The past really was a different country

16 02 2014

If you follow football, or even just watch the news,  you will know that a legend of world football sadly died on Friday.

In 2014 people tell us about total legends and awesome ledges constantly but Tom Finney was the real McCoy. Twohumdredpercent penned a fitting yesterday, as did The BBC;

Sir Tom Finney: Why he remained a Preston North End legend

There is a photograph tucked away among the fading brown boxes in a half-forgotten corner of the loft at my parents’ house in Preston.

On it, my sister and her classmates are smiling at the camera, holding in their hands a certificate that they have just been awarded. To one side of the photo is Sir Tom Finney, the man who has just handed them out.

It is a long time ago and I doubt if my sister, who was around 10 at the time, would have known who Finney was – but that would be to miss the point.

Just about everyone in Preston has their own story about Finney, who has died at the age of 91, or came into contact with him at some point or another.

He is inextricably linked with the city, whose football team he represented with such distinction between 1946 and his retirement in 1960. He was a one-club man, although that would not have been the case if a financially lucrative move to Italian side Palermo had not been swiftly and decisively extinguished by Preston North End’s chairman in 1952.

“You can forget about all that,” said chairman Nat Buck. “If tha’ doesn’t play for us, tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.”

Finney was the footballer of the year in 1953-54 and again in 1956-57. He won 76 England caps and found the net 30 times, a tally that places him joint sixth in the list of the country’s highest goalscorers.

“He was a ghost of a player but very strong,” said former Preston team-mate Bill Shankly. “He could have played all day in his overcoat.”

He was on the losing side in the 1954 FA Cup final and retired in 1960 after eventually succumbing to a persistent groin injury. His final match was against Luton Town at Deepdale and the supporters sang Auld Lang Syne as he walked onto the pitch. He scored 187 goals in 433 league appearances and, more than 50 years later, the hole he left has not been filled.

His beloved North End were relegated from the top flight the season after he hung up his boots and have never returned. I imagine Preston’s predicament would have been a source of great frustration for an exceptionally proud man, the club that Finney served as president for many years dropping into football’s third tier in 2011 after more than a decade of Championship football.

My father was a huge, huge fan of Finney’s. He will tell you at length about the grace and tenacity of Finney in possession; that the opposition tried to kick him off the ball for 90 minutes but could not upset the rhythm and balance of a man of slight build who refused to respond to provocation.

The 1950s was a golden age of football and Deepdale was packed to the rafters, with crowds regularly in excess of 30,000. My dad and his siblings reckon they would sit on the cinder track that surrounded the pitch, only yards away from Finney as he glided down the wing.

Finney walked from his modest home to Deepdale for home games, chatting with well-wishing supporters along the way. He worked for the family business on Saturday mornings, hence his nickname of ‘the Preston Plumber’. It was easy for North End supporters to connect with him because he was one of them.

They were on different sides of the whitewash on a Saturday afternoon but, during the week, Finney and his fans had many of the same concerns and problems. Unlike many modern highly-paid footballers, his salary did not catapult him on to a different level from those he grew up with.

Finney was never booked or sent off in his career and it is his dignity and sportsmanship that perhaps stands out above all his other qualities. Finney has always been compared to fellow winger Sir Stanley Matthews, who spent the vast majority of his career at Stoke City and Blackpool.

It is a question without a definitive answer but whereas Matthews was perhaps the great entertainer, a footballer of immense flair, Finney was regarded as a selfless team man, willing to play anywhere along the front five.

I met him several times and each experience only served to underline everything I had been told about him. I called him once in the evening to ask for his reaction after it emerged that manager David Moyes had left Preston for Everton.

He was looking after his wife, Lady Elsie, who died in 2004 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, but said he would happily answer my questions if I called back an hour later. He always gave the impression that nothing was too much trouble and that he would go out of his way to accommodate people. Even towards the end of his life, he made every effort to answer the fan mail that still arrived for him at Deepdale.

There were disappointments in his career. He played at three World Cup finals and was a member of the England team humiliated by the United States at the 1950 tournament. He was carrying an injury in the 1954 FA Cup final and, by his own admission, had a poor match.

After retirement, he worked in journalism and continued the family business. He was appointed an OBE in 1961 and later became a local magistrate and chairman of his local health authority.

He received a knighthood in 1998, although I am told that he always felt uncomfortable when people addressed him as Sir.

