Honoring Tom Finney -- a gentleman and a soccer player for the ages

By Paul Gardner

A legend of English soccer has died. All the games in England this weekend began with the opposing teams lined up to observe a minute’s silence, or more likely -- and more naturally -- a minute’s applause -- for Sir Thomas Finney, dead at the age of 91.

That’s right -- Sir Thomas Finney, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998 -- I think that was a reward for his “services to football.” But it might just as well have been -- probably should have been -- for him simply being a thoroughly nice, genuine human being. Are there any derogatory stories about Finney, anything recollected by anyone that shows Finney behaving in any way other than as “a perfect gentleman?” That’s the phrase that turns up repeatedly when the old-timers talk about Finney.

I guess that group includes me -- though I find, to my surprise, to my bewilderment, that I never saw Finney play. But before I get into that anomaly, let me get one thing straight. Here, I’m not talking about Sir Thomas Finney. It’s just plain Tom Finney, without any of that class-ridden royal snobbery. Tom Finney was a plain-speaking working class lad who grew up in a street right next to the stadium where Preston North End played. In those days, Preston was a top first division club, and Finney signed for them, as an apprentice, in 1938.

World War II arrived the following year, and Finney’s soccer career disappeared as, age 20, he joined the army in 1942 and fought in North Africa and Italy. The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and in April of the following year a mouth-watering gala game was staged at Wembley. Virtually all of the sport’s top stars were still in the armed services, so this game between “An FA XI” and the APTC (Army Physical Training Corps -- past and present) featured just about every top player in England.

What a treat for 14-year-old me -- and this was where I saw Tom Finney. Except that I imagined that bit for years. When I got round to checking the lineups, years later, there they were, all the hallowed names -- Stan Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Denis Compton, Joe Mercer, Stan Cullis, Len Shackleton, Stan Mortensen, Frank Swift, Billy Wright, Neil Franklin, Bert Williams, Laurie Scott, Albert Stubbins ... but, to my disbelief, no Finney.

Another of those tricks that memory plays on us -- or is it we who play the tricks on memory? Because Finney was a tad younger than those guys -- it wasn’t until four months later that Finney made his professional debut for Preston.

We were soon hearing about him. We heard a lot about this young guy’s versatility, how he could play anywhere on what was then called -- with justification -- the forward line. Primarily a right winger, Finney could play on the left, he could play either left or right inside forward, he could play center forward. He could dribble, and he could score goals. Finney’s rise to fame came with shocking speed -- barely a month after his Preston debut he was called up by England.

Surely during the next eight years -- during which I must have attended dozens and dozens of games at Stoke and Wolverhampton and Derby and Nottingham and Birmingham and Aston Villa and Coventry and West Brom -- surely I must have seen Preston, must have seen Finney?

Yet I have no memory of Finney. None at all. I ponder that, and my pondering leads me to areas I am not very proud of. I did not like Tom Finney. The problem was that I was a devoted admirer of Stanley Matthews. And here was this whippersnapper (eight years older than I was, nonetheless) Finney, who hadn’t really done anything yet, stealing some of Stan’s thunder, even threatening to take over Stan’s place on the England team.

Actually, Tom did displace Stan on the national team. Coaching was in its most primitive days in England, but even then the word was around that you couldn’t have Matthews and Finney on the same team. It didn’t work, they canceled each other out, they got in each other’s way. Or something. And it was soon clear that “the selectors” (a mysterious group of suited FA executives who picked the team) had more faith in Finney.

By the time I was 20 I had learned quite a lot about the values of work-rate, though I don’t think we used the phrase. Finney was better at work-rate. Matthews was something of a virtuoso, we were told, waiting for others to bring him the ball. Finney was not only brilliant, he was reliable. Matthews may have been a genius, but you never quite knew where you were with him, whether today was to be a genius day, or merely a very good day.

Of course I didn’t buy any of that -- even though I can’t recall ever having seen Finney -- and the day came when I was proved indisputably right. To my own satisfaction, that is. In 1948 and ‘49 those nincompoop selectors had been slowly freezing Matthews out of the England team.

