The Preston Plumber recalls his time with the Three Lions
Even in a golden age for English football, playing alongside Billy Wright and Stanley Matthews, one Preston-born ex-serviceman had the skill to shine out: Tom Finney. Now 85, and still President of Preston North End, he talks all things England...
As England call-ups go, yours was unusual.
I was serving in the Royal Armoured Corps in 1945. I was 20-years-old, sitting in my billet, when a guard burst in with instructions to report to the duty officer. The officer handed me a telegram from The FA. I could hardly take it in. Here I was, a footballer without much experience, stationed in a foreign country [Austria], being told that I was to play for my country. It was unbelievable.
The game against Switzerland, an unofficial international played by an England team that had barely met each other, was disappointing, though.
We lost. The Swiss were too good. We played like a team of strangers – which we were.
But things got better. You went on to bag 76 caps, visit three World Cups and score 30 goals for your country.
Yes. I consider it the golden age of the game.
You could play right-wing, left-wing and centre forward. Which was your favourite position?
I was mostly used down the right, but if I could have my time again, I’d play up front.
And you were fiercely patriotic…
28 September 1946 was my proudest day as a footballer. I got my full, non-wartime debut against Northern Ireland in Belfast. Ask any footballer who has been chosen to represent the land of his birth, and he will tell you that no feeling quite compares.
England seemed unbeatable for a long time.
It wasn’t until two-and-a-half years and 15 caps into my career that I sampled a defeat – against the Scots, of all people. But before that, we had done very well. After I scored against Scotland at Wembley, Field Marshal Lord Montgomery came into the dressing room! He said: Congratulations, it was a fine goal from a man who fought with me.
In 1953 you were involved in England's first trip to Russia. How was that?
There were more than 102,000 squeezed into the Lenin Stadium. The atmosphere was intimidating. It ended 1-1, but if it hadn’t been for Lev Yashin’s goalkeeping, we would have won with a bit to spare. I put on one of my best displays in an England shirt. The Soviets were actually booed off the pitch. And the squad enjoyed a night at the ballet! There were some moans when we found out we were going, but how we all enjoyed it.
With Matthews, Billy Wright and Nat Lofthouse also in the side, England were a major force. How good were you?
It was a time we could really hammer teams. I remember beating Portugal 10-0 in Lisbon in 1947 – and they were meant to be good. We beat a great Italy side 4-0 and played them off the park. I guess England was a little bit ahead in terms of coaching, in some ways.
Given that, it’s strange how they didn’t do well in the World Cups of the fifties. Why was this?
Why we fared so poorly remains a mystery. We were among the favourites, but it never quite happened. It was difficult in 1958 because of the Munich air crash. We lost several players and it affected the mood of the squad.
But you must have some great memories…
After travelling the world representing my country for 12 years, I could only offer my grateful thanks to those who made it possible. I would willingly have paid the FA to play.