There are pubs named after him in his home city, the road leading up to Deepdale bears his name and there is a statue of Finney outside the stadium. It is a recreation of the Splash, a famous photograph that captured him sliding across a waterlogged surface at Stamford Bridge to control the football.

Finney is, and will always remain, indivisible with the town of Preston, which was granted city status in 2002. As with Billy Wright at Wolves and Nat Lofthouse at Bolton, he was a one-club man, but it goes far deeper than that.

Preston has lost its favourite son, a man who gave Prestonians pride in the place from which they come. It was as though a little of the esteem and respect in which Finney was held rubbed off on all of them.

My dad always insisted that he knew him. Everyone of his generation did and so I took his words lightly. One day I was walking through the centre of town with my old man when I noticed Finney walking towards us. He looked up as our paths crossed and, with what I am sure to this day was a hint of recognition, looked my dad square in the face and wished him good morning.

Sir Tom, you will be missed.

I could never have seen him play, or even met him, but I was still upset by the news of his passing. Tom Finney seemed to have a sort of saintly aura. Other people, like the members of the WSC message board, also noticed this aura;

I once took my Dad to a Preston game, and we got tickets in the main stand with the ability to use the conference suites and get lunch beforehand. We were stood at the entrance to the Tom Finney Stand, waiting fir the lift, and Tom Finney was also in the foyer, waiting to meet someone. I nudged my dad, at this point in his mid-50s, and he became a schoolboy again. He couldn’t speak, and gestured to me to stop doing anything like pointing to alert him that it was Finney, and was in general utterly blown away in the the same way a schoolboy would be. 45 years of life just drifted away, and all the experiences which made my dad a confident, self-assured guy disappeared to be replace by extreme shyness and silence in the close presence of his idol…….

…..My father in law (retired self employed builder) did a lot of work with Finney around Lancashire. He said he was always just Tom, the plumbing businessman but from occasion to occasion when out on a job surveying or installing he would realize he was in the presence of legend as grown men on the building site would be turned to child when they realized who Finney was.

It would be easy Tom Finney to view as a counterpoint to the overblown spectacle of That Modern Football –  A humble one-club superstar, a man who did his duty and a genuine role model – but is it too easy?

We should be careful about falling in to mawkish sentimentality, Tom Finney was, after all, a man of his time, he fought in the war because he was of the service age, he was a one-club man when there was a universal maximum wage that made moving illogical and retain and transfer system that dampened uppity attitudes. Having said that there was an uncommon aura of humanity about Tom Finney, which is something that comes across in the fulsome and touching tributes I linked to.

It’s sad to say but the spirit of humanity that Tom Finney exemplified seems to be somewhat missing from the football landscape of 2014.

Squawka, the new home of scientific football data analysis,  published 4 stories about transfer gossip 35 minutes last night yet couldn’t be  bothered to publish a single tribute to Tom Finney in the 24  hours after the sad news. The people behind Squawka claim that they can make you understand football but they don’t appear to understand why people like football.

The fact a website prefers to publish stories that will cement their market position rather than heartfelt tributes tells us a lot about the nature of football in 2014. The fact that people give Squawka’s pseudo-science the time of day tells us even more.

I know the 1950s had their share of social problems –   the cold war, unrepentant British jingoism, criminalized homosexuality, racial tension,  a cloying sense of deference – but charm still comes to mind but when I think of that decade. The 1950s certainly seems to be a much more charming time than the cynical and more knowing age in which we find ourselves.

When it comes to football I definitely see a simpler, more charming time. For all the extra fitness and apparent tatical sophistication we now enjoy we seem to have lost something since the 1950s. Back then decent crowds were part of a local community, …..

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…..there were exotic floodlit friendlies to see….

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…..and enticing new international competitions to take part. This was the jet age. Most of all when I think of the 1950s I see less rancor and more acceptance of the fickleness fate and form. I see a sense of belonging and togetherness, players really mixed more with fans. I see more common decency.

Again we don’t want to descend in to cliché or mawkish sentimentality but there is something charming about 1950s football. I’m so charmed by it I was thrilled that I receive a replica of this Honved shirt for Valentine’s Day.

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I daresay that my image of personalities like Tom Finney has helped to construct my image of the 1950s.

Farewell Mr. Finney, you’ll be missed by everyone.

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