It's love not money for the honourable Finney

Preston's finest hopes romance of Cup can beat big bucks
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The Independent Football

You turn off Sir Tom Finney Way, past the Tom Finney Stand and the National Football Museum with its Finney Statue outside. And here in the main office is the great man himself, 85 years young and remarkably sprightly with it. He turns up at the club every Wednesday to deal with his post, his charity work for research into Alzheimer's and all the invitations that still flood in, prompting him to say with apparent surprise: "It's very nice that I'm still remembered."

How could they forget a true local hero, described by the late sportswriter Ian Wooldridge as "the most honourable man who has ever played sport for England"? That sense of honour means that controversial opinions are not easily prised from him, though he berates the Football Association in their recent choice of two foreign managers to lead the national team – for which he played 76 times, scoring 30 goals from the wing.

"I think it's awful to see a foreign manager," he says. "It's disappointing to see what's happened to England since 1966 and it has not improved the situation to see so many foreign players." He makes an exception for Cristiano Ronaldo. "I see a lot of Manchester United and I like to watch him because he takes the full-back on and beats people. You don't see a lot of that wing-play like there was in our day."

Bill Shankly is no longer around to assess Ronaldo, but he played against Stanley Matthews, frequently had George Best in opposition to his Liverpool team, and still rated Finney, a Preston team-mate for two seasons after the war, as better than both. "He never lost possession. Grizzly strong. I'd have played him in an overcoat. He was the greatest player I've ever seen."

All the sadder then, that the FA Cup, which puts Preston in the national spotlight again this afternoon with a televised fifth-round tie at home to Portsmouth, was responsible for one of the very lowest moments of an otherwise exalted career.

The 1953 FA Cup competition famously provided Matthews with his winner's medal at last for Blackpool, and the following season's final, although it was against the League runners-up West Bromwich Albion, seemed all set up for Finney, Preston's captain, to emulate his old rival. Alas, in his own words, "I had a stinker".

It should be pointed out that a stinker for Finney still involved setting up one of Preston's goals, for a 2-1 lead, but Albion equalised with a disputed penalty and won in the last minute thanks to a goalkeeping error.

Self-critical as ever, he questioned whether he had prepared properly for the game, having spent hours sorting out ticket requests, giving interviews, vainly trying to persuade club directors to increase his team-mates' £25 victory bonus and, the night before the final, collecting the first of his two Footballer of the Year awards.

Fifty-four years, however, offer abundant opportunity for a sense of perspective and now he says: "It was a big disappointment to get there and lose, but somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose. They were a good side were West Brom, and it was a very even game."

Just conceivably, he might by that time have been playing in Italy, where bonuses ran rather higher than £25. The precise offer from Palermo's president included three times Preston's wages and a £10,000 signing-on fee. But the response from the Preston chairman was blunt: "If tha' doesn't play for Preston, tha' doesn't play for anybody." Finney may even have been relieved not to be led into temptation. "I was never really interested," he says. "I just wanted to play for my home town, where I was born and bred and still live."

So he stayed until retirement in 1960, a loyal one-club man to the end, like his fellow England internationals Jimmy Armfield at Blackpool, Bryan Douglas and Ronnie Clayton at Blackburn, Nat Lofthouse at Bolton and Brian Miller at Burnley.

Throughout the Fifties, all those local clubs had been a power in the land along with Preston, until the final demise of the Lancashire cotton industry, the abolition of the maximum wage and the increased mobility of supporters on the new motorways began to favour Manchester, Merseyside, Leeds and London.

Finney's beloved North End dropped out of the top division in 1961, the season after he had retired to the family plumbing business, and by 1986 they were 91st in the Football League. "It's all about the clubs with money today, isn't it?" he says. "They can afford to spend millions on players, and there's no hope of North End doing that."

Twice in recent seasons, however, they have been one game away from the Premier League, losing play-off finals to Bolton and West Ham under David Moyes and then Billy Davies. Exactly a year ago, Manchester City were pushed hard in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and today the perils of a relegation struggle can briefly be forgotten. Deepdale will be up for the Cup once more and Sir Tom will be in his usual seat, having seen it all before but still a mighty proud president of proud Preston.

Today's matches

Sheffield Utd v Middlesbrough; FA Cup Fifth Round, 2pm, BBC1

Preston v Portsmouth; FA Cup Fifth Round, 4pm, Sky Sports 1

Crawley Town v Kidderminster; Premier, 2pm

Aldershot v Stevenage; Premier, 7.15pm, Setanta 1

Kilmarnock v Rangers; Scottish Premier, 2pm, Setanta 1

Hibernian v Aberdeen; Scottish Premier, 3pm