Intemperate Englishmen who are wont to view with alarm the warm American penchant for sporting spectacles might do well the next time they are inspired to set thought to paper to have a close look around themselves in the home country. They would probably be amazed.
Take, for instance, the case of Stanley Matthews. Few Americans have ever heard of Stanley Matthews, but in 1938 when the bandy-legged 150-pound soccer player asked the directors of the Stoke City Club of the English Football League for a transfer, he caused such a furor that one newspaper remarked seriously, "There has been no news to compare with this in public interest since the abdication."
The uproar was fantastic. Regarded in England with the same awe Americans might tender to a Red Grange and Sammy Baugh combined, Matthews was forced into hiding. The directors held emergency meetings, seven leading industrialists warned that discontent among the workers was seriously affecting production, and more than 3,000 people jammed King's Hall for a "Retain Stanley Matthews" meeting while another 1,000 milled in the streets. Matthews stayed with Stoke, but in 1947, at the ripe old age of 32, he was finally sold to Blackpool, his days of prime usefulness supposedly behind him. It was a terrible move. If possible, Matthews has been greater with Blackpool than ever he was with Stoke City. This year, at 41, he again leads his team in the thick of the fight for the First Division championship.
For an athlete, Matthews is dangerously deceptive. With his slight build, his thinning hair and his painfully retiring nature off the field, he comes close to filling the classic specifications of a home-appliance salesman or an insurance adjuster.
Yet he plays every minute of the 90-minute game, in which there are no time-outs and no substitutions, and has done this in approximately 1,000 league games since he broke in as a professional 25 years ago. He was 16 then. Matthews has played in nearly 70 international matches for England, and after the 6-3 loss at the hands of Hungary in 1953 (one of England's few defeats in international competition) he was acclaimed by Joszef Bozsik, the Hungarian star, the "greatest outside right in the world."
Matthews can control a soccer ball as though it were nailed to his boot. He is rarely off balance and is remarkably fast for short bursts of 10 or 20 yards. He paralyzes opponents by dribbling boldly up to them, turning his right foot in as though he is going to take the ball inside, and then tapping it instead with the instep of his left foot so that he is off and away. Occasionally he plays right through an opponent's legs. The only real defense against him is to keep the ball away from Matthews entirely.
Oddly enough, Matthews is not a scorer. It is doubtful if he has averaged five goals a year since joining Blackpool. He prefers to stay outside and pass to the inside man, a maneuver that makes him a master at "centering" the ball, or laying it up in front of goalmouth for a teammate's shot.
In 1938, for example, in a game against Ireland, Matthews gave one of the most spectacular performances ever seen on a football field. He set up five goals on five perfect passes to Willie Hall to establish a record for England in an international match. Matthews scored once himself in the 7-0 win. He was so good that day that one of the Irish backs finally yelled at him: "If you bring that ball near me once more, Stan, I'll wring your neck."
Three years ago Matthews led Blackpool into the Challenge Cup final at Wembley against the Bolton Wanderers, and on this day turned from mere brilliance to genius.
Midway through the second half, Bolton led 3-1. Then Matthews started calling for the ball. Taking a pass, he lofted a high, feathery center which the Bolton goalkeeper tried desperately to grab and missed. Blackpool's center forward stabbed it into the net.
For the rest of the period Matthews staged setup after setup, but his teammates missed horrendously. A penalty kick finally tied the score, and then with only minutes to go, Matthews dribbled swiftly up to a defender, showed him the ball and, for the first time in the afternoon, took it past him on the inside. Racing on toward the goal line, he sent a perfect pass diagonally back to a teammate in front of the goal, and it was all over, 4-3.
It was certainly one of the greatest cup finals ever played, and an athlete has seldom received the ovation Matthews got when the Queen presented him with his cup winner's medal. Only a Cockney dissented.
"Winner's medal!" he snorted. "They ought to give 'im the blinkin' cup!"