Tom Finney died yesterday, aged 91. In 2005, I was lucky enough to meet one of the nicest professional footballers you could ever wish to shake hands with. It was at a reunion of the Chelsea 1955 Football League Championship winning side and Tom Finney, who only ever played for his local club, Preston North End, was a special guest.
The thing is, not many people realised that “The Preston Plumber” – a reference to his trade – was at the event, because there was no fanfare, no grand announcement and certainly no hubris. I was keen to get the signatures of all the 1955 team present on this unique occasion. I reached the table on which Finney was sitting, quietly enjoying a glass of fruit juice. I said, “Sorry, please forgive me, but who are you?” I asked, as I didn’t recognise this rather slight, figure. “Oh, I’m Tom Finney,” he replied, in a humble, endearing way. “Tom Finney!. Tom Finney!. My God, I am sorry. Tom Finney!. I cannot believe I have met Tom Finney.”
I shook his hand firmly, told him it was an enormous pleasure to meet him, and he signed my menu. What could I say to such a legendary player? He told me he played a few games and was lucky to have been alongside some “wonderful lads over the years”. I spluttered out something about who the greatest individual he had come up against and he remarked, “that Puskas fellow was some player. He made me wonder what the devil had we been doing all these years for someone to be able to do that to us.”
Of course, Finney was in the England side that lost 7-1 in the Nep Stadium in 1954. He was also in the England line-up that [infamously] lost 1-0 to the USA in the 1950 World Cup! He featured in three World Cup finals for his country.
It was quite a moving experience speaking with this grand old man of football, but of all the players at the Chelsea Hospital that night, Finney was undoubtedly the greatest, and he didn’t even play for Chelsea.
The Tom Finney story should act as a lesson for some of the characters that claim to be “legends” today.
You’re not a legend, really, until you’re dead, but in footballing terms, as soon as you hang your boots up, you’re a legend.
Finney played 433 games for Preston North End and scored 187 goals. He was capped 76 times for England (30 goals) in an age when he had Stanley Matthews to contend with.
If Finney had moved from Deepdale, home of Preston, he would doubtless have won many domestic honours to go with his England caps. But he stayed loyal to his home town club and never won any significant honours. It is doubtful we shall see his like again.
But for years, he kept Preston North End afloat and one satirical comment sums up his value to PNE: “Tom Finney should claim income tax relief…for his 10 dependents.”
I expect a lot of people are glad today that they once met Tom Finney.