Tom Finney

17Feb14

Tom Finney, who passed away on Friday 14 February, was one of the great iconic figures of English football in the 1950s. In many ways he was typical of players of that period – a one club man who spent over 20 years on the books of Preston North End, he gained few personal honours in club football, supplemented his income from the game with his work as a plumber and was regarded as a true gentleman by both fans and opponents.  On the field, however, he was no ordinary player, being both an exceptional and versatile talent.

Born in Preston on 5 April 1922, he was a frail youngster who had been inspired to become a footballer by watching another all-time great, Alex James, playing for North End in the late 1920s. Although Tom showed talent as a footballer he was only a reserve when Preston Boys reached the final of the English Schools Trophy in 1936-37. On leaving school at 14 he began an apprenticeship as a plumber before joining Preston firstly as an amateur and then, in January 1940, as a professional. Like many young players he took full advantage of the fact that many of the seasoned professionals were in the Forces and played in all 41 games for North End in 1940-41, ironically winning his only major club honours as a member of the team that won the Football League North and defeated Arsenal to win the League War Cup. Preston closed down activities for the 1942-43 season and Tom appeared as a guest for Southampton, Newcastle United and Bolton Wanderers. He saw wartime service in North Africa and Italy with the Royal Armoured Corps and also turned out for one of the Forces’ touring teams, the Wanderers.

At the end of the war Tom gained representative honours for an FA Combined Services XI against Switzerland in July 1945 and after a quick return to civilian life (plumbers were in great demand) he went straight into the North End team when peacetime football resumed in August 1946, going on to make some 473 competitive appearances and scoring 210 goals before a niggling groin injury led to his retirement at the end of the 1959-60 season. He gained a Division Two winners’ medal with North End in 1950-51 and was twice a member of a team that finished as runners-up in the Football League (1952-53 and 1957-58). His greatest disappointment came in May 1954 when Preston conceded a goal in the closing minutes to lose out 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.

Tom replaced the injured Stanley Matthews on England’s right wing for the first full post-war international against Northern Ireland in Belfast in September 1946 but often featured on the left flank for his country with Matthews mostly regarded as having first choice on the number 7 jersey. He went on to win 76 caps, scoring 30 goals for his country, and at the time of his retirement was in second place in the all-time lists both for appearances and goals for the England team.

Although he retired in April 1960, Tom made two brief returns to action; the first of these was when he acted as player-manager for the FA team that toured Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and USA in the summer of 1961. One of his colleagues in that team was a young wing half who went on to captain England, Bobby Moore. Two years later Tom made a single appearance for Irish League club Distillery against Benfica in a European Cup tie, helping manager George Eastham’s team achieve a 3-3 draw at Windsor Park.

Tom was a right winger throughout most of his career but often played on the left flank for England. Matthews and Finney were initially rivals for the England shirt before Tom switched to outside left for the game against Portugal in May 1947 which resulted in a 10-0 victory. Towards the end of his international career he made a few appearances at centre forward. After a typical performance on the wing against Italy in May 1952 he was offered a move to Serie A club Palermo. He must have been attracted by talk of a £10,000 signing on fee, £100 plus a week, a car and a villa – great riches compared to his Deepdale wages of £14 a week – but Preston refused to allow him to go and that was the end of the matter.

Although often compared to Matthews in his career the two were very different players. Matthews, the Wizzard of Dribble, could mesmerise even the best of opponents with his skills on the ball, although he was sometimes criticised for holding on to it for too long. Tom was arguably the better all-round player for he could play equally well on either flank and had a much better scoring record. For the 1956-57 season he switched to a new role, featuring as a deep lying centre forward, and went on to play some of the best football of his career until injuries took their toll. His talents were summed up by a Daily Mirror reporter on the eve of the 1954 FA Cup final: “Finney is the complete footballer. He has superb ball control, wonderful fitness, a killing burst of speed, a lethal shot, a sharp, tactical mind, and the cold courage that every great performer needs.” Even when close to retirement he remained a popular figure and in a Gallup Poll of fans in 1960 6% of those surveyed declared they would make a point of going to see a match if Tom was playing. Only Stanley Matthews achieved a higher rating. Tom was the first player to win the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award twice, being honoured in 1953-54 and again in 1956-57.

In retirement he continued his plumbing business but remained close to North End where he was club President. He was awarded the OBE in 1961 and the CBE in 1992 before receiving a knighthood in 1998. At the time of his death he was England’s oldest living former international, a title he inherited from Bert Williams who passed away in January.

Tom Finney will be remembered as one of the game’s true all-time greats – a fine footballer and a gentleman.

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