"Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age. . . even if he had been wearing an overcoat." The words are Bill Shankly's, typically exaggerated, but they don't disguise the truth.
In the supposed Golden Age of English football during the Forties and Fifties, Finney stood above them all and is still considered by many today to have been the most complete British footballer of all time.
Yet he never won any of football's major honours. A Second Division Championship was the only prize he had to show for a glittering career.
So why is he held in such high regard? Is it, perhaps, because he was a great individualist?
He had all the skills, but there were greater showmen. The fact is few players were more prepared to sacrifice their own interests - or their fitness - for the good of the team.
His lack of honours can be best understood by the structure of the game at the time. England, for whom Finney won 76 caps and was once his country's all-time leading scorer with 30 goals, considered themselves the masters of the game.
They would regularly hand out beatings to the likes of Portugal, Italy, West Germany, France and Russia. But there was an arrogance surrounding the Football Association which considered foreign teams inferior - an attitude which had its comeuppance when England came an embarrassing cropper in Finney's three World Cup campaigns.
Similarly at club level, Preston North End were the First Division's nearly-men. Twice runners-up for the First Division title, FA Cup losing finalists, but more often than not to be found in mid-table. Yet Finney remained a one-club man in the days when the maximum wage ruled and there was no freedom of contract. Once you signed for a club you were their
property until they had had enough of you.
Finney was happy to stay at Preston, who were often dismissed as a one-man show. There was a joke at the time: "Tom Finney should claim income tax relief . . . for his 10 dependents." And even his biographer Paul Agnew, author of Finney - A Football Legend, wrote: "When Finney didn't play, it would appear, neither did North End."
The mocking riled Finney. "A one-man team has never existed anywhere," he said. Nevertheless, no matter how much Preston relied on him, the rewards were scant. Two of the greatest stars of the period were Finney and Blackpool's Stanley Matthews. Both wingers, often rivals for an England place and the subjects of an intense and long-running national debate as to who was the better player.
Towards the end of the Fifties, each was limited to the £20-a-week maximum wage. Yet Ron Atkinson, a journeyman centre-half and later to be manager of Manchester United among others, was earning more at Headington United. The injustice occurred because the maximum wage did not apply to non-league football.
No, the real secret of Finney's greatness lies not in honours, but in what he brought to the game and what he brought out in others. His total mastery of all the techniques triumphed over the lack of medals. He was versatile, playing in all the orthodox five forward positions of the day for Preston and appearing for England at right-wing, left-wing and centre-forward. He was a genuine two-footed player, packing an explosive shot in either his right or his left. He had speed, balance, was a pin-point passer and, for a man of no great height, could head with awesome power.
Finney made things happen. He would take hold of a game, run 20, perhaps 30, yards with the ball beating defender after defender. Then he would either feint outside, reaching the bye-line before putting in a telling cross, or he would cut inside and shoot at goal himself.
As one newspaper tribute put it: "If all the brains in the game sat in committee to design the perfect player, they would come up with a reincarnation of Tom Finney."
Finney was born in 1922 and lived just across the road from Preston's ground at Deepdale. He was a delicate child, slightly built, and, despite his enthusiasm, would be at the back of the queue when the kids picked their teams for a game on the local rec.
At the age of six, he suffered from an infected gland in his neck which meant twice-weekly hospital visits until he was 14 when he had the gland removed. He wanted to be a footballer but his father, Alf, insisted that he learn a trade and he became an apprentice plumber - an occupation he was to follow all his life, even at the height of his international fame.
Still, at the age of 14, standing 4ft 9ins and weighing just five stones, he gained a trial with Preston who immediately offered him a contract to join the groundstaff at two pounds 10 shillings a week. Apart from playing in the junior sides, it would have meant cleaning boots and sweeping the terraces. Finney was keen, but again his father said no. So he signed on as an amateur who would play part-time.
The Preston he joined carried the tradition of the Old Invincibles - the team that was a founder member of the Football League, which had won the coveted League and Cup double in 1888-89 - the first season of League competition - and had done so without losing a game and without conceding a goal in the FA Cup.
