"He was a leader, he had fantastic ability in the air and he was strong, but he was also a talisman. I always felt he was the one who was in charge, he was the leader. I'm really sorry, and anybody in this part of the world will be very sorry, he isn't with us anymore because he was a fantastic credit to the game."
Those are the words of Sir Bobby Charlton, remembering his former England team-mate Nat Lofthouse, who died on 15 January at the age of 85.
In many ways, however, his achievements have been wrongly overshadowed by those of his contemporaries. Six years after his retirement, England won the FIFA World Cup™ and the names of Charlton, Banks and Hurst became more prominent in the public’s mind than that of Lofthouse.
A Footballer of the Year in 1953, he would often work a shift down a mine on a Saturday morning before heading off to play for Bolton Wanderers in the afternoon. Possibly the best comparison between Lofthouse and a modern-day striker would be Alan Shearer: a physically imposing, strong, old-fashioned centre forward.
Lofthouse earned his nickname ‘The Lion of Vienna’ through a typical brave moment on the pitch - scoring a goal for England in a 3-2 victory against Austria in 1952 despite being elbowed in the face, tackled from behind and finally brought down by the goalkeeper.
This robust nature was in evidence again during the FA Cup Final of 1958, the pinnacle of his club career. Five years earlier he had played and scored in the ‘Stanley Matthews Final’ against Blackpool, but ended up on the losing side. This time, however, Bolton were favourites going into a match against a Manchester United side that had been ravaged by the Munich Disaster some three months earlier.
I always felt he was the one who was in charge, he was the leader.
With the British public backing the underdogs of United, Lofthouse opened the scoring before adding a controversial second by barging United goalkeeper Harry Gregg over the line, an action which he later admitted to have been a foul.
That was one of 255 goals that Lofthouse scored for Bolton in just 452 games. It's a statistic that could have been even more impressive had the start of his professional career not been delayed by the start of the Second World War. On top of that, he scored 30 goals for his country in just 33 appearances - by some distance the best goals-to-games ratio of any leading England striker.
Lofthouse also featured in the 1954 FIFA World Cup in Switzerland, scoring twice in a 4-4 draw with Belgium and once in a 4-2 defeat by Uruguay in the quarter-finals. “We had some great players and we felt we had a chance of winning the tournament, but I don’t think we were too disappointed,” he later recalled. “Obviously we went there to win but the sport was different then, you accepted it better and the people accepted it better. If they won you’d shake their hand and say, ‘All the best to you’. It’s a different game today.”
Lofthouse was as remarkable a person as he was a footballer, and unwaveringly loyal to his hometown - he was born, grew up, lived in, played for and died in Bolton. Following his retirement in 1960, he served as assistant trainer, chief coach, caretaker manager, manager (twice), scout, administrative manager, executive manager and president for his beloved club.
The East Stand of Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium is named after him and while Bolton's loyal fans will never forget his exploits, neither should the football family as a whole. Today, his funeral takes place at Bolton Parish Church, with thousands - including representatives from a variety of British clubs - expected to pay their respects to a lion, a legend of the English game.