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Born: Thursday 16 May 1918, South Bank, England
Died: Friday 14 April 2000, Redcar, England (aged 81)
Position: Inside Forward
A skilful, intelligent inside forward who spent most of his career with his local side Middlesbrough, Wilf Mannion lost many years of his career to the Second World War but later formed part a formidable England forward line in the post-war years. Like many players of his era, he was frustrated by the maximum wage in English football and often found himself in conflict with the authorities because of his outspoken views on the subject.
Mannion was born in South Bank on the outskirts of Middlesbrough on 16 May 1918, one of ten children. He began playing football on a patch of wasteground in South Bank, where he and his friends would use anything they could find as a ball, including tin cans and pig's bladders from the local butcher. Turned away from an England schoolboys trial at the age of 13 because he was too short, he played for South Bank St Peter's as a teenager and worked as an apprentice welder.
When he was 18, Mannion signed for Middlesbrough and while playing for the reserves developed a reputation for having superb ball control and an excellent temperament. After making just two appearances in his first season, he became a first-team regular in 1937-38 most often at inside-right, helping the team to a fifth place finish in the First Divison. Despite often coming in for rough treatment, displayed an ability to cope with tough tackling which a strength which belied his small stature.
Middlesbrough finished fourth in 1938-39, with Mannion scoring 14 goals, including four in one game against Blackpool. He was selected for England's summer tour but his manager withdrew him from the squad, adamant than Mannion needed a rest. Sadly, there was to be a much longer break from competitive football as war broke out that autumn. Mannion was conscripted into the army and served in France where he was one of those evacuated from Dunkirk, as well as in Italy where he participated in the invasion of Sicily.
Early in the war Mannion had been picked to play in an unofficial international for England, but by the end of the conflict his health was suffering. He was invalided out of the army with shellshock and spent some time in hospital with malaria. For a while football was not a priority, but by the time league football resumed in 1946 Mannion was fit again and soon won his first official England cap, scoring a debut hat-trick in a 7-2 thrashing of Northern Ireland in Belfast.
With two goals against Wales and one more against the Netherlands later that autumn, he quickly became a crucial member of the team although more often at inside-left, rather than the inside-right position he held during the war. Both Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, who played on the wings outside Mannion for England, regarded him as the perfect inside-forward to partner them, with his reading of the game, positional sense and accurate passing. He always look to pass to a team-mate if they were in a better position, as was shown perfectly in what became known as the 'Mannion Match' against Blackpool in 1947, where he did not score but made all four goals in a 4-0 win.
Through the late 1940s Middlesbrough struggled to repeat the high league placings of the pre-war years and Mannion began to grow frustrated. With a maximum wage for footballers of only £12 a week, he wanted to boost his income but could not take another job whilst playing in the First Division. He even considered a transfer to Division Three North side Oldham Athletic where he could play part-time and therefore earn more money. Middlesbrough refused to sell, putting a price tag on their star player's head that no team could afford, let alone one in the Third Division.
With Middlesbrough still holding his registration, Mannion refused to sign a new contract and went on strike for several months. He became an outcast and lost his place in the England team, eventually being forced to back down. He returned to the team in the second half of 1948-49 with Middlesbrough fighting relegation and helped them to stay in the First Division. By 1949-50 he was a virtual ever-present again and won back his England place in time to be picked for England's first ever World Cup squad for the 1950 finals in Brazil.
In England's first group match against Chile, Stan Mortensen opened the scoring before Mannion scored the clinching goal in a 2-0 win. However, that was as good as the tournament got for England as a humiliating defeat to the USA was followed by another against Spain in which Mannion did not appear sent them crashing out in the first round. He would play just five more matches for England after the World Cup, the last of his 26 caps coming in a 2-2 draw with France in October 1951.
After a sixth place finish in 1951, Middlesbrough struggled through the early 1950s and eventually suffered relegation to the Second Division in 1954. Relations between Mannion and the directors had never fully healed and he left the club, joining Second Division Hull City. He left Middlesbrough having scored 110 goals for the club in 368 games in all competitions, not as high a ratio as some forwards of the time but perhaps a reflection of his style of play.
Mannion's time with Hull turned out to be brief. After a good start to the 1954-55 season the team struggled and he left in the summer of 1955 after just 16 league appearances. The season was also controversial, as Mannion made public allegations that he had been offered illegal payments to move to an un-named club during his dispute with Middlesbrough. The Football League demanded that he explain his comments and when he refused, Mannion was given a life ban from league football. Although the ban was later lifted, he never played in the Football League again.
For a while Mannion played and managed in non-league football, most notably at Cambridge United. He hoped to move into management in the Football League, but no offers ever came. After retiring from football, Mannion worked in a variety of jobs. He ran a pub, as well as working in a car factory and as a labourer on building sites. He took a coaching course to try to get back into the game, but could not find a job and ended up on unemployment benefits and having to sell his England caps to earn some money.
Like many players of his era, Mannion found retirement extremely difficult due to his limited earnings from football but he was always happy to appear at community events in and around Middlesbrough. In 1983, Middlesbrough organised a joint testimonial match for Mannion and former team-mate George Hardwick and subsequently built a statue of him outside their ground. After a long illness, he died in April 2000 at the age of 81.
References (all accessed 23 February 2012):
- Published on Thursday, 23 February 2012 18:02