Proud Preston, as they were known, won the FA Cup in 1938 with Finney watching from the Wembley stands. Bill Shankly was by then an established powerhouse at right-half.
Finney turned professional in 1940, making his first-team debut in the autumn. But this was wartime, the Football League had been disbanded and wages were down to 10 shillings a week. He was to be one of a unique handful of footballers who, because of the circumstances, was to play for England before making his full League debut for his club.
Football in wartime was played on a regional basis and that season Preston were not only the Northern Section Champions, but they also reached the final of the Wartime Cup where they met Arsenal at Wembley. Finney played at right-wing, Shankly at right-half. It ended 1-1, the Arsenal equaliser being scored by England cricketer Denis Compton.
The replay was at Blackburn's Ewood Park and Preston won 2-1. It was the only final Finney ever won, but it does not count as a senior football honour.
By 1942, Finney had been called up as a trooper with the Royal Armoured Corps. Eventually he was to see action with the Eighth Army as a tank driver and mechanic, but at this stage he joined the wartime guest circuit playing football by invitation for Newcastle, Southampton and Bolton.
The football continued when he was sent overseas to Egypt. He played for a forces side called The Wanderers and travelled the Middle East appearing in services games or against Egyptian national sides. In one such game the opposition's substitute was Omar Sharif, later to be a Hollywood film star.
Some of the matches were unnerving, the players having to sweep the pitch for mines before kick-off.
Towards the end of the war he was called up by England for a friendly game against Switzerland in Berne. The England XI lost 3-1, but a full international cap was not far away.
Finney was given a quick exit from the Army after the war, not because he was a footballer, but his skills as a plumber were needed. Builders and plumbers were in great demand due to post-war reconstruction, but it meant Finney could rejoin his club with all speed. He worked by day and trained by night and made that long-delayed League debut against Leeds United on
the opening day of the 1946-47 season.
He also got his first cap, scoring in a 7-2 trouncing of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
The following season Finney played in an astonishing match for Preston at home to Derby County. Derby scored two quick goals before Preston pulled it back to 2-2. Derby scored a third, but at half-time it was 3-3. Derby went further ahead at 4-3, but the final result was 7-4 . . . to Preston! North End had come from behind three times to win by three clear goals, the
last of which came after a devastating run by Finney leaving defenders trailing in his wake.
The Lancashire Evening Post reported that "Finney's dazzling runs were sheer artistry and it was fitting that the wingman should end it all by making a goal in a million."
Finney rates it the best game of football he ever played in. But the next season, Finney missed nearly half the League programme through injury and Preston were relegated. It took them two seasons to get back to the top flight winning the Second Division in 1950-51.
While Preston had struggled, Finney's career with England was soaring. His international record is remarkable. He played in 76 games and finished on the losing side just a dozen times. He had actually played 50 times for England before he tasted defeat - and that was against Scotland.
Two of those early games stand out, against Portugal in Lisbon in 1947 and against Italy in Turin in 1948.
It is almost impossible for a modern day fan to appreciate the grip England had then on world football. Portugal were reckoned to be one of the coming sides in Europe. They had beaten Switzerland who in turn had beaten an England XI. Still, Portugal were not only facing England for the first time, they were also facing an England team in which Finney and Matthews were playing together for the first time - Matthews on the right-wing, Finney on the left.
The score was 10-0 to England! The scorers were Stan Mortenson (4), Tommy Lawton (4), Stan Matthews (1), Tom Finney (1).
By the time the two countries next met, Portugal had improved - but so had Finney. It was England 5 Portugal 3. Finney scored four! It was the only time he ever scored more than two goals in a match.
When England went to Turin to meet Italy they were facing the reigning World Champions. Of course it had been 10 years since they won the crown and their country had been overrun during the war, but they were still considered to be the best team in the world. Finney scored twice as England humiliated the Italians 4-0.
