Well if you’re going to start a series like this, there is only one person to start with in my opinion, Sir Stanley Matthews, the wizard of dribble. Matthews is a name that will always be mentioned as one of the greatest footballers of all time, never mind a legend of the English game. He was probably the first superstar footballer that we had as the growing medium of television began to creep into houses up and down Britian.
Born in 1915, in Hanley near Stoke on Trent, Matthews was a prodigious talent and was playing for England schoolboys when spotted by Stoke City. He signed for them in1932 and by the following season had become a mainstay of the Potters side. His England debut followed in 1934, even scoring one as England beat Wales 4-0. His reputation and talent touched all that saw him, and by 1935 at 20, he was easily the biggest footballing star in the country.
Matthews had three abilities that would bamboozle opponents, he was lightening fast, could cross a ball on to a sixpence from the wing and made the ball seem to stick to his foot. If anything, Matthews created the position of winger by the power of his own talents. He looked set to take the world by storm, and after scoring a hatrick for England in another 4-0 win, history was beckoning. He almost left Stoke City in 1938 but a crowd of nearly 4,000 fans came to the ground and begged him to stay.
By the time he was 24, in 1939, Sir Stan had played 256 games for Stoke City when World War II broke out. For the next 6 years, Matthews was a member of the Royal Air Force, but played in numerous friendlies for Manchester United, Blackpool and Arsenal as well as still representing England. For most players, losing those prime years could have been the end for their careers but Matthews hadn’t finished. In 1947, he joined Blackpool, aged 32 for £11,500 and the manager at the time hoped he could get another 2 or 3 seasons out of him.
By the end of that season, he’d won the inaugural Footballer of the Year award and a runners up medal in the F.A.Cup. He was still playing for England and infamously against Italy beat his marker by so much distance, whilst wasting time in the corner, stopped to put his hair back into place. The legend became that Matthews had pulled a comb out of his shorts pocket and combed his hair, such was the time he had waiting.
Far from giving Blackpool 2 or 3 seasons, he actually spent 15 seasons at the Seasiders, reaching another F.A. Cup final in 1951, but once again Blackpool contrived to lose once more. The feeling was that the nations favourite footballer would never win a domestic honor, but in 1953 he finally earned his reward. Nowadays, the 1953 final is known as “The Matthews Final” but Blackpool looked dead and buried at 3-1 down shortly after half time but Matthews had other idea’s.
Even at 38, Matthews’ skill had not diminished and he took the game by the scruff of the neck, tearing Bolton to shreds with his pace and dribbling. With 22 minutes left, he crossed the ball to his partner in crime, Stan Mortensen to make it 3-2 and Blackpool were back in it. With time running out, Matthews kept going and Blackpool managed to win a free kick which Mortensen smashed home to bring them level.
Everyone thought they were going to have extra time, but Sir Stan had other idea’s, he broke free in the final minute and tearing down the wing for last effort. He seemed to take too long but at the last second he crossed the ball to the onrushing Perry who fired the winning goal home and finally get Matthews a medal his career so richly deserved. In 1956 he won the first European Footballer of the year award at 41!
This is a player that continued to play for his country until he was 42! His England career of 23 years will probably never be beaten and even as he moved in to his mid 40’s, he was still a regular for Blackpool. At 46 when most players are long retired, he returned to Stoke City and amazingly scored the goal that guaranteed them promotion in 1963! He also won the Footballer of the Year award again that season. Can you imagine a Second Division player achieving that these days?
He finally retired in 1965, just after his 50th birthday but felt that he retired too early. His final appearance in a football match was in a testomonial in 1981 aged 66. Matthews was also the only footballer to be knighted whilst still playing, such was the warmth that was felt toward the man. Sir Stan passed away in February 2000, 3 weeks after turning 85.
He put his longevity down to daily runs and never touching alcohol as a player, and he never received a booking or a red card in his entire career. Renowned as a gentleman, his influence far outweighed the skinny lad from Stoke on Trent born during World War I. A true legend, not just of English football but of the World game.
“I grew up in an era where he was a god to those of us that aspired to play the game. He was a true gentleman and we shall never see his like again” Brian Clough
- 795 games for Stoke City and Blackpool, scoring 81 goals
- 54 games for England, scoring 11 goals
- Never booked or sent off
- Missed 6 seasons due to the Second World War
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