Last year Stanley Matthews received a letter recounting a story from half a century ago. In 1948, on a Youth Brigade trip to Bulgaria, there was a daily assembly at which each section would shout out the name of the figure they most admired - "Jo-sef Sta-lin! En-ver Hox-ha!" - and so on. The Brits failed to reach a political consensus. So every day the camp resounded to the cry, "Stan-ley Matt-hews! Stan-ley Matt-hews!"
It is hard to imagine that happening now, so profoundly different is the nature of sporting celebrity. Half would be shouting "Da-vid Beck-ham!" while the other half made derisive wrist movements. These days, the likes of a Beckham, or even a Michael Owen, find cross-party support only when turning out for their country (sometimes not even then). Otherwise it's all effigies and envy.
Matthews, on the other hand, was able to bathe in the love of an entire nation. In the run-up to the 1953 FA Cup final he was approaching what should by any normal standards have been the end of his career and had already lost out twice before. "I later learned that practically the whole nation wanted Blackpool to win just so I could collect the medal," he writes. Despite Stan Mortenson's hat-trick, it became known as "the Matthews final" - a source of intense embarrassment to Sir Stan, he says. When Mortenson died in 1991, an anonymous wit remarked: "They'll probably call it the Matthews funeral."
Football writing has changed with the times as well, serialisation demanding controversies and "revelations". This book, completed just before his death in February, is a throwback to less knowing times, the only new disclosure being his father's dying wish that his son win the FA Cup for him. There is a heartfelt, elegiac quality that allows The Way It Was to body-swerve its way out of the potboiler department. In fact, it feels almost over-stuffed with detail, Sir Stan cramming everything in for his one serious stab at autobiography.
He spends much of the early chapters paying tribute to his father, who sounds like a hybrid of Pascal and Seneca, the sort of man whose philosophy Alain de Botton should be filleting for popular consumption. After his son's first game for Stoke reserves, he advises the lad: "Forget about the good things you did. Think about the mistakes... Remember, a man who never makes mistakes never gets anywhere. Experience is what we call our mistakes. Have you got that, son?" After each match his verdict never wavers: "I've seen you play better, I've seen you play worse." And when Stan is dropped by England Schoolboys, his father says only: "Never expect."
Matthews' extraordinary professional longevity - he played for England at 42 and retired a couple of months past his 50th birthday - accords him a unique perspective on nearly a century of football. The book was written with his next-door neighbour, Les Scott, who has collaborated with the likes of George Best and Gareth Chilcott, the former England rugby prop. Though it is a long way from being a hack job, it needed better editing; despite some nice phrase-making - "the efforts of some full-backs in nailing a winger resembled a drunk stamping on woodlice" - there are too many sloppy constructions, as well as evidence that use of the comma is a dying art.
Unfortunately, too, many of the anecdotes have an apocryphal feel; old jokes are passed off as first-hand experience. One story - about his father, who was a barber, and a man asking for a Maurice Chevalier cut - was probably around even before Matthews. This makes it difficult to trust the narrative at times, especially detailed exchanges from decades ago.
One story that does have the ring of authenticity also encapsulates the book's mood. As Joe Smith led his Blackpool side out of the dressing room for the 1953 cup final, he turned to his players and said: "We dream brave dreams, eh? So be brave, lads." This book was something of a dream for Sir Stan, and it is only a pity he is not here to see it published.
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