Paul Gardner: A tribute to Stanley Matthews

English soccer legend Stanley Matthews died Feb. 23 at age 85. As a tribute, Soccer America presents the following article by SA columnist Paul Gardner. The column appeared in the Sept. 27, 1990 issue of Soccer America. It is also a part of GardnerÆs latest book, ôSoccerTalk, Life Under The Spell of the Round Ball.ö Memories of a Boyhood Idol LONDON -- Are childhood heroes to be trusted? Sadly, I suppose not. Leave them alone, let them be, glowing warmly in some distant past that never was, bigger then they ever were, nobler than they ever could have been. You find out too much as you get on in years. Time does brutal things to ancient idols, strips them down to bare ordinariness. They fail any longer to inspire. They amuse, they embarrass. You are likely to ridicule them -- well, better that than to ridicule oneself for ever treasuring such people. Or -- and maybe this is worse -- you begin to romanticize. The former hero must not be allowed to fall. He is propped up with exaggerations and fanciful achievements and as you tell the stories of feats that never were, your listeners turn away and you have reduced your hero to a bore. Perhaps the kindest fate for the champions of those distant years is that they be gently forgotten, that the wonder that once surrounded them fades and they slip, forgotten, into some obscure outback of the mind. Yet . . . that won't do. There must be exceptions, those who do what Dylan Thomas demands, who "do not go gentle into that good night", but "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Yes, I have my exception. A boyhood hero who has survived, almost intact, who seems to me to be as worthy now as the worshipping mind of a 12-year-old boy believed him to be nearly 50 years ago. It was 1943. I had been playing soccer for some years, not at all well, full of enthusiasm, short of talent. David, a year older, a much better player, showed me a copy of Picture Post, an English version of Life magazine. It had Ingrid Bergman on the cover, but we weren't interested in film stars. We sat on the floor and we looked instead at the pictures of Stanley Matthews. A man I had never heard of until that moment. "The Best Footballer the War Has Produced" it said -- hardly the truth, for Stan was already 28 years old, and had been a star before the war even began. There he was, in dramatic black and white photographs, poised over the ball, taunting the hated Scottish opponents. "What will he do? Which way? The crowd believes his opponent will never guess right" said a caption. How could I resist descriptions like "A football equation without a solution", or "A whole football entertainment concentrated in one man"? David's enthusiasm did the rest, for he reminded me that Stan had been born in Hanley, and played for Stoke City, both towns only 15 miles to the north. Just 15 miles, but these were wartime days. Travel wasn't easy, and anyway Matthews was in the RAF and rarely appeared for Stoke. A year or so later, I got my chance to see the player who had now become my hero. I read in the local Evening Sentinel that Matthews was turning out in an evening charity game in Hanley. My father, who hated everything to do with soccer, said I couldn't go on my own, but a soccer-loving family friend said he would take me. Late one afternoon we took the train north to Hanley, and walked to Port Vale's ground. No floodlights, just early evening light ... and a strange lack of spectators. The teams appeared and I shot an embarrassed glance at my companion. These were boys! We stayed for a while, watching some meaningless local youth game. Not entirely meaningless -- it featured a young boy named Ronnie Allen, who would later play for England. Already, with local pride, they were calling him "the new Matthews". But I wanted the real Matthews. My bitter disappointment softened my father, and I was allowed to return to Hanley the following evening on my own (I had confused the dates). Standing on the terraces -- nothing but a huge mound of earth with railway ties serving as the steps, and with weeds growing around your feet -- I saw my fabulous Stan for the first time. ItÆs funny, you don't remember the things you ought to remember. What the teams were, who won, who scored -- none of that. I remember those weeds, I remember Stan looking disappointingly old -- well he was already 28 with a receding hairline -- in his red-and-white vertical stripes. But above all I remember something that, surely, I can't have experienced. I remember the sound of Stan playing soccer. The soft, seductive noise of leather shoes making delicate contact with a leather ball. Not the biff-bang thumping noises that I was used to, but the neat sound of the ball being caressed. Did I really hear those sounds? Maybe I did. With all the other small boys, I stood close to the field, and this was not a jammed stadium filling the air with a deafening roar. Maybe I did hear those gentle sounds, or maybe I just invented them as the natural sound-effect to a way of playing soccer that I'd never experienced. They were to stay with me, they are with me now as I write. Tap, tap -- soft little movements by knowing feet, the ball a willing conspirator in the Matthews dribbling magic. They'll tell you that Matthews only had one trick. Take the ball up to the fullback, lean inside, then sweep suddenly away to the outside. Well, it's true. That was Garrincha's move, too. And they both got away with it for years. No defender ever really solved the problem. And because you knew what was coming, precisely because you knew as soon as Stan got the ball what he was going to do, there was always excitement and anticipation in the air. Shuffle, shuffle, tap tap -- and Stan was suddenly on top of the fullback. Sometimes the action would stop right there for what seemed like ages, the defender almost paralyzed by caution, until Stan decided it was time to sweep by him and on to the goal-line. At other times, Stan would take pity and administer the coup immediately. Frequently, the fullback was left sitting on his rear. There is a famous photograph, taken at Wembley, of Matthews at work. He is playing for England against Brazil. Facing him is fullback Nilton Santos, one of the finest in the history of the game. It is a photograph that Santos can hardly treasure -- for he is lying on the ground, reduced to squirming inelegance