The date was 2 May 1953. A crowd of 100,000 was packed into Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers and millions were watching the game for the first time on television. With the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II scheduled for the following month, there had been a rush in Great Britain to secure new sets so that people could witness the historic event. 

However, the prospective monarch also had the beautiful game on her mind, as she was present at Wembley for her first-ever football match. With little over 20 minutes remaining, Her Majesty surveyed a Bolton Wanderers side leading 3-1 and seemingly heading for their fourth FA Cup victory. Blackpool, meanwhile, were facing their third defeat in six finals.

Out on the wing, 38-year-old winger Stanley Matthews decided, in his own words, “to give it a real go”. Opposing forward Nat Lofthouse, who had scored the opening goal of the game, looked on. “He stood there… like a little old man, until he moved.” Matthews raced down the wing, leaving defenders trailing in his wake, put in a looping cross which Bolton goalkeeper Stan Hanson fumbled into the path of Stan Mortensen, who lashed the ball home. It was 3-2, the comeback was on and Matthews’ mother-in-law fainted with excitement.

According to Matthews, he then played the game of his life. Mortensen scored again with a minute remaining – and while Bolton tried to stop the winger, he was unstoppable. With seconds left, he spun past the Bolton defence until he was within scoring distance. But rather than go for glory of himself, he passed back to team-mate Bill Perry, who put the ball in the right hand corner. The final whistle blew. Blackpool had won.

After receiving his winner’s medal from the Queen, he even allowed himself a wink at the TV camera before his team hoisted him, holding the cup, high on their shoulders. The team, and Matthews in particular, then returned to Blackpool to an ecstatic welcome. On the train back, huge crowds cheered him at every station. Indeed, he had to lock himself in the train lavatory to escape the scores of well-wishers. And despite Mortensen scoring a hat-trick, the game became forever known as ‘the Matthews final.’

A career at the top
Yet there was a lot more to the man than just one match. That famous final merely confirmed his status as one of the greatest footballers of all time, and someone who was the epitome of fair play. In a career spanning three decades, Matthews was never booked or sent off once, despite plenty of defenders trying to intimidate him with extremely physical challenges.

Matthews is also the only player to have been knighted while still playing, as well as being the first winner of both the European Footballer of the Year and the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year awards. Franz Beckenbauer said that the speed and skill he possessed meant that “almost no-one in the game could stop him”, while Juventus and Wales legend John Charles described him as the “best crosser I’ve ever seen.”

The great Sir Stan spent 19 years with his hometown club Stoke City, playing for the Potters from 1932 to 1947, and again from 1961 to 1965, helping them to the Second Division title in 1932/33 and 1962/63. In between those two stints, he spent 14 years with Blackpool.

Matthews played his last league game for the Potters against Fulham on 6 February 1965, just days after his 50th birthday and was knighted by the Queen for services to football while still a professional footballer. Between 1937 and 1957, he won 54 caps for England, playing in the FIFA World Cups™ of 1950 and 1954, and winning nine British Home Championship titles. He was 42 when he represented his country for the final time – and remains the oldest player to wear the Three Lions.

Nicknamed ‘the Wizard of Dribble’, Matthews had a rigorous exercise and diet regime: he neither smoked nor drank alcohol, was a near-vegetarian, drank carrot juice every day and fasted on Mondays. While playing for Blackpool he ran the length of the beach every day at 7.00am wearing shoes that contained lead, so that when it came to playing football, his feet felt lighter giving him the impression that he could run faster.

Wowing the world
His testimonial game in 1965 attracted a veritable ‘who’s who’ of international stars. Bobby Charlton was part of ‘Stan’s XI’, while Lev Yashin, Raymond Kopa, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Eusebio formed part of the international opposition. But Matthews wasn’t finished with football yet.

He sacrificed each summer between 1953 and 1978 to coach children from Africa. In Soweto in 1975, he ignored apartheid laws to form a team of schoolboys called ‘Stan’s Men.’ The boys told him it was their dream to play in Brazil, so he organised a trip, where they met Zico.

He played his final game for an England Veterans XI against a Brazil Veterans XI in Brazil in 1985 at the age of 70. The English lost 6-1 to the likes of Amarildo, Tostao, and Jairzinho, and Matthews damaged his cartilage during the match. "A promising career cut tragically short", he later wrote with characteristic wit in his autobiography.

‘The Magician’ died on 23 February 2000 and his ashes are buried beneath the centre circle of Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, which he had opened two-and-a-half years earlier. While World Cup winner Gordon Banks said of Matthews, “I don’t think anyone since had a name so synonymous with football in England,” it was perhaps a Brazilian who most fittingly described the winger’s contribution to the beautiful game. “He was the man who taught us the way football should be played,” said none other than Pele.

More than 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. It was almost a state occasion, with letters of condolence from the Queen and then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Such tributes would have made this humble icon both proud and embarrassed. “Soccer has been good to me,” he wrote. “A football to kick and a cup of tea now and then” was, he said, all he wanted from life.