If you’re looking for a player most synonymous with Preston North End, then look no further than the colossus giant that is Sir Tom Finney. With 210 goals in 473 appearances, along with a significant amount more assists for his grateful teammates, Finney remains the undisputedly greatest player ever to play at Deepdale.
Finney has an unrivalled reputation at Deepdale but retained his humbleness amidst his unprecedented success. This was most notably exemplified when he rejected a luminous offer of £10,000 with other bonuses to join Italian outfit Palermo. This was a testament to his loyalty towards his hometown club and his roots stemmed from birth where he spent the early stages of his childhood just a few hundred metres from Deepdale.
Tragedy struck at an awfully young age when his mother Maggie Finney fell ill and died aged just 32 in 1927. His father Alf Finney managed to keep his elder brother Joe and four sisters Madge, Peggy, Doris and Edith together with the help of other family members and local friends, despite being frequently unemployed due to the changing economy.
Returning to his extraordinary playing career, Finney is also renowned for being one of the greatest players ever to play for the England National Team. He scored in both the 1954 and 1958 World Cup finals and had a notorious track record in the now-defunct Home Championships, which was contested between the four British nations.
In the aftermath of his career, many of his heirs have kept alive his immortal legacy. Sir Stanley Matthews, who was his main competitor for the wide right position in the England National Team during the 1950s, placed him in the pantheon of infinite legends that could independently decide a game.
Matthews went further in his praise by comparing him to such names as Pele, George Best, Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano. Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was also asked whether a major star of the 1970s by the name of Tony Currie could compare to the great Tom Finney. Shankly famously responded by sarcastically claiming, “Aye, he’s as good as Tommy – but then again Tommy’s nearly sixty now.”
This epitomizes the respect that Finney acquired during his truly outstanding career. No player has ever come close to eclipsing his long-lasting record as Preston North End’s all-time top goal scorer. And considering his competitive debut came at the ripe age of 24 years old makes one wonder that his record could be ever more outstanding had World War II not interrupted his introduction to professional football.
Hardship & World War II
Alf Finney, his father, was a clerical worker in local government, but like many people working in the 1920s, he was forced into unemployment on a frequent basis due to an unsteady economy. This made it extremely difficult to take care of his family and his situation was exacerbated by the tragic death of his wife Maggie.
It had a major emotional impact on the entire family but Alf admirably kept his family together with the help of his neighbours and other relatives. Alf was also an ardent football fan and Tommy inherited his passion for playing with the leather ball by playing in the local fields with his friends from school.
Tommy prepared for his future by acquiring an apprentice as a plumber, which is the reason behind his subsequent nickname, “the Preston Plumber.” Returning to his early life, Tommy retained his ambition to become a professional footballer and coincidently stumbled upon an advert in the newspaper.
Preston North End were searching for junior players between the ages of fourteen and eighteen to join their youth academy. Despite standing at just 4 foot 9 inches when he left school in 1936, Preston were impressed by his talent during his trial and the club immediately offered him a contract.
However, his father was required to give his approval on the contract and he was insistent that his son completed his apprenticeship before playing at Deepdale. My own grandfather was faced with the same predicament, but as happened to Sir Tom Finney, World War II broke out just as he was preparing to break into the first team.
Sadly, my grandfather was unable to represent Aston Villa when he returned home from that harrowing war, but Tom Finney made up for lost time and went onto become arguably the greatest player of his generation alongside Sir Stanley Matthews. Finney even made a guest appearance for Southampton in a 3-1 defeat against Arsenal in December 1942 but he became notorious for his footballing skills in wartime tournaments.
After being called up to serve in the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942, he fought for Montgomery’s Eighth Army in Egypt. In the latter stages of World War II, Finney was in the final offensive at the Battle of Argenta Gap in Italy.
The conclusion of World War II meant that more promising times beckoned for Finney and Preston North End pledged their loyalty to him by recalling him into their first team upon his return. His life was taking a turn for the better when he married his wife Elsie (Noblett) in 1945, and little did they know it at the time, but the world was on the verge of witnessing the true excellence of Sir Tom Finney.
The Journey to Immortality
Normal service resumed in the football industry during the 1946/47 season and Finney was able to make his long-awaited competitive debut for Preston North End in August 1946. Marking his debut with a goal in a 3-2 victory over Leeds United, Finney quickly established himself as an adept forward and was called up into the England National Team to make his international debut against Northern Ireland.
As if scoring on his club debut wasn’t impressive enough, Finney further consolidated his reputation by scoring in a famous 7-2 rout in Belfast just 28 days later. He primarily flourished as an outside right, but was equally capable of playing in all five positions across the attacking line.
Finney was reduced to just 26 appearances in the 1948/49 season and Preston North End succumbed to relegation in his absence. The club earned an unwanted nickname, which was, “the plumber and his 10 drips.”
Preston spent two seasons in the Second Division and Finney was the catalyst as they were crowned champions in 1950/51. He was a major factor in their successful 1952/53 season when Preston North End finished runners-up on goal difference to Arsenal, managed by the famous Tom Whittaker, who suddenly died whilst at the helm at Highbury aged just 58.
Although their rise was fleeting, Finney reached his peak between 1954 and 1958, during which he was voted Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1954 and 1957 respectively. The Lilywhites reached the FA Cup final in 1954, but Finney was unable to obtain the most sought after prize in English football with Preston succumbing to a disappointing 3-2 defeat against West Bromwich Albion.
He successfully translated his domestic success onto the international stage by marking his second World Cup finals by scoring in a 4-2 defeat against Uruguay in the quarter-final. Finney also scored the equalizer from the penalty spot against Soviet Union in the opening fixture, but he was unable to prevent Three Lions from stumbling out of the tournament in the group stage.
Although Finney is historically renowned as one of England’s greatest ever players, it’s safe to say that he played during an era that England failed to deliver at major tournaments. That seems nothing new in the current era, but England still staked a claim as being the masters of football, until a humiliating defeat to USA at the 1950 World Cup and a 6-3 thrashing against Hungary questioned that notion.
Both defeats filed the final nail in the coffin and negatively affected their confidence. They went onto record a quarter-final exit in 1954 and suffered a group stage exit just four years later. Nevertheless, Finney, along with fellow international teammates Nat Lofthouse and Stanley Matthews remain eternally remembered by their countrymen.
The Twilight of his Career
Whereas the majority of high-profile players regress in the latter stages of their career, the case of Tom Finney was contrary to normality. He scored 54 goals combined in 1956/57 and 1957/58 and helped Preston North End to a runners-up finish in the First Division in the latter.
He forged a formidable striking partnership with Tommy Thompson and the pair scored a combined total of 117 goals during the two seasons previously mentioned. Sadly, the end was nearing and Finney was reduced to just six goals in 16 appearances in the penultimate season of his career.
The Preston North End supporters were delighted that Finney had one final instalment for them to enjoy. He marked his retirement with 21 goals in 43 appearances until succumbing to defeat against a persistent groin injury.
His retirement marked the end of an era because Tommy Thompson left Deepdale to join Stoke City just one season later. To make matters worse, Preston slipped out of the First Division in the season following his retirement.
This further emphasizes his importance to the club and no other player has managed to challenge his status as the greatest ever player in their history. To conclude the report, I’m going to leave you with a quote from former Chelsea and Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty shortly before Finney’s death in 2014, who proclaimed, “Messi is Finney reborn.” This tells you how highly thought of Finney truly was and explains why he’s so revered in the English history books!