Sir Stanley Matthews and the story of England’s humble wizard

Sir Stanley Matthews and the story of England’s humble wizard

The story of Stanley Matthews is full of lessons. And, much like those loyal to football’s past, I have come to find that Stanley Matthews the person was equally as intriguing as Stanley Matthews the footballer. Players of the magnitude and longevity of Matthews are rare, but at his core the man simply loved his football and in some obscure yet uncomplicated way, Matthews’ zeal for the game exists in every young footballer kicking about in the back gardens and in slick streets around the world. The enthusiasm he had for the game is perhaps the dominant driving force that makes his story the stuff of legend.

Ideas and topics for football writing come and go – often as nothing more than a momentary mental exercise – as just as soon as they’ve arrived, the idea is booted into Row Z. It wasn’t until I found myself climbing the Great Sugar Loaf tucked away in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains that the notion to write about the son of a barber and professional featherweight boxer from Stoke-on-Trent mazed its way into my head in the way Matthews weaved in-and-out and past defenders.

A rebellious group of boys took off up the footpath racing one another up the ascent. As grass gave way to unstable granite and quartzite rock and the gentle winds turned to howling gales off the Irish Sea, the boys romped and navigated up the hill like mountain goats. Natural strides, confident foot placement, and a competitive zeal that ignored danger and warnings from adults who could nothing to stop the boys reminded me less of Stanley Matthews the player and more of Stanley Matthews the child racing back and forth with his brothers and father from their village to nearby towns every Sunday.

In a 1995 interview with the BBC Radio, Matthews described his early love affair with football, recalling the importance of practising with intention, enjoyment and dedication – things too easily lost in the hubbub of modern football, which is increasingly more money-driven and hyper-analysed, even at the grassroots level.

From this, Matthews illustrates just how simple, creative, and unassuming the game can and should be, especially for youngsters:”I used to love getting a little ball and playing with it. I even used to go to the butcher’s shop and get a pig’s bladder, blow it up and play with that. Many a time I played at night when it was dark using a lamppost with the light on. I used to enjoy it.”

In his excellent book The Wizard: The Life of Stanley Matthews, Jon Henderson introduces the reader to Matthews with a fitting excerpt that captures the ageless talent whose durability and longevity seem like alchemy in their own right: “Stanley Matthews turned matter-of-factly, his stare fixed to avoid eye contact. His expression, washed of emotion, accentuated the slightly sunken, careworn look that made him appear at least as old as his thirty-two years. Time had already gone to work on his hair. It was combed back and still dark but was in the first stages of retreat. In close-up, something seemed to shadow his features, a sadness possibly pleated in the corners of his mouth. No one could have guessed that here was a man at the soaring peak of his powers who had just brought a packed arena to a ferment of excitement.”

While running and boxing were worthy pursuits for a young Stanley Matthews, football was the passion that combined elements of both into a fitting outlet that required endurance, speed, focus, competitiveness and discipline. By 1930, Matthews would begin his career with Stoke City, whose manager Tom Mather had convinced Jack Matthews to allow his son to work in the staff offices for a meagre wage of £1 a week.

In 1932, a highly-touted 17-year old Matthews turned professional. With the world at his feet and a boost in his wages to £5 a week, Matthews learned to channel his superior speed and fitness to exploit the right side of the pitch to devastating effect.

What comes next, however, is a lifetime in football that has directly, and indirectly, affected the way people approach, play, teach and view the game both on and off the field. The most fitting place to start is his signature move, which you’ve seen a million times.

The drop of the shoulder, a smooth yo-yo-like in-out swivel with the ball delicately stuck to the foot, the deftness of touch only matched by the fleetness of foot trademarking the move preceding the inevitable cross. Like an elegant dance step lodged in the simplistic, the partner, here played by the hapless defender with two left feet, is left for dead as the lead’s hips shift and swivel to whip the ball into the box. As kids, we subject countless objects strewn about the playground and shadow defenders that aren’t really there to ‘The Matthews’.

