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Matthews, Sir Stanleyfree

(1915–2000)
  • Tony Mason

Sir Stanley Matthews (1915–2000)

by unknown photographer, 1956

Matthews, Sir Stanley (1915–2000), footballer, was born at 89 Seymour Street, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, on 1 February 1915, the third of four sons of John Matthews and his wife, Ada Hewitt. Jack Matthews had a barber's shop in Market Street but he was also a boxer, with 300 fights as a featherweight. He was addicted to physical fitness, and transmitted both his enthusiasm for training and his passion for sport to his sons, and to Stanley in particular. Stanley was presented with a pair of spiked running shoes for his fourth birthday and his father took him outside for daily breathing exercises, even on freezing mornings. At six he was entered for a handicap race for boys at local elementary schools. He won off 45 yards, bringing Dad a substantial betting profit. Stanley's father hoped he would follow him into the boxing ring, but it soon became clear that it was football which fascinated the boy. He played or practised whenever he could, and quickly developed into an outstanding schoolboy player for Wellington Road and Hanley schools. In 1929 he was chosen to play in the international trial England v. the Rest and then for England schoolboys against Wales.

On leaving school Matthews was an apprentice bricklayer for a time but at fifteen he became an apprentice at Stoke City at a wage of £1 a week. As soon as he was eligible, on his seventeenth birthday, he signed professional forms which produced a £10 signing-on fee and wages of £5 a week in the season, with a £1 winning bonus, and £3 a week in the summer. Half his wages went into a savings account and half was given to his mother. Matthews played his first league game away to Bury in 1932 and his 700th and last at home to Fulham in February 1965, at the age of fifty. He is the oldest outfield player to appear in a Football League match. Between 1934 and 1957 he played fifty-four times for England, having become an international celebrity before the days of worldwide television and the revolution in electronic communications. His name was synonymous with what was best in British sport.

In fact, Matthews had two careers. From 1932 to 1947 he was a right-winger for Stoke. His balance, control, and above all his speed, made him a handful for most full-backs. Even when he was in his forties he showed a surprising turn of pace over the first crucial yards. Matthews was nevertheless not only quicker in his youth but more direct: he scored forty-seven goals in six pre-war seasons as against twenty-four in sixteen post-war ones. In 1934 he scored four against Leeds, and his hat-trick for England against Czechoslovakia in 1937 effectively turned a defeat into a narrow victory. After the war he became more of a provider of scoring opportunities for others, either by means of accurate crosses deep into the penalty area or by infiltrating defences by reaching the opposition goal line and pulling the ball back for an incoming forward: the classic example was the goal which he laid on for Perry to win the 1953 cup final.

The press christened Matthews the 'wizard of dribble', the Germans, more poetically, Der Zauberer, the magician. His method did not involve a slalom-like wriggle through a packed defence. His aim rather was to defeat his immediate marker, the left back. Spectators would be charmed and amazed by the way he did it as he brought the ball, often quite slowly, almost to the feet of the defender, showing him the ball in order to tempt him into a tackle. As the full-back shifted his balance to move forward, so Matthews would suddenly accelerate away in another direction. He liked to deceive opponents by feinting to his left before actually setting off at speed down the right touchline. Some likened the manoeuvre to that of a dragonfly, arms outstretched, almost hovering close to his opponent before darting off unpredictably. Others likened it to a man teasing children. Matthews was still doing it at the age of forty-one when he tormented the famous Brazilian defender Nilton Santos in England's 1956 victory over Brazil. Matthews's ability was more instinctive than analytical. He claimed not to know how he performed his body swerve and could produce it only under the pressure of actual match conditions. Matthews often established a psychological domination over his marker and was known to torment his opponents by repeatedly taking the ball past them during the course of a single attack.

Matthews's second career began when he was transferred to Blackpool in 1947. He had been posted there as an RAF physical training instructor during the war and had played for the club as a wartime guest. He liked the seaside and he and his wife, Betty, took over the Romford Hotel in the town. Matthews had not had an easy relationship with the Stoke manager, Bob McGrory; in 1938, when the club refused to pay the full amount of a bonus due to him, he had asked for a transfer. This provoked a remarkable display of local feeling as leading manufacturers in Stoke organized a public protest meeting claiming that their workers had asked them to do it. Three thousand people packed the Kings Hall with at least a further thousand locked outside. The press joined the ‘Matthews must stay campaign’ and in 1938 he did. But by 1947 he was thirty-two, an age at which most footballers began to think of becoming publicans or small shopkeepers, and still at odds with McGrory. This time Matthews did leave Stoke, to join Blackpool for £11,500.

