There will be tears at Deepdale this afternoon, of course, and understandably so. After all, the announcement of the death of Tom Finney yesterday at the age of ninety-one has brought the curtain down on one of football’s most enduring love affairs, that of the modest player blessed with abilities beyond the reach of all bar a select few and the club that he represented with such distinction for so many years. But there will also be celebration. Each and every Preston North End player will wear a shirt bearing his name, and there will be as much applause as there will be silence. A life so well lived deserves such treatment.
His was a career played out in the years immediately prior to the invasion of television cameras that we take so much for granted these days. As such, perhaps the most appropriate way in which we can assess his impact on the landscape of post-war English football is from the recollections of his contempories. Bill Shankly, who played alongside Finney at Preston, for example, commented on the ability gap between the winger and the rest of his team that, “Tom should claim income tax relief… for his ten dependants,” and that, “Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age… even if he had been wearing an overcoat.”
It was also a career curtailed, as were those of so many of his contempories, by war. His playing career had already been put on hold a little by his father’s insistence on completing an apprenticeship in plumbing – a decision that would come to see him right at the end of his career, playing as he did during the final years of the Football League’s suffocating maxmum wage rule – rather than signing for the club three years earlier, and his nascent playing career was then put on hold for a further six years by the outbreak of war in September 1939. Finney saw active service in Egypt and Italy before finally making his Preston North End debut in August 1946.
One player, however, can seldom carry an moderate team to sustained success on his own, and Finney’s career ended with his only playing medal being the Second Division championship medal won in 1951 which came, perhaps notably, two years after the club had been relegated from the First Division at the end of a season during which, for Finney, had been blighted by injury. Other than this medal and the plaudits of the press (he was voted the Football Writers Association’s Player of The Year Twice, in 1954 and 1957), he was perhaps the greatest nearly man of his era, a runner-up in the First Division in 1953 and 1958, and an FA Cup runner-up in 1954. Elsewhere, seventy-six England caps yielded thirty goals for his national team.
His closest shave with a major trophy came at the end of the 1952/53 season. Preston North End had won their last three games of the league season, putting themselves two points ahead of Arsenal, who needed to win their game in hand (and final league game of the season), at home to Burnley on the Friday night before Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers played out an FA Cup final which still ranks amongst the most dramatic ever seen, to deny Preston the title. Arsenal won the match by goals three goals to two, having fallen behind early on and pipped Preston by the thinnest of margins, 0.099 of a goal on goal average, which used the number of goals scored divided by the number of goals conceded to seperate teams tied on points. The following year, goal for West Bromwich Albion by outside right Frank Griffin with three minutes to play of the FA Cup final left him on the defeated side again, beaten by three goals to two at Wembley.
A surprising postscript to his playing career did, however, mean that Finney did at least get to experience European Cup football, albeit just the once. Three years after his retirement as a player in 1960 and at the age of forty-one, he was contacted by George Eastham Senior, the father of the Arsenal player whose high court case against Newcastle United would mark the end of the retain and transfer system, to play for the Northern Irish club Distillery against the Portuguese giants Benfica in the Preliminary Round of the 1963/64 European Cup. In front of a crowd of almost twenty thousand people at Windsor Park in Belfast, Distillery took the lead three times against a team that won the trophy in both 1961 and 1962 before a goal from Eusebio with two minutes left to play forced a three-all draw. Finney didn’t travel for the second leg, which Benfica won by five goals to nil.
Immortality, however, isn’t guaranteed by the accumulation of trinkets alone, and the defining image of Tom Finney will long survive his passing. It was on the twenty-fifth of August 1956 that Preston North End travelled to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea in a First Division match, and Finney would feature in one of the most famous football photographs of all-time, “The Splash.” A sudden downpour before the match had left the Stamford Bridge pitch covered in standing water. This photograph, showing Finney fighting to keep his balance on a waterlogged pitch that would obviously be considered unplayable today, was, of course later turned into a fountain and statue outside Deepdale.
So, there will be tears at Deepdale this afternoon. But there will also be applause, and it will be in the inevitable roar at the end of the pause for reflection of Tom Finney’s life before kick-off this afternoon will be the greatest tribute of all. Preston North End supporters will not be alone in their sadness today, either. Notions of success in football can be nebulous at times, but we might even consider that the tributes being offered this morning to a player who of few of us ever saw and who hadn’t played in the English game for more than half a century write a legacy entirely of their own. A one club man, an international star and a gentleman to the last. We will all be a little the poorer for his passing.
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