Whose statue at Wembley?

WHEN Wembley Stadium finally rises from the ashes — please don't hold your breath — the idea now is that a statue will be erected there: of a famous footballer. Who?


When the Wembley Stadium is renewed the idea is that a statue will be erected there — of a famous footballer. Certain names have already been put forward, and the favourite among them is former England captain Bobby Moore.-Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

WHEN Wembley Stadium finally rises from the ashes — please don't hold your breath — the idea now is that a statue will be erected there: of a famous footballer. Who? The choice, for better or for worse, will be made by the public, which will be asked to cast its votes, just as it recently did in a somewhat farcical BBC poll to decide on the Greatest Ever Englishman, or woman. There did seem at one time the alarming prospect that the ever unpredictable, cruelly demised, Princess Diana would finish ahead of Shakespeare (easily my own choice) and Winston Churchill, who eventually prevailed. And some truly ludicrous names emerged from the poll.

The trouble with such polls is that they tend always to involve voters too young to remember heroes or heroines of the past and often far too inclined to choose negligible "personalities" of the present. Since football is notoriously, in England at least, unhistorical, miserably forgetful of stars of the past, far less aware of them than are the followers of cricket, such considerations, alas, would apply in spades to the choice of a Wembley statue.

Certain names have already been put forward, the current favourite apparently being Bobby Moore, who, as a blond, dominating, inspiring England captain and left-half, led his team to triumph in the World Cup Final of 1966, he himself being very properly voted the best player of the tournament. Were Moore to be chosen, it is argued, it would do something to make up for the relative neglect he suffered before his miserably premature death from cancer. Unlike his colleagues in that World Cup winning team, such as Bobby Charlton, the deep lying centre-forward and record England goal-scorer, and Geoff Hurst, who scored three of the four English goals that afternoon, Bobby was never knighted.

Since it seems deeply unlikely that England will ever win the World Cup again all the less so given the failure of their bid to stage the tournament in 2006, Moore would unquestionably be a strong, let us say statuesque, candidate.

Wembley moreover was very familiar territory for him. As captain of West Ham United, he was an FA Cup Final winner against Preston North End in 1964. The following year he was back again to be presented with the European Cup Winner's Cup, after the Hammers had beaten Munich 1860 in the Final. He also of course played numerous games for England there, most of them with great success, his uneasy performance out of position at centre-back against West Germany in the first leg Euro Nations Cup quarterfinal in 1972 being the exception that proved the rule.

Another feature of Moore's career was that in essence it was a triumph of mind over matter. He was not in truth a naturally talented player. He was never quick, he wasn't very strong in the air. Initially a young centre-half at West Ham, it was only when he moved into his covering role as second centre-back, usually on the left despite being basically a right-footed player, that his true qualities emerged. Granted though that his debut for England was made in South America at right-half, first in Peru then in the ensuing 1962 World Cup. What he had was iron determination, enormously shrewd positional sense and timing, a precociously cool head so that he never panicked under pressure.

Yet, the claims of Stanley Matthews, who has also been widely mentioned, seem even more convincing to me. Not merely because of the so-called Matthews Final of 1953 which has always seemed to me to have been blown up out of proportion. You may perhaps remember that Matthews, the so-called Wizard of Dribble, the right-winger whose mesmerising skills were said to put 10,000 on the gate every time he played in London, had failed to finish on the winning side with Blackpool (yes, they were a power in those far off days!) in the Finals of 1948 — against Manchester United — and 1951, against Newcastle United.

So, when it came to the 1953 Final against Bolton Wanderers, it was plainly Stanley's last chance. And he took it, emphatically. Twisting and turning, feinting and accelerating, he tormented and turned the Bolton defence in the final breathless minutes of the game. Yet, that defence had been radically weakened by injury. First to the left-half Bell, who limped on the left-wing but gallantly managed to score a goal, then to a second defender. Thus in those closing phases, Bolton were virtually playing with 10 fit men and it was the left flank of their team, that which opposed Matthews, which had been weakened. With the score at 3-3, Matthews got the ball on the right, shimmied his characteristic way to the goal-line, and pulled the ball back for Bill Perry, the South African left winger, to smash home the winner for Blackpool. All very romantic, but surely the victory was flawed.

I prefer to "fast forward" three years to Stan's astonishing performance at Wembley for England against Brazil. He was up against Nilton Santis, then reckoned to be the best left-back in the world, tall, powerful, hugely experienced. Though hardly more experienced than Stanley who was then a remarkable 41 years old. And Matthews turned Santos inside out, toying with him, gliding past him, contributing hugely to a 4-2 England win which should have been far more substantial.

Afterwards, I remember going down to the England dressing room where Stanley was deploring the fact that he kept reading in the Press that he was "too old". There were times, he said, "when I want to tear the paper across."

Bobby Charlton would also have claims. In the World Cup Finals of 1966, he took two memorable goals against Portugal in the semifinal, having struck a tremendous shot home previously against Mexico in England's second game. With Manchester United where as with England he would figure prominently at the old Empire Stadium, he untypically back-headed a goal against Benfica when United became the first ever English team to win the European Cup in the Final of 1968. Though he was a somewhat muted figure in the World Cup Final of 1966.

One could go much further back in time and recall the Wembley Wizards, the Scotland team with the forward line of little men, which crushed England 5-1 in 1958. There could be claims for the tallest of those attackers, the 5 foot 7 inch Alec Jackson, the right winger who scored three of those goals, though who would remember him now?