Jonathan Paxton recalls how an almost famous season for Stoke was ruined by manager and star player falling out

“All teams have their era,” my Grandad often tells me. “It’s just that Stoke’s came between 1939 and 1945.” Most biographies of Adolf Hitler focus on stronger crimes against humanity ahead of denying Stoke City their chance of winning silverware but few in the Potteries would argue that the club’s golden generation lost their best years to the war. In 1938-39 the team managed by former player Bob McGrory finished seventh playing some of the finest football in the country. Freddie Steele scored 26 goals at centre-forward, centre-half Neil Franklin was just out of the youth team and, on the right wing, the Potters had Hanley-born England superstar Stanley Matthews who made his debut aged 17 in 1932. Fans were rightly optimistic.

But while Europe braced itself for war, north Staffordshire was concerned about Matthews. He was unhappy with his salary, which he felt was not in keeping with his position as the star of the team. He duly put in a transfer request, but after over 3,000 fans attended a protest meeting, Matthews pledged his future to his hometown club. Then war broke out and competitive football was suspended for seven years.

Matthews’ war years were spent working as a PT instructor in Blackpool. He maintained his fitness with occasional “guest” appearances in friendlies for, among others, Manchester United and Rangers. He and his wife were taken by life on the coast and invested in a small guest-house. When order was restored to Europe and football, Matthews stayed in Blackpool, training with the local side and commuting back to Stoke for match days. In 1946 Stoke reached an FA Cup quarter-final against Bolton at Burnden Park, losing after a crowd disaster in which 33 supporters died. (It was later suggested that Matthews’ presence had swelled the crowd to a dangerous level.)

The first post-war League season started badly for Stoke. Matthews was struggling with a thigh injury and after four games the team had just one point. A home win against Derby, however, propelled the team on to a run of six successive victories. Matthews had hardly played by this stage and with a big game approaching at Highbury he travelled down to Stoke in midweek for a full-scale practice match to prove his fitness. Although he came through with no reaction, manager Bob McGrory suggested that a run out in the reserves would be better than risking him in such a big match. Matthews refused to drop down but McGrory still didn’t pick him for the Arsenal game, which Stoke lost 1-0. The press carried stories of dressing room unrest and Blackpool were hovering with a transfer bid so a meeting between Matthews, McGrory and the board was hastily arranged. After several hours of talks, a press release was issued stating that all differences had been “amicably settled” and that Matthews was to be given a week’s holiday before returning to the team. The next game was a 3-0 reversal at home to Wolves.

Matthews finally returned for a victory at Sunderland and the team settled down into a good run of form. It was the visit of Blackpool to the Victoria Ground in December that had everyone talking. Matthews playing for his home town club against the team who, if rumours were to be believed, he was about to join. If there were any conflict of interest it didn’t show. Matthews helped set up the first three and scored the fourth in a 4-1 victory and was applauded off by supporters who would regard it as his most complete performance for the Potters.

At Easter, Stoke, in fifth place, faced three vital games in four days. Matthews had been called up by England for the Home International with Scotland and asked McGrory to excuse him from the Good Friday game against Grimsby. This was agreed on the understanding that he would be available for both remaining Easter fixtures. A hat-trick for Steele helped Stoke to a resounding 5-2 win against Grimsby so Matthews was by no means assured of walking back into a winning team. On the Saturday morning before the game with Huddersfield, McGrory confirmed to Matthews in a private meeting that he would be playing but, an hour before kick-off and with Stan halfway through changing, McGrory announced the team would remain unchanged. Despite the player’s protest at his poor treatment, the manager was proved right as Stoke won 3-0, a scoreline they repeated two days later in the return fixture against Grimsby.

Matthews was left out for the win at Blackpool on April 12 but came back and scored in a 3-1 victory against Brentford a week later. It was to be his last home match at the Victoria Ground for 14 years. The board had reluctantly agreed to his transfer request but valued him at £20,000. Blackpool’s offer of £11,500 was initially rejected but Stoke consented after Matthews threatened to retire. Blackpool manager Joe Smith reportedly asked Matthews if he could make it “for another couple of years” before signing the paperwork; he signed on May 10 and would spend 13 years with the Seasiders. In his autobiography Matthews revealed: “I felt that if I didn’t move now, in a couple of years it may be too late to join a team of note.”

Despite the off-field saga, Stoke were favourites for the championship. A 1-0 victory at Villa Park in the penultimate fixture was their seventh win in eight games. With the season extended into June because of a cold winter the Potters had one game remaining, at Bramall Lane. They trailed leaders Liverpool by two points but with a better goal average any victory would bring them the title. It was 1-1 at half-time but a slip by right-back John McCue set up Sheffield United’s winner just after the break. Liverpool took the first title of the post-war era and Stoke dropped to fourth.

Surprisingly, the Stoke players seemed to side with their former colleague. Club captain Franklin later wrote: “If he had not been sold to Blackpool, I am sure Stoke would have won the championship.” Goalkeeper Denis Herod agreed: “Bob McGrory’s jealousy of Stan’s fame cost Stoke their best chance of the First Division title.” It was to be as much as the finest team ever assembled in the Potteries would achieve. McGrory tried signing several major names with the Matthews transfer money, notably Wilf Mannion and Tommy Lawton, but had to settle for Tommy Kiernan from Celtic and Portsmouth’s Irish striker Jimmy McAlinden. Neither was a success. In 1950 Franklin, the classiest centre-half of his era, signed a lucrative contract to play in Colombia, cutting short his international career in the process. He lasted only a few weeks in Bogota before returning home but he never played for Stoke again. The club endured a series of relegation battles and McGrory resigned as manager in 1952. The following season, while Matthews was starring in a legendary FA Cup final, Stoke were relegated.

Matthews returned to the Victoria Ground in 1961, aged 46, and helped the team back into the top flight. Manager Tony Waddington was building the next great Stoke City side with England internationals George Eastham and Gordon Banks among the later signings. The club may be back in the top division after an absence of 23 years but a chance to match 1946-47 seems unlikely to ever happen again. Nor could Stoke be expected to repeat their other feat of that season, when they became the first and so far only team to field 11 locally born players in a top flight game.

From WSC 267 May 2009

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