Sir Tom Finney: Supremely skillful footballer hailed as the finest attacking player of the game's postwar years

 

Tom Finney was a national footballing treasure and a perfect gentleman, a gifted, wholesome, universally popular figure who stood for all that was best about his beloved game, both on the field and off it. Though it embarrassed him to be the subject of such lavish praise, it was a widely held opinion that, for most of the decade and a half which separated the Second World War from the social watershed of the 1960s, he was the most complete all-round forward in the world.

It should be noted that such an assertion, perhaps contentious bearing in mind that his contemporaries included his great friend and rival Stanley Matthews, is no mere rash journalistic assertion. Indeed, some of the most eminent of all football sages have queued up to laud “The Preston Plumber”. His England captain, Billy Wright, described him as “a genius”; Matt Busby, who once tried to sign him for Manchester United, called him “the finest of his generation”; Bill Shankly, never one for half measures, went further, naming him simply “the best player ever born”. The list of testimonies could fill these page on its own.

Finney spent his entire career with his hometown club, Preston North End, failing, albeit narrowly, to win any major League or Cup honours in the process, shunning approaches from the big-city brigade who sought regularly to recruit him. Some ascribed that loyalty to the maximum wage, an iniquitous regulation which pertained throughout his era and which allowed even hugely profitable clubs to pay their stars peanuts. Yet in 1952 he was offered a life in the sun and riches beyond measure to join Palermo.

True, Preston spurned the Italian overtures, secure in the knowledge that their prime asset was padlocked to them by a typically one-sided contract, which placed a player far more decisively in his employer’s power than is the case today. But if Finney had really coveted the proffered £10,000 signing-on fee, Mediterranean villa, luxury limousine, massive wages and bonuses, and a host of other perks, he could have made waves and, eventually, got his way.

Instead he shrugged his shoulders, got on with his job so effectively that he reached new heights of brilliance, and reflected publicly, without a hint of dissatisfaction, that there was a lot more to life than money. It was a reaction that confirmed Tom Finney in the national consciousness as a copybook sporting hero, an idol without feet of clay – and it summed up the man perfectly.

But what, exactly, had prompted Palermo, at a time of postwar austerity, to offer the moon and the stars to the unassuming 30-year-old from the heart of Lancashire’s cotton country? Quite simply, Finney was the complete attacking footballer. Though standing only 5ft 7in, slim of body and pale of face, he was wirily tough and offered a deceptively dynamic package.

Naturally left-sided but blessed with skill and a powerful shot in both feet, he was quick, intelligent and brave, as well as being versatile enough to excel in any forward or midfield position. One minute he would be a dashing D’Artagnan in the front line, the next he might be throwing his all into a last-ditch tackle like the sturdiest of yeoman defenders. In the air, too, he could be majestic, beggaring belief as the timing of his leaps took him above or between a forest of lanky opponents. And although, as his fame grew, he took horrendous physical punishment, it was unknown for him to retaliate.

Finney’s lifelong love affair with football began on the terraces of Deepdale, headquarters of Preston North End, just around the corner from his childhood home. There, as a tiny boy, he cheered his first hero, the wondrously gifted schemer Alex James, and hatched an ambition to play for the Lilywhites himself one day.

He made encouraging progress, reaching-North End’s youth team as an enthusiastic inside-left, but his lack of inches appeared likely to inhibit further advancement. Then injury to a team-mate facilitated a switch to outside-right and, suddenly, he was hot property.

Even then his careful father Alf, who had struggled valiantly to bring up Tom, his brother and four sisters after their mother had died young, forebade his signing as a professional until he had a back-up trade under his belt. There followed an apprenticeship as a plumber, which furnished Finney with a nickname for life as well as laying the foundations for a successful long-term livelihood, and it would not be until he was well past his 17th birthday that he would commit his future to football.

Finney’s early prime was lost to the Second World War, though he starred in a notable “double” as Preston lifted both the northern section of the Wartime Championship and the Wartime Cup in 1941. Soon after that he was called up for more serious action, serving the Eighth Army as a tank driver and mechanic in the Middle East and Italy, all the while enhancing his reputation by excelling in services football.

