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Born: Monday 1 February 1915, Stoke-on-Trent, England
Died: Wednesday 23 February 2000, Stoke-on-Trent, England (aged 85)
Universally recognised as one of the most skilful wingers ever to play the game, England's Stanley Matthews became known as 'the wizard of dribble' because of his unique skills with the ball at his feet. He is also remarkable for the longevity of his playing career. Although like many players of his generation he lost several years of his career to the Second World War, he was fit enough to continue appearing at the highest level until the age of 50.
Matthews was born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent on 1 February 1915. His father, who had been a professional boxer, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps but it was clear that his talent was for football. With his father's encouragement, Matthews was an England schoolboy international by the age of 13. His speed and footwork gave him the ability to easily outwit opponents even from a very early stage in his career.
When he was 15 he signed for Stoke City, then playing in the English Second Division. His breakthrough came in the 1932-33 season. Matthews appeared in 15 games as Stoke won the Second Division title by one point from Tottenham Hostpur. His first season of First Division football cemented his reputation as one of the rising stars of the English game and his 15 goals in all competitions were the highest single season total of his career.
In September 1934 Matthews made his debut for England in a Home International Championship match against Wales, where he scored one of the goals in a 4-0 victory. For the next five years he was a virtual ever present on the right wing for Stoke, helping the club to what is still their highest ever league finish of 4th in 1936. Although not the strongest of players, he had the ability to draw defenders into attempting a tackle and then go past them with an instant change of direction.
By 1937 he was also a regular for England, although some of his team-mates found his individual style difficult to play alongside. In 1938 Matthews was part of the England team who were controversially ordered by their FA to give the Nazi salute before a friendly against Germany in Berlin. He spoke of how firmly opposed the team were to doing this, before eventually reluctantly agreeing when they were told of how politically explosive a refusal might be.
Matthews came close to leaving Stoke in 1938 after expressing his desire to win trophies, but the support of the club's fans persuaded him to stay. At that point in his career, he drastically altered his style of play after finding himself tightly marked by opposing defenders. He started to play in a deeper position and used his pinpoint crossing ability to create goals for team-mates rather than scoring so many himself.
During the war Matthews served in the Royal Air Force, as well as guesting for a number of different teams in unofficial matches. He played for Blackpool, Rangers and Arsenal amongst others, as well as appearing in 30 unofficial internationals for England. By the time competitive football resumed in 194, he was past 30 and found himself increasingly sidelined at Stoke and on the fringes of the national team. Matthews decided that he had to leave the club and moved to Blackpool in the summer of 1947.
Some considered that he was now past his best, but Matthews immediately set about proving them wrong. In his first season at Blackpool he helped the club to reach the FA Cup final, where they led at half-time before eventually losing 4-2. Matthews' performances were good enough to earn him the first Football Writers' Player of the Year Award. An incredibly popular player, it was said this his appearances in away games could increase the home team's attendance by thousands.
Although domestic honours still eluded him, Matthews finally got the chance to play in the World Cup at the age of 35 when he travelled with England to Brazil for their first appearance in the tournament in 1950. Arriving late with the squad, he did not appear in the opening win over Chile or the humiliating defeat to the USA, but did play in the must-win final group game against Spain. That match brought a narrow 1-0 defeat and it seemed that Matthews' World Cup career would be just one match.
In 1951, he reached a second FA Cup final with Blackpool but suffered another defeat, 2-0 to Newcastle. Stoke were interested in bringing him back to his home city but his manager was still convinced that Matthews could lead Blackpool to glory and was proved right in 1953. At 38, Matthews appeared in his third FA Cup final but seemed set for further disappointment when Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers took a 3-1 lead early in the second half.
Matthews had other ideas and his cross set up Stan Mortensen for his second goal of the game to pull a goal back. After Mortensen had completed his hat-trick, Matthews found one last forward run and crossed for Bill Perry to win the cup in the dying seconds. Finally, Matthews had a winner's medal to show for his great career. The match became known as the 'Matthews Final', although the man himself was known to refer to it as the 'Mortensen Final' after the hat-trick scorer.
Despite being 39 years old, Matthews got a second chance to appear in the World Cup in Switzerland in 1954. He played in England's opening 4-4 draw with Belgium and in the quarter-final against Uruguay which England lost 4-2. Matthews' career showed no signs of slowing down in his 40s. In 1955-56, he led Blackpool to their highest ever league position of second, behind champions Manchester United. At 41, he was the inaugural winner of the European Footballer of the Year award, edging out Alfredo Di Stéfano in the voting.
Matthews played his last game for England in a 4-1 World Cup qualifying win over Denmark in 1957, nearly 23 years after his debut. Although he continued to play regularly for Blackpool, his appearances were becoming rarer and in 1961 he made the decision to return to Stoke, who just as when he first joined them were in the Second Division. In 1962-63, Matthews played 31 games to help Stoke win the Second Division title again, edging out Sunderland and Chelsea. Aged 48, he was named England's Player of the Year for a second time.
Matthews played on until 1965, setting a remarkable record in 1964 when he scored his last FA Cup goal more than 30 years after his first. His final league game came in February 1965, five days after his 50th birthday and shortly after he had become the first footballer to receive a knighthood. He was honoured with a testimonial against a star-studded international side. Matthews briefly went into management with Stoke's local rivals Port Vale, but the club was beset with financial problems. He eventually left owed thousands of pounds in wages and never coached in England again.
For many years Matthews travelled to Africa every summer to coach youngsters, a routine he had begun during his playing days. In 1975, he defied the apartheid regime in South Africa to set up a team for black schoolboys, who he took on a tour to Brazil. After many years abroad, including a spell coaching in Malta, he returned home in 1989 to spend his retirement in Stoke. After a short illness, Matthews died in February 2000 at the age of 85. On the day of his funeral more than 100,000 people lined the streets of Stoke to pay their respects.
References (all accessed 18 February 2012):
- Published on Saturday, 18 February 2012 12:57