More about Matthews

Stanley Matthews was the first ever European Footballer of the Year. At the age of 41 at Wembley he dominated and ridiculed Brazil’s Nilton Santos, widely regarded then as the best left back in the world. By Brian Glanville.

A new book has brought Stanley Matthews back into the public mind. Not that he has ever been quite out of it. This one, however, elicits some controversy and seems to demonstrate that his second marriage was to a Russian spy, albeit a somewhat peripheral one.

In his latter playing years and after, I came to know him quite well and to like him very much. I had idolised him for years like so many schoolboys. Nicknamed ‘Wizard of Dribble’, as an outside right he had left an infinity of left backs for dead with his magical body swerve. Sprinting away up the touchline with electric pace over the first ten yards or so that mattered. “Don’t ask me how I do it,” he once said. “It just comes out of me under pressure.”

He was the first ever European Footballer of the Year. At the age of 41 at Wembley he dominated and ridiculed Brazil’s Nilton Santos, widely regarded then as the best left back in the world. In his late forties, he returned to his original club Stoke City, and to my indelible memory, took manager Tony Waddington and myself out to lunch at Stoke station’s hotel. “You must have butterflies,” he told me. Meaning nervous fluttering in the stomach before a game.

So it was that when I stood next to him in the Stoke dressing room before his “comeback” game, in merely the Second Division, and spoke to him, he answered, “I’m not really with you at the moment Brian.”

He had spent the previous post-war years — and indeed most of the war years themselves — with Blackpool. Inexplicably, the Stoke manager, when soccer officially resumed in 1946, was Bob McCrory, who had been his pre-war teammate, was hostile to him, dropped him to public amazement from the team and ultimately let him go to Blackpool, in 1947.

For all his undeniable brilliance, it was never fully plain sailing. Thus in November 1934 when Italy, then world champions, came to London and launched what came to be known as ‘The Battle of Highbury’, Matthews was criticised by the Daily Mail columnist Geoffrey Simpson as allegedly “showing the same faults of slowness and hesitation” as in a recent inter-League match. “Perhaps,” the deluded columnist continued, “he does not have the big match temperament.” Now and again you would read that once Matthews had been given the ball, they might have to wait some time to get it back. Peculiarly harsh and gratuitous was the criticism once made by Billy Wright, 105 times capped for England, dismissing Matthews as a burden on his teammates as a self indulgent soloist. Though many years later in an autobiographical book, Wright paid Stanley effusive tribute.

Inevitably perhaps this autobiography has aroused much talk of the so called ‘Matthews Final’, when, after going 3-2 behind in the FA Cup final at Wembley in 1953, having lost their previous finals there in 1948 and 1951, Matthews' irresistible trickery enabled Blackpool to win the game 4-3 in a breathless revival.

Matthews himself was quick to say that eleven players were involved in Blackpool’s success. But the fact remain that by the time he ran Bolton’s defence ragged in those closing minutes they were down to nine fit men, with both their left back and their left half hobbling injured. No substitutes in those days.

We are now being told that Stanley was a lone, unsocial, detached figure in his playing days. I can say only that in the latter years of that career and later, I found him friendly, modest and responsive. Though it is true that when it came to training he was his own man, running endlessly across beaches, never smoking or drinking, as so many of his contemporaries did. His light, it was said, always out in the bedroom at nine o’clock, each night.

The war over, he suddenly found himself replaced in the England team by the multi-talented and much younger Tom Finney, back from Army service abroad while Matthews had stayed in England as a non-flying Royal Air Force-man. Not till May 1947 did the England selectors realise that both these marvellous players could be accommodated.

Finney, a natural left footer, could go out on the left while Stanley — though quite capable of moving dangerously into central positions — appeared on the right. Instant success; a 10-0 win in Lisbon versus Portugal. A year later in Turin, Matthews and Finney tormented the Italian defence in a 4-0 England win.

To Wright, Stanley was “a pain in the neck to his colleagues, who waited in vain for the pass that never came.” An attitude hardly shared by adoring fans from a profusion of clubs. It was estimated that when he played for Blackpool in London he would put 10,000 people on the gate. As for waiting in vain, what of the glorious run and cross which gave centre forward Tom Lawton a dramatic winning headed goal at Hampden Park in April 1939 against a Scottish team long previously unbeatable there.

Or in 1938 when he ripped Germany’s defence to shreds in a 6-3 win in Berlin by an England team obliged to give the Nazi salute before the game. Wright, the schoolboy hero, sadly descended into alcoholism. Matthews remained fit till nearly 50.