Heroes both

Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews were wingers of outstanding quality, each adept at the classical winger’s ability to beat his opposing full-back, putting him on the wrong foot with a body swerve, then carrying on to the goal-line before pulling the ball back into the goalmouth with the most dangerous pass in the game, writes Brian Glanville.

The recent death of that superb footballer Tom Finney has reignited a very old question: Tom Finney or Stanley Matthews? Two England wingers of outstanding quality, each adept at the classical winger’s ability to beat his opposing full-back, putting him on the wrong foot with a body swerve, then carrying on to the goal-line before pulling the ball back into the goalmouth with the most dangerous pass in the game.

Finney spent the whole of his distinguished career with his local club Preston North End, where he was nicknamed ‘The Preston Plumber’. This because he was indeed a plumber by trade, carrying it on right through his football career and eventually running his own plumbing business. But the obituaries, which described him as a one-club-man, a view endorsed by the distinguished former England right-back Jimmy Armfield, were not quite accurate.

Armfield insisted that Finney, back in 1952, would never have left Preston, where he was earning a paltry £14 a week under the iniquitous maximum wage, for the wealth that was offered to him by the Sicilian club. But the truth is that Finney would have gone — after all, he knew Italy pretty well, having served there with the British Army in the Second World War — had it not been for the obdurate refusal of the Preston chairman to release him. So he continued plumbing.

So it ironically was that Finney, having enthralled English football with a glorious 19-year-old display at Wembley against Arsenal in the League War Cup final in 1941, vanished from the English game for the next five years. Unlike a very large number of leading British footballers, he was not drafted into the Army or the Air Force physical training corps. This at the instigation of the Government, who wanted a distraction for the British public from the vicissitudes of the Nazi bombing.

The League War Cup stood in for the traditional FA Cup for the first two wartime seasons, when “official” football was suspended. Inspired by young Finney, Preston, the underdogs, held Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, then beat them in the replay in Blackburn.

So Finney was lost to the game, though not remotely forgotten, till 1946, when he went straight into the England team in Belfast and Dublin, to the exclusion of the legendary Stanley Matthews.

Born in 1915, Matthews, that supreme enigma, was thus much older than Finney. As a 19-year-old, he had won his first cap for England and was renowned for that amazing body swerve. “Don’t ask me how I do it,” he once said. “It just comes out of me under pressure”.

Matthews would eventually regain his England place, at the expense of Finney, the following March, and when Great Britain played the Rest of Europe in Glasgow in May, he was chosen on the right wing while Finney wasn’t picked. But later that month, the England selectors, absurdly allowed to choose the team at the expense of the actual manager Walter Winterbottom, came to their senses, picking Matthews on the right flank, Finney on the left. The results were spectacular. In Lisbon, Portugal were thrashed 10-0, with each winger getting a goal. Finney, in fact, was naturally left-footed and had begun at Preston as an inside-left.

A year later, in Turin, the pair excelled in England’s somewhat flattering 4-0 victory against Italy. Matthews tormented Eliani, the inexperienced left-back replacing the injured Moroso, and in the second half, Finney scored England’s last two goals.

Finney was never as controversial a player as Matthews, often criticised for holding up the play through over-elaboration. One of his England colleagues in the powerful wartime international team once said that when you gave him the ball you could never be quite sure when you were going to get it back. But Matthews was a glorious player for the great occasion even after the bruising so-called Battle of Highbury, versus Italy in November 1934. A ludicrous daily sports columnist wondered whether he had the Big Match Temperament!

After a wartime match at Wembley, there was even newspaper speculation that his England team-mates had deliberately starved Matthews of the ball. And absurdly, on the eve of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, he was initially excluded from the England squad, consigned instead to a meaningless FA team tour of North America, from which he was recalled to the squad only at the last moment.

Matthews did not play in the calamitous match in Belo Horizonte, where a USA team made up of obscure players actually beat England 1-0. Had Matthews been on the right with Finney on the left, it would, probably, have been a very different story, but on the face of it, England could have been expected to win the game at ease.

Matthews did get a hat-trick when switched to inside-forward in the 1937 match at Tottenham against the Czechs. He was the first ever European Footballer of the Year, an honour never won by Finney. But Finney, who scored 30 goals for England, showed his immense versatility late in his Preston career by modulating with great success into a deep lying centre-forward, where his attributes of balance, skill and invention inspired his team.

Finney had just one club; Matthews had two. Emerging with Stoke city, his local team, he served with the RAF in the war, playing as a guest for Blackpool, whom he rejoined afterwards when he was absurdly sidelined by the Stoke manager, Bob McGrory. But these were two heroic figures.