Dave Bowler, who interviewed the great man for his biography ‘Playing for England’ recalls the remarkable life of Sir Tom Finney – England’s greatest ever footballer.
It’s a rare man whose passing can unite the football community, most especially across the tribal divides of local rivalry, but when a Blackpool supporter paused to place a tangerine coloured tribute at Deepdale a week ago, he or she was expressing a universal truth about the undeniable greatness of the fallen footballer in question.
In his departure from this mortal coil – and surely, a man of such elegance and sophistication did not merely shuffle but glide away – Sir Thomas Finney took his rightful place amongst the true footballing immortals, those precious few whose contribution to our game is simply so immense that their place there is beyond question.
For not only was Tom Finney perhaps the finest English footballer not just of his generation, but of all time, he embodied a different culture, a different game, a different world. A rounded individual with perspective on life’s vicissitudes, he was not a man who knew only football, not one created in its image, but a man of the world who brought that knowledge to bear on the way he played the game and the way he conducted himself.
When you have spent what should have been the great early years of your footballing career slogging around under ire in North Africa with Rommel determined to wipe you off the map, you are unlikely to be moved to childish tantrum by a referee that you may think is less than impartial. It’s a dose of reality that we would all do well to remember in this overhyped sport that we are so wrapped up in nowadays. After all, without the sacrifice made by Finney and those of his Desert Rat comrades who didn’t come back, we might not be playing the game at all, and certainly not in the current fashion.
Like so many of his generation, Finney, who had lost his mother when he was only five, lost his youth to the war. He was already on Preston’s books as war broke out when he was 17, but he was 24 before league football resumed in August 1946. Just imagine how much more extraordinary his records at Deepdale would have been had he been able to play through those war years.
Instead, rather than dashing down the flanks, he was carving his way through the desert after being called up in 1942. He fought in Montgomery’s Eighth Army in Egypt and then onto Italy, driving a tank in the 9th Lancers.
The great man’s talent had already come to the fore during hostilities, playing for various Army sides in Africa whenever makeshift games could be arranged but on being demobbed, it was back to Preston an the kind of dual life that even the very best players had to adopt in those days of the maximum wage. After his father had insisted he complete his apprenticeship before joining Preston, Finney qualified as a plumber and ultimately began his own business in the trade, a business that was to become a signal success as he applied the same humility, diligence and work ethic to that as he applied to his football.
But, with due respect to plumbers everywhere, that trade did not the opportunity to give full rein to the kind of genius that can only be bestowed by a higher power. With some players, even the great ones, you can see the cogs whirring, you can see how hard they are having to work to make it all happen. With Finney, there was merely a graceful effortlessness, an ability to skim the surface – and those surfaces were rutted fields compared with today’s bowling greens – using pace, guile, trickery, the full complement of skills to defeat defender after defender.
So prodigious were his gifts that he was recognised by England as early as 1945, before playing for his club. “I was flown back from Italy to play against Switzerland in 1945” he told me. “They were a neutral country, so you couldn’t turn up in military uniform, we had to go in suits, so I had to fly back to Croydon Airport. I’d flown in uniform, so Stanley Rous, the FA Secretary, took me down to Moss Bros and got me a suit. I couldn’t have got one on my own! Then I was allowed to fly to Switzerland”.
He was in the England team when proper internationals returned on 28th September 1946 following the war, 2,684 days after England’s last one.
“I’d only been out of the forces five weeks, demobbed early because I was in the building trade. So I was working as a plumber, and trained on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Preston.” Maybe Wayne Rooney should follow suit?
It was with England that we came to see just how magnificent a player he was. The outside-right shirt, the one Finney graced with Preston, belonged to Stanley Matthews and he was not for shifting. So Tom was simply shifted out to the other wing, a position he’d never played before. England won 10-0 against Portugal in Lisbon, Finney magnificent, but unwittingly beginning a controversy that was to last for years. Finney or Matthews, who was the greater?
There rarely is a definitive answer to such questions, but we can get a clue from his contemporaries. Billy Wright noted, “Stanley tried to mesmerize you. No player in the world could catch him once he went a yard away from you. But Tom would do it every match. There were times when Stanley got kicked out of a game”. Nat Lofthouse’s preference was obvious. “Tom Finney made more goals for me than any other player. He was the guy I always wanted to play with for England”.
Finney’s emergence in a fresh, new England side caught the country’s imagination, not least after going to Turin to take on Italy, double World Cup winners, in 1948. England won 4-0 and Finney said, “that was a really great side, the best I ever played in. It was certainly one of the most exciting games I ever played in, our best victory, because we weren’t given a cat in hell’s chance of winning”.
