Bolton in his blood

Published : Feb 10, 2011 00:00 IST

Nat Lofthouse, nicknamed “The Lion of Vienna” for his heroically scored winning goal against Austria for England's red shirted team in May, 1952, scored a remarkable 30 goals for the international team in only 33 games.

The recent death of Nat Lofthouse, at the age of 85, has understandably elicited paeans of praise. By odd coincidence, almost concurrently, a book has been somewhat obscurely published called ‘Tommy Lawton My Friend and Father', jointly attributed to Lawton's son, Tom Junior and a ghost writer. Lofthouse, nicknamed “The Lion of Vienna” for his heroically scored winning goal against Austria for England's red shirted team in May, 1952, scored a remarkable 30 goals for the international team in only 33 games. He was loyal to Bolton Wanderers from the time he joined them as an adolescent, scoring a cornucopia of goals and figuring in two FA Cup finals, till old age, having served briefly as their manager in 1971, becoming a senior executive the following year.

Yet for all his achievements, he could never be put in the same exalted class as Tommy Lawton, an England centre forward of stupendous all-round talents, whose collection of caps and goals would have been vastly bigger than it was, had it not been for the six years “unofficial” wartime football took out of his career. Yet Lawton was the one who slipped through Bolton's fingers.

Born nearby to the town at Farnworth, he was spotted by them as a prolific a schoolboy centre forward though, oddly enough, despite getting a hat-trick in an England schoolboy trial, he was never picked for the actual England team.

Bolton Wanderers carelessly let him slip through their fingers, making him two meagre offers. One, to work as an office clerk at ten shillings a week. Another, to work, of all things, as a roundsman, for the princely reward of seven shillings and six pence a week! Penny wise, pound foolish, as they used to say. Bolton had cause to regret their stinginess for decades to come, as Lawton, advised by his grandfather — the absence from his autobiographical accounts of an actual father remains a mystery — guided him to nearby Burnley. Thence, as still a prolific teenaged prodigy, to Everton, where he won the league in season 1938/9 and gained his first England cap as a precocious 19-year-old.

Some might still think that England's wartime team was among the greatest ever fielded, though no games, clearly, were played against foreign opposition and anyway, England wouldn't figure in a World Cup till 1950, a time when Lawton, with his amazing agility almost to “hang in the air” for his powerful headers, was still playing, but a little past his peak, having quarrelled with his previous major club, Chelsea, and gone, surprisingly, to third division South Notts Country.

Lofthouse, himself, had begun leading the Bolton attack in wartime at the age of fifteen and a half. Not by any means as tall as Lawton, at 5 foot 9-1/2, he nevertheless was dangerous in the air and immediately began scoring goals for England, on his international debut against Yugoslavia, at Highbury, late in 1950; a somewhat turbulent game. But he never shirked a physical challenge.

He should have played in two World Cups, but scandalously, played only in one. That was in Switzerland, in 1954, when he scored twice in the opening 4-4 draw in Basel against Belgium, the first a header when he dived to meet the ball inches above the ground. He missed the next game, injured, against the Swiss, but scored again in the lost quarterfinal, versus Uruguay.

In 1958, though it's true he'd not been in the England side for a couple of years, it seemed certain he'd be picked for the England World Cup squad in Sweden, since the first choice, Tommy Taylor had perished in Manchester United's appalling aircraft crash in Munich, the previous February. Early in May, Lofthouse, who'd been disappointed five years earlier, when Bolton lost the so called Stanley Mathews final, in which he scored 4-3, got both Bolton goals in a 2-0 win against depleted Manchester United. The second an illicit one, when he knocked United's keeper, Harry Gregg, into the net when the keeper was holding the ball in mid air. England were entitled to take 22 players, to Sweden, but they inexplicably took only 20 and no Lofthouse.

You might say that salt was rubbed into the wounds when just months after they had been knocked out by the Soviets in a Gothenburg World Cup playoff, Lofthouse was restored to the team, which proceeded to thrash the Russians, 5-0, in a friendly at Wembley, where Lofthouse himself terrorised the Russian keeper.

His winning goal in Vienna had typified his bravery. With the scores at 2-2 in this so called friendly — at a time when such games did have some significance — he ran half the length of the field with the ball under ruthless pressure, managing to score, an instant before he was knocked down and out.

Coincidence figured more than once in the lives and careers of Lawton and Lofthouse. Both went to the local Castle Hill School for boys between the ages of nine and eleven, which had just opened when Lawton attended it. Both later worked in the local factory, Walker's Tanneries. Something I knew all about when I began as a thirteen-year-old at my public school “Charterhouse” — famous in the late 19th century for its England internationals, above all the peerless centre forward G.O. Smith, and also for the last amateur to skipper England, the full back A.G. Bower of Chelsea in 1925. Three Walker brothers attended Bodeites, my boarding house and the one who was there when I arrived, house captain of soccer, rejoiced in the fact that Lofthouse had just led Bolton to victory in the wartime Northern Cup.

Days before his triumphs in Vienna, Lofthouse had led the England attack in a friendly against Italy in Florence, which I attended. It was a largely dull 1-1 draw and Lofthouse would, say, later that the criticism he himself received for his performance inspired him to be specially committed in Vienna.

In these mercenary times, it is impossible to think of a player of his prowess staying so loyally and long with the same club, but Bolton was in his blood. As for Lawton, so long a talismanic figure, he ultimately drifted from club to club, fell heavily, into debt, drank too much, was hauled into court for cheque fraud, though his last years were more tranquil. Yet had he been playing today, he and indeed Nat Lofthouse would have been a multi millionaire.

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