Obituary: Sir Tom Finney, Footballer, plumber, knight

Born: Preston, 5 April, 1922. Died: Preston, 14 February, 2014, aged 91
Tom Finney: Player regarded by many as the most complete footballer that England ever produced. Picture: GettyTom Finney: Player regarded by many as the most complete footballer that England ever produced. Picture: Getty
Tom Finney: Player regarded by many as the most complete footballer that England ever produced. Picture: Getty

DESPITE never winnon North End, that was replete with great Scottish players during his 14-year career, from Bill Shankly to Tommy Docherty, Willie Cunningham and his cousin Jimmy Baxter, Angus Morrison and Willie Forbes, the latter five joining Finney in Prestoning a single trophy for either club or country, Tom Finney was revered for the quality of his footballing skill and his personal demeanour that has often seen him lauded as the most complete footballer that England ever produced. Stanley Matthews, no less, compared Finney in his memoirs to Pele, George Best and Alfredo di Stefano – the very highest company in football terms.

He played for just one club, Prest’s 1954 FA Cup Final team that was managed by the legendary Scot Symon just before he moved to take charge of Rangers.

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Finney loved his Scottish mates, but also enjoyed putting one over on them when the annual Scotland v England match came around – he never once played on a losing English side at Hampden Park.

It was also a Scot, the great Alex James, who inspired Finney to pursue football, the youngster watching James weave his magic for Preston North End in the 1920s before he moved to Arsenal.

Born in Preston to Alfred and Margaret, Finney grew up just a stone’s throw from Deepdale, the home of Preston North End. He did not enjoy good health in childhood and by the age of 14, he stood just 4ft 9in tall and weighed five stones.

His skill at football was undeniable from an early age, however, and his father asked the local club to give the precocious schoolboy player a trial. They at first refused because of his lack of inches, and only after an operation to remove infected glands did he manage to get the trial and was then offered a job on the groundstaff. His father insisted that he completed his apprenticeship as a plumber so that he had a trade to fall back on should the football not work out – his nickname of the “Preston Plumber” duly ensued.

Finney filled out physically as a teenager, and was on the verge of making his breakthrough into the top team when the Second World War broke out and British football went into cold storage. However, he did play for Preston when they won the Wartime Cup by beating Arsenal in 1941.

Called up in 1942, he saw service in North Africa with the Royal Armoured Corps and then drove tanks in Italy with the 9th Lancers. He managed to play for several services sides during the war and on being demobbed in 1946, Finney made his belated debut for Preston, for whom his impact was immediate. Just 28 days later, he was called up for England and won the first of 76 caps in their 7-2 defeat of Northern Ireland. He also scored the first of what would become a then-record 30 goals for his country.

Allying two-footed skill to pace and exquisite balance, Finney could head the ball and shoot, too, so that he could play every position in the forward line. His worth to Preston was such that he was known as the “plumber with ten drips”, an unfair reference to the Lancashire side’s dependence on Finney.

His performances for Preston and England caught the attention of football royalty on the continent. At a time when he was earning a basic wage of £12 per week – in his career from 1946 to 1960 his weekly wage packet never exceeded £20 – Finney was offered a staggering £10,000 signing on fee, plus a villa and car, to join Italian club Palermo.

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His loyalty to Preston was total, however, and he stayed with the club as it enjoyed something of a golden era. In April 1954, he was named England’s Footballer of the Year, but later that same week he underperformed, by his own admission, in the FA Cup Final, which Preston lost 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion in front of 100,000 people at Wembley.

The same year also saw Finney in the World Cup Finals for England, having played in them in 1950 when the USA inflicted the most humiliating defeat in English football history. He would play in the World Cup Finals a third time in 1958 in Sweden, but was injured in the first match.

By then Finney, who had been converted to a new kind of position that we would now call a deep-lying centre forward, had enjoyed a new lease of life at Preston, which saw him become the first man ever to become Player of the Year twice, a feat he achieved in 1957. He played his last game for England the following year, a 5-0 drubbing of the USSR.

Towards the end of his playing career, Finney suffered a series of groin injuries and he called it a day at the age of 38, though he did come out of retirement to play once for Irish club Distillery in European competition against Benfica.

In all, Finney played 433 league matches for Preston North End and scored 187 goals. Playing for club or country, he was never sent off or even booked, never once retaliating despite the frequent attentions of several lesser players, who were only too keen to stop him.

In retirement, Finney built up a successful plumbing business and became the elder statesman of English football, retaining his links with Preston and becoming the club’s president. He was also hugely influential in the creation of the English National Football Museum in his home town, though it has since moved to Manchester.

He was awarded the OBE in 1961 for services to football and charity and was made CBE in 1992 before being knighted to unanimous acclaim in the 1998 New Year’s Honours list.

The verdict on Finney from his peers was that he was the perfect gentleman as well as being a fabulous footballer. He was teetotal throughout his playing career, and was never heard to swear – a rarity in a sport where foul language was and is par for the course.

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Finney was married to Elsie Noblett for almost 50 years before her death from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2004. Latterly, he had become her full-time carer and also helped to raise considerable funds for Alzheimer’s charity. Finney is survived by their children, Brian and Barbara.