Finney was to be a fixture with England for over a decade, taking in three disappointing World Cup campaigns in Brazil, Switzerland and Sweden as the nation, cocksure of its global supremacy, failed dismally on each occasion, often because of woeful preparation.
“It was laughable really” said Finney. “It took two days to travel to Brazil and we got there a few days before we played our first game. We found it very hard to play in temperatures of 90 degrees having come from a mild English summer, among mad keen supporters, a completely different environment to what we were used to. The altitude was a problem and we even had oxygen masks at half-time! We saw the opening game with Brazil and saw incredible skills, I was in awe of what we’d seen”.
Right through Finney’s England career, we never did bridge that gap, the gulf only widened in 1953 when they were defeated by Hungary at Wembley, a game that Finney watched due to injury, the unfortunate George Robb replacing him and getting his only England cap. “It was a lesson to watch them, just an education in the game”.
Certain players, the intelligent ones like Finney and Ronnie Allen for example, took on board those lessons and brought them to their own game, Finney just adding fresh layers to an all-round game that was already quite incomparable. So good was he that he played in all five positions across the front line, both flanks, both inside-forward slots and as number nine to boot. The man read the game with the ease that the rest of us read a newspaper. Like Bobby Moore, he could predict and interpret its fluctuations and movements, knew where the ball was going to go, anticipated the way defenders would react. He was, quite simply, a marvel.
But for all those magnificent deeds in the England shirt – 30 goals in 76 internationals over 12 years – it is at Preston North End that Finney’s legend carries its greatest lustre. Imagine the greatest footballer in the land today, head and shoulders above the rest, playing his entire club career at a place like Fulham, Albion, Sunderland even. You can’t can you? Nowadays they would swiftly outgrow them and be on to pastures new, a salivating agent in their wake picking up the dropped £50 notes as they slip carelessly from the superstar’s boots.
Yet Finney remained at Deepdale all his life, pursuing his playing career alongside his plumbing one, giving substance to one of the grand old clubs of the country, one that at least did right by him with the naming of a stand after him and then the positioning of that wonderful statue in his honour just outside their stadium.
Perhaps that came from guilt as much as anything because in his prime, Finney was wanted by every club in the land and a few from beyond. In 1952, he was offered he chance to go to Italy and earn money that would have set him up for life at a time when the maximum wage in England was £14 – and £12 in the summer when living was obviously cheaper…
Finney went to see the chairman having received the offer, looking to negotiate a transfer. Instead he was told, “Tha’ll play for us lad or tha’ll play for nobody!” With player registrations owned by the football clubs, players were chained to them until the club decided they were happy to move them on – little wonder that many payers of the time called it soccer slavery.
Finney, a true measure of the man, accepted this with equanimity and simply went back to doing his job. Indeed, within a couple of years, he was leading Preston out at Wembley in the 1954 FA Cup Final against West Bromwich Albion. It came a year after the stellar Matthews final and the nation waited for Tom to elate Stanley and win the cup on his own. For him, the day ended in desperate disappointment and he was to say that the game was the worst he ever played. If that’s true, he must have been a genuinely astonishing footballer, for while he did not excel, Len Millard doing a job on him, the now available dvd of the game shows that he was still a constant threat.
Ultimately, he never won anything with Preston, retiring in 1960 after 433 league games and 187 goals. Thereafter, he maintained his business and became an intelligent commentator on the game in the national press, while always maintaining his links with North End.
I had the privilege of interviewing him a couple of times in the 1990s, once at the plumbing company that bore his name, once at Deepdale. He was a thoughtful respondent, never resorted to easy cliché or pat answer and was incredibly generous with his time. He was a gentleman in the proper sense of the word, no airs or graces, no ego. I had the surreal experience of Tom Finney asking me what I thought of Kevin Kilbane who had just joined Albion from Preston, a genuine enquiry, not something said for effect. To be in his company was inspiring and humbling at the same time. Oh that all of us, however high, however low, could behave like Tom Finney.
It is the football that will endure though, even as he becomes one of the heavenly dancers. His old friend Bill Shankly will be waiting at the gates for him. “Jesus Christ Tommy son, where the hell have you been? We’ve a game on here!” And when Tom puts the boots on and gets out there again, not even the fellas up there will be able to believe what they see.
A life well lived and a rest hard earned. Rest easy Tom.