Having married local girl Elsie Noblett at the end of the war, Finney settled back in Preston, making a belated Football League debut in 1946. His performances made it amply clear that he was a talent of the highest order, and a month into the season he stepped into the England team as a replacement for the injured Stanley Matthews.

He took to the international stage superbly – and so was launched the long-running debate over who was better and who should wear England’s No 7 shirt, Matthews or Finney. First one, then the other, held sway, with Finney, eight years the younger, enjoying rather a higher percentage of the selectors’ favours.

Where two such wonderful players were concerned there was no cut-and-dried answer as to who was the finer. Arguably Matthews, “The Wizard of the Dribble”, was the more overtly entertaining. But it was Finney, punchier, more direct and an infinitely more prolific marksman – he held his country’s scoring record with 30 goals until it was equalled by Nat Lofthouse, then beaten by Bobby Charlton – who shaded the vote from the majority of fellow professionals.

If there was one clinching factor it was the Lancastrian’s ability to play practically anywhere, while Sir Stanley was a right-winger or nothing. For a time England employed what many saw as the ideal solution, using both men together, Matthews on the right and Finney on his unfavoured left flank, but this experiment was dropped as younger wingers emerged in the late 1950s.

Finney’s international career included the exhilarating postwar period when he lined up alongside such famous names as Raich Carter, Tommy Lawton and Wilf Mannion. It encompassed three World Cup final tournaments, including the 1950 debacle which saw England humiliated by the United States.

If that was his greatest setback in his country’s shirt, there were others as painful at club level. After being unable to prevent Preston’s relegation to the Second Division in 1949, Finney helped them return to the top flight in 1951 and then develop into one of the League’s best teams. But frustration awaited: come 1953 they were within an ace of clinching the First Division championship, losing out to Arsenal on goal average.

The following year there was equal disappointment when Preston lost the FA Cup final to a late goal from West Bromwich Albion – and none felt it more keenly than Finney.

Though he always railed modestly against North End being labelled a one-man team, there was no escaping the fact that they relied heavily on his input. Suffice it to say that, after weeks of tense build-up – heightened by memories of Matthews’ great 1953 Wembley triumph – Finney was carrying an injury and way below his best. Though magnanimous in defeat, he took it hard, feeling he had failed himself, his team and his town, an opinion which no one shared.

There were compensations, notably the Footballer of the Year award in 1954 and 1957 – he was the first man to win it twice – and an inspired switch to deep-lying centre-forward in 1956-57, which added yet further burnish to an already lustrous career. In his new role Finney was the hub of the North End attack, his visionary distribution creating myriad openings for others while he still managed to score heavily himself.

As a result Preston were League runners-up again in 1958, but could never make that final step. When groin trouble nudged the 38- year-old Finney into retirement in April 1960, he walked away without one major medal for his efforts.

Three years later the archetypal one-club man was persuaded to pull on a shirt of a different hue, that of Northern Ireland’s Distillery, for one game, in the European Cup against Benfica. Lifted by Finney’s cultured touches, the Ulstermen held Eusebio and company to 3-3 at home before capitulating without him in Portugal.

And that, apart from a host of benefit games down the years, was that. Finney went on to run his plumbing business, become a Justice of the Peace, write for The News of the World, publish an autobiography, have a pub named after him, serve as a health authority chairman and, most fittingly, be installed president of Preston North End.

He was made an OBE in 1961 and in the light of Stanley Matthews’ subsequent knighthood, for a few years it was not only in Preston that the cry went up, “Why not Sir Tom?” That question was answered equitably in 1998 and the sporting world rejoiced. Few, if any, footballers have been more loved.

Thomas Finney, footballer and plumber: born Preston, Lancashire 5 April 1922; played for Preston North End 1940-60, Distillery (Northern Ireland) 1963; capped 76 times for England 1946-58; OBE 1961, CBE 1992, Kt 1998; married 1945 Elsie Noblett (died 2004; one son, one daughter); died Preston 14 February 2014.

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