I have to shout, reaching all the way back to 1943 for the first soccer memory that I can put a date to. I was 12 years old. One lazy afternoon in March of that year I went to call on my friend David. My friend? Well, sort of. We were close only in one sense -- we lived three doors apart. I’m not sure I even liked David, but we saw a lot of each other.
I found him sitting on the floor, staring at a magazine lying open in front of him. I looked, saw pictures of a soccer player. I asked -- “Who’s that?” “Matthews,” said David, “He lives here.” That was wrong, for a start. Matthews was born some 15 miles north of where we sat, up in the region known as the Potteries. He played for Stoke City, one of the Potteries towns. Except that he didn’t, not then, for there was a war on and he was away in the RAF. I found out about all that later.
I’d played in a lot of scrappy pick-up games, played very badly, I’m sure. But that was all I knew. We didn’t play soccer at school. We played rugby, which I enjoyed, but could equally well have done without. There was no television and there was no, or very little, organized soccer -- we had no coronavirus, but we did have that war to contend with.
The magazine David and I were looking at was Picture Post -- comparatively new, it had started up in 1938 just before the war, an English version of the USA’s Life magazine. I liked it because it was mostly photos.
I looked for a while at the pictures of this guy I’d never heard of. They were calling Matthews "The Best Footballer the War Has Produced." That was wrong too -- but it took me a while to work that out. Not that Matthews wasn’t great, but that his greatness had been recognized way before the war started. Heck, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he’d already played for England 17 times, starting in 1934 when he was just 19 years old.
Something from those black-and-white pages stayed with me -- I wanted to see Matthews play, but that didn’t happen. Stan the Man was stationed in Blackpool, 75 miles away, and he played for them as a “guest” player.
There was an evening paper, the Sentinel, published in Stoke, which I looked at occasionally. I started to look for mentions of Matthews. It took a while, but in 1944, I think, I found the good news: Matthews was going to play in a charity game, not in Stoke but at Port Vale’s ground in nearby Burslem, another of the Potteries towns. Port Vale was -- still is -- a perennially lower division club. My parents were not keen on my making the trip to Burslem on my own, but a family friend (one of those uncles who wasn’t really an uncle) came to the rescue and off we went -- an evening game, no floodlights anywhere in those days.
A disaster. As soon as the teams ran on to the field, it was obvious I’d goofed. This was a local youth championship game. No sign of Matthews, of course. We left the game early. One of the teams was called Mow Cop. Now why would I remember that? I mean, Mow Cop?
I tried to lessen my humiliation by insisting that the Sentinel must have got the date wrong. The real date, I found out, was the next day. I turned on the charm -- something that rarely works for me -- and I was allowed to return to Burslem, on my own. Finally, I got to see Matthews.
And then my memory collapses almost completely, because I have no mental pictures of that game at all. Not a single one. Nothing. No vision of Matthews, what he looked like, how he played -- just a blank. Even so, I do recall something. A sound. The seductively soft tapping sound of Matthews playing soccer, of his leather shoes making light contact with the leather ball. I was used to hearing the ball being heavily walloped all the time. This was quite new.
But was it true? Could I really, in a noisy stadium, have heard so subtle a sound? I don’t think so. Probably I saw the way that Matthews gently caressed the ball, and supplied my own soundtrack. But recalling my own invention of a “Matthews sound” -- surely I can count that as memory, no? I have to -- else I’m stuck with “Mow Cop” as my one memory from two trips to find Matthews.
Things moved on. The war ended, pro soccer restarted in 1945 so now I had opportunities to watch Matthews in Stoke’s home games. But that neat arrangement quickly fell apart. All was not well at Stoke City. Matthews, no longer a regular starter, wanted out. He wanted to sign with Blackpool. A messy affair. Matthews eventually joined Blackpool with only three games remaining in the 1946-47 season.
Over the next nine years, I got to see Matthews a few times, but I was always disappointed. Some lovely moves for sure, but the decisive brilliance of genius -- I never found that. In 1953 I got lucky. I got a ticket to the Wembley Cup final.
Blackpool vs. Bolton. Blackpool -- with Matthews -- had been in the final in 1948 and 1951 and had lost both games. This looked like the last chance for Stan to claim a much-valued Cup winner’s medal. After all, he was 38.
Maybe you know the story. Stan got his medal in one of the most dramatic Cup finals ever. Blackpool, 3-1 down with 20 minutes left, stormed back to win 4-3. Twenty minutes that belonged to Matthews as his teammates repeatedly fed him the ball and, from his right wing position, he teased and bewildered the Bolton defenders. His cross found Stan Mortensen, who made it 3-2. Then, in added time, another Matthews cross went to winger Bill Perry who slammed it home for the winner.
