Nat Lofthouse: the Lion of Vienna and the gent of Bolton

Nat Lofthouse: the Lion of Vienna and the gent of Bolton

It’s difficult to discuss Nat Lofthouse without resorting to clichés. His career and life, like so many of the players he shared the pitch with, seems so improbable when compared to modern stars – both in terms of achievements and circumstances – that it’s hard to separate the man from the legend. Indeed, many of the stereotypes we now associate with players from the sepia-tinged era of the 1950s have their roots in Lofthouse’s own story.

Lofthouse’s early life was typical of many of those who played in the final era before wages exploded, when the sport was still very much a working man’s game. He grew up without much in the way of material comforts; his first sight of Bolton Wanderers came after shinning up a drain pipe at the club’s Burnden Park home rather than paying the threepence for schoolboy admission.

From an early age, however, it was clear that as long as he or one of the neighbouring children had something approximating a ball, he felt natural and content. One false start for his school team aside – he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement in goal and conceded seven – he began exhibiting a prodigious knack for goalscoring early on. Playing at number 9 for Castle Hill, a position once occupied by Tommy Lawton – at that point an England star – young Nat firmly establishing himself as a school hero and, unbeknownst to him, earned a reputation among local scouts as the boy with such incredible heading ability that it was like he could “kick with his head”.

With the extensive scouting networks and multi-tiered academies of nowadays simply not existing in the 1930s, Lofthouse was staring into the footballing abyss as he left school at 14. With no club having shown an interest and his days of regular organised football coming to an end, it appeared that any chance he had of making it as a professional was over, before one of his final days at school where he was to be commended at the annual prize-giving ceremony.

It was there that the conversation that would change his life forever took place. Accepting his award from a local councilman, he was unaware that the man in front of him sat on the board of Bolton Wanderers, until he asked if Lofthouse would like to play for them. He didn’t need to be asked twice.

As it transpired, Nat’s first day reporting to Burnden Park in 1939 was also Britain’s first full day at war with Germany. His signing may well have been precipitated by Bolton’s stately long-time manager, Charles Foweraker, anticipating losing many of his players to the war effort. The same was true of his debut, which arrived in 1940, aged just 15. Two goals in a win against Bury immediately had the few hardy souls willing to brave the football during the Blitz abuzz with excitement.

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Even after he was conscripted to work in the nightmarish Lancashire coal pits as part of the war effort (many miners volunteered for the Armed Forces in large part to escape the agonising, doom-laden drudgery of their vocation), he could still consistently put opposition defences to the sword with a combination of rugged, raw power, superb aerial ability and a remarkable fearlessness.

Nat’s prolific strike rate in the war leagues left Wanderers in little doubt as to his abilities, but the cessation of the conflict and resumption of the football league ushered in a tough period of acclimatisation for club and player. Lofthouse found the step up in quality in First Division defences hard to cope with, and he briefly considered leaving the game, as well as entertaining an offer from Tottenham, then of the Second Division.

It was one of the first instances of a personal worrisome streak that was completely at odds with his public persona. Bolton as a team were struggling to reassert themselves with their pre-war team dismantled and Foweraker retiring, and that process was made considerably more difficult by the shadow – both psychological and financial – cast by the Burnden Disaster, a crush that killed 33, in 1946.

As the decade wore on, the clouds began to disperse. Lofthouse was consistently self-deprecating about his abilities – his favourite maxim, borrowed from one of his coaches at Bolton, was that all he could do was “run, shoot, and head” – but it slowly became apparent that by doing all three with a sort of relentless, irresistible energy, he needed little else.

Bolton’s top-flight status stabilised as Lofthouse began to find his feet, and in 1950/51 he enjoyed a true breakthrough season, netting 17 times and being granted his first opportunity to prove his mettle on the international stage. Two goals on his England debut against Yugoslavia wasn’t enough to convince the notoriously finicky and often mystifying FA selection committee, but when he was recalled a year later, he took an iron grip on England’s number 9 shirt, one he wouldn’t fully relinquish for another five years.

The paradigm that would come to define a golden era in the history of one of England’s oldest clubs was now set in stone. Doug Holden, another star of the legendary 1950s edition of Bolton, provided a succinct summation of Lofthouse’s influence on the team. “When he was in the team, we played to him. Find him, you got a winner. When he wasn’t on form, neither was the team.” Thankfully for Bolton, the games in which Lofthouse wasn’t on song were becoming fewer and fewer.

In 1953, it all came together. Lofthouse was at his imperious best, plundering goals at a rate that even the sportswriters who had grown up watching the likes of Dixie Dean and others agreed was exceptional. He netted in every round of the FA Cup in 1953, including the final, only to be thwarted by the wizardry of Stanley Matthews and a hat-trick from Stan Mortensen in one of the most famous finals of all time. His efforts did see him awarded the title of FWA Footballer of the Year, an accolade that went nicely with the moniker, his most famous, that he’d earned the year before.

