One of the biggest understatements I can make about football is that it is divisive. The very nature of supporting a football team immediately sets you at odds with fans of opposing teams and one of the best (and simultaneously worst) aspects of being a football fan is that the various pros and cons of players, coaches, teams and other issues in football can be discussed and argued about ad nauseum.
However, every so often something comes along and united football fans, regardless of who they support. In exceptional circumstances one of those unifying factors is a player who is so good on the pitch, and represents everything good about the game, that they are admired and respected by everybody, regardless of who they support. One of those players was Sir Tom Finney, one of the greatest footballers England has ever produced; who sadly died last week aged 91.
As a child growing up in Preston (if you’re familiar with the geography of the UK, Preston’s about 30 miles north of Liverpool), Finney idolised Preston North End winger Alex James, who later went on to become one of Arsenal’s all-time greats. James was known for being extremely skilful and for having masterful control of the ball, and the young Finney started to try and emulate the way James played the game.
Finney left school, and began a plumbing apprenticeship, a trade which he continued in throughout his career, which caused him to be dubbed ‘the Preston plumber’. Around this time, Preston North End had started to set up junior leagues to try and identify the best local talent, and in 1940, Finney was one of the first players to emerge from this system.
Finney was known as an exceptional dribbler of the ball, a skill he put down to having developed whilst playing for hours as a child. Finney said “The kickabouts we had in the fields and on the streets were daily events, sometimes involving dozens and dozens of kids. There were so many bodies around you had to be flippin' good to get a kick. Once you got hold of the ball, you didn't let it go too easily. That's where I first learned about close control and dribbling”
World War Two meant that national league competition in England was suspended, with many stadiums being used for military purposes and many players having joined the military. Instead of national competitions, football continued in the form of regional competition, where no team had to travel more than 50 miles to play a game. It was in the Northern Regional league that Tom Finney got his first taste of first-team football, and ended up being part of the Preston North End team which won the 1941 Wartime Cup.
Finney was drafted into the British Army, where he served in North Africa as part of Montgomery’s Eighth Army, and later, as a tank driver in Italy. During this time, Finney also made a few appearances for the British Army football team.
Somewhat amazingly, post WW2; Finney seamlessly made the transition back from soldier to footballer (Finney was discharged from the army quickly, because plumbers were needed back in Britain to help with rebuilding) and finally made his debut for Preston in 1946 (games played during wartime did not count as ‘official games’) and made his England debut a month later. Finney went on to win 76 caps for England, scoring 30 goals and played in three World Cups.
Finney played in an era of English football when players’ wages were capped, so at the time, no player could earn more than £14 per week, which is why Finney had to supplement his income as a footballer with his plumbing business. This meant that players often didn’t have much incentive to move between clubs, so it wasn’t unusual for even the best players to spend their career with one club. This was the case with Finney, who spent his whole career at Preston, making 473 appearances and scoring 210 goals.
However, in 1952, Finney was given the chance to play for Palermo, who tempted him with a huge (for the time ) signing bonus, wages of £130 a week, plus bonuses, and a villa on the Mediterranean, use of a sports car and plane tickets for his family to visit him in Sicily whenever they wanted. Finney wanted to go, and who could blame him? But Preston’s chairman blocked the move, as he was entitled to do, and Finney had no choice but to stay put and remained at Preston until he retired in 1960.
Finney was a left winger and played at a time in English football where wing play was a fundamental part of a team’s success. Finney was known for his skill at dribbling the ball and for having devastating changes of pace. He was naturally left-footed, but usually played at right-wing, as this allowed him to cut inside, with devastating results.
At the time, most teams in England, including the national team, played a 2-3-5 formation, called the ‘WM’, as the way the players lined up on the pitch resembled the letter W on top of a letter M. At the time Finney was pushing for selection for England, Stanley Matthews, another of England’s all-time greats, held the right-wing spot, and it caused a national sensation when Finney was called up for England, as it was at the expense of Matthews, and throughout their careers, Finney and Matthews were portrayed as feuding rivals, despite both players insisting this was not the case.
It took time for England to find a way to accommodate both Matthews and Finney, with Finney being played out of position on the left-wing against Portugal. England won 10-0 and Finney tormented Portugal’s right-back and captain, Alvaro Cardoso, to the point where he walked off the pitch, demanding to be substituted. Finney and Matthews became the mainstays of the England team for years after.
After his retirement, Finney remained involved with Preston North End, becoming club President. David Moyes speaks fondly of seeking Finney’s advice during his time as Preston manager, saying “Sir Tom was a great help to me in the early stages of my management career. He has an incredible passion for the game and he is somebody I have got great admiration for. There is no doubt he was one of the greatest players, but to me he is also a great man”
Finney remained a hugely popular figure in Preston, often attending local functions and charity events, and regularly making time to talk to fans that stopped him on the street. Finney is often described as being one of the main reasons Prestonians are proud of their city; he was still receiving, and answering fan mail right up to his death. Finney was knighted in 1998 (though Finney reportedly was never comfortable being called ‘Sir’).
Finney is honoured at Deepdale (Preston’s stadium), with a stand named after him with his image on the seats, with the road leading to the stadium being Sir Tom Finney Way, and outside Deepdale there is a statue called The Splash, which is a recreation of one of the most famous photos in English football history, which showed Finney in 1956 sliding through a puddle at Stamford Bridge, to control a ball during the Chelsea-PNE game in 1956.
Despite not having won any significant trophies in his career; Finney was regarded by his peers as one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. Finney’s former teammate, the legendary manager Bill Shankly (who also has his image on the seats of a stand named after him at Deepdale) said Finney was “the greatest player ever born”, Matt Busby and Tommy Lawton regarded him as one of England’s greatest ever footballers and Sir Stanley Matthews put Finney in a class with Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano and George Best.
Finney isn't just remembered for being a great player, he is remembered as a true gentleman of the game. He was never booked in his career, and never retaliated to any of the rough treatment he regularly received at the hands of opponents. He was someone who embodied team-work and fair play, and his generosity didn't just extend to teammates.
Wigan Athletic Chairman Dave Whelan tells a story about Tom Finney. Whelan used to play for Blackburn and had been out injured with a broken leg, which he sustained in the 1960 FA Cup final. In his first game back, Blackburn were playing Preston in a friendly and Whelan was up against a somewhat subdued Finney. Whelan was surprised that he was having a comfortable game against someone he knew to be a formidable opponent and as the teams walked off at half-time, he asked Finney why he wasn’t trying to take him on.
Finney said “You've had some bad luck son, and I'm not going to take you on, I want you to get through today's game and get back into the first team."
Whereas Tom Finney was a name that was well known to fans in England, he may not be so well known to fans worldwide. Finney was such a modest character you suspect that it didn’t bother him that he wasn’t that well-known to fans outside of the UK.
Besides, to quote Bobby Moore, “If you’re as good as Tom Finney, you don’t have to tell anybody”