I had seen the best of Matthews at last and it was worth the wait. I moved to London later in 1953, but I never again made any special effort to see Matthews. Why invite anticlimax?
I made my big move in 1959. To New York. From there I read about Matthews’ big move. He had returned to his first club, Stoke. A team now in the second division. Matthews, at the age of 46, was being seen as the man who turn its fortunes around.
By 1965 I had been living in New York for six years, seeing very little soccer. Early that year, after visiting my mother up in the midlands, I was on the train back to London. I found myself an empty compartment, put my feet up on the seat opposite, and settled down for a restful 90-minute journey.
That idea lasted about 10 minutes. The compartment door slid open and a smiling lady quietly asked if there was a free seat. Well, there were 5 free seats. I took my feet off the one opposite me and grunted a yes. She came in, followed by her husband. They talked softly, which I found annoying, then she produced some sandwiches and made a lot of noise with rustling paper.
I stared and glared -- when she met my eyes, she simply smiled. The husband avoided all eye contact, but I suddenly knew I was looking at Stanley Matthews.
Here was one of the sport’s greatest players, eating his sandwiches in a third-class railway compartment. We chatted. I wanted to know about his life, the 1953 final and so on. I got nowhere. Stan didn’t want to talk about himself. There was a compelling shyness about him as he kept asking me questions, about my life in the USA, and smoothly dodged my attempts to learn more about him. He talked about his times in Canada, but that was really about Canada, not him. He spoke proudly of his tennis-playing son.
As soon as we got off the train at London’s Euston Station, it was like everyone on the platform instantly recognized him. He was surrounded by admirers, almost lost to my sight. I shouted an unsatisfactory goodbye, and that was that.
The full depth of his modesty came to me the following day when I read why he was in London. He was going to Buckingham Palace to be knighted by the Queen. To become Sir Stanley. He never mentioned that.
Journalistically, I had lost a great opportunity. But at that stage -- I was 35 -- I was working on a medical magazine in New York. I had never written a single word about soccer.
A side effect of tracking Matthews, of my reading the Sentinel, had been that I learned quite a lot about the Potteries. The newspaper’s “Jobs Vacant” column was forever seeking “saggar-makers bottom-knockers.” Whatever kind of a job was that? I found out. I learned a little about the pottery industry. I visited Stoke two or three times and was duly shocked at the smoke. This was not the smoke from tall factory chimneys. This was smoke from hundreds of smaller ovens, shaped like huge bulging bottles, their smoking mouths much closer to ground level. The pot-banks. Often built by the potter himself, his own kiln, on his own little patch of land, almost a part of his house. There they were, an almost intimate part of every street, mixed in with the houses and stores.
It was not pleasant. It looked so bleak. Much more recently, in 2004, Paul Johnson wrote a lovely short memoir of his growing up in the Potteries in the 1930s, “The Vanished Landscape.” The cover photo sent a chill through me. A desolate, ugly street, just two people, passing what looks like a pub. And the dominating bottle-shaped pot-banks, sprouting among the buildings.
Not pleasant. But it was fascinating. It became more intriguing when I discovered Arnold Bennett’s novels. Bennett was born in Hanley (yet another Potteries town) and grew up there. At age 21 he moved to London, but his best work was set in the Potteries. He called the area the Five Towns: Stoke, Hanley, Burslem, Longton, and Tunstall. He disguised their names: Knype, Hanbridge, Bursley, Longshaw, and Turnhill. (There were actually six towns -- Fenton was the one Bennett left out).
In “The Old Wives’ Tale” Bennett has much to say about life among the small shopkeepers in Bursley. He also brings soccer into his story, and treats it seriously, as an important part of Bursley life.
This was something completely new, something that no other English novelist had ever done. Yet the sport, beginning in 1863, had grown increasingly popular and significant. The Football League had been formed in 1888 by eight clubs, one of which was Stoke. Bennett paid attention, where other authors turned away. Yes, there was a class snobbery involved. Soccer was definitely working class. Novels and novelists were mostly for, by and of the bourgeoisie. Soccer was never mentioned.
Many years later, I read a classic sports book “Beyond A Boundary.” The sport was cricket, the author – C.L.R. James -- was from Trinidad. He had plenty to say about racism in cricket. And he also made, as no other cultural critic had done, the point I made above about football. How was it that sport -- cricket in this case -- never featured in literature? I was complaining about football’s absence in novels. James deplored cricket’s absence in history books. He focused on W.G. Grace, an enormously popular cricketer largely responsible for the growth of the game. He was, if you like, the Babe Ruth of cricket. Yet, for English historians and cultural critics, Grace simply never existed. They “Never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time.” James is outraged: “I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find a place for W.G. Grace.”
