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Sir Tom Finney

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DRIBBLE AND SURGE: Preston North End's Tom Finney in 1956. Photo: John Horton/PA Wire

DRIBBLE AND SURGE: Preston North End's Tom Finney in 1956. Photo: John Horton/PA Wire

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DRIBBLE AND SURGE: Preston North End's Tom Finney in 1956. Photo: John Horton/PA Wire

SIR Tom Finney, who died on St Valentine's Day aged 91, was rivalled in English football only by Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Stanley Matthews; some, like Bill Shankly, rated him the greatest "ever to play".

Known as the "Preston Plumber" for the trade he continued to ply, Finney scored 30 international goals and created many more. In the league he gave loyal service to only one club, Preston North End, where between 1946 and 1960 he made 473 appearances, scoring 210 goals.

Finney had talent that filled any ground. The crowds came to watch his direct, entertaining wing play, which allied close mastery of the ball with sudden acceleration to leave a sprawl of defenders in his wake. And his temperament won him even more fans. Honourable and modest, he often played when injured, took savage punishment without rebuke and was not once booked. "Tom Finney," said Shankly, "could play in his overcoat."

Thomas Finney was born on April 5, 1922, at Preston, within earshot of the Deepdale ground. One of six children, Tom grew up in poverty made harder by the death of his mother when he was just four.

In 1936 he was turned down for a trial by Preston because of his size – at 14, Tom was just 4ft 9in – but that year a tubercular gland was removed from his neck and he grew a little. The following year Tom was offered schoolboy terms. Nevertheless, his father insisted he continue with his plumbing apprenticeship so that he would have a trade to fall back on.

Kept out of the youth team at inside-left by a bigger boy, an injury to another player gave the left-footed Finney a chance on the right wing. His speed off the mark and ability to cut in on his left foot soon secured his place. Early in 1940 he signed his first contract and made his debut for Preston against Liverpool at Anfield. The following year he played in the team that won the wartime League North and FA Cup double.

In 1942 he went to Egypt with the Eighth Army and was quickly drafted into the Army's Wanderers side that played morale-enhancing games against local teams. Finney later credited the fast, hard surfaces with improving his technique. One opponent was a young Omar Sharif.

After demob in 1946, he rejoined Preston. Though he won no major honours with the team, he led to unexpected heights an otherwise prosaic side that often struggled without him. His official league debut came in August that year, when he scored in a dramatic 3-2 win over Leeds.

He was called up for international duty almost immediately, again marking his debut with a goal, this time against Northern Ireland in a 7-2 victory in Belfast. For much of his England career, Finney competed directly for a place with his friend, Stanley Matthews, provoking great debate as to their respective