The list of winners of the European Footballer of the Year Award, or Ballon d’Or, includes some very impressive names. Michel Platini, Marco van Basten, Zinedine Zidane and most recently Lionel Messi have all claimed the honour, but few of these modern day greats can come close to rivalling the achievements of the award’s inaugural winner from 1956, the late Sir Stanley Matthews.
Matthews on one of his 352 Stoke appearances
Matthews was born in February 1915 into a working class family in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. The third son of barber Jack Matthews, a notable local boxer, he showed early sporting promise and was signed to his hometown club on professional terms in 1932 at the age of just seventeen. He quickly impressed at the Victoria Ground and the Potters won promotion to the First Division of English football in 1933, at the end of what was Matthews’s breakthrough season. Over the next eight years he was a fixture on the right wing of Stoke sides, scoring a superb 51 league goals in 256 appearances for the club. It’s small wonder that the Stoke fans quickly came to love him, and their approval of their hero soared even higher in 1938. Matthews, wanting a change in his career, asked for a transfer. 3,000 devastated supporters attended a protest meeting at this news and, to their delight, Matthews listened to them and stayed on, pledging his immediate future to Stoke.
It was early in his Stoke career that Matthews unsurprisingly caught the eye of the England management. Having previously played for England schoolboys, he received the first full cap of what would be a 23-year international career at the just nineteen. 54 England games later, when he finally hung up his international boots, he was as much a beloved figure to patriotic England fans as he was to the faithful of the clubs he played for, with his stunning hat-trick for a ten-man England side against Czechoslovakia in 1937 a highlight of an excellent two decades spent representing his country.
Sir Stan with the three lions proudly on his chest
The Second World War sadly interrupted Stanley’s career when it would most likely have been at its peak, and, rather differently from turning out for his country on the football pitch, he served it in the RAF, and was stationed near Blackpool. He settled in the area and at the war’s end he asked for a transfer to Bloomfield Road, a wish that was granted in 1947, to the delight of the Tangerines’ fans. Matthews was 32 at that point, and his new manager, Joe Smith, famously asked him if he thought he could “make it for another couple of years.” He lasted another eighteen at the highest level. It is perhaps for his exploits with Blackpool that he is best known, particularly the 1953 FA Cup final, commonly dubbed “the Matthews final”, in honour of his fine performance in Blackpool’s win.
Though he achieved just about all there is to achieve in English football, in 1961, at the age of 46, Matthews made headlines and became the toast of many a Staffordshire tavern once again when he sensationally rejoined Stoke. Though his best years were clearly behind him, the signing of Matthews was hailed as a masterstroke from then Potters manager Tony Waddington, one of the few men as highly regarded as Matthews by Stoke fans. Instantly attendances at the Victoria Ground doubled and Stanley continued to play well in the red and white striped right up to 1965, when he walked out onto a football pitch as a professional for the very last time, at the incredible age of 50. At an age where many people just want to put their feet up, and having become the first active footballer to be knighted the year before, he decided it was right to call time on a phenomenal career.
Matthews’s legacy is honoured by a statue at the Britannia Stadium
Part of the appeal of Matthews is although he had the skill to match and surpass them, in so many ways Matthews was very different to so many modern day footballing stars. He started humbly, cleaning boots as a youngster at Stoke, and lived equally humbly until his death in the year 2000, in relatively meagre surroundings in the Honeywall area of Stoke, in stark contrast to the ostentatious mansions so often occupied by today’s footballers. He also treated his body with the utmost of respect, always a vegetarian teetotaller, and devoted much of his time to charity work in South Africa. It is a small tragedy that he didn’t live to see the rapid recent rise in fortunes of both the clubs he loved, Stoke an Blackpool.
Pele dubbed him “the man who taught us how football should be played”, and to all football fans he was an unquestionable great. For many of them, particularly followers of Stoke City, Sir Stanley Matthews was the very best.