Eighty years ago today the great Stanley Matthews, at the age of 23, gave what many argued was the best of his many outstanding performances in a 7-0 win by England over Northern Ireland at Old Trafford. One journalist wrote at the time: ‘The poker-faced, bandy wizard sent his stock soaring so high that, all personal personal likes and dislikes apart, you’d have to be a Rockefeller to buy him now.’ While researching my book When Footballers Were Skint, I was constantly reminded by the old professionals I interviewed, quite what a brilliant player he was – and that his occasional remoteness was offset by acts of generosity.
What stands out is not just that nearly everyone I interview recognises Stanley Matthews as a player of conspicuous brilliance for his two clubs, Stoke City and Blackpool, and for England. Also, almost without exception, they treasure a clearly recalled Matthews anecdote – and not necessarily one that ends with them on the seat of their pants as the wizard of the dribble disappears over the horizon.
Although there are, of course, plenty of these.
Bill Leivers remembers when Manchester City played Blackpool in the 1950s: ‘Roy Paul who was our captain, a Welsh international, played left half. Before the game against Blackpool, Roy said to the manager, “Let me play against Matthews, let me play left fullback”, which the manager let him do and I don’t think Roy hardly touched the ball. Matthews ran the legs off him.
‘He always did the same thing, Matthews. He’d move over to the left and you knew he was going that way. He got everyone who played against him feeling, “There’s no way he can come back from over there and go that way.” But he did – time after time after time.’
Roy Wood, who played in goal for Leeds United in the ’50s, sympathises with Roy Paul. ‘I played against some great forwards for Leeds,’ he says, ‘but that forward line of Blackpool’s that included Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen was marvellous.
‘On one occasion Matthews was coming along the byline at me with the ball and I dived at his feet, but when I opened my eyes there was no ball and no Matthews. He’d gone. I remember thinking to myself, “What the hell’s going on here”.’
Johnny Paton says he noticed something else about Matthews, ‘which I don’t think many others did.
‘For the first maybe ten minutes of a match he would do different things. First ball he got he’d pass it back to Harry Johnston at half-back, second ball he’d find Stan Mortensen in the middle, third ball he’d cross it right away.
‘The fullback would be thinking, “Matthews isn’t that great” and start to relax and then, oh, oh, and for the rest of the match he’d have his marker in a state of complete confusion.’
Off the pitch Matthews could seem remote, but plenty of stories exist of his special brand of thoughtfulness.
One of these is told by Don Ratcliffe who was in the Stoke City side to which Matthews returned in 1961. ‘I kept asking Stan if I could have some of his handmade boots,’ Ratcliffe says. ‘He wouldn’t give me them. “No, you’ll hurt yourself,” he said. They were very soft, you see, just like skin. Very light.
‘Anyhow, when I signed for Middlesbrough and was leaving Stoke he gave me two pairs, two, brand-new pairs. I was really chuffed with them.’
Ratcliffe was mortified that ‘when I took them to Boro somebody pinched them, one of the players’.
Ratcliffe also remembers that although Matthews could be tetchy the mood soon passed. ‘I remember playing the ball to Stan and he came running up to me, “Don’t you ever pass a ball like that to me again,” he said. “Just remember I’ve got three gorillas trying to kill me. If you’re going to give me the ball just smack it straight to me, very hard.”
‘Anyhow, soon afterwards I got this ball and I was ten yards away from him and I thought, “Yeah, I’ll show you for telling me off.” So I smacked it really hard, but mis-hit it and it was going about four-foot high into the crowd. And he just put his foot up and killed it dead.
‘I couldn’t believe it. He got it on the end of his toe. “That’s better,” he said and put his arm up to say thanks.’
Howard Riley of Leicester has a curiously touching Matthews anecdote. ‘It was only towards the end of his career that I played against him,’ Riley says, ‘and when he turned up to play in a testimonial at Filbert Street he said to me, “All right, Howard.”
‘He played against so many other players more than he did against me that I hadn’t really expected him to remember who I was. I considered it a compliment.’
Colin Collindridge testifies to Matthews’s ‘gentleman’s way of doing things’. The occasion was an FA Cup tie in 1945-46 – the only season when ties were played over two legs. Collindridge scored three times in the second leg but Sheffield United still lost 4-3 on aggregate to a Matthews-inspired Stoke City.
‘As I was running off the pitch this fella came up to me,’ Collindridge says. ‘I looked round and it was Stanley Matthews, who was the best right winger for years. He shook my hand and said, “I know you’ve lost Colin but thanks for a great match.” And that was it; off he went.
‘Now I thank Matthews for this. I wasn’t in his class as a footballer but he still had the time to congratulate me.’
Stanley Matthews made his first Football League appearance aged 17 in 1932 and his final one aged 50 in 1965. In the match against Northern Ireland at Old Trafford in 1938 he gave the supreme expression of his skills as a goal provider.
Willie Hall, the Tottenham forward, was the player who profited, four of his five goals being created by Matthews. It was ample compensation for a perceived slight suffered by Hall when, 10 days earlier, he partnered Matthews on the right playing for the English League against the Scottish League. Matthews was accused of ignoring Hall, choosing instead to flaunt his sleight of foot in the 3-1 victory.
Matthews said he had been dismayed by the criticism and only after he had corrected this did he put on an exhibition against the Northern Irish, scoring England’s seventh goal after a serpentine run from the halfway line.
Billy Meredith, whose performances, mostly on the right wing, for Wales between 1895 and 1920 had made him as feted a player as Matthews, said: ‘Not until the match against [Northern] Ireland had fans talked about him being the best ever… If he’s not the best, there certainly never was better.’
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.