It may be more than half a century since he last kicked a competitive ball and in that time the world and the game for which his name will forever signify a lost golden age has transformed beyond all recognition. But the legend of Sir Tom Finney showed it was unchanged yesterday as thousands of mourners took to the streets of his home city of Preston to bid farewell to their favourite son.
More than 3,000 people watched the funeral service relayed live at Deepdale, the football ground rising above the red terraced streets in which he was born. It was the arena in which his extraordinary skills dazzled the capacity crowds of the team to which he was so loyal, Preston North End; a post war generation seeking a weekly fix of excitement after a week spent toiling in the soot and dust of the mills.
Thousands more lined the streets where, it was recalled, he would walk even at the height of his fame and patiently pass the time with fans at whose houses he later might even call as a plumber.
Meanwhile, amid the Victorian splendour of Preston Minster, the snowy haired elder statesmen of the game with which he was for a lifetime “bewitched” packed the pews where they were told of the former England winger’s three passions – football, family and home.
Among those that paid their respects was Sir Bobby Charlton, who described his pride at scoring on his international debut courtesy of a cross from the late Sir Tom, who died on Valentine’s Day aged 91.
“He was in love with the game,” said Sir Bobby, who also served as manager at Preston North End. “I adored him since I was about 14 or 15 when I first realised that I might become a footballer one day. Once you knew him he was there for you forever,” he said.
Also among the mourners was Manchester United manager David Moyes as well as representatives of clubs from across the North West and beyond. Sir Trevor Brooking said his fellow footballing knight was a unique figure in the history of the English game. “He was one of the most genuine individuals you would ever be likely to meet. Everyone admired and respected him,” he said. Former Liverpool star Mark Lawrenson compared the occasion to a “state funeral”.
Friend and erstwhile Blackpool FC rival Jimmy Armfield recalled their first encounter at an England match in Cardiff. It was a time when players had to make their way home from the match on the train.
But Sir Tom, then earning the princely sum of £14 a week, offered him a lift back to Lancashire and a lifelong friendship ensued.
Describing him as “thoughtful, kind, considerate… someone who smiled easily” he said that sporting talent – unlike the arts – could only be truly measured in its own generation.
But using a heavy ball on mud-ploughed pitches, he was unrivalled both as a footballer and a man. “Tommy didn’t dive on the field. He didn’t feign injury – that wasn’t part of his repertoire. He cared about his profession,” he said.
Former team mate Tommy Docherty delivered a eulogy describing Finney as the greatest player of all time. “When I see Lionel Messi on the television playing for Barcelona I think maybe you could be as good as Tom,” he said.
Sir Tom’s coffin was carried by six past and present stars of Preston North End, the club he never forsook or begrudged its decision to deny him a richly paid move to Italy. It was also the team with which he was never to win a trophy despite 569 appearances and a further 76 England caps.
The vicar of Preston Father Timothy Luscombe reminded mourners of the winger’s military service, fighting in the Second World War as a tank driver in Montgomery’s Royal Armoured Corps.
He spoke of his charity work for Alzheimer’s and disabled children, the strong love he had for his late wife Elsie, their son and daughter and four grandchildren, and also his “strong sense of duty and justice” which kept him loyal to the people and traditions of Preston.
As the funeral cortege made its way to the private burial those that had stood in the bitter cold for more than two hours clapped. Many were old enough to have seen him play. Others had only heard about him.
Civil servant Simon Gooch, 31, said: “He wasn’t just a footballer he represented Preston as a person. He was the greatest Prestonian ever.” Wally Foster, 72, saw Finney play more than 100 times. He like many was only too aware that his 1960 retirement coincided with North End’s slide from the English top flight.
“He was like a colossus. When he came out you thought you had a chance. When he wasn’t there you were not so sure.”
John Taylor recalled how special buses would be laid on every Saturday lunch time to bring the crowds up to Deepdal:. “When he was playing there would be 42,000 people come here. The crowd would be filling the road. But if Finney wasn’t playing you could knock seven or eight thousand off the gate.”