The game was to have an extraordinary sequel four years later. Palermo wanted to make a serious bid for the Italian Championship and decided that Finney, by then 30, was the man to help them do it. They offered him a £10,000 signing on fee, £130 a month wages, bonuses of up to £100 a game, a Mediterranean villa, a luxury car and free travel to and from Italy for his
family. They also offered Preston £30,000 by way of a transfer fee. This was 1952 and such sums of money were unimaginable. Finney turned it down.
Into this tide of glory with England had swum a shark disguised as a porpoise in the unlikely shape of the USA in the 1950 World Cup. All-conquering England had graciously agreed to enter the competition for the first time. The team that went to Brazil for the championships was full of talent. Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey, Wilf Mannion, Matthews and, of course, Finney. They were one of the favourites to win the Jules Rimet Trophy.
England's opening fixture was comfortable enough, a 2-0 win over Chile. But at Belo Horizonte in their second match, their reputation as the game's aristocrats was torn to shreds.
England's star-studded line-up was humiliated 1-0 by a bunch of American nondescripts. Most newspapers called it the worst performance ever by an English team. Finney described it as "the soccer sensation of the century."
He told his biographer Paul Agnew: "The game was supposed to be as good as a walkover for us. After all, the Americans were only part-timers and we were a highly-rated world force. Most of our opponents would have struggled to get a game in the Third Division."
England squandered chance after chance and Finney was as guilty as any. He was, however, one of only two forwards who kept his place for the next game against Spain. Finney was hauled down twice in the Spanish box and twice the referee refused a penalty. England lost 1-0 and were out of the World Cup. It was a shattering experience - but nothing compared to what lay in store when England met the Hungarians at Wembley in 1953.
This was the match, more than any other, that taught England how much they had slipped and how much the rest of the world had advanced. It lanced once and for all the boil of innate superiority that had grown all over the FA's headquarters at Lancaster Gate.
Hungary played football beyond England's dreams. Hidegkuti and Puskas - an Army Officer known as the Galloping Major - were the complete masters as England were crushed 6-3. It was the first time a foreign team had beaten England at Wembley.
Finney was lucky. He didn't play, but watched the annihilation from the stands. "I came away from Wembley," he said, "wondering to myself what we had been doing all these years."
Seven months later Finney was in the team for the return game with Hungary in Budapest. England were still outclassed, this time 7-1.
Back at home, Preston's fortunes were looking up. They had finished runners-up in the First Division in 1952-53, losing out to Champions Arsenal only on goal average, and had reached the 1954 FA Cup Final against West Bromwich Albion. Finney had been playing at the top of his form, making life so much easier for the other players, among whom, at wing-half was Tommy Docherty. One former colleague, Ken Horton, told Finney's biographer Paul Agnew: "We used to get the ball out to Tom as quickly as possible and then run into the box and wait for it to come across. It invariably did, at the right height and the right speed, and we simply had to sidefoot it over the line. It was as easy as that, for we were playing with a superman."
The nation held its breath in anticipation of that Wembley final. One year before, that other wing maestro Matthews had eclipsed all previous finals when Blackpool dramatically came from 3-1 down to beat Bolton 4-3. Now would Finney stamp his own magic on FA Cup history?
The match was a nightmare for Finney. The Preston captain had a stinker, played out of the game by his opposing captain Len Millard, and West Brom took the Cup 3-2.
It was Finney's saddest hour. So much had been expected from him and he confessed: "I let them down." Newspapers took the inevitable line. "He is not yet a Matthews," trumpeted the Daily Mail.
The truth about the comparisons is that they were different types of players. Matthews, a supreme entertainer, was an out-and-out winger. He stayed out wide and once he received the ball would dribble his way towards the bye-line. He was bursting with star quality, but scored few goals.
In 84 appearances for England he found the net just three times. Matthews took the view that his job was to make goals for others. Finney thought differently. "It was usually considered that a winger should be a provider," he said, "but I always worked on the theory that the man in the best position should accept the responsibility." Finney took that responsibility seriously, averaging 13 League goals per season during his career at Preston, with a best haul of 26 in 1957-58.
