When revisiting the life of someone as famous as Stanley Matthews, it helps to unearth a hitherto unknown, headline-making fact, as Jon Henderson has done in revealing that The Wizard of Dribble's beloved second wife, Mila, had been a secret agent for the Communist Czech regime in the Fifties and Sixties. But it would be a shame if this diverted attention from the author's masterly crafting of the real meat of the book, Matthews's extraordinary football career and how it was shaped by his complex, often crabby personality.
The facts and figures are well enough known – playing at outside-right for Stoke, he took the pitch for the first of his 697 League games aged 17 in 1932, and for the last 33 years later, back at Stoke again after 14 years with Blackpool and by now Sir Stanley. He played for England 54 times, but will always be remembered for the "Matthews Final" of 1953, when he laid on the goals which took Blackpool from 3-1 down to an unlikely FA Cup victory.
His ascetic lifestyle was a key factor in his long career – a teetotal non-smoker (though that didn't stop him advertising cigarettes) with advanced views on nutrition, he trained obsessively. But his love of the game must have helped; in retirement in Malta he still turned out for a local post office team.
In the era of the minimum wage, he "had an eye for financial benefit", in the words of his Blackpool and England team-mate Bill Slater. Well aware that his appearance in testimonial games would put thousands on the gate, he drove a hard bargain and was a pioneer of sponsorship deals and also the first footballer to have a ghosted newspaper column – this last feat a somewhat dubious legacy.
He seems to have been something of a loner, respected rather than embraced by fellow players. But his genius was undeniable, though, like many before him, Henderson struggles to pin it down in words.
Of all the new facts here, perhaps the most surprising is that, for all his mesmerising skills, Matthews was rubbish at keepy-uppy. Like his subject, though, the author has done his groundwork brilliantly.
Published in hardback by Yellow Jersey, £18.99
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