England Caps: 26
Player: 1946 - 1951
Wilf Mannion achieved 26 caps for England in the immediate post-war period playing as an inside right or inside left, and proving the perfect foil for England’s two supreme wing wizards, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney.
Early Days at BoroLike many England players of his day, Wilf Mannion started playing football with his local team, in this case Middlesbrough, and played for that one team for the whole of his top-flight career. But the story wasn’t as simple for Mannion, a cultured and entertaining inside-forward who could dribble his way out of tight spaces with exceptional ball control and deceptive body swerves.
Post-War DebutStarting for Boro in 1936, Mannion’s career was interrupted by the war, but he did make appearances for England in unofficial wartime internationals. He was then selected for the first official post-war international, making a sensational debut as he scored a hat-trick in a 7-2 drubbing of Northern Ireland. Playing in defence and captain on that day was his Middlesbrough colleague George Hardwick.
It was unlikely that Mannion would be dropped after that, and although that proved to be his only England hat-trick, it started an extended run in the side. In his third match, a 3-0 win against Wales, he scored two and made the other for Tommy Lawton.
May 1947In May 1947 Mannion hit a real purple patch. In another 3-0 England win, this time against France, he scored again with an audacious lob over the French keeper, who was having an amazing match and largely responsible for the relatively low score. A week later, he was feted as the man of the match, playing for a Great Britain and Northern Ireland side against the Rest of the World. The match was a friendly arranged to celebrate the return of the British sides to FIFA, having left in 1920 in rows over payments to amateur players. Mannion scored two goals against the same French keeper, in a dazzling display that led to a 6-1 win.
Swiss RolloverThe next week brought an unusual low as England were beaten 1-0 by a well-disciplined Swiss side in a tour friendly. The Swiss had scored on the 27th minute then shut up shop, even withdrawing their centre-forward into midfield, which confused the English defence. This would be an omen of things to come as England discovered that the rest of the world was catching up with them.
Fortunately order was restored in the next tour match, a superb team display in a 10-0 win against Portugal. After the Swiss debacle the selectors decided to put both their spectacular wing-men, Matthews and Finney, on the pitch at the same time, and the Portuguese couldn’t handle it. Mannion, although being the only forward who didn’t score, had another exceptional match, partnering Finney, who had switched to outside–left to accommodate Matthews preference for the right wing.
Rebel with a CauseDespite this success, which was echoed at club level, there was trouble at Boro. Dissatisfied with the maximum wage of £10 per week, Mannion wouldn’t sign a new contract for Middlesbrough and arranged to drop into the 3rd division with Oldham Athletic, so that he would have the time to run a business on the side, selling chicken coops.
Incensed by this, the directors put a price tag on him that they were sure Oldham couldn’t afford and Mannion was out of the game for the best part of six months, waiting for the stalemate to be resolved. In those days players were effectively owned by their clubs he eventually realised that he had no option but to play for Boro or not at all.
Return to EnglandBack in the side for Middlesbrough meant being back in the England side for the 4-1 defeat of Norway in 1949, Mannion again partnering Finney in what was effectively an exhibition match against an amateur side. Although not playing in all of the England matches that season, he was in the squad for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, the first that England had entered.
1950 Brazil World CupThis was to prove a disappointing trip with poor preparation on the part of the FA leading to a disjointed side that put in under-par performances. Although England beat Chile 2-0 in the first game, with Mannion scoring the second goal, they then lost inexplicably to a scratch United States side, and then to Spain, to go out at the group stage.
What a Cheek!Mannion continued in the England side for another year or so, playing a part in the 1951 match at Wembley against Scotland, but not a part he would have appreciated. This time partnering Matthews on the right, Mannion was carried off to hospital with a broken cheekbone after eleven minutes. As the coach, Walter Winterbottom, had gone with Mannion, captain Billy Wright chose to put both Matthews and Finney on the right wing, and the ten men of England very nearly carried it off, going into an initial lead but eventually losing 3-2.
There were more problems for Mannion after his career was over, being suspended by the FA after refusing to clarify allegations about illegal payments made to some players, and Mannion was eventually reduced to penury.
Global FigureHe was respected world wide, so much so that he was one of the English players invited to Brazil by the great Pele to teach children his skills. In 1983 the Middlesbrough board agreed to a joint testimonial for Mannion and his Boro and England colleague Hardwick.
Mannion died in 2000 and Stanley Matthews said: "Wilf could turn on a sixpence and liked to play the short game. He had an instinctive football intellect. He was a beautiful player and a delight to the eye. On his day, there were few to touch him. So nice and modest."