Saint Matthews

Cris Freddi pays tribute to Sir Stanley Matthews

It’s almost as if he just fancied seeing in the new millennium. Or maybe he thought 85 was quite a round number. We all assumed Stan would go on for ever.

That’s partly because he did. League football from 1932 to 1965, a 22-year international career, Footballer of the Year at 48 – tributes to the legendary fitness that explained why he always looked the same sort of age, ie old, the rather wizened appearance of the very slim and fit (Tom Finney and Lester Piggott had it).

His various obits have all been emphasising what a perfect gent he was: for example not a single booking in 700 League matches. There’s no reason to doubt it, and it’s good to hear, but I’m not particularly interested unless it was part of his armoury; maybe the fact he didn’t react made him relatively untouchable in the way Bobby Charlton’s supposed to have been. If not, it’s irrelevant. I mean, if you take his only real chal­lengers as Greatest Outside Right of the Century, Garrincha had kids all over the place, left his wife for a nightclub singer and died in poverty; and in between World Cups the amazing Helmut Rahn grew as round as a barrel of the lager he was so fond of. All I care about is how good Stan was as a player.

There were doubts at the time. He won only 54 caps compared with Finney’s 76, he scored only 11 goals in those internationals, his concern with beating a man was criticised for slowing down the attack – and we all know he was a one-trick magician, some of his con­temporaries are adamant about it. Shuffle up to his full-back, dummy inside, scoot past on the outside. He was so quick he got aw­ay with it time and again.

But it’s hard to believe he could have survived at the highest level for 30 years, even with only one man to beat, if he hadn’t had other strings to his bow. The obit in the Gazzetta dello Sport, for instance, recalls him lying deep against Italy in Turin in 1948, drawing left-back Alberto Eliani upfield before punching long balls up the right wing for Stan Mortensen to use his speed, first to thrash in a freak goal, then to make the second for Tommy Lawton. Against a team based on the Grande Torino, England won 4-0. Eliani wasn’t capped again. There’s also the story of Stan pulling a comb out of his shorts before Eliani came in for a tackle, but that’s just typical Gazzetta.

Then against Brazil in 1956, at the age of 41, Mat­thews destroyed Nílton Santos, the greatest left-back of all time. Although there’s a famous picture of him with the ball at his feet and Nílton left lying on his side, again most of the damage came from passes pushed behind the defender. It’s presumably the performance that made him the first European Footballer of the Year ahead of Di Stéfano and Kopa. He’d been the first English equivalent in 1948 and won it again for taking Stoke into the First Division in 1963.

All right, so he was a two-trick wizard. So put one of today’s man-markers on him and goodnight. Except they’d have to cope with that much-filmed acceleration and the ability to run all day – and anyway there was even more to his game. His passing and perfect ball control stood him in good stead when he came inside. When England were reduced to nine fit men against the talented Czechoslovakians in 1937, he moved to inside-right and scored a hat-trick, including the late winner in a 5-4 win, all with his left foot, which isn’t in the script you usually read.

And that’s the main thing when you try and decide his place in the pantheon. Whereas Finney had two anonymous World Cups and a bad FA Cup final, Stan was always likely to do it on the big occasion. All right, he only made the winner in “his” Cup final because Bolton were down to ten men – but in the 1954 World Cup he was all over the pitch against Belgium (“Eng­land threw away all Matthews’s brilliant work”) and the best player against the holders Uruguay, even at the age of 39. The Swiss match programme knew what it was doing when it listed him as St Matthews.

As for how he’d get on today, you’re having a laugh aren’t you? The fact that England are having to use Beckham in the No 7 shirt says it all. There’s only ever been one Stan the Man.

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month