• Two-footed winger could play in any forward role
• Lack of medals should not disguise his genius
If ever there was a career in football which proved that trophies are not the only, or even the truest, measure of greatness, it was that of Tom Finney. The championship of the old Second Division in 1950-51 was the only medal he won with Preston North End and England in a career that lasted a decade and a half but the admiration of numberless fans in the post-war years was of considerably more significance.
"He's like a little Tom Finney," I remember my father saying in admiration as he watched one of my school mates dribble through a pack of eight-year-old opponents. He had seen Finney and in his eyes, as in those of most football enthusiasts of his generation, in Britain and abroad, there could have been no finer or more serious compliment.
Yet Finney, a quiet and modest man, was so often outshone in the mind of the general public by his contemporary Stanley Matthews, who skills were perhaps more easily identifiable. Both men were right-wingers by choice but Finney's extraordinary versatility meant that Matthews could be awarded the position when the two played together for England.
Finney was two-footed and could make goals and score from outside left, too, but his varied skills, sweet movement, quick wits and sheer football intelligence meant that he could function effectively in any of the other forward positions. Thirty goals in 76 matches for England and 187 in 433 league appearances for Preston North End, mostly from the wing, tell their own story.
He would have been a sensation in today's football, made for the "false 9" role in which elusiveness, close control and the timing of runs are so important. Of all the players of his age he offered the best counter to the argument that English football and its exponents belonged to the Dark Ages.
Geoffrey Green, the eloquent football correspondent of The Times, saw England's two great wingers play together for the first time as Walter Winterbottom's team thrashed a highly rated Portugal side 10-0 in Lisbon in 1947 and then in a famous 4-0 demolition of Italy – the reigning world champions – in Turin a year later. "Two or three of them – Matthews and Finney, certainly, the scholars of the team – might have gained a place in any World XI at that time," he wrote.
Matthews himself was never reluctant to heap praise on his rival. "To dictate the pace and course of a game," he wrote, "a player has to be blessed with awesome qualities. Those who have accomplished it on a regular basis can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Pelé, Maradona, Best, Di Stéfano and Tom Finney."
To that list the spectator of today might add Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and indeed Tommy Docherty once said that Messi was "Tom Finney reborn". John Charles, who idolised Finney as a boy and played against him for Wales, would write: "As a winger Tom was far more direct than Stanley and scored goals for fun. I preferred him at centre-forward, where he could do things others could not do." Jimmy Armfield, his friend of many years, summed up the warmth he evoked even among opponents: "The country loved Tom Finney."
And, wonderfully, he played every one of his league matches for the same club. Preston's great feat of being the first Double winners in the history of the English game was achieved more than half a century before he appeared. Between the wars they shuttled back and forth between the First and Second Divisions but they were back in the top flight when he made his league debut in 1946 at the age of 24, his transition from the junior to the senior ranks delayed by his participation in the hostilities.
Deepdale became the stage for his greatness and Preston's fans his adoring extended family. He looked as if there was not an ounce of meat on his bones. His crinkly hair and crooked smile were other distinguishing features. On the ball he was all deftness and imagination, evidence to anyone who saw him that, long before the tricks of the continental and South American aces were available for viewing by a mass audience on television, the game could be played with artistry and grace on English turf.
His loyalty to Preston was tested only once, on the famous occasion when Palermo of Serie A came in for him with an offer of £10,000 for two seasons. In the era of the maximum wage it represented unimaginable riches: at that point players in England could earn no more than £14 a week. No wonder he was tempted. But when the directors refused to let him go, he hid his disappointment. Having long been the club's figurehead, in later years he became its president.
He was known, of course, as "the Preston Plumber", having been told by his father to complete the apprenticeship that would ensure his ability to pursue another trade in case of injury or after retirement. In fact he started his own successful business while still playing, in order to supplement his income.
"There was nothing showy or irrelevant about Tom Finney," wrote Bobby Charlton, who had the Preston man to thank for the pass that opened the way for his first international goal, on his debut against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1958. Finney was then two years away from a retirement hastened by a groin injury. Had he been born 10 or 15 years later, he would have been an automatic inclusion in Alf Ramsey's 1966 team. But one more medal, even from a World Cup, could have added nothing to the lustre of a reputation that had no need of baubles.