But far from being finished Matthews was to play an important role in the golden age of another previously unfashionable club. Blackpool reached three cup finals in five years between 1948 and 1953. The first two were both lost and the press began to make much of the fact that Matthews had no cup winner's medal. By 1953 television had made certain that the cup final was an event which many more than Wembley's 90,000 could watch. Ten million viewers ensured that the so-called ‘Matthews final’ was engraved on to the collective memory of the English. In truth it was not much of a game, punctuated by poor passing and goalkeeping errors. Bolton played with virtually ten men for the whole of the second half after an injury to Bell, yet led 3–1. Only in the last twenty minutes did Blackpool seize control and Matthews become influential: the game was won 4–3, with the 38-year-old making the pass for the winning goal.

The 1950s were the high point of Matthews's fame. These were the years when people would travel long distances in order to say that they had seen a middle-aged maestro play football. The marks of public recognition began to accumulate. He had already been voted by British football writers footballer of the year in 1948; in 1956 he became the first European footballer of the year, defeating such international stars as Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. Matthews played in all seven England matches in 1957, when he was forty-two. His skill and long playing career were recognized by the award of the CBE in 1957, the first national honour to be offered to a professional footballer.

Although a knee injury prompted thoughts of retirement, Matthews was transferred for a fee of £3500 back to Stoke as a 46-year-old in 1961. Stoke were then close to the bottom of the second division with average gates of 10,000 when he arrived. Attendances then rose to 30,000, relegation was avoided, and established stars such as Jimmy McIlroy and Denis Viollet were attracted by the scent of glory. In two years the championship of the second division was won. Matthews had been a member of the Stoke team that had won the same title thirty years earlier. Footballer of the year again in 1963, Matthews was knighted in the 1965 new year's honours list, the first and only such honour for a professional still playing the game. By now he was playing mostly in Stoke City reserves and retirement soon followed. In 1965 Matthews became the manager of the other Potteries club, Port Vale. It was not a success. The club was expelled from the Football League for financial irregularities and, although they were immediately re-elected, Matthews resigned. He continued to enjoy passing on his knowledge and experience to the young, and over the next twenty years he was in demand all over the world, particularly in Australia, Canada, Ghana, Malta, South Africa, and the United States.

Matthews had all the qualities most of the English prefer in their heroes, including modesty and a reluctance to seek the limelight. He was even-tempered and never cautioned or sent off. In fact he eschewed physical contact, and part of his endearing attraction was that he did not look much like an athlete. Thin, slightly stooping, with bony knees and a receding hairline, he was not bigger, stronger, or more physically gifted than many of those who turned up to watch. He fulfilled the fantasies of many middle-aged fans as he ignored those critics who proclaimed that footballers were past it by thirty. In many ways he was the master craftsman of football, dedicated to fitness and practice, who worked at the game. His tools were his body and his boots, and he made sure those were maintained in good order. He neither smoked nor drank. He liked new boots, and once told a journalist, 'I liked the shine on them. You could look at the shine, as you do with ordinary shoes and it does something to you; it makes you proud; it makes you more alive.'

Football was Matthews's life. In 1934 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Hall Vallance, the daughter of the Stoke City trainer. He was, perhaps, not always the easiest man to live with, with his diet of carrot juice at lunchtime and steak and salad for dinner. He fasted every Monday. If there was increasingly something ascetic about all this, it was the explanation for his exceptional longevity as a player. A son, Stanley, and a daughter, Jean, were children of the marriage. In 1967 Matthews met Mila Winterova, a cultural assistant at the American embassy in Prague. She was thirteen years younger than he and introduced him to a new kind of lifestyle. They were married after his divorce from Betty in 1975 and lived in Malta, South Africa, and Canada before returning to Stoke in 1989. By that time Sir Stanley had been presented with an honorary degree by the University of Keele and in the same year, 1987, a statue by Colin Melbourne was erected in the new pedestrian precinct in Hanley. Some Conservative councillors objected to ratepayers' money being spent in such a way, but then Matthews had always had his critics. He had been too unpredictable, too individualistic, too slow to release the ball, and, it was increasingly said, too old. Yet this modest loner not only became emblematic of his birthplace but also came to exemplify the good name of English football wherever the sport was played.

Matthews died in the North Staffordshire Nuffield Hospital, Clayton Road, Newcastle under Lyme, on 23 February 2000. His wife had died the previous year. He was survived by his son Stanley, and his daughter Jean Gough. Another statue, depicting the three ages of his playing career, was unveiled outside Stoke City's new Britannia Stadium in October 2001.

Sources

  • S. Matthews, Feet first (1948)
  • D. Miller, Stanley Matthews: the authorized biography (1989)
  • S. Matthews, My autobiography: the way it was (2000)
  • T. Mason, ‘Stanley Matthews’, Sport and the working class in modern Britain, ed. R. Holt (1990), 159–78
  • The Independent (31 Jan 1995)
  • World Sports (Nov 1953)
  • The Guardian (24 Feb 2000)
  • The Times (24 Feb 2000)
  • The Independent (25 Feb 2000)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, ‘Match of their day’, BBC 2, 3 Nov 1998

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1956, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • photographs, Hult. Arch.

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