Matthews the icon of a more innocent age

Ken Jones pays tribute to the Wizard of Dribble who will be 80 tomorrow
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The Independent Online
The day Sir Stanley Matthews retired probably brought a sigh even from people who, despite having no great interest in sport, regarded him as one of the most fascinating figures of his time.

In February 1965, shortly after Matthews' 50th birthday, it came home to some of us that we would never again see him shuffle up to some unfortunate full-back, bait him with a body-swerve before he darted past, and then cause panic with the unerring accuracy of his centres.

The qualities that distinguished Matthews as a footballer were balance, touch and immense self-confidence. In the most difficult matches, he conveyed the air of a man teasing children. His flair for the big occasion was unmatched anywhere in the game.

Long before an explosion in the telecommunications industry, Matthews was an international celebrity. "As a small boy I'd never seen him, but I knew about him. He represented the respect we had for English football," Franz Beckenbauer recalled.

However you look at fame Matthews is famous; not merely for marvellous feats of virtuosity in the colours of Stoke City, Blackpool and England, performed astonishingly over more than 30 years. People associate him with football in the way they associate Lester Piggott with the turf and Muhammad Ali with boxing. The connection thrives in their subconscious and is therefore a measure of true fame.

It is probably difficult, perhaps impossible, for any member of today's generation to appreciate fully the extent of Matthews' popularity. Especially towards the end of a remarkable career, sensing that it might be for the last time, people travelled considerable distances to watch him.

A London businessman, Morris Keston, who has been devoted to Tottenham Hotspur since he first watched them more than 50 years ago, seldom missed an opportunity. He describes Matthews as the ultimate crowd-puller. "There is nobody in British football today, not in world football, who has such an effect on attendances," he said.

This had everything to do with the sorcery that set Matthews apart from even such a notable contemporary as the Preston and England winger, Tom Finney. If a vote among professionals of that time might have given Finney an edge on the basis of consistent effectiveness (the great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, held his former team-mate peerless - "Tommy Finney could have played in his overcoat"), it didn't stretch to the public's imagination.

What the audience saw in Matthews was a unique figure so above affiliation that attempts to deal with him unfairly brought down an avalanche of condemnation. After fouling Matthews in a match against Blackpool at Highbury, a craggy Arsenal full-back, Bill McCullough, was booed mercilessly by the home supporters.

Particularly towards the end of his career, Matthews could depend on this completely. In 1962, back with Stoke, he turned out against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when both clubs were disputing the Second Division championship.

Chelsea's supporters in a crowd numbering more than 60,000 were implored to get behind their team. A curious hush descended upon hectic proceedings when Matthews was nastily cut down by Chelsea's left-back, Eddie McCreadie. Another foul, this time by RonHarris, fully dampened the enthusiasm. One of the spectators that day was a young Chelsea player on the verge of a distinguished career, John Hollins. "It was the first time I'd seen Matthews in the flesh," he recalled. "I sat high in the stands with our coach, Dave Sexton, and it was fascinating to see how Stan drew defenders to him. And the reaction when our players treated him roughly was remarkable. It took the sting out of us and Stoke, a much more experienced team, went on to win."

It can only be imagined what Matthews would be worth today. In an era when English footballers were scandalously restricted to a maximum wage of £20 per week, he shrewdly exploited his name, forming a head-tennis act on stage with his brother-in-law, Tommy Vallance, and travelling abroad in the close season to coach and turn out in exhibition matches.

Curiously, and even at the height of his powers, Matthews was not guaranteed a place in the England team. In fact, his introduction to international football did not raise a great deal of enthusiasm. Disappointed by the performance Matthews put up against Italy in 1934, a critic wrote: "I saw him play just as moderately in the Inter-League match, exhibiting the same slowness and hesitation. Perhaps he lacks the big-match temperament."

It was after Matthews joined Blackpool from Stoke in 1947 that he became established as the most celebrated of English footballers, with widespread recognition as a sporting genius. It was the 1953 FA Cup final that cast Matthews securely in the annals of the game, his first major honour coming in the year of a Coronation and coinciding with Gordon Richards' first Derby winner and Edmund Hilary's conquest of Everest. All three were knighted.

Matthews could not have completed his quest more appropriately, the great provider transforming a game that looked beyond Blackpool's reach when they trailed Bolton Wanderers 3-1 with only 20 minutes left to play. If Bolton's naive insistence on keeping their immobilised left-half, Eric Bell, on his side of the field contributed to their downfall, Matthews, thriving on inspired service from Ernie Taylor, thrillingly exploited the advantage, helping Stan Mortensen to complete a hat- trick and laying on Bill Perry's late winner.

The question of whether such artistry could be applied in the modern game is taken up by the former Tottenham and England inside-forward Eddie Baily, who made his international debut alongside Matthews during the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil. "Stan was brought back after we lost 1-0 to the United States and my instructions were to feed him the ball. I asked Stan if he minded letting me have it back now and again! But of course, he was a tremendous player who would have adapted to present conditions. Although Stan was known as the Wizard of Dribble it didn't accurately sum him up. Once Stan drew you in he didn't move the ball until you lunged for it. He used body movements to wrong-foot people and then he was away. His passing was excellent, perfect weight, and if it suited his purpose he would settle for simplicity. Considering how difficult it was to swerve the leather ball of those days his ability to get his centres in past attempts to block them was pretty remarkable."

Baily will be among the guests at a dinner in Stoke tomorrow to celebrate Matthews' 80th birthday. They will be honouring a footballer whose name transcends the game he played so magically.