The wizard of dribble

Published : Feb 28, 2015 00:00 IST

There has never been an outside right quite like Stanley Matthews and it was highly appropriate that he should be voted best European Footballer of the Year in the first of the annual France Football polls. His body swerve was extraordinary, irresistible and surely unmatched. By Brian Glanville.

February 2015 saw the centenary of the birth of Stanley Matthews, one of the greatest talents English football, an indeed the game at large, has ever produced. I was lucky enough to watch him at Wembley in January 1942, when I was 10 years old, playing on his habitual right wing for England, 3-0 winners over Scotland (wing halfs Bill Shankly and Matt Busby:) my first professional game and what a beginning.

I was perhaps even luckier to be his guest at lunch in Stoke’s Station Hotel together with the then Stoke City manager Tony Waddington, after — now in his late forties — he at last returned from Blackpool to the club near where he was born and where, as a teenager, he had begun.

There has never been an outside right quite like him and it was highly appropriate that he should be voted the best European Footballer of the Year in the first of the annual France Football polls. His body swerve was extraordinary, irresistible and surely unmatched. The left back confronting him might well believe that he knew all about it, and was certain not to be caught out. Eye closely on the ball, he lunged in confidently to get it, only to find that Matthews had elegantly put him on the wrong foot, flicked the ball outside him up the touchline, and, with a brief but devastating burst of pace, disappeared from all hope of being caught. “Don’t ask me how I do it,” he once said. “It just comes out of me under pressure.”

Yet for all his coruscating talents, he was always liable to criticism and even frustration. There were those who felt he held the ball too long and thus slowed down the attack: Billy Wright, England’s 105 times capped post War captain, sourly among them, though much later he would change his tune. After one other War-time international versus Scotland, at Wembley, it was alleged in the newspapers that fellow players had deliberately starved him of the ball. When England for the first time competed in the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 he wasn’t named in the original squad and had to be called back from a Football Association’s tour of the USA, at the last moment.

When, as a 19-year-old he played for England in November 1934 against Italy in what has come to be known, for its Italian violence, as the “Battle of Highbury”, a leading sports columnist, Geoffrey Simpson of the Daily Mail wrote, “I saw Matthews play just as moderately in the recent inter League match, exhibiting the same slowness and hesitation. Perhaps he lacks big match temperament.” Matthews?

The son of an ex-professional boxer known as the ‘Fighting Barber of Hanley’, he and his sister were obliged by his father to do exercise in front of an open window in their bedroom every morning. In his playing years, Stanley did not need any of the sports scientist and their likes, who proliferate at clubs today. When with Blackpool, his preferred method of training each morning was to run across the sands. And he would continue playing top class football into his 50s.

Nicknamed by one journalist Frank Butler, “The Wizard of dribble”, Matthews just got one game in the ill-fated 1950 World Cup though there were those wise after the event, who insisted that Matthews should have played. And indeed that the sole selector in that bizarre period should have been the self important Chairman of the FA a Grimsby fish merchant called Arthur Drewry with the actual team manager Walter Winterbottom having no say in the selection. Yet Drewry was hardly to be blamed. The American team was on the face of it a rag bag of obscure part-timers and England’s was full of supposed stars, not least of whom, in the right wing, was Tom Finney. So Stanley had his only game in the Rio loss to Spain.

The Romans said no one was a prophet in his own country and Stanley, when football in England officially resumed just after the War, found himself in curious conflict with Stoke City manager Bob McGrory, all the strange in that as McGrory had been a team-mate at Stoke before the War. During its duration, Matthews, enlisted in the Royal Air Force, found himself stationed near Blackpool for whom he would play as “guest”, in a dazzling forward line. Meanwhile some five months before the outbreak of War he had inimitably made England’s winning goal against Scotland in Glasgow’s Hampden Park, after the Scots had won the previous four matches there. On and irresistibly he went up the right flank while desperate Scottish fans begged their defenders to stop him. They couldn’t and his eventual perfect cross enabled big Tommy Lawton to head the winning goal.

Who knows why McGrory was so hostile to Matthews? Early in the official post War season he astounded the world of soccer by actually dropping him and deploying the infinitely less elusive George Mountford. It was a humiliation and Matthews was all to ready to join Blackpool officially. There he and his wife opened a boarding house. The years of multi-million pound footballers were far away indeed. Meanwhile, these immediate post War times saw the start of what you might call his dualism with the brilliant young Finney who by contrast with the bulk of British footballers had fought through the War, for years out of England.

Each player had his champions but at last a perfect compromise was reached in Lisbon in May 1942 when England played Portugal with Matthews on the right, Finney, a natural left footer, on the left. England won 10-0. A year later with Matthews right, Finney left, and Matthews unplayable, they beat Italy 4-0 in Turin.

And then there was the matter of Matthews in the Cup final. Blackpool got there at Wembley and lost both in 1948 and 1951, 1953 would surely be his last chance and he took it in what came to be called “The Matthews Final”. But to be true, by the time he outwitted the left flank of Bolton defence to pull the ball across for the late winning goal, Bolton were down to nine fit men, both left and right flank defenders limping.

“You must have butterflies!” before a match, Stan told me at that lunch. A few days later I was in the Stoke dressing room for his romantic return to their colours. “I’m not really with you, Brian,” he said to me in the dressing room when I tried to talk to him. This from one of the game’s most illustrious players before a mere English Second Division game! He would help Stoke into the First.

In his grand days at Blackpool it would be reckoned that every time he played a match in London, he would put 10,000 supporters on the gate.

Not to be forgotten was an extraordinary game against the Czechs in Tottenham in 1937 when England, down to ten men, switched Stanley to inside forward, where he won the game with a hat-trick, scored with his lesser left foot!

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