Graham Kelly: Finney: the gentleman and genius

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The Independent Football

Sir Tom Finney, who celebrated his 80th birthday last Friday, is one of the authentic heroes of English football.

During a 14-year career with his home-town club, Preston North End, from 1946 to 1960, Finney was selected 76 times for England, appearing on both wings and as the central striker, and scored 30 goals.

He learned the game, playing until dusk on rough ground with ragamuffin kids, behind his home near North End's ground, Deepdale.Often there were as many as 30 boys, mostly older than Tom, and he had no alternative than to quickly pick up the necessary skills, strength, and courage that were to stand him in such good stead during his illustrious playing career.

Tom's father encouraged him to attend Deepdale for a trial, but when an offer to join the ground-staff came, to the boy's dismay, he made him turn it down, so that he could continue the plumbing apprenticeship which led to his maintaining the trade throughout his working life. The family of six children experienced anxious times after the death of Tom's mother at the age of 32, but he never lacked for support from his father in his football.

Both the North End midfielder Tommy Docherty, who opposed Finney in many England-Scotland encounters, and Sir Walter Winterbottom, who was privileged to be manager for all his England appearances, testified to the mental resilience that was an essential part of his make-up. In the game with Scotland at Wembley in 1951, the visiting supporters, before the days of fair play awards for fans, were baying for English blood.

They got their wish when Wilf Mannion, the supremely talented Middlesbrough midfield player, suffered a severe facial injury early in the match and could play no further part. No substitutes were allowed then, so Finney played like two men, providing one goal and scoring another, before England were eventually defeated 3-2. He just refused to acknowledge the inevitability of defeat.

Finney was two-footed to a degree that astonishes today's stars, many of whom work hard only when they have become established, to bring their weaker foot up to a serviceable standard. He owed that proficiency to the many hours of practice he put in on his right foot at Deepdale under the unique encouragement of Preston's Scottish international, Bill Shankly, who used to say that Finney was so good he could have played wearing an overcoat.

The greatest goalkeeper in the world in Finney's time was Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union, a giant of a personality, who was expected by Moscow's Politburo to psyche out mercilessly anyone who ventured into his penalty area.

In England's opening match of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, the referee awarded a penalty against the USSR. When the protests died down, Finney stepped forward to take the kick, knowing full well that Yashin had not reached the top of his profession without doing his homework. So he calmly slotted the ball past the great man's despairing dive with his wrong foot.

Finney had it all. He was fast, athletic, skilful, balanced, strong in the tackle, good in the air, and a clinical finisher. Thanks to his father's wise counsel, he always had his trade to fall back on and thus never seriously considered leaving Preston, where he has been a noted figure for virtually the whole of his life, since those early days when his ball skills began to mark him out for an acclaimed career.

There was one strange episode in 1952 which, had it been pursued, would have tested the loyalty of any footballer earning £12 a week, even one picking up £3.50 extra from mending pipes.

Tom was tapped up. And it was nothing to do with his afternoon job. It came about on an England tour, as these murky affairs often do. An Italian prince approached him in Florence and offered him a £10,000 signing-on fee and £130 a week plus bonuses and a Mediterranean villa to play for Palermo.

Oh, and free travel. When the Preston chairman put the block on it by saying: "Tha's going nowhere, lad," Tom simply took his family off to their favourite boarding house in Blackpool.

Most older men are only too happy to talk of their achievements in life. Tom Finney is so modest he's an exception. It's like drawing teeth. He respects the game too much to sing his own praises.

So you have to go in search of the words of football men like Shankly, Winterbottom and the former England captain Jimmy Armfield, all of whom held him in the highest possible respect as the ultimate gentleman footballer. Armfield paid to stand on the Deepdale terrace with his father to watch Finney and believes he would have been a sensation in the modern era.