Football: 'Our Stan' still the reluctant hero: Matthews apprehensive about his birthday treat as Potteries playhouse pays homage

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THEY have called the play 'Come On Stan'. No surname, no clarification. In the Six Towns of Stoke-on-Trent you need no more. Use the term and it can be only one man: Sir Stanley Matthews. Or among the middle-aged and elderly in the Potteries, 'Our Stan'.

And there he was: 'Our Stan' sitting, somewhat embarrassed, as actors young enough to be his great grand- children rehearsed their lines, picking over the great and the not-so-great from his life. The New Victoria Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme was paying homage, but the object of their interest was not so sure he wanted it.

'If I'd known it would create so much publicity, talking to the televison and newspapers, I'd never have done it,' Sir Stanley said.

'I like peace and quiet, I like to go in through the back door in life. It's a very great honour and the people here are very nice but I know I'll die a thousand deaths on the opening night.'

In the theatre proper, he was going through a thousand lives. The conclusion of the 1953 FA Cup final was replayed to the producer's perfection.

'And Matthews, Stanley Matthews,' the voice of Kenneth Wolstenholme repeated for the umpteenth time while the man himself ambled along memory lane. 'To me it was Stan Mortensen, he was the man of the match,' his recorded voice protested. 'He scored three goals and made the fourth with his thinking.'

He might as well have saved his breath. Blackpool 4, Bolton Wanderers 3 was called the Matthews final 40 years ago, and there was no way the mists of time would have clarified the picture and allowed Mortensen his due acclaim.

'I never read the papers when I played well,' he continued his low-profile theme. 'Not the day they came out. I'd read the Sunday papers on Monday and so on. I didn't like to see too much about myself. When I played badly I didn't mind too much.'

'Come On Stan' is part of the build-up towards Matthews' 80th birthday celebrations next February. Sir Stanley had said he would not go to the performance, but he has changed his mind since and a seat will be reserved for him throughout.

You suspect he might yet decline, however, as shyness still grips him. 'Please do not ask questions about Sir Stanley Matthew's (sic) personal life, these will not be answered,' the press hand-out read and it was with some uneasiness that he braced himself when one reporter began a question with: 'There have been some difficult moments . . .'

'I don't like fuss,' he replied, deftly putting his answer on more comfortable ground. 'I can't go by my statue in Hanley. I was there when it was unveiled but I've tried to avoid going near it since. If my wife has to go through there, I tell her I'll meet her later.'

He probably jogs round Hanley while he is waiting. Nearly an octogenarian, he looks barely a day over 60. 'I work out every day,' he said, and then deepened the sense of unease of the unhealthy collection of journalists around him by adding: 'but not after 7am. After that it becomes a chore. I can't be bothered with it.'

He can't be bothered, either, with many modern players even though - Port Vale supporters would say because - he attends every Stoke home game. 'There are some players who beat two or three players and they're called brilliant,' he said. 'But if they can't deliver a decent pass into the area then they're not doing their job.'

In the auditorium, Sir Stanley was being meticulous with the facts as he had been with his crosses in his 30-year career with Stoke and Blackpool. He has been consulted frequently and on this occasion it was the costume that interested him. 'The shorts are too short,' he said when he saw Karl Woolley, who plays young Stan, in his football kit. 'I'm trying to walk more bow-legged,' the actor threw in during a later discussion.

'Come On Stan' opens today and the producer hopes the name of Matthews is still potent enough to drag the public through the doors. They used to say that the gate went up 10,000 every time he played. The New Victoria Theatre would settle for a fraction of that.

(Photograph omitted)