Prior to Claudio Caniggia putting pen to paper in 2000, no Dundee signing had captured the public imagination and national headlines quite like Billy Steel’s record-breaking move to Dens.
An entire half century separated the arrivals of Steel and Caniggia on Sandeman Street but there are definite parallels between the two. Steel, like the Argentinian, was diminutive, pacey and graceful with an eye for both goal and mischief, and arrived at Dens Park with a reputation for brilliance that was somewhat tarnished by off-field controversy.
Born in the Stirlingshire village of Dunipace in 1923, Steel was signed by Leicester City as a 16-year-old. His spell in the East Midlands came to an abrupt end when the club’s manager was sacked and City largely forgot about their Scottish starlet.
He returned north to sign as an amateur with St Mirren but he failed to settle at Love Street and he was soon on the move again, this time 17 miles west to Renfrewshire rivals Morton.
The Second World War interrupted Steel’s spell at Greenock but his growing reputation in the game saw him selected to appear in an exhibition match between Great Britain and the Rest of Europe in 1947. He was to star in the match and make several big clubs sit up and take notice of his prodigious talent.
His place as one of the game’s rising stars now assured, Steel decided to try his luck south of the border once more and Derby County were persuaded to part with a then-British record £15,500 for his signature later that year.
Old-time Derby fans remember Steel with more affection than his former team mates at the baseball Ground. The inside forward could be mesmerising on the park but the fall-outs with fellow County players were legion, with many resenting Steel’s excessive wage demands, his insistance on taking a second job as a newspaper columnist and what they saw as his arrogance.
His commitment to the Derby cause was frequently questioned, particularly when he announced that, due to his wife’s homesickness, he would return to live in Scotland and only travel to Derby for matches. The unbridgeable gulf between player and club was confirmed when Steel sensationally called a press conference to announce he would leave Derby at the end of his contract.
Despite Steel’s reputation for being something of a difficult character to manage, there were no shortage of suitors for a player now widely recognised as being one of the best in the world.
Military-style secrecy surrounded director-manager George Anderson’s dealings with Derby County. Anderson thought he’d got his man only for the English club to decide to hold off for more money before the protracted negotiations eventually bore fruit and Steel was signed for £23,500, a transfer fee that no Scottish club would match for over a decade.
The Scottish football public were stunned and the excitement amongst the Dundee fans, who had seen Anderson build a team on the verge of big things, was barely containable.
While – with the benefit of hindsight – it is tempting to see Caniggia’s signing as being primarily notable as a short-term public relations masterstroke, the addition of Steel was the catalyst for a glory-laden few years at Dens.
His debut saw 34,000 pack Dens Park to see Dundee beat Aberdeen 2-0, with the man of the hour opening the scoring. He very quickly established himself as part of an already-excellent side that included the likes of Bill Brown, Doug Cowie, Tommy Gallacher and Alfie Boyd. Silverware was just around the corner.
Only 13 months passed between Steel arriving in Dundee and the Dark Blues winning the League Cup for the first time in their history when Rangers were put to the sword 3-2 during a thrilling final in front of a Hampden crowd just shy of 100,000. Inevitably, Steel played a major role in the triumph, curling in a free-kick for Boyd to head home a late winner.
Hampden heartache was to follow later that year, however. Despite being overwhelming favourites, Dundee slumped to an embarrassing 4-0 thumping by Motherwell in front of a record 136,274 crowd.
Spurred on by the memory of that trouncing, the Dark Blues returned to the national stadium the following year and became the first team to achieve back-to-back League Cup wins. A below-par Dundee saw off Kilmarnock 2-0 and managed to exorcise the ghost of the Motherwell game.
Throughout his time at Dens, Steel enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Aberdeen’s Chris Anderson and boasted he would beat the Don 10 different ways before thinking of another 10 ways to beat him. His razor-sharp tongue was legendary and team-mates were as likely to be on the receiving end of it as the opposition.
Maverick. Individual, Joker. Genius. However you wish to describe him, few players have ever made such an impression on the club as Billy Steel. He was adored by the fans and with good reason. His time at Dens saw him make 131 appearances for the Dark Blues, grabbing 46 goals in the process.
A less-than-committed attitude to training, individualism, quick temper and tendency to unload on those not as gifted as he meant Steel often ran afoul of his own team-mates but a few dozen wise cracks, and a flash of either brilliance or his famous impish grin meant most offences were quickly forgotten.
After four glorious years at Dundee, Billy Steel headed for the United States where he played for a short while with the Los Angeles Danes and made a living in advertising. It was in America that Steel died in 1982, at the age of just 59.
His 30 Scottish caps saw him score 12 international goals and later be inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame.
There will never be another like him and there are few more iconic images from Dundee’s long and distinguished history than the famous shot of Steel seemingly defying gravity to fly through the air.