Nat Lofthouse: Talismanic striker who played for Bolton his whole career and scored 30 goals for England
Monday 17 January 2011
If visitors from another planet, intrigued by the devotion of earthlings to their curious game of football, should hear the phrase "traditional, old-fashioned English centre-forward" and want to know more, they would be well advised to study film of Nat Lofthouse in action.
Better still, should these aliens have the facility of time travel and be able to return to the 1950s when the "Lion of Vienna" was in his roaring prime, they could experience the real thing, a true working-class hero in all his vigorous glory.
As talismanic and constant figure to his beloved Bolton Wanderers, as was his friend and England colleague, Tom Finney, to Preston North End, Lofthouse embodied football's simplest virtues. Whether wearing the white shirt of club or country, he toiled mightily, the archetypal battering ram who plundered his goals through strength, aggression and courage, his dynamic aerial power backed up by a savage shot in either foot.
Though Lofthouse was too modest to admit it, there was more to it than that. What marked him out from the typical English workhorse was an instinct for making the most of his yeoman qualities. Muscle and sweat might have taken Lofthouse a long way, but not to the heady peaks he ascended, including 30 goals in 33 international appearances.
Significant, too, in the creation of a widely revered persona, was his down-to-earth attitude. A humble man who felt privileged to be paid for pleasure, he was born in Bolton and lived his whole life there. Lofthouse loved the local community: indeed, he took such an active part in it while performing his various roles with Wanderers –– player, trainer, coach, manager, scout, fund-raiser, president – that he came to epitomise it.
Though the town was famous for wool and cotton, coal loomed largest in the Lofthouse household in the 1920s. Nat's father delivered the stuff with a horse and cart, and when the youngest of four boys was old enough to earn a living, he did so pushing tubs in the local pit. But football had always been his passion.
His first organised game was as a goalkeeper, and he conceded seven goals, injury added to insult as he received a hiding from his mother for scuffing his new shoes. Soon, though, he found his spiritual home at centre forward, later observing cheerfully that he didn't have the brains to be anything else, and scored seven times on his debut for the Bolton schools team.
In 1939 he joined Wanderers as an amateur and, with so many footballers away at war, played his first senior match a year later at the tender age of 15. However, as he grew towards maturity there was little tender about the Lofthouse physique.
Though only a shade over 5ft 9in, he was blessed with a burly, four-square frame hardened by labour below ground, and before he turned professional in 1942, on £1.10s a week, he needed every ounce of stamina. A typical match-day schedule was to rise at 3.30am, take the 4.30 tram to work, spend eight hours down the pit, then turn out for the Trotters in the afternoon.
At first, despite earning respect as a trier, Lofthouse suffered terrace criticism for lack of technique. Though admitting to natural clumsiness, he persevered and as football resumed normality after the conflict he matured into one of the country's best spearheads.
Reward came in November 1950 with his first England cap – two goals in a 2-2 draw with Yugoslavia at Highbury. That was but a foretaste of international success, none more lauded than the 1952 performance that earned him the "Lion of Vienna" sobriquet. Austria expected to beat England soundly, but late in the second half of a tempestuous encounter the score was 2-2, Lofthouse having scored once.
Tom Finney put the centre-forward through; with a pack of defenders on his heels and the crowd baying, he kept his head to clip the ball into the net even as he was clattered by the goalkeeper. He was taken off on a stretcher, returning later to share in the final moments of a 3-2 triumph before being chaired around the ground by an ecstatic contingent of British troops, then stationed nearby.
That year Bolton turned down an approach from the Italian club Fiorentina, who offered a deal that would have made Lofthouse rich. He was not given the chance to decide for himself, though as he felt himself to be immeasurably better off than the average working man, he was not going to make waves.
He continued to serve the Burnden Park cause nobly, and was their most eye-catching performer in two memorable FA Cup finals. In 1953, as the reigning Footballer of the Year he gave Wanderers a two-minute lead over Blackpool, then saw his side draw 3-1 ahead, only for Stanley Matthews to inspire a late victory for the Seasiders.
That year Bolton had been the "other" team, most neutrals longing for Matthews to pocket a winner's medal at the third attempt, and they were to occupy the same position in 1958 against a Manchester United side ravaged by the Munich disaster.
This time, Lofthouse, now captain, was not to be denied. He scored both goals in a 2-0 victory, including a controversial second which many believed should have been disallowed after the rumbustious marksman had barged the United goalkeeper Harry Gregg and the ball into the net.
Having played in the 1954 World Cup Lofthouse was overlooked in 1958, though he was recalled later that year and equalled Finney's England scoring record. In addition, he once scored six times for the Football League against the League of Ireland.
Come 1960, aged 35 and bothered by niggling knee and ankle injuries, he retired to become Wanderers' reserve team trainer. With 285 goals in 503 club games he did not relish sweeping floors and cleaning boots, which the job entailed, but so loath was he to leave Burnden that he accepted it.
In 1968, with Bolton short of money and out of the First Division, Lofthouse took over as manager. "I was the worst manager in the world," he later declared: though he got on well with his players, he was a worrier and not good at tough decisions, and in November 1970 he stepped aside into an administrative role. Amazingly, before the season's end he served two more stints as caretaker-manager.
He became chief scout in May 1971, glad to be shot of the cares of top office and happy to retain an important job. However, a year later he was sacked. For six years his only connection with the club was as a supporter, before he returned as a fund-raising figurehead, running the Burnden Executive Club. December 1985 brought another spell as caretaker, for one match, and in 1986 he was elevated to club president.
Distraught at the loss of his wife Alma in 1985, Lofthouse needed to keep busy, and did so promoting the club's good name to the last. How appropriate: to countless fans all over the world, Nat Lofthouse was Bolton Wanderers.
Nathaniel Lofthouse, footballer and manager: born Bolton 27 August 1925; played for Bolton Wanderers 1939-60; capped 33 times for England 1950-58; manager, Bolton Wanderers 1968-70, 1970-71, 1971, 1985; OBE 1994; married Alma (died 1985; one son, one daughter); died Bolton 15 January 2011.
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