by the Matthews magic. Matthews is past him, already preparing for the next opponent. England beat Brazil 4-2 that spring day in 1956. Matthews was involved in all four of England's goals. He was 41 years old. Incredibly, Matthews went on playing at the top level for another nine years. A pro career that spanned 33 years. Imagine that -- 33 years of being pursued and tackled and hit and kicked. Yet in all that time, Matthews was never even cautioned once. He is a strangely unemotional man. This comes through very clearly in David Miller's fascinating biography Stanley Matthews published earlier this year. There are no wild, saucy anecdotes about Stan. He is, if truth be told, a rather dull man. He exploded into sparkling brilliance only on the soccer field. And there, it was all instinctive improvisation. He downplayed the importance of tactics, and clearly never really gave much deep thought to his game. It was all golden instinct. Miller tells of how another journalist -- Ivan Sharpe, a former international player -- asked Matthews how he did it and took him out on to a lawn for a demonstration. Said Matthews: "Honestly, I can't do it in cold blood, it just comes out of me under pressure." I watched Matthews whenever I could in the late 40s and on into the 50s. It became a little more difficult after 1947, when Matthews was traded to Blackpool, further north. Matthews had tried to move away once before, back in 1938, but the locals weren't willing to let him go. Three thousand of them jammed the town hall, a thousand were left outside, waving their "Matthews Must Not Go" banners. (If you read Arnold Bennett's short novel ôThe Cardö -- set in Bennett's mythical Five Towns which were based on the Stoke area -- you will find a scene where the townsfolk jam the townhall and cheer when a councilor tells them "If I'm not mistaken, one of the greatest modern footballers is a native of this town." The player is brought back, and the local club is saved. Life and art strangely intertwined. Bennett's novel was written in 1911, four years before Matthews was born.) It was with Blackpool that Matthews had what is remembered as his finest game. The year was 1953, Matthews had achieved just about everything that English soccer had to offer. Except the most important thing of all. He had never won an F.A. Cup winners' medal. He had played in the Wembley Cup Final -- the crowning moment of the English soccer season -- twice with Blackpool. In 1948 and 1951, and had finished as a loser both times. Blackpool made it to the final again in 1953, and this was surely Stan's last chance. After all, the man was 38 years old (no-one -- except possibly Stan -- could imagine that he had another 12 years of soccer life ahead.) The story has been told many times -- of how Blackpool was losing 1-3 with only 20 minutes left, of how Matthews suddenly took over, played the game of his life, ran the Bolton defense ragged, and laid on the winning goal in the last minute for a stunning 4-3 victory. I was at that game. No longer the giggly schoolboy who had stood among the weeds in Hanley 10 years earlier but now a knowing college graduate sitting on a bench in pale afternoon sunshine. But still listening to the sweet tap, tap of Stan's artistry, as excited as any schoolboy has ever been, standing to cheer as dear old Stan went up to collect his winners' medal. For some reason, I still have my ticket to that game, a small, undistinguished piece of pasteboard. I couldn't tell you why that has survived, when I have thrown away so much else. I went on watching Matthews until 1959, when I moved to New York. But there is a postscript. I was in England in 1965. I paid a brief visit to my boyhood home, then took the train back to London. Finding an empty compartment, I closed the door emphatically against intruders. Ten minutes into the journey, the door slid slowly open. I took my feet off the seat, and nodded curtly to a smiling, plain lady who enquired if she could take one of the empty seats. She came in, followed by her husband, I supposed. I wanted to sleep, they kept talking softly, which annoyed me, and then made a terrible noise with paper as they unwrapped sandwiches. I probably huffed and puffed a bit, I certainly stared. And there he was. Stan, drably dressed, eating his sandwiches in a second class railway compartment. Now I wanted to talk about him and his career, to tell him what he had meant to me ... but Stan just smiled and changed the subject. There was a terrible shyness there, he would not talk about himself. He told me about his times in Canada but it was all about Canada, not about him, and he told me about his son the tennis player, and he asked me what I thought of America. I didn't even ask for an autograph. He didn't mention the reason for his trip to London. He was on his way to Buckingham Palace to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth. To become Sir Stanley Matthews. When we got out at Euston station, people far more aware than I, surrounded him. I wandered off, wishing that my hero had been more, well, hero-like. But that was Stan. No dashing sex-idol he. Simply a modest working class man who turned into a genius when he ran on to a soccer field. Would he be a genius in today's game? It's never easy to switch a player's skills from one era to another. But I like what little Jimmy McIlroy -- a Northern Ireland international of no mean skill himself, who played with Matthews -- has to say in Miller's book: "He wouldn't be allowed now to train as an individual, to work on his own at sprints and breathing exercises and jogging. Now, he'd be regimented, they would demand circuit training. There's no way he would do that. Mentally, he couldn't exist today. But skill-wise? He'd be a sensation." I'm sure of it. If today's game could not accommodate Stan, that is the game's loss, not Stan's. He is my exception to the faded heroes of boyhood. The man who hooked me on soccer. Today there is a statue of Stan (well, of Sir Stanley really, but that doesn't sound quite right) in Hanley's town center. David Miller wrote the inscription: "Sir Stanley Matthews. Born Hanley, 1 February 1915. His name is symbolic of the beauty of the game, his fame timeless and international, his sportsmanship and modesty universally acclaimed. A magical player, of the people, for the people."
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