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In reality, Stanley Matthews perfected the three-step footballing foxtrot to the point of perfection over a career spanning three decades. Much like his trademark move, the devastatingly simple twinkle-toed movement that’s equally effective in carving up lead-legged defenders to exploit usable space in ways a true winger perfects over a lifetime – the story of Stanley Matthews – football’s ‘Ironman’ is one of austerity.

It’s a tricky thing to venture into the game’s grainy past as time surges the game forward. The football of yesteryear, captured on light-sensitive film strips and played out in black-and-white, is wondrous. Coincidentally, much like the film reels themselves, the football seems less complicated, more transparent, and much more sensitive to today’s bright lights of fame. The veneer of the game is as glossy as ever, perhaps if only for fleeting nostalgic concession.

Future generations will never have to remember football this way – bridging the I wonder ifs with the all accounts indicate so to construct what becomes the story. Naturally, highlighting a figure in times where professional footballers weren’t allowed to earn or rarely earned more than £20 week is a journey into the game’s wistful past.

It’s almost unthinkable to conceptualise a world where professional players earned what seems like a paltry wage compared to modern pay scales. Moreover, these footballers often attracted hundreds of thousands of spectators, and Stanley Matthews was said to attract no fewer than 10,000 additional supporters at away grounds he turned out to play on.

The footballing story of Stanley Matthews is full of unthinkables. For example, by the time he retired in 1965 at 50, Matthews made closed to 700 league appearances for Stoke City and Blackpool. With over 50 appearances for England to his name, he defined the role of a true winger, balancing speed, ability on the ball and a change of pace that is the standard for a winger today.

However, it wasn’t just his ability to operate on the right wing that proved remarkable. It was his proclivity to put his boots on the chalk, so to speak, and exploit the right flank over and over again in a single game, against defenders several years his junior and who knew the signature move was coming, but who could do nothing short of chopping the man down to stop him.

A facet of great players is their consistency in performance. Matthews channelled a childhood and adolescence full of sprinting and ability on the track into a mould of a footballer with a greyhound’s burst and a factory worker’s frame. Serious players are either taught, told or discover a ‘secret’ early on in their playing days: the defender might track you for eight, maybe 10 bursts, but that 11th time, that’s when you’ve got him. Such command of the ball technically and dominance in a footrace earned Matthews the nickname, ‘The Wizard of Dribble’.

There was more to his game than The Matthews move and an exquisite ability to serve the ball into the box. Good wingers serve the ball and hope, which highlights the skill required to win a one-on-one duel, create space and serve the ball. Great wingers, however, drive through this process with an intention that’s infectious. The assumption gives way to the expectation that they will beat their marker and will deliver a quality service into the box.

Matthews scored goals, was a reliable passer, and commanded a myriad of ways to turn a defender inside-out to reach the byline. A trademark skill borne of his upbringing relishing the frequent footrace or when his father refused to give him bus fare to town for work as a young bricklayer. Matthews, even in his older years, had an uncanny ability to stop on a dime and play a striker in for a goal. Over his expansive career, it’s said that Matthews was never booked or disciplined for misconduct proving that the moniker “the first gentleman of football” was fully deserved.

Here’s another unthinkable that sheds light on his effect on opponents. Truth be told, hearing defender in modern football candidly admitting to getting rinsed by a technically superior player the way Jo Pannaye did after Belgium’s 2-0 loss to England at Wembley in January of 1946, is unheard of these days: “He was the best player I’ve ever seen. A ghost. I asked some of those close to me to help, but they could do nothing.”

The evergreen impact of a figure like Stanley Matthews has an Everyman quality to it. There’s a blue-collar aspect to the Matthews story that serves as a bridge between the past and present. The paltry wages, which he helped support his mother on, were still just a bit more than the wages the average labourer earned in his day. Such realities humanise football and its figureheads as football then was still a working-class game and fans could relate to players in ways that are impossible today.

