It is fair to say that most users of FIFA.com would never have had the pleasure of seeing Tom Finney appear for Preston North End or for England [Finney played his last game in 1963]. Finney was a one-club man, an England international and considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation.
In an age in which the words 'legend' and 'superstar' are used too freely, Finney was both of those things, if not more. Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, a former team-mate of the man known as the 'Phantom Winger', once said: "Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age - even if he had been wearing an overcoat. He had the opposition so frightened that they'd have a man marking him when warming up!"
Shankly's predilection for exaggeration should not distract from the fact that Finney was a true great. He was twice named English Footballer of the Year, scored 30 goals in 76 appearances for his country and played in three successive FIFA World Cups™. Not bad for a player who, minutes before debut, was told by his coach: "Don't worry, son, we're not expecting too much from you."
The golden player of the golden age
Finney sadly passed away at the age of 91 in February 2014. In a 2008 interview with FIFA.com, the memories of his debut for club and country were still clear at the age of 86, as were the matches he played in at Brazil 1950, Switzerland 1954 and Sweden 1958. During these three tournaments, England arguably underachieved, but he would not have changed a thing.
"I do consider myself lucky to have played in three World Cups," he told FIFA.com. "It's always wonderful to be selected for your country, I think it's the biggest honour a footballer can have, so to play for your country on such a big stage is something incredibly special.
"I think in 1950, 1954 and 1958, England had the players, but not the system to be successful. We were tactically naïve. Things only changed when [Sir] Alf Ramsey was appointed the coach - he was a great thinker - and it was one of my proudest moments to see a team led by my former team-mate win the World Cup in 1966. It was a great day for the country - and I'd love us to win the World Cup again."
The Three Lions went to the FIFA World Cup in 1950 with the fans back home expecting them to return with the Jules Rimet Trophy. However, things did not go according to plan. A 2-0 defeat of Chile in their first game was followed by a meeting with USA in Belo Horizonte. The result of the match is legendary: England 0, USA 1. FIFA.com asked what went wrong.
"Well, not a lot went right," joked Finney. "It was one of those games where we were destined to lose. We hit the post several times in the first-half and twice again in the second. They got the goal, an absolute fluke of a goal, and our heads dropped. After that, I think we believed that it wasn't going to be our day and we stopped playing. We could have played them 100 times and beaten them comfortably on 99 occasions.
"We went from boarding the plane to Rio full of excitement, thinking that we'd do our country proud, to coming home after being branded as a catastrophe by the press. I think the problem was that it was England's first time at the World Cup, it was something new for everyone and we didn't know what we were going to come up against. But we should have done better against the US."
A 1-0 defeat by Spain in the Maracana ended English hopes and attentions were turned to the next competition in Switzerland four years later.
A duel with Yashin
"It was very strange going from a World Cup in a country so passionate about football, to Switzerland, where everything was much more understated," said Finney. "We went from playing in front of over 100,000 people at the Maracana to 14,000 against Belgium in Basle. But we had a better team in 1954, losing to a very good Uruguay team in the quarter-finals. Then it was over to Sweden, where I played in just one game: against the USSR. I was injured very early in the game, but carried on - there was no way that I was coming off!
"We were behind 2-1 when we were awarded a penalty and I was having to take it against Lev Yashin. He was such a great goalkeeper, who had a special talent for saving penalties as well as cutting an intimidating figure dressed all in black. But that didn't matter. All I could think of was putting the ball in the back of the net. I decided to use my right foot, my weaker foot, because I knew that he'd have seen me strike a few penalties with my left. And I scored! I foxed Yashin!
"Was I nervous? You bet! When I turned round to begin my run-up, some of my team-mates had their backs turned, they couldn't bear to watch. You can imagine how I felt! Sadly, that was my last contribution to the World Cup. I missed the games with Austria and Brazil through injury - and that was tough for me. I was desperate to play, especially against a great Brazil side who included Pele, Didi and Garrincha - three of my heroes.
"But it wasn't just me who was missing out. I think we'd have done a lot better in that World Cup had it not been for the Munich disaster. We lost three or four Manchester United players, most notably Duncan Edwards, who could have been heralded as much as Pele for his performances in that tournament."
Perhaps understandably, his eyes filled slightly as he spoke that last sentence. Finney is renowned in England as 'the gentleman footballer'. He was never booked, sent off or even spoken to by a referee in a career which totaled 510 matches. And for all of those matches, the proud Prestonian stayed loyal to his hometown club. So, what did he think about the game today compared to the 1950s?
"Good players always want to play for the best clubs and there are some, like me, who only want to play for one club. I was a bit of a rarity back then too. Footballers still experience pain after a defeat, joy after a victory - and there's no greater honour in the game than representing your country and winning the World Cup. And the media here still expect England to win every single game they play in. So, not much has changed really, has it?"
England: 1946 - 1958
76 caps, 30 goals
FIFA World Cup appearances
8 appearances, 2 goals
2 wins; 2 draws; 4 losses
1946 - 1960 Preston North End
English Footballer of the Year: 1953/54 and 1956/57
Finney was named England's Footballer of the Year in 1953/54, the year of his only appearance in the FA Cup Final (as Preston North End lost 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion), and again in 1956-57, becoming the first player to win this award more than once.
Called up to the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942, Finney fought in Montgomery's Eighth Army in Egypt. Local leave in North Africa allowed him to play for army teams against local opposition and on one occasion he played against the future actor Omar Sharif.
Demand for plumbers after the Second World War ensured that Finney had a second income to supplement the £14 salary he received as a footballer and he became famous as the 'Preston Plumber.'
When Finney was offered the opportunity to sign for Preston North End, his father insisted that he complete his apprenticeship in the family's plumbing business before signing as a professional.
Finney was born in one of the houses in a road which lies adjacent to Preston North End's Deepdale Stadium. That street where he was born and grew up is now named after him - Sir Tom Finney Way.