In 1950, as England prepared for its first-ever foray into the World Cup, it played a series of friendlies. Finney played in seven of them, Matthews didn’t get a game. Even so, the selectors -- ever frightened both of picking and of not picking Matthews -- put him on the World Cup roster. In Brazil, England beat Chile 2-0, then came an obviously easy game, against the USA, but one turned into the disaster of a 1-0 defeat.

I knew why, of course. Because Matthews had not yet played a single minute. Finney had played against the USA, and that was why England had lost. Case closed. Not really -- because Matthews was finally included in the starting 11 in the must-win game against Spain, and England lost. But I wasn’t to be troubled with awkward facts like that. England had been humiliated, and it wouldn’t have happened if Matthews had been on the field. Over the next three years, Matthews played twice for England while Finney played 19 games. Finney played for England in the 1954 World Cup, Matthews did not.

In 1953 the Hungarians had come to Wembley and utterly annihilated England -- complete with Matthews -- 6-3. The following year England traveled to Hungary, guaranteeing to erase the shame. This time the score was 7-1 to Hungary. Matthews did not play, but Finney did. A reality check was forcing me to realize that maybe neither Matthews nor Finney, perhaps not any of the English greats, were that good. The epic Matthews vs. Finney struggle ceased to bother me.

So I never saw Finney play. I can’t even remember seeing newsreel footage -- that’s what he had to make do with then, there must have been some but I have no memory of it.

What I wonder now is whether, in my dislike -- I don’t think it ever reached a hatred stage -- of Finney, I simply erased all thought of him from my mind, and avoided ever seeing him. Could be, I suppose. I regret that I have no Finney memories.

This past weekend Finney, Tom Finney, was much on people’s minds, and it was intriguing to realize that there was little talk of his playing skills, and no talk of his rivalry with Matthews. What dominated the tributes was a unanimous feeling of warmth for a man who was repeatedly called a perfect gentleman. A modest, quiet man who played his entire professional career -- 433 games in 14 years -- for Preston.

His club loyalty was rock solid. He was playing in the era when no player -- no matter how good -- could earn more than the maximum wage imposed by the club owners. A wage of some $15 per week. It wasn’t until 1960 that court action at last broke the autocratic power exercised by club owners over their players, ushering in the era of today’s astronomic salaries. But 1960, as it happened, was the year that Finney retired from the game.

Following his father’s canny insistence, Finney had taken the time and the trouble to become a licensed plumber -- he joined the family business which he kept going throughout, and after, his long playing career. His nickname? What else -- The Preston Plumber.

Could Finney possibly have been as good as they’re saying? “One of the greatest players this country has ever seen,” says Gary Lineker wrote. Bobby Charlton goes further “One of the greatest footballers there has ever been.”

Maybe not. Flattery abounds in obituaries. But, surely, there can be no doubt that Finney was a remarkable player, nor any questioning the sincerity of the widespread admiration of those who remember him well.

Even though he never won a major trophy, not with Preston, nor with England, he is remembered as a winner. His sportsmanship was legendary -- not once, throughout his lengthy career, was he cautioned or ejected from a game. He showed unwavering loyalty to his club Preston, and to the town of Preston, where he lived all his life. He later became President of the club, and he was also a Preston magistrate.

Tom Finney was a player for whom I developed an early dislike. I never saw him play. I need to put that straight. Over the years I’ve read and heard so much about him, all of it revealing an unusually gifted and generous man. Remembering Tom Finney this past weekend has given us all a chance to honor a man who quietly and unceasingly stuck by values like skillful play, loyalty, and sportsmanship -- values that the sport of soccer seems to be in danger of forgetting.
1 comment about "Honoring Tom Finney -- a gentleman and a soccer player for the ages".
  1. Eric Offner, February 16, 2014 at 8:53 p.m.

    I saw Finney on right wing in 1953 in Yankee
    Stadium scoring two goals agaist an aging US defender from Scotland in 6:3 game
    Best Us players were Decker brothers from NY Hakoah and George Athineos from Greek Americans Finney's control swerve and style were unbelievable
    Glanville's obit in guardian worth reading
    Love your writing Mr Gardner
    Eric Offner

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