An aggressive centre-forward for Bolton Wanderers and England who earned the nickname 'Lion of Vienna'
Published 30/01/2011 | 05:00
Nat Lofthouse, who died on January 15 aged 85 and was buried last week, was the epitome of the old-fashioned English centre-forward; seemingly hewn from oak, his uncompromising aggression and ready chasing of half-chances brought him many international goals and the proud epithet "The Lion of Vienna".
On the night of May 25, 1952, England took on a stylish and confident Austria in a match billed by the press as an unofficial "Championship of Europe". Sixty thousand people, including 2,000 British troops from the Army of Occupation, crowded into Vienna's stadium to see the hosts play an English side still regarded -- a year before their humiliation by Hungary, 6-3 at Wembley stadium -- as the masters of the game.
Deep into the second half of a stormy match, with the score at 2-2, an Austrian corner fell at the feet of Tom Finney. He drew the only covering player and flicked the ball to Lofthouse, who had already scored once, just inside England's half. The Austrian defence was caught upfield, and set off in hot pursuit of Lofthouse as he bore down on goal.
As the goalkeeper charged out, Lofthouse held his nerve, sliding the ball home as he and the onrushing keeper collided. Lofthouse was knocked cold and stretchered off, unaware that he had scored. He returned to the pitch just before the final whistle, and when it came he was chaired around the field by the rejoicing British soldiers.
Alf Ramsey said later: "The courage Nat showed was typical of him. The way he insisted on coming back on lifted the heart of every Englishman in the stadium. It made us redouble our efforts to keep the Austrians out."
Nathaniel Lofthouse was born in Bolton on August 27 1925, the youngest of four sons. His father worked as a coal-bagger and later as head horsekeeper for the town's Corporation.
Nat played his first school match as a goalkeeper. He conceded seven, and was scolded by his mother for ruining his best pair of leather shoes. He decided to become a centre-forward instead, and diligently practised his heading against a wall during lunchtimes. On his debut for Bolton Schools, it was he who scored seven goals.
He signed as an amateur for Bolton Wanderers the day after the outbreak of World War Two and made his league debut against Bury at the age of 15, scoring twice. Too young for military service, during the war he worked in the mines, rising at half past three in the morning to put in a 10-hour shift hauling coal tubs before training with Wanderers in the afternoon.
The work made him immensely strong ("It toughened me up, physically and mentally," he later said), although he was forced to endure teasing from the older miners if he had a poor match. As a player he was initially somewhat clumsy, and he never became overly subtle; but his physical presence made him very difficult to play against. Though only 5ft 9in tall, he weighed more than 12 stone, and was nigh unbeatable in the air. He also had a healthy turn of speed, and a fierce shot with both feet, especially his left.
Lofthouse remained with Bolton for his entire career, playing 503 games for the club and scoring 285 goals, a mark which remains the club record. He also captained the side for several seasons. In 1946 he was on the pitch at Burnden Park as a crowd of 85,000 tried to get into Bolton's ground to watch an FA Cup tie. Thirty-three people lost their lives in the crush.
He was first selected for England in 1950, succeeding his childhood idol Tommy Lawton in the side. Lofthouse scored twice on his debut, against Yugoslavia, and went on to play in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, picking up three goals in the tournament. Although then in prime form, like Stanley Matthews he was ignored by the amateurish selection panel for the 1958 competition.
He was, however, recalled to the side the following year and equalled Finney's then record number of international goals. Lofthouse's final strike rate of 30 goals in 33 matches has been approached only by one other England player, Jimmy Greaves.
In 1953 Lofthouse scored six goals for the Football League in a match against League of Ireland counterparts. He was voted Footballer of the Year that same season and led Bolton to the FA Cup Final against Blackpool, having scored in every round of the tournament. He claimed another goal in the second minute of the final, and with only 25 minutes remaining, and Bolton leading 3-1, it seemed that the trophy must be theirs. It was then that Stanley Matthews began to work his magic, his wing play conjuring up a celebrated 4-3 victory for the Seasiders.
In 1956 Lofthouse was the top scorer in the First Division, and two years later he was back at Wembley with Bolton for an emotional Cup Final against a Manchester United side that had been largely destroyed earlier in the season by the air crash at Munich. The neutrals' sympathies were with United, but it was Bolton who triumphed 2-0, with Lofthouse claiming both goals. The second came in highly controversial fashion. United's keeper, Harry Gregg, was able only to push a fierce shot up in the air. As he gathered it, Lofthouse charged into him, bundling both Gregg and the ball over the goal line.
Many observers thought it a foul, and indeed Gregg required treatment on the pitch, but the referee allowed the goal to stand.
In 1960 a persistent ankle injury forced Lofthouse to retire from the game at 34; he played his last match in December that year, against Birmingham City. Six years earlier, the Bolton board had rejected a bid for the player from the Italian club Fiorentina which would have made his financial future secure.
Loath to leave the club, he was at first given a job as a boot cleaner and trainer. In 1968 he began an unhappy two years as the team's manager. But Lofthouse's unfailing good manners and modesty made him a favourite with fellow players and supporters alike. Nat Lofthouse married, in 1947, Alma Foster, who died in 1985 and with whom he had a son and a daughter.