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Fed up with the cynicism of modern footballers? Read on ...
on 6 July 2006
Tom Finney's virtues make a stark comparison: honesty, decency, skill, respect for the rules (he was never booked, still less sent off). When he is offered a big pay-day by going to Italy he is flattered, wonders what to do, but declines.
His autobiography is a highly readable account of his life to date. It's very accessible and written in fairly short chapters which would make it ideal reading for the tube or train. When I started this book Finney was just one of a long list of names from the 1940s and 1950s, men that had no individual character for me: Lawton, Lofthouse, Matthews, Mannion, Carter, Finney, Mortensen. Not many people under the age of 65 will even have seen them play. I certainly found out about Finney's playing career but an unexpected and pleasant surprise was finding out about some aspects of Tom Finney the man as well, including insights into his (famous) plumbing business, time as a magistrate and as the chairman of the local health authority (all topics on which I would love to have known more). However, if I remember one image beyond everything else in this book it will be simple and moving way he tells the story of his love for his wife as her health declines. It was the last thing I was expecting but hi distress,cresolve and courage symbolise the man for me.
Most people who consider buying this book will be interested in the football, though, and here Finney the author has at least two problems. First, and there is a "plot spoiler" coming up here, the only league- or cup-winning team Finney played in was the Preston side that won Division Two in 1951, which doesn't sound very promising material. Second, Finney often seems to have been the star of the team, winning two Footballer of the Year awards, but how to get this over in his book when he places such a premium on modesty? The first problem is a little easier to overcome: even if Preston weren't winning there are people around like Bill Shankly, Tommy Docherty and the fearsome Willie Cunningham (coincidently all Scots!) He also played in three world cups (including That Game in Belo Horizonte), a losing cup final side and runners-up in Division One. The second problem is harder to tackle and Finney is "embarrassed" at many points in the book when citing rave reviews or tributes from colleagues; it is one of the few points where the writing style grates.
The only other time this happens is on the subject of controversy. Finney makes his views very clear: what went on in the dressing room stays there, even fifty years on. He was hardly a man who courted controversy anyway: in one match with local rivals Blackpool two players are fighting a running battle. The Preston man goes over-the-top and the Blackpool captain runs up to Finney, the Preston captain, shouting it is " a bloody disgrace" and demanding to know what he is going to do. "Well," says Finney, "I shall certainly have a word with him about it." I loved this because it gives such an insight into Finney's nature. My problem comes when Finney (or maybe his ghost-writer?) tries to inject some "artificial" controversy such as the chapter called "My Battle of Britton", Cliff Britton that is, a Preston manager Finney did not see eye-to-eye with. Britton tells the team not to drink, so Finney as captain orders a beer. And that's it, end of anecdote! At the time it was probably a big deal but by today's standards it is a little tame.
It's a shame because those pages of the book could have been put to much better use. Having never seen Finney play I would love to have known more about some of the ploys he used to take on defenders, the tactics Preston and England used, and maybe an attempt at the biggest question of all, why an England team with so many great players made so little impact on the world stage.
But I am carping about a chapter or two in an otherwise readable, honest account of a man of honour, decency, talent and understated pride. He may belong to an age that is nearly gone but I have nothing butt admiration for the qualities of Tom Finney and his colleagues. If you feel the same way, this book is for you and Tom Finney's fame might only just be beginning as he finds a new generation of admirers.