As Liverpool prepare for Stoke on Sunday, TheHardTackle take this opportunity to remember one of the greatest players to have played the beautiful game, Sir Stanley Matthews.
89, Seymour Street, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent – this address is probably of more importance than any other for the residents of Stoke-on-Trent. On 1 February, 1915, a legend was born to local boxer and barber, Jack Matthews. While the “Fighting Barber of Hanley” was busy in his business of trimming and shaving during the day and throwing in punches with all his might after shutting shop post sunset, Stanley Matthews, his third of four sons, was learning the art of dribbling with a football in his backyard, stocking up chairs in random orders and envisioning defenders coming towards him.
Talent never misses the eye, they say. Matthews’ addiction to football was increasing at a fast pace as his mates at the Wellington School as well as onlookers and neighbours around Meakins’ Square would testify. Jack’s hopes of watching his boy grow to become a boxer might have been crushed but what he was about to realize is that by joining Stoke City, England was blessed with one of the finest footballers of all-time.
Matthews joined the Potters in 1930-31 and was initially under the shadows of several veterans and managerial staff with his £1 maximum wage. The following season, he made 22 appearances for the reserve squad. And right from this point, he started showcasing his skills of an unique winger.
Matthews’ talent was a culmination of three factors – his ability to burst into pace from a stationary stance, his pinpoint passing (crossing, to be more precise) and the fact that he was simply better than anyone else when it came to close control. These characteristics grew from strength to strength for Matthews while at Stoke, earning him a total of about 260 appearances and yielding 51 goals in his first stint at Stoke City which lasted 15 years.
Just to give you an example of how good Matthews was, once in an international friendly, Matthews’ teammate Stan Mortensen converted from his cross and gave the winger a thumbs-up immediately. Moments later, the winger from the opposite end, Tom Finney, whipped in a similar cross and which was again finished by Mortensen. But, Finney didn’t get the thumbs-up. Upon questioning Mortensen, he found out that Matthews’ lace was pointing away from the centre-forward at the time of the cross. This may not sound like much but during those days, playing with a ball made out of pure leather in contrast to the synthetically cast ones today, was a big ask, and Matthews was a master at it.
The story behind the ‘first stint at Stoke’ is such – while Stanley Matthews was expanding his armory of tricks at Stoke City, the club itself was going through a wavy form in the mid 1930’s. After finishing 10th in the 1934/35 season, Stoke finished fourth the following season, their best in the First Division. After putting in 45 games through the year, Matthews was denied the full bonus payout which was given to the rest of the squad players, the reason for which was cited that he spent two seasons at the club as an amateur.
In 1937/38, Stoke went further down the League table and the media was speculating that Matthews was ostracized by the rest of the squad due to advancements in his England career. Stanley Matthews made the choice of moving away from this melee and asked for a transfer but club chairman at the time, Albert Booth, and the supporters who gathered in mass numbers urged for Matthews to stay back and so the Stoke City’s No.7 agreed to stay.
However, this decision was short-lived. Even after the World War, the relationship between Matthews and manager Bob McGrory grew bitter, leaving Matthews with no choice but to put in a second transfer request after he found out that his inclusion in a League game against Brentford was only due the absence of the injured Bert Mitchell. And with this, he bid adieu to life in the Potteries.
When the World War broke out, Stanley Matthews was joined the Royal Air Force and was stationed just outside of Blackpool. With six years of his career spent at Blackpool, Matthews had grown to like the city and made it his preferred destination when he left Stoke.
At Blackpool, manager Joe Smith gave Matthews the freedom to employ the style he was comfortable with. And these were exactly the words Matthews needed to hear, as he took the Tangerines from strength to strength with each passing season. From finishing in the sixths and sevenths, Blackpool emerged to become a strong team, going so far as to finishing second behind League champions Manchester United in the 1955/56 season.
Having put several scintillating displays for Blackpool with the unforgettable ‘Matthews Final’ in 1953, Stanley Matthews earned the inaugural European Footballer of the Year award in 1956, beating the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano by a narrow margin.
The 1957/58 season saw Blackpool finish seventh in the First Division and manager Joe Smith resigned from the club. His replacement, Ron Stuart, came in not being too huge a fan of Stanley Matthews. At 45, he didn’t consider Matthews to be much of an asset to the team and pushed him down the pecking order. What he didn’t know was Matthews maintained such a high level of fitness for himself that he easily had another 5-7 years of football ahead of him. A strict food diet, abstinence from alcohol and several hours of investment in maintaining match fitness (Matthews used to tie lead blocks to his football boots and jog at the beach every morning so his feet feel light when he walks out on the pitch) kept Matthews fit as a horse, let alone being fitter than the rest of his teammates.
Nonetheless, Matthews decided to call time on his career at Blackpool and left the club in 1960 only to come back to his boyhood club, Stoke City. His transfer back to Stoke had an element of kink to it, as Blackpool chose not to inform Stoke City about his niggling knee injuries at the time of the transfer.
Over at Stoke it was a different setting upon home-coming. The Potters were languishing in the Second Division with dwindling finances and crowd attendance for their games. But such is the magic of Stanley Matthews that, upon his arrival, the turnout at Victoria Ground (Stoke’s former home ground) rose from 9,000 to the region of over 30,000. The fans still loved him, respected him, adored him and this was enough for him to spur on, even when closing on 50 years of age. And as though it was inevitable, Matthews guided Stoke back to the First Division as Tony Waddington’s side finished winners of the Second Division a season after Matthews’ return.
In 1965, Matthews retired from the game. His injuries, which would once take a day or two to heal, were taking weeks and the England international knew that there was no point in continuing with this sort of form. In the same year, Matthews became the first football player to be knighted for his services to football. The fact that his 33-year career didn’t involve a single scandal, a bust-up with any manager, didn’t record any red cards and nor did he insult the sanctity of the game in a manner which will tarnish his and his club’s/nation’s reputation along with tainting football meant that it was fitting to make him the ‘first gentleman of football’.
Stanley Matthews was probably one of the most down to earth players the game has ever produced. He was made in the mould of a ‘role model’ and made a career that epitomized leadership, sportsmanship and humility. After he retired, he traveled around the world, coaching youngsters from different continents and passing on his knowledge of the game. Needless to say, he must have passed on more than a few words on football.
After his playing career, in his brief time as manager of Port Vale (the club he grew up supporting and ironically, the local rival of Stoke City), he agreed to continue managing the club even after they were fined and expelled from the Football League on grounds of financial irregularities. At that point, it was the name Stanley Matthews that made the other Football League clubs re-elect Port Vale as a professional team once again. When he finally stepped down as manager in 1968, he graciously accepted the £3,300 that the club paid him, when they actually owed Matthews something in the region of £7,000 in salary and expenses.
They say the game doesn’t make such greats anymore. His ashes might be buried at the center of the Britannia Stadium today, but what he has given to football spreads through boundaries and cultures. Take a bow, Sir Stanley Matthews.
“The man who taught us the way football should be played” Pele, on Sir Stanley Matthews