a plate and connect play in midfield with his calm passing. His style was perhaps most similar to a famous No.10, Zinedine Zidane.
“The greatness of Alfredo is that, with him in your side, you have two players in every position,” said Madrid coach Miguel Minoz. Having Ferenc Puskas and Raymond Kopa alongside helped, too.
His nationality was also of great interest. La Liga may now be dripping with Latin talent, but Di Stefano was a trailblazer. Born in Buenos Aires, he was the first great import from South America. Arriving from Millonairos of Colombia in 1953, his appetite for the big games – he remains the second-highest scorer in El Clasico – meant he was rapidly welcomed. He felt right at home, too, eventually taking Spanish nationality and starring for the national side.
2. The original No.9: Dixie Dean
- Matches: 505, Goals: 443
His stats are remarkable: 425 goals in 489 club appearances (a better net-busting ratio than Gerd Muller) and a ludicrous 60 league goals in one season (1927-28)
“Dixie Dean belongs to the company of the supremely great – like Beethoven, Shakespeare and Rembrandt,” reckoned Bill Shankly. The Liverpool boss was given to hyperbole, but he wasn’t normally one for praising Evertonians, so his assessment of the first man ever to wear No.9 for the Blues speaks volumes.
Dixie – known as William to his mum – was the greatest English club goalscorer of all time. His stats are remarkable: 425 goals in 489 club appearances (a better net-busting ratio than Gerd Muller) and a ludicrous 60 league goals in one season (1927/28), where as an unstoppable 21-year-old he led Everton to the title.
But how did the Birkenhead-born lad do it? He was competent enough with his feet, but in the air he was a genius. Despite being just 5ft 10in, Dean was an aerial bully: in an age of long punts, multiple crosses and dogged defenders, he had the knack of toppling his opponents like skittles and planting his head on the ball. Never booked or sent off, he wasn’t above comparing himself to Jesus, either. “People ask me if that 60-goal record will ever be beaten,” he said. “I think it will. But there’s only one man who’ll do it – the fellow that walks on the water.”
Cocky, sure, but he’s probably right – even Lionel Messi's only ever managed 50.
3. The womaniser: Frank Worthington
- Matches: 836, Goals: 262
“Other players control the ball further than I kick it,” he mocked, before confessing: “the way I played is more important than the team winning"
Yorkshire’s own George Best, in more ways than one. The famous duo shared socks-round-the-ankles on-pitch stylings, a ‘weakness’ for dating models and utterly sublime skills that should have seen them achieve far more than they did.
Worthington was an outstandingly gifted No.9; his vision and verve shone out in the late ’60s and early ’70s of grey old England. He was far better than the largely honest workhorses that played for Huddersfield and Leicester – his first two clubs, and the only ones where he enjoyed real stability – and he didn’t half know it. “Other players control the ball further than I kick it,” he mocked, before confessing: “The way I played is more important than the team winning.”
Alas, Worthington was his own worst enemy: called up for the Three Lions, Frank enraged manager Alf Ramsey by arriving in high-heeled cowboy boots; Bill Shankly tried to sign him for Liverpool, but he failed the medical (“I was enjoying the fruits of being young”). His antics – vividly described in his autobiography, One Hump Or Two? – included cheating on Miss Great Britain by having a threesome with a Swedish mother and daughter, and partying in the Caribbean with Omar Sharif.
He was transferred 22 times over a 15-year period from 1977 and won nothing of note, but the talent never left him (visit YouTube to see his ludicrous strike for Bolton against Ipswich), and from Stockport to Galway, Philadelphia to Mjallby, the Elvis-haired nomad was always a goal-grabbing fan favourite. If he’d been an early-to-bed Michael Owen type, he’d have got 80 England caps rather than eight. But then he wouldn’t have been Frank Worthington…
Worthington's stunning strike against Ipswich