Tom Finney’s magic feet
This piece about the great Tom Finney will be a little different to my usual articles. As games played and goals scored can all be accessed on a computer or tablet I want to describe exactly what Tom Finney was about, the club he played for and the people he lived among. I was extremely fortunate to watch Tom play and later in life had the good fortune to meet him on three or four occasions. He kindly wrote a “Foreword” for one of my books and to use the word “gentleman” doesn’t seem to be adequate. Where are they now, these gentlemen of the game, who played with a different mindset to the charlatans of today?
For this travel-weary football fan there remain only three Soccer centres which make the heart beat a little faster as I approach them, only three that make the years lighter as I plod to watch among the rosettes and cheers. There is a magic about them all that other grounds cannot capture, Aston Villa, with its staid red brick and the tradition that thunders like a roll of drums, Tottenham Hotspur, with the lingering wonder of a boyhood watching giants like Blanchflower, MacKay, Jones, White and the immortal Greaves but above all, stands proud Preston’s Deepdale. Even on the way to the ground there is an odd stirring of emotion as you climb the slope from the station and gaze up busy Fishergate and then turn left along the network of cobble-stoned little roads. For you know that you are in the midst of the warm heart of Lancashire, with its wry wit and its dourness, the endearing ugliness and the red rose beauty and the paper shops and pubs standing like sentinels on the corners of homely streets. Reaching for the sky ahead of you the floodlight pylons dwarf the houses and signal the way to the ivy-covered walls of the main stand. Brasses on the doors are burnished pride and, inside, a clean smell of floor polish mingles with the whiff of embrocation from the dressing rooms down the corridor.
Deepdale was not one of the biggest grounds in the land, but there was cover and comfort for all, and in the autumn and spring the sun lights up one of the greenest fields you will find anywhere. This, then, is the backcloth against which Tom Finney, master craftsman of his trade, wove his magic for so many glorious years. The backcloth is curiously important in Finney’s case, for I find it impossible to picture him playing for any other club. The man and his surroundings merge so perfectly that the thought of Tom Finney in the colours of Newcastle United or Arsenal or any other team is plainly ridiculous. There is a rightness about the combination of Preston and Finney that touches the North End tradition of small meditative forwards as opposed to the big and impulsive players who would hardly ever fit the Deepdale pattern of play, certainly as it has been in living memory. There is, too, a rightness about Preston and Finney that goes back to the days when a small boy of seven was lifted by his father over the railings so that he could squat cross-legged on the cinder track to study the genius of a player whose shorts looked too long for him, a player whose greatness stretched ahead to a place secure among the immortals. Finney’s hero-worship of Alex James meant more to him than the normal admiration of a boy for a local idol. Tom Finney was small. So was Alex James. It all led to the happy conclusion: “If Alex James can overcome his lack of inches, then so can I.”
Without the influence of Alex James and without Preston’s insistence on culture and their scorning of the crude it is doubtful whether Finney’s rise would have been so smooth. Other clubs might have dismissed the boy who filled in a form and asked for a trial, giving his height as five feet, his weight as six stone. While the application was being considered, Tom’s father wisely guided his son towards an apprenticeship as a plumber, the living he was to master as thoroughly as he was to master his Saturday trade. Finally, the imaginative Soccer brain of Jim Taylor and the goodwill of Will Scott, then North End trainer, gave young Finney the chance he had dreamed about. He was given a job at Deepdale as a ground staff lad at a salary of 50s. a week. The road was open now.
At that time Finney was an inside left. At sixteen he moved a trifle reluctantly to the right wing, and since then he would play in every role in the Preston attack. For England, he gave distinction to both wing positions, often moving to the left because of the eminence of Stanley Matthews, the colleague whom he always so sincerely liked and admired.
But long before international glory came his way there were long, patient spells of practice, often under the friendly tuition of Bill Shankly. Finney owed to Shankly a debt he repaid as Shankly would have wished it to be repaid – by passing on his own experience to youngsters who were to follow in the Preston tradition.
From the war, in which he served with the Eighth Army in the Middle East and Italy, Finney carried away the conviction that the gravel pitches on which he often played did much to improve his ball control. For, like the rest who have reached the heights of sporting fame, Finney had the capacity for self-improvement, the essential discipline, the willingness to continue learning. On the field, his bright talent for exploiting opportunities, for selecting the gap which was most vulnerable, made him respected by all who opposed him.
His sudden acceleration over the vital ten to fifteen yards, even when cramped for space, his subtle and restrained body-swerve, and the unorthodoxy of his working the ball with his left foot in the outside right position, all made him a joy to watch and a torment to oppose.
Many managers told their teams, “Stop Finney and we’ll win.” It was a compliment that Tom in his modesty would not condone. A super star in his own right, before that term had even been invented. He remained essentially part of a team.
One of his greatest triumphs, perhaps the greatest, was scoring four goals for England against Portugal in Lisbon in 1950. After that performance Charles Buchan wrote, “By his uncanny control of the ball he fully exposed the limitations of the Portuguese defence. Tom used the ball on the beautiful turf in a manner unsurpassed even by Stanley Matthews. He finished his efforts in a way that drew admiration from the 60,000 crowd.”
Yes, the white shirts of Preston and England were always graced most splendidly by the Lancashire plumber.
Fame never changed him, long injuries never made him complain. He knew that, secure in his family and his trades, life had been good. The dreams of a boy are like a shadow stretching ahead in the sunshine but as Tom Finney dreamed so will others. Out of Preston’s homely streets, from the warm heart of Lancashire came an immortal the like of which we will never see again.