But Matthews’ skill and ability to manipulate the ball at speed, influence a game and put in a workmanlike shift was anything but average. The working=class saw in Matthews the type of effort they themselves put in each shift at the factory or on the docks. The superhuman longevity of Stanley Matthews clashed with the very human side of the man himself. He was known for suffering from extreme nervousness and anxiety to the point of physical sickness before games, yet on the pitch he was cold-blooded and performed with the type of pomp, circumstance and poise that made him such an attraction.

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The industrious winger’s performances helped Stoke City climb to the top of the league during the 1934-35 season, and eventually, Matthews grew to expect his fair share of the profits that his performances and influence helped create. These days, an agent makes such demands for a player.

International football followed his initial years at Stoke City. By the 1937-38 campaign, Stoke City struggled to regain the form of previous seasons and rifts in the dressing room and with the management prompted Matthews to hand in a transfer request that winter, which went public when it was subsequently denied.

Never one to crave the limelight, Matthews rebuked the extra attention, harassment and scrutiny. Football has taught us a lesson in player-club-supporter relations; it’s usually an irreparable rift once the sides don’t agree. For Matthews, a short time away from the club did nothing to belay the turmoil. The remedy came in the form of overwhelming fan support demanding Matthews stay and be fairly compensated. The next season, Matthews balanced regular England appearances and played in 38 league matches in a season that would be the last league action for Matthews and the rest of England until 1946.

In what would be considered a cruel intrusion of fate for any player, at 24 years of age, Matthews, like so many footballers of the time, put their careers on hold or effectively ended them as the Second World War began to rage through Europe. Matthews joined the RAF and was stationed outside Blackpool. During the war, Matthews earned the rank of corporal and made numerous wartime appearances for Stoke City, Blackpool, and clubs in Scotland along with 29 unofficial appearances for England.

At the end of the war, Matthew’s father, Jack, was on his deathbed. As noted in Les Scott’s memoir of Stanley Matthews’ life, The Way It Was, a dying Jack made Stanley make two promises to him: to take care of his mother and to win the FA Cup.

By the time the football resumed in 1946, a now over-30 Matthews continued to turn out for Stoke City. However, his relationship with the board at the football club, which was already strained, began to deteriorate after Matthews and manager Bob McGrory clashed over team selection and rekindled the discontent from years prior, prompting his move to Blackpool Football Club whose manager, Joe Smith, proffered a line of prophetic irony when he asked Matthews, “You’re 32, do you think you can make it for another couple of years?” as noted in Les Scott’s book.

In what would be the twilight of a footballer’s career today when diet, recovery, lessened workload and sporadic appearances are standard practice, Matthews got fitter as he got older. His exercise regime was still running and stretching heavy. His diet changed and was composed of a vegetarian base completely against the norm of the day.

Additionally, Matthews didn’t drink alcohol, smoke or consume refined sugar. The fastidiousness of these dietary details only aided the longevity of both his international and club career and it’s of little wonder Matthews could outwork, outrun and outplay opponents that were at least a decade younger than him.

In an interview with the Football Association, Matthews discussed his lifestyle and its effect on his football: “I wanted to play as long as I could because I was in love with the game and enthusiastic about it. I had some very good advice and started to eat more salads and fruit, and every Monday I had no food. Just one day, on a Monday, but I felt better.”

The beginning of his 14 years at Blackpool illustrate the effect of a supportive manager can have on a player, as Smith exhibited excellent man-management by encouraging Matthews to play freely and expressively on the pitch. Matthews began to reinvent his play by adding a double shoulder-drop and pivot to his arsenal of moves. The thought of a 32-year old player learning, practising, perfecting and implementing new skills is a timeless lesson courtesy of Matthews. As the years passed, Smith went on aid Matthews with his confidence – something that cannot be undervalued when he said, “A lot of people think I’m mad, but even though you’re 37, I believe your best football is still to come.”

