1st February 1915. ‘Wizard of the Dribble’.
Football players in the ‘good old days’, in an age of paternalism were tied, like serfs, to their clubs, and as today lurked bribery, corruption and commercialism.
The 1900.s opened with a Burnley player attempting to bribe Nottingham Forest to throw a game, whilst a player in 1900 was quoted as saying, ‘Association football is being ruined by being made a commercial speculation’.
Today in 1915, the first footballing knight and ‘wizard of the dribble’, Stanley Matthews was born.
He was perceived to represent the schoolboys’ ideal of sportsmanship and like his contemporary, ‘Wolves’ Billy Wright epitomised all the spirit of the game.
Not once in his 33-year career did he receive a caution, nor demur at the referee’s decision. (1)
The skinny son of a Hanley barber Matthews, as a young professional footballer was encouraged by his Dad to run to the ground each morning rather than take the bus, and had to show his Dad the ‘Fighting Barber’ his bank-book each week to show he was saving some of his wages.
Matthew’s presence on the right wing and an ability to prise the ball away without touching his opponent was legendary and guaranteed, in his hey-day, to add 10,000 to the crowd.
So when rumours were heard in 1938 that he was leaving Stoke City the town hall was packed to urge him to stay, at a time when Stoke’s average gate was 66,000.His career spanned four decades, playing his last game for Stoke against Fulham, as Sir Stanley in 1965, five days after his 50th birthday, thus beating Billy Meredith’s record for longevity. He attributed his fitness to a strict diet and food-less Mondays.
He is particularly remembered for the 1953 Cup Final when at 38, a winner’s medal having eluded him, he was to realise his dream playing against Bolton who were leading 3-1 with 20 minutes to go.
However Mortenson’s unique hat trick and a final goal by Bill Perry gave Blackpool the cup in what was to be called later the Matthews’ final.
Wages in 1901 were £4 a week and by 1946 footballers threatened to strike for a minimum wage of £7. This rose to a £10-12 weekly wage in the 1950.s, an artisan’s income, even for the likes of Matthews.
By 1956 footballers were already demanding extra fees for televised matches. In 1961 the maximum wage was removed: the rest is history.
To counteract a too rosy a picture of those days, behind the scenes there was corrupt management, club-promoted drug-taking with the intent to get the edge on the opposition, and much else that would now be subjected to media scrutiny.
A statue was erected in Matthew’s hometown of Hanley, Stoke, though the maestro never accepted that he ‘deserved anything like that’.
In September 2000 over £5600 was paid for the ball used in the ‘Matthews Final’. Whilst in October an auction of memorabilia raised £66,000, including a copy of his winner’s medal; the original was lost.
(1) Matthews and Mortenson ( the sole survivor of a bomber crash in 1939) weren’t plaster saints as revealed in February 2010 under the Freedom of Information Act from MOD records now held at Kew.
It appears that after playing in 1945 in a scratch Services team in Belgium. both had been involved in selling contraband goods to a jeweller after being set-up by the RAF Special Investigation Branch,
They had acquired illegally a suitcase of soap and coffee which fetched £16. It appears that Matthews pleaded guilty immediately; both were charged with ‘Conduct to the prejudice of good order and RAF discipline’. They were the pair just unfortunate to be caught!