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The England camp was tense as dawn broke in Vienna, Austria, on the morning of 25 May 1952. Any hopes of the Three Lions’ traditional end-of-season tour being a relatively sedate one had been dashed in their opening game, a frustrating 1-1 draw in Florence in which England’s Italian opponents had resorted to the dark arts on more than one occasion.

Now they faced Austria, one of the world’s best teams, and one who had seriously threatened England’s precious unbeaten record at home to continental teams just one year before. If that wasn’t pressure enough, thousands of Tommies stationed in Vienna had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of their heroes for months, with many staking weeks of wages on the dim chance of an England win.

For Nat, the expectations were even greater. In what was only his seventh cap, he was already well accustomed to the no-holds-barred criticism that came with being England’s centre forward. Having failed to find the net in his past two internationals, a run which had scuppered more than a few promising youngsters’ England careers, Bolton’s star was aware of a concerted campaign in the press to have him replaced by Newcastle’s brilliant Jackie Milburn. In a rare show of off-field bullishness, Lofthouse later remembered that he made it his sole purpose to make one particular writer “eat his words – even if he choked”.

By the end of the match, he had done just that, and earned the title of ‘The Lion of Vienna’ in the process. Lofthouse opened the scoring but Austria came back, and with the game deadlocked at 2-2, began to exert significant pressure. When they won a late corner, they flooded forward, leaving Lofthouse alone with a single marker on the halfway line.

The ball came in and fell to Tom Finney, Lofthouse’s long-time England cohort and close personal friend, who expertly set his centre-forward away. “I could hear the hounds setting off after me but I knew it was basically down to me and [Austrian goalkeeper Josef] Musil.” The sickening collision between striker and ‘keeper left Lofthouse knocked out cold. When he awoke several moments later, groggy and with a good deal more pain than even he was used to, he was informed that he had just scored one of the defining goals of his career.

Over the next few years, Lofthouse set about exhausting the superlatives available with his goalscoring. Billy Wright had defensive prowess; Tom Finney, pinpoint crossing accuracy; Stan Matthews, a mesmeric array of tricks. Lofthouse had thunderous, crashing shots, coupled with a burning desire to get in the right place to unleash them.

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In 1956, he finished as the First Division’s top scorer with 33 goals. In 1957, he assumed captaincy of the club. In 1958, he achieved his crowning glory, scoring twice – including a controversial bundled second which sent the ball and goalkeeper Harry Gregg into the net – as Bolton overcame a Manchester United side ravaged by the Munich Air Disaster to win the FA Cup. All the while, he kept scoring for his country as well as for his club, finishing on an incredible 30 goals in 33 caps and taking the record as the national team’s all-time top goalscorer jointly with Finney.

What made Lofthouse’s feats all the more remarkable was the manner in which he shrugged them off. The key to his appeal, beyond his fantastic abilities on the pitch, was his humility. Long after his star had ascended, he could still be found riding the bus from his nearby home to Burnden Park, delighting in surprising fans who were discussing his performances on the pitch unbeknownst of his presence.

Even earning the maximum wage, financial security for his family wasn’t secured beyond his playing days, and he tried his hand at both working as a paint salesman and running a pub. From the very height of his celebrity to the very end of his life, almost everybody that Lofthouse – or ‘Lofty’, as he insisted on being called – met came away with memories of a genial, friendly, generous soul.

Lofthouse’s story wasn’t as black and white as many modern accounts would have readers believe. A one-club man with a passionate love for his hometown and his club, his decision to remain at Burnden Park for his entire career was never truly in his hands, with no freedom of contract meaning the club had absolute power over their player.

Indeed, he did little to dissuade attention from Spurs early on in his career, and readily admitted that had Fiorentina made good on their interest in the early 1950s, the money they were offering would have been too good to turn down. However, there’s little doubt that financial pragmatism aside, his heart was always in Bolton and with Wanderers. When remembering the menial jobs he was tasked with as youth team coach following his retirement, he reflected that they “meant I could stay with Bolton Wanderers. And that, basically, was all I wanted to do. All I’d ever wanted to do.”

The words so often used to describe how he acted in public – fearless, brave, “lionheart” in the words of Stanley Matthews – reflected a reputation as a player of almost biblical determination, but one who was privately beset by worry at various points throughout his career. And in an ironic twist, for all his on-field exploits, all his goals, all his charging, bulldozing, irresistible runs forward, arguably his greatest contribution to the club came long after he’d retired and after his ill-fated spells as manager, when his tireless fundraising helped rescue Bolton from financial oblivion.

Lofthouse is rightly remembered as the archetypal one-club man, but to call him that is to do him a disservice. For as much as Bolton Wanderers shaped him, his career and his life, he too left an indelible mark on the club, defining the team’s most iconic era and playing a pivotal role in saving the club during its most ignominious age. As much as he was a one-club man, Bolton Wanderers will forever remain a one-man club.

By Matt Clough @MattJClough

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