The zenith of his time at Blackpool, and arguably his club career, has to be the 1953 FA Cup final against Bolton Wanderers – better known as The Matthews Final. The match, attended by 100,000 supporters at Wembley, is the stuff of legend and fairytale, the kind of final played on a dream-state pitch and with sequences oscillating from bad to great that plays in the mind of the football devotee.


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Finding themselves down 3-1 with just over 20 minutes to play, Matthews, then 38-years-old, sprang to life on the wing. A quick in-out touch and burst by his marker, Matthews’ cross was met by Stan Mortensen who collided with the Bolton goalkeeper but turned the ball in. The commentator’s dry yet brilliant phrase hints at Blackpool’s rejuvenation in a game they had been outplayed in with: “Mortensen’s hurt his leg, but wild horses couldn’t keep him off the pitch at this stage of the game.”

Mortensen’s next goal, a driven free-kick, evened the affair thus setting the stage for a dramatic finish. In the dying seconds of the game, Matthews, displaying fluidity and intention, pulled off his standard move and finds Bill Perry who scores from short range to win the game.

Stanley Matthews’ impact at Blackpool remains remarkable. Ever the consummate professional, Matthews’s lifestyle revolved around keeping himself fit and paying attention to the small details that make the biggest difference.

By 1955, Blackpool’s status improved as they recorded a second-place finish in the league, and the following year, he was the first ever winner of UEFA’s European Player of the year award at 41-years old – beating out the legendary Alfrédo Di Stéfano. Matthews remained at Blackpool until 1961 when returned to Stoke City where he raised the image of the club, its attendance and fortunes, while battling knee injuries and knocks that would eventually remind Matthews that his playing days were numbered.

Playing professional football until the age of 50 is an amazing feat. Matthews’ defied the cynics and Father Time playing the game he loved. His service to football earned him a knighthood in 1965. However, Matthews’ longevity is only part of what makes his story and impact endearing and important. The only part, as noted by Pelé, speaks to why we’re drawn to certain players. Being a good person and player is one thing, but the way they play the game is what it’s all about. The iconic Brazilian, heaping praise on Sir Stanley Matthews said he “taught us the way football should be played.”

From a purely fundamental perspective, Matthews showed what a true winger can do. He also showed what looking after one’s self – in an age before modern sports science, dietary guidance and health-conscious football coaches – can do both in terms of setting the right example of as a team-mate, but as a specialist in his position. The role of the winger has changed over the years, but Matthews will be remembered as the type of winger who opponents hated to play against, but loved as a person.

Arthur Hopcraft, author of The Football Man, perhaps leaves us with a line that best captures Matthews’ ability on the ball: “Matthews did not invent dribbling with a football; he raised it to its highest degree.” Like a certain

Like a certain George Best showed years later, Matthews’ effect on the opponent can’t be overlooked or undersold as Jon Henderson tells in The Wizard: “He had become the most intractable of competitors. Defenders, even those highly practised in the art of intimidation, grew tired of trying to provoke Matthews, before, in his imperious final years as a professional player, to do so was an act tantamount to treason. Team-mates grew to understand that he preferred to celebrate with no more than the merest inflexion of his facial mask.”

Also like George Best, defenders grew weary – physically, emotionally and mentally – of Matthews spinning them around like a top on a smooth oak floor. And yet, Matthews did this over a lifetime in football.

By the time of his death at the age of 85 in 2000, Sir Stanley Matthews had shown the world what a true football man can do with his time in football. Just like his ability to bring 100,000 spectators to watch him play, his funeral procession had an estimated 100,000 turn out to pay homage to the icon. Ever loyal to the people of Stoke and the club he started his illustrious career at, Matthews’ ashes were buried beneath the centre circle at the Britannia Stadium. The Wizard of Dribble had come home.

In his autobiography, The Way It Was, Matthews stated: “For over 80 years, football has been an intrinsic part of my life. I have loved it dearly.” The world of football loved him back. A lasting image exists of Sir Stanley Matthews in the form of a statue of him outside the Britannia Stadium performing his signature – football’s Ironman aptly emboldened in cast iron for eternity.

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3

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