England Caps : 54
Goals : 11
Player : 1934 - 1957
The ‘Wizard of Dribble’ Stanley Matthews is probably one of the best known names in English football. An immensely highly regarded and respected player and a spectacular crowd pleaser, Matthews dominated the post-war period with displays of ball control and change of pace up and down the wings of pitches worldwide.
Matthews’ style was deceptively languid, facing up to a full back to take them on, trying a shimmy or a dummy, and then, once they’d committed themselves, accelerating rapidly past them with the ball tied to his laces. Danny Blanchflower, the legendary Spurs and Northern Ireland captain of the Fifties and Sixties said:”You usually knew how he’d beat you, but you couldn’t do anything about it.
His crosses and pull backs were accurate too, and although his goal tally seems relatively low, at 11 goals in 54 caps, the tactics of the era meant that his effectiveness was more about making goals for others, such as centre forwards or the inside right and inside left players. When Matthews did score goals, it was more than likely when he came in to play as an inside right to try and increase his influence on a game.
Early StartMatthews’ talent had been recognised at an early age and he played for England schoolboys before signing up for local side Stoke City in 1932. His England debut came two years later against Wales, at the age of 19, when he scored in a 4-0 win. He fast became an England regular and got his only hat-trick in 1937 when a ten-man team beat Czechoslovakia 5-4. Bizarrely, Matthews scored all three goals with his left leg, generally considered to be fit only for standing on.
Post-WarAfter the war Matthews’ was sold to Blackpool, joining his England colleague, centre forward Stan Mortensen. Matthews wasn’t guaranteed a place in the England side though, and he probably would have gained more caps had it not been for the interruption of the war, and then the appearance of his great rival, Tom Finney. Matthews didn’t play for England at all during the 1946-7 season, as Finney was at right wing, but eventually Finney, who was two-footed, swapped to the left wing to accommodate Matthews’ skill.
Back in the side for the first friendly of the 1947-8 season, Matthews’ played in what many believe to be his best England performance, a 2-5 away defeat of Belgium, when all five England goals came from Matthews crosses. Friendlies were proper competitive matches in those days as the World Cup wasn’t as popular as it is today, and the European Championship didn’t yet exist. Matthews went around the world during the off-season to play exhibition matches, so he was much better known internationally than other England players.
England’s Dominance WanesIn 1950, England agreed to play in their first World Cup but Matthews only played in one game and England went home early after not fulfilling their potential. In the next World Cup, 1954 in Switzerland, Matthews switched to inside forward to help pull off a 4-4 draw against Belgium during the group stages. In the ensuing quarter-final a defensively weak England lost 2-4 to Uruguay and were on their way home again.
This was a year after England had been issued a calamitous wake-up call by the ‘Magnificent Magyars’, Ferenc Puskas Hungarian team, who became the first team from outside the British Isles to beat England at home, humbling them 3-6 at Wembley and 7-1 on the return in Budapest. The message was that to have a successful national side, team building and formation play was becoming more important, and the days of England being able to rely on individual skills were numbered.
European Player of the YearMatthews was such a skilled individual that he was universally recognised, being voted the inaugural European Player of the Year in 1956. He had received the inaugural English award eight years earlier, and won it again in 1963, at the age of 48, when helping Stoke City (he had returned to them in 1961) gain promotion to the First Division.
Matthews played on for England until 1957, his last match being a qualifier for the 1958 World Cup against Denmark on May 15th 1957. He holds the records for the oldest player, at 42, to don an England shirt, and the longest England career, nearly 23 years passing between his debut and his last match.
Gentleman PlayerA teetotaller and vegetarian, Matthews kept himself fit enough to be still playing at the top level into at the age of fifty, and finally retired in 1965. A mark of the greatness of Matthews was that his testimonial was played against a World XI boasting true greats like Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Lev Yashin and Josef Masopust. At the end of the game, which Stoke won 6-4, Matthews was carried off the field on the shoulders of Yashin and Puskas.
He played nearly 700 league games, was never booked, and after retiring was the first footballer to be knighted. Even Pele said of Matthews that he had taught everyone how the game should be played.