The Preston Plumber is still making a splash, aged 90

Sir Tom Finney, one of England's greatest talents, reaches a landmark this week

Ten years ago, while David Moyes was clearing out his desk at Preston in readiness for the move to Everton, his eyes turned to an enlarged photograph screwed to the office wall. It was an acknowledged masterpiece – the 1956 sports photo of the year – which showed a spray-shrouded Tom Finney aquaplaning down the wing on a sodden afternoon at Chelsea. Moyes had once asked his employers for permission, should he ever leave Deepdale, to take the photograph as a memento of his time at the club. Knowing how much his relationship with Sir Tom, who had made a habit of popping into the office for weekly chats, meant to the Scot, they had readily agreed. Moyes called for a man with a robust screwdriver.

A few weeks later, he revisited Deepdale as Everton manager, on a scouting mission, and was invited into the office by his successor, Craig Brown. The photograph was still on the wall. "There was no frame around it," Moyes recalled, "and a wee tear in the corner. Because the truth of the matter was that the frame had been unscrewed but the print had resisted and that made me realise it should stay in its proper place in the Preston manager's office. In the end I just couldn't do it. I couldn't take it away."

The task of parting Tom – or Sir Tom, as he became in 1998 – from Deepdale has always encountered insuperable forces; usually his own loyalty to a club he began to support as a boy and for whom he played his every match apart from 76 for England and a few for wartime sides while serving under Montgomery in the Eighth Army. His love of club and country was unquestionable and yet, contrary to myth, he did once seek to forsake both for riches on offer in Palermo, who were so taken with his display in an international against Italy that they sought to increase his weekly wage from £14 to £120 and pay him a signing fee of £10,000. Even Finney's level head was turned.

According to otherwise incontrovertible information about him on Preston's website, he rebuffed Palermo "in an unprecedented show of loyalty to his hometown club". An account from equally respectable historians is that Preston demanded a prohibitive £50,000. But Finney's own candid admission was that contract regulations meant what they said in 1952 and were rigidly enforced by the North End chairman, a broad Lancastrian by the name of Nathaniel Buck who was in the habit of declaring: "If tha doesn't play for us, tha doesn't play for anyone."

Not that Finney sulked, or even minded greatly. He had plenty to do with his burgeoning career and the trade he acquired at his father's insistence, prompting the sobriquet that enhanced his charm: Finney was known as the Preston Plumber.

On Thursday, Finney will have his 90th birthday and all England ought to celebrate. For this was one of the country's greatest players, one whose friendly rivalry with Stanley Matthews helped to give the football winger something of the revered status the leg-spinner can enjoy in cricket.

Although naturally left-footed, Finney could play on either wing or at centre-forward, and did so for England. He represented Preston in all five of the old forward positions. Although slight, he was a ferocious ball-winner. Although not tall, he could be deadly in the air. He was quick, an accurate passer and a frequent scorer, with 187 goals in 433 appearances for Preston.

He even became England's leading scorer upon getting his 30th goal against Northern Ireland in 1958, but two weeks later Nat Lofthouse drew level and both were to be eclipsed by Bobby Charlton in 1963. And his collection of winner's medals? It depends on whether you allow wartime finals. If you don't, Finney's trophy cabinet is bare. Which just shows how facile it is to judge a player by the weight of his ornamental metal.

Finney was a great player and is a fine man, always known for his kindness and sense of proportion. Acuteness of judgement too; he happened to be at Anfield in 1988 when Liverpool beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 and, asked on TV afterwards how he rated their performance, gave the least fogeyish reply imaginable, averring that it was the best he had even seen. This became a widely held view. "Tom was always so up-to-date and reliable," said Moyes, "and that's one reason I loved having him in my office at Preston. What he said was always compulsive. Another was that, quite simply, this was his club."

His club from the age of five, when he fell under the spell of Alex James, who nearly broke his heart by moving to Arsenal. In adolescence Finney received free coaching and milk, and at 15 he signed playing forms but his debut was delayed by the outbreak of World War Two, which took him to Italy as well as North Africa. He came back and became one of the most magnetic attractions in the English game, rated superior to Matthews by many, even if a few accused him of over-elaboration. In his third League season, much of which he missed through injury, Preston were relegated but he inspired their return and in 1953 they missed out on the championship by a fraction of a goal, Arsenal prevailing on the final day. They were also runners-up in 1958. In between, Finney became the first player to be voted Player of the Year twice.

In 1954, Preston reached the FA Cup final and the nation held its breath, just as it had prior to Matthews's fulfilment with Blackpool a year earlier. "There was quite a build-up," Finney recalled. "Everyone seemed to want me to follow Stan and win a medal. But it was one of those games you want to forget. We lost 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion in the last few minutes and I was never in the game. It was the biggest disappointment of my career."

He retired at 38, giving his final performance in front of a packed Deepdale, and ran his business while serving Preston in a variety of other ways: as a justice of the peace and member of the health authority, among others. And, of course, president of the club, on hand for any manager. It was, as Moyes said, Finney's club. And Preston will always be Finney's town.