“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” These are the opening lines of an autobiography of an insular, obsessive, often lonely sportsman, who scaled the very peaks.
The quotation, from Walden, Henry Thoreau’s work about living alone for two years in a log cabin, is from Geoff Boycott’s book, but it could equally have been from Stanley Matthews’ or Donald Bradman’s or Johan Cruyff’s. Lionel Messi, who does not really do books, would also recognise the sentiments.
On Friday night, Stoke City, the club where he played much of his football, celebrated the centenary of Matthews’ birth with a dinner at the Britannia Stadium. But perhaps the best place to remember Matthews would not be at a formal dinner – he was a vegetarian and a teetotaller – but on the beach as dawn broke over Blackpool. That is where he trained, alone, in the very early morning.
It is as representative of Matthews’ obsessive genius as the yard in Bowral, New South Wales, where the young Bradman, hour after hour, struck a golf ball against a water tank, using a stump as a cricket bat.
Matthews fell in love with Blackpool when he was stationed there during the war, but he would have had no interest in playing for them now. He liked money, and Blackpool pay lousily. He liked to be in teams that competed for silverware and Blackpool do not. He liked to be alongside high-class footballers, and Blackpool have none.
Alongside Bobby Charlton, a similarly aloof character, Matthews was perhaps the only Englishman of whom it could be said he was at his peak the greatest footballer in the world. And there were so many peaks. While the “Matthews Final” of 1953 has passed into myth, there was also the 10-3 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, in which Matthews created six goals.
“Glory and golden visions were not much associated with the grimy Potteries in 1937 but they were this day,” he is quoted as saying in Jon Henderson’s superlative study of the man, entitled The Wizard. His brother, Ron, thought his finest performance came against Northern Ireland at Old Trafford.
Like Charlton, like Bradman, like Boycott, he was not an easy man to be alongside either on the pitch or in the dressing room. Boycott once gave a highly technical interview to the BBC reporter Don Mosey, as to how Yorkshire would chase down a target. When Mosey played the tape back, he noticed the only person Boycott had spoken about was himself. He had given no thought as to how anyone else might contribute.
It was the same with Matthews. Raich Carter, revered in Sunderland as perhaps the finest footballer to have played at Roker Park, was dropped after playing alongside Matthews against Scotland.
“He was so much of the star individualist that, though he was one of the best players of all time, he was not really a good footballer,” Carter recalled. “When Stan gets the ball on the wing, you don’t really know when it’s coming back. He is an extraordinarily difficult winger to play alongside.” Another of his England team-mates, Tommy Lawton, would talk of Matthews attempting to win the game on his own.
The best portrayal of this tunnel vision came in a film that had nothing to do with sport. Flight of the Phoenix is a yarn about a plane that crashes in the desert but is rebuilt by the survivors. Water is critical, and Hardy Kruger plays a German aircraft designer who outrages the Anglo-American crew by taking double his share. When confronted, he explains he is the only one capable of rebuilding the aircraft. He has to survive. It is an argument a Cruyff, a Boycott or a Matthews would instinctively have understood.
Nothing, Alan Hansen once said, divides a dressing room like money. Matthews was a star imprisoned by football’s maximum wage. When Matthews played, the Victoria Ground boasted attendances of up to 51,000. Many had come only to see the most sensational footballer of his generation. Matthews, with considerable justification, thought he deserved his share of the revenue. When he toured Canada before the 1950 World Cup, he discovered that ordinary ice hockey players earned more than football’s greatest name.
He was not as blatant about money as Bradman, who after scoring a triple century at Headingley was presented with a cheque for £1,000 (worth £55,000 now) by an Australian admirer. Bradman took the money and then did what he always did, went to his room, listened to music and wrote letters. Downstairs, in the bar of a Leeds hotel, his team-mates waited in vain to be bought a drink or even to be engaged in conversation.
But Matthews knew his own value, taking his career at Stoke to the brink by asking for a loyalty bonus of £650. The club offered him £500. The public of Stoke raised the difference themselves, although the rest of the dressing room appeared to have resented it.
Certainly, when Matthews, the subject of a £20,000 bid from Chelsea, could not get his place back in the Stoke side, his team-mates came out in support of the considerably less famous George Mountford.
Matthews was a footballer out of his time. He would have fitted perfectly into the Premier League, where a brilliant, ascetic English footballer would have appealed to the Wengers and the Fergusons.
And yet in so many ways his career was a glorious cul-de-sac. He played a solitary game in the World Cup; he was seldom a regular international. Like so many England footballers, from Len Shackleton to Glenn Hoddle, men who dazzled with a football at their feet, Matthews was mistrusted. Speaking of the England manager, he said: “I never felt Walter Winterbottom appreciated my style of play. He wanted a right-winger to track back, tackle and help in defence. That was never my style.”Reuse content