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Playing the way of the game today

He really was the first superstar of football. We could call him the original “Wizarding Potter” as Stanley Matthews was known as “The Wizard of the Dribble” and he played for Stoke City. His talent and abilities are the stuff of legend and as he played in an era where the club was bigger than the individual, it is his skills on the ball that earned him his position as the prototype of a footballing legend. He did not win as many trophies as his talent implied but wherever he went, Stanley Matthews’ skill impressed all who saw him.

His modest upbringing coupled with a strict work ethic was not unusual on the 1920s but everything about Stanley Matthews was ahead of his time. He was the son of a barber and local boxer known as “The Fighting Barber of Hanley” who instilled in his son the sort of discipline that has only recently come into football. His father had wanted him to become a boxer and oversaw his training regime. Football was Stanley’s passion and he was allowed to pursue his preferred sport because he was picked to play for England’s Schoolboys.

The world of football is glad he was. He was given the position of outside right which was a role he made his own. He made his debut against Wales in 1929. He then signed for Stoke as an amateur but was paid £1 per week as a member of the office staff. His teammates gave him two shillings a piece from their bonus when they won. When he did sign for Stoke professionally aged 17, his skills were recognised as he was paid the maximum allowed of £5 per week during the season and £3 during the summer. He was certainly worth the money as Stoke were promoted to the First Division.

Early struggles To succeed

Why did Stoke struggle in football’s top flight? Maybe because he was ahead of his time? Maybe because he honed his skills to unprecedented levels, he did not fit the profile of the day? If he had spent time on the golf course rather than raising his fitness levels he might have been more popular in the dressing room and easier to play with on the pitch? These are unfathomable questions and I am left wondering whether to believe the hype.

Similarly, his England career suffered mixed fortunes. The partnership with Raich Carter should have been a great one but Carter could not play with Matthews. He said,

“He was so much of the star individualist that, though he was one of the best players of all time, he was not really a good footballer. When Stan gets the ball on the wing you don’t know when it’s coming back. He’s an extraordinary difficult winger to play alongside.”

This is not the write up that the obituaries would attest to or the on-pitch memories that Matthews would recall.

“I was on the right wing and inside me was local hero Raich Carter, who I felt was the ideal partner for me.”

I guess that it was Matthews’ focus on the game that led him to feel this way. He goes on the describe Carter:

“Bewilderingly clever, constructive, lethal in front of goal, yet unselfish. Time and again he’d play the ball out wide to me and with such service, I was in my element.”

Whatever the players felt or whatever the press had to say, it was clear that Matthews could produce moments of match-winning brilliance. He should have been in a side where he was winning the league and not finishing 17th. He should have been winning medals. He did promise his father he would bring home an FA Cup winners’ medal. It was clear he would not do this with Stoke and put in a transfer request. The fans protested. Some 3000 fans attended the meeting and with a further 1000 outside calling for him to stay, he agreed to do so.

War interrupts

What should have been the peak of his career was put on hold as he served his country in the RAF during World War Two. Like many of his fellow players, he was stationed in England, Blackpool to be precise, and was granted permission to play in localised friendlies. He also played for the RAF and this was the start of a beautiful partnership with the other Stanley. It seems that wartime bonding formed a perfect partnership.

When the League resumed playing in 1946, Matthews returned to play for Stoke but was granted a move at the end of that season. It was meant to be kept a secret but the press were told and the 32-year-old Mathews moved to Blackpool for an eye-watering £11,500. Manager Joe Smith gave him the chance to play how he wanted to, saying:

“There are no shackles here … express yourself … play your own game and whatever you do on the pitch, do it in the knowledge that you have my full support.”

Football was now going to be entertaining.

Entertaining the nation

Matthews’ style of play was worthy of air time but in an era where the thought of televising the game would reduce attendance, we are fortunate that Pathe News enjoyed giving us a glimpse into the future. Well, it’s the past now but it certainly heralded a bright future. Almost as if Stanley Matthews heralded the modern era of football. With his strict diet and fitness regime, he was the very model of a modern player. He honed his skills with hours of repetitive practice. Kicking those cans all over Hanley was about to pay off.

His pace control of the ball meant he could provide his teammates with much-needed assists. Goals are scored when that perfectly-timed pass reaches the feet of the striker. His teammate, the other Stanley, said that his passes were so perfectly-placed that the laces of the ball faced away from him. If you can cast a spell over the ball, you can be regarded as a magician and that’s what Matthews seemed to do.

A legend grows

His modesty was as legendary as the quick bursts of energy he would bring to a game. He would sprint with the ball and create chances and pass by defenders whilst holding onto the ball. According to Walter Winterbottom, he would “transfix” defenders so they would not tackle him. This seems to qualify him for the title “Wizard of the Dribble.” Tom Finney called him his greatest rival. Due to the close control, he had over the ball and his sprints, he would get around defenders and they never caught him. Jimmy Armfield was another player who saw this magic at first-hand. He saw him toe-poke the ball past a player and invite him for the chase.

Whose final?

Those precision passes lead to his strikers scoring. When Blackpool reached their third cup final it was that surge of brilliance that gave them the edge. It gave Mortenson the only hat-trick ever scored in an FA Cup final and Perry a heart-stopping injury-time winner. Without the assists, there are no goals. This is one of the most talked about matches of all time and for good reason. Matthews’ desire to win and the nation’s desire too were a strong mix. Both Stanley’s claimed it was because of the other. The Stanleys’ Final was a perfect tribute to the beautiful game.

Thank you, Stanley

He was thanked by Tommy Trinder for “everything you’ve done for football and sportsmanship.” The accolades speak for themselves as he was the inaugural Ballon d’Or winner in 1956. A CBE followed as well as a Knighthood given whilst still playing. Not bad for a simple man from Stoke.

He returned to Stoke in 1961 where he finished his career. His testimonial match was played at the Victoria Ground on 28 April 1965. The pre-match warm-up was as impressive as the actual match itself. With the likes of Bert Trautmann, Don Revie, Jimmy Hill and Nat Lofthouse showing off their skills against Danny Blanchflower, Jackie Milburn and Arthur Rowley, it must have been quite an event. When he was carried around the pitch by Puskás and Yashin, it reflected his glory.

For a player who honed his skills on the streets of Stoke, he took them to Soweto. His fame and infamy allowed him to coach a team of black players simply known as “Stan’s Men.” This went against the strict apartheid laws of the time. They actualised their dream of playing in Brazil where they became the first black team to play outside of South Africa.

The man who Pele said “taught us the way the game ought to be played” passed away on 23 February 2000, aged 85. For one so unassuming, the tributes were overwhelming. I think he would have been glad he was not there to hear them. Remembered by Brian Clough as “a true gentleman and we shall never see his like again” – enough said.