Sunday 26 March 2017

World's greatest attacking player ever - for £15 a week

ON YOUR MARK: Ulick O’Connor, centre, with Stanley Mathews, left, and Peter Farrell, right, playing in 1969
ON YOUR MARK: Ulick O’Connor, centre, with Stanley Mathews, left, and Peter Farrell, right, playing in 1969

Ulick O'Connor

This year is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of someone who many people consider to be the greatest English soccer player of all time. His name was Stanley Matthews. When I was a boy he had penetrated even my rugby-orientated consciousness as remote and majestic and the greatest attacking player in any football game.

When I published my book Sport is My Lifeline it carried a remarkable picture of Stanley Matthews at work. The picture is of him playing at Dalymount Park in 1969 in a match entitled Old Ireland against Old England.

I was his opposite number on the left wing. It was like being asked to mark Hermes the nifty messenger of the Gods. I worked out a plan with Peter Farrell, the former Everton and Ireland player, that one of us would take Stan on either side to make sure he didn't beat us with his famous body swerve.

The plan seemed to work for he didn't do much damage in the first half. In the second half, Stanley Matthews changed wings and went out on the left. Then it started. I heard a colossal roar from the crowd on the other side of the field as he did his thing. The Irish international, Shay Keogh, who was now marking him, described it to me afterwards. "I went in on him, carefully, as I knew about his swerve. Suddenly I was running in the wrong direction."

What a perfect description of how Stanley Matthews went through. We won the match 4-3. I met Sir Stanley some years later in Malta where he was living. I asked him what was most important for him in a football game. He replied that the skill he practiced most was a burst of 15 yards all out with the ball at his feet. That got him far enough to start another one. If you saw last Tuesday's documentary on the BBC, you could see how well Sir Stanley had perfected his own skills.

How would he have done in today's game? The only thing we can be sure of is that he would have got a rise in his wages. Sir Stanley's official wage as a professional soccer player in the 1930s was £15 per week.

Sunday Independent

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