His strike rate in the League was four times better than Mathhews. It's also interesting that although Finney was often perceived as having to play second fiddle to Matthews, either by being left out of the England team or switching to the left-wing, the majority of his caps - 40 out of 76 - were as a right-winger. Finney, nevertheless, regarded Matthews as a genius, a
compliment that was returned by the Blackpool maestro.
But Finney gained some compensation in 1954 for that Cup Final disaster by being named Footballer of the Year.
This was also the year of Finney and England's second World Cup campaign with the finals being hosted in Switzerland. The opening match against Belgium was dramatic. England were winning 3-1 but Belgium completely turned the game around to finish with a 4-4 draw.
Next up were Switzerland and a 2-0 victory for England put them in the quarter-finals. Opponents Uruguay took a 3-1 lead which was reduced to one goal when Finney scored. But Uruguay added another to make the result 4-2. England's hopes had been dashed again.
The tournament was won by West Germany who surprised many by beating the Hungarians 3-2 in the final. Ironically, England met the new World Champions at Wembley six months later. Finney and Matthews were outstanding as England won 3-1.
Throughout his career Finney had taken more than his fair share of knocks. Often he played when he was not fully fit. During the 1954-55 and 1955-56 seasons the injury toll began to mount. At first it was back trouble which plagued him through a damaged sciatic nerve. Then knee and shoulder injuries followed.
But by 1956-57 Preston had a new manager, Cliff Britton, who was to take a decision that would cause Finney to play some of the best football of his life. At the age of 34, Finney was made centre-forward, where he was to play three games for England, too.
He was a revelation. Finney scored 23 goals that season and Preston finished third in the First Division. The next season they went one better - runners-up to Champions Wolves. Over the two seasons, Preston went 30 home games without defeat in a 15-month period. One of those victories was an 8-0 thrashing of Birmingham City, Preston's biggest of the century, in
which Finney scored twice.
Jimmy McIlroy, the Burnley and Northern Ireland international, said of him: "As a right-winger converted from a left footer, he was the best centre-forward I've ever seen!"
In 1957, Finney became the first player to be named Footballer of the Year for a second time. And the next summer he played in his third World Cup for England in Sweden. He scored a penalty in the opening 2-2 draw with Russia. But he also sustained an injury in that game which kept him out of the rest of the competition.
By 1958-59 Finney was reaching the twilight and injury problems had reared up again. He played his final international in the autumn, a 5-0 defeat of Russia at Wembley, then hurt his groin in a Christmas fixture with Blackpool and played only one more game that season.
The following season, 1959-60, was to be his last, Finney accepting medical advice to retire. His farewell League game, at home against Luton Town, was an emotional affair with the crowd singing Auld Lang Syne to him as he walked from the pitch for the last time.
Without him, Preston were relegated from the First Division within a year and have never been back to the top since. More sadly, though it took a little longer, orthodox wingers have disappeared from the game and we are unlikely to see players such as Finney again.
He was the Gentleman Footballer. Never booked, never sent off. Never even spoken to by referees. He received the OBE in 1961, became President of Preston North End, a magistrate and chairman of his local health authority while continuing to run his plumbing business, of course.
And in the 1998 New Year Honours list he received the ultimate accolade - a knighthood (though many wondered why he had had to wait so long).
There is, however, one final postscript to the story of Finney the player. When he was 40, Finney received a phone call from George Eastham, the player who revolutionised the transfer system by taking his club Newcastle United to court in 1963 over their right to retain him against his will.
Eastham, by now, was manager of Irish side Distillery who had been drawn against Benfica, team of the mighty Eusebio, in the European Cup. Eastham wanted Finney to sign for his club and play in the tie. Finney thought he was joking but agreed to turn out in the home leg.
And so it was that Finney, the man without a First Division Championship medal got to play in Europe's premier club competition after all. The result? Oh, yes. Distillery 3 Benfica 3...
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