The piratical, practical genius of Nat Lofthouse

Paul Simpson pays tribute to the Bolton and England legend, who has died in his beloved home town. 

Lean, hard as nails and as modest as they come, the great Nat Lofthouse could do three things very well: run, shoot and head. But the legendary England and Bolton striker couldn’t, as the trainer George Taylor once told him, “trap a bag of washing”.

Lofthouse’s particular genius was that he prospered because, after a stern lecture by Taylor, he worked so hard on the three things he did well that he learned to do them even better. He delivered – as the title of his autobiography suggests – Goals Galore.

The phrase “Lion of Vienna” will be forever associated with Lofthouse. He earned the nickname by leading England to victory over Austria in Vienna on 25 May 1952. His second goal in that 3-2 typified his game. He picked up a through ball from Tom Finney, ran half the length of the pitch and struck the ball into the back of the net before colliding with the keeper and knocking himself out, going to sleep, Billy Wright said, “as surely as if Rocky Marciano had clipped him on the chin.” The Times noted: “It was his example throughout the match that led scores of British soldiers pouring through the crowd at the end of the game to cheer him, lion-hearted, from the field.”

Lofthouse in typical pose on England duty

Football’s hard men are usually defenders. But Nat was an iron man, his robust physique the legacy of shifts down the mines during World War II. He was trying to progress at his beloved hometown club at the same time so his Saturdays, as Dean Hayes noted in his 1999 book Bolton Wanderers, must have run something like this: “Up at 3.30am, catching the 4.30 tram to work, eight hours down the pit pushing tubs, collected by the team coach, playing for Bolton”.

In the 1940s and 1950s, centre-forwards had to put it about a bit to prosper. In the 1958 FA Cup Final, with most of England willing Busby’s babeless Manchester United to win the cup, Lofthouse famously scored his game-clinching second goal by shoulder-charging keeper Harry Gregg (who was holding the ball) into the net. Nearing 33 years old, Lofthouse proudly captained a "£110 team" assembled for no more than their £10 signing-on fees.

Ciggie, beer, champagne and Cup

Lofthouse – and Bolton – might have been feeling over-zealous that day: five years earlier they had lost the legendary 1953 final to Blackpool and Stanley Matthews, Wanderers being effectively down to 10 men as left-half Eric Bell tried to play on with a torn hamstring. Lofthouse, who had been named 1953's Football Writers' Footballer of the Year and topped the First Division scoring charts with 30 goals, had put Bolton in front after little more than a minute to complete his record of scoring in every FA Cup round.

But the Gregg incident was typical Lofthouse. As HD Davies said: “Some like to get their effects by stealth, others by rank piracy. Nat is in the latter class and when he opens out all his guns he is a sight to see.” His opponents could play just as rough, if not rougher. In a seriously unfriendly friendly in 1953, a crowd of Chilean players attacked him after his shot struck one of their teammates straight in the face.

Not that Lofthouse objected to a bit of rough-housing. His most famous quote sums up the prevailing attitude of a different era: "There were plenty of fellas who would kick your b*ll**ks off," he recalled. "The difference was that at the end they'd shake your hand and help you look for them."

Footballer of the Year and top scorer in 1953

Lofthouse’s style wasn’t always pretty but it was pretty effective – he banged in 285 goals for Bolton between 1946 and 1960 and 30 goals in 33 internationals for England. He is still the sixth most prolific England goalscorer ever, quite an accomplishment given that he didn’t make his debut until he was 25. It took Alan Shearer, the Premiership-era striker who most resembles Lofthouse, 63 internationals to match Lofthouse’s haul for England.

Although English soldiers took the Bolton centre-forward to their hearts, England’s selectors were not always willing to let the Lion of Vienna roar. He missed the 1950 World Cup – it is tempting to contemplate the difference his uncompromising instinct for goal might have made as England lost 1-0 to a makeshift USA – and played twice in 1954, scoring a brace in a 4-4 draw with Belgium and once as England lost 4-2 to Uruguay in the quarter-final. Four years later, he and Stanley Matthews missed the final cut for Sweden, a decision that, as Bobby Robson caustically noted, delighted the world’s defenders.

Rising high above the Belgian defence at the 1954 World Cup

Lofthouse’s death reminds us how much has changed in football. Yugoslavia, the country he scored twice against on his England debut in 1950, doesn’t even exist today. His signing-on fee when he joined Bolton in 1939 was £10 – he’d never seen so much money before and nearly fainted when he was given a pair of white five pound notes.

He spent his entire career at the same club and when he finally retired through injury, he returned – after the inevitable spell as a pub landlord – to Bolton, initially as a second trainer, to clean boots and toilets, later becoming coach, a not too successful manager, chief scout, general manager, and finally lifetime president.

Proud again as Bolton rejoin the elite in 2001

Lofthouse flourished in a heroic, black and white era, when England’s claim to be masters of the global game was not completely ludicrous. Eighteenth months after Lofthouse’s finest 90 minutes in an England shirt, that belief was crushed by Hungary at Wembley. Luckily for Nat, he wasn’t on the pitch that day.

Even his nickname seems arcane and archaic. As Michael Parkinson points out in his essay on Lofthouse: “We don’t call people ‘lion-hearted’ anymore, we say ‘they’ve got bottle’. We don’t have centre-forwards any more, we call them strikers. It is not just the game that has changed, so has our way of thinking about it, of describing it.”

But Lofthouse’s illustrious career still holds some lessons for footballers today. When he started at Bolton, he was drilled by the reigning centre-forward George Hunt. “Y’know, Nat,” Hunt said one day, “you’ve got a cracking shot in your right boot and your left isn’t bad but I think with a bit of work, we could make your left even stronger than the right.”

Lofthouse knew his mentor was being slightly disingenuous. The young striker’s left foot was, he admitted, “little more than a swinger” but he agreed to work on it. So he spent six hours a day on the Burnden Park turf, with a carpet slipper on his right foot and a boot on his left. Hunt would throw the ball at him from all angles and he would try to hit it first time into the net with his left foot.

For me, the image of the diligent Lofthouse in carpet slipper and boot says more about his enduring greatness than his lion-hearted display in Vienna. The name Nathaniel comes from a Hebrew word which means “God has given”. Luckily for Bolton, England and football, Lofthouse was never content to rely on what God had given him.

Nathaniel "Nat" Lofthouse, OBE
Born Bolton, 27 Aug 1925; died Bolton, 15 Jan 2011
Bolton Wanderers: 503 appearances, 285 goals
England: 33 appearances, 30 goals