James was writing in 1963. Things are a lot better now. He helped to change them. And Arnold Bennett surely did his bit by writing about soccer as a very real and important part of English life.
In “The Old Wives’ Tale” (1908) Bennett tells of the Bursley shopkeepers’ worry that business was bad. Because? Well one theory had it that:
“The cause was ‘this football.’ The Bursley Football Club had recently swollen into a genuine rival of the ancient supremacy of the celebrated Knype (i.e. Stoke) club. ... They said that ‘this football’ drew people out of the town on Saturday afternoons, to the complete abolition of shopping. They said also that people thought of nothing but ‘this football,’ that only roughs and good-for-nothings could possibly be interested in such a barbarous game. In brief, something new had come to the front ...”
I know of nothing like that from any other novelist of the period. Even George Orwell, so assiduous a chronicler of working-class life, has virtually nothing to say about football.
Some 20 years after Bennett began treating football as something that mattered, Henry Green (in “Living”) has workers convincingly discussing Aston Villa in Birmingham dialect:
Said Mr Gates “No, you daint like to go, that was it, not the way they’re playing now. Villa supporter! You ain’t no more’n a newspaper supporter shoutin’ goal at the page.”
“It am a bleeder,” Mr Connolly said, “I be frighted to go down to the Villa ground, I can’t abide to see ‘em beaten, not a grand team like they used to be.”
But it was not until soccer became wealthy and acquired all the trimmings of a middle class activity that it began to be something that novelists (including mystery and crime writers) made an integral part of their stories.
In 1992 Nick Hornby’s splendid “Fever Pitch” arrived. Soccer was not merely mentioned, it was the main theme of the book. The sport’s new middle-class acceptability was sealed.
I come back to Arnold Bennett and the Potteries. I have mentioned that in 1961 Matthews, age 46, had rejoined his hometown club, Stoke. Over 35,000 fans -- nearly five times the average for the season so far -- were at his first home game, a 3-0 win over Huddersfield. A perfect start, for Stoke was a club in the doldrums, playing badly in the 2nd division, fearing relegation to the 3rd. Matthews was supposed to be the hero who would shake things up and get the club back into the 1st division, where it belonged.
Tony Waddington, the Stoke coach, was ecstatic: “Stan instantly inspired confidence in the other players. He revitalized the club.” The mayor of Stoke announced “He has given the city a new pride. Everywhere people are talking about Stoke.” After two seasons, Stoke were back in Division One.
It’s almost a fairytale story -- local boy becomes a superstar, deserts his hometown club, then late in his career returns to a hero’s welcome and leads club back to former glory. Incredibly -- and I really do think that’s the right word, not an exaggeration -- that very scenario had been foreseen 50 years earlier by Bennett in his novella, "The Card." Card, that is, in the sense of a witty, comical person. That is Denry Machin, who works his way up from washerwoman’s son to Mayor of Bursley by a series of audacious moves that culminate when, as a candidate for the mayor’s seat, he addresses a public meeting thus:
“If I’m not mistaken, one of the greatest footballers is a native of this town.”
And scores of voices yelled: “Ay! Callear! Callear! Greatest center-forward in England!”
“Yes,” said Denry, Callear is the man I mean. Callear left the district at the age of 19 for Liverpool . . . it isn’t too much to say that he made the fortune of Liverpool City. Then York City bought him ...”
But York City is now bankrupt, reveals Machin, and selling its players. “I say that Callear ought to come back to his native town.”
Councillor Barlow, Machin’s opponent for the mayor’s job, scoffs at the mere idea. Bursley simply doesn’t have the money. Then …
Denry lifted his voice.
“Mr Callear, will you be good enough to step forward and let us all have a look at you?”
Up jumps Callear, as the crowd goes wild yelling Good old Callear! Good old Machin! Machin has used his own money (probably borrowed) to buy Callear. He presents the player to Bursley FC as a gift.
And more or less, they all live happily ever after. Machin is elected mayor, Bursley starts winning again. Though Callear (like Matthews, a demon dribbler) has some style changes to cope with - Bennett is well informed, he writes “Dribbling tactics had been killed for ever, years before, by Preston North End, who invented the 'passing’ game.” Well not quite, Mr Bennett. Matthews was to keep the skill of dribbling very much alive.
For Bursley FC read Stoke City. For Callear read Stanley Matthews. And you have, there in Bennett’s 1911 story, set in the Potteries, the events that transpired 50 years later, also in the Potteries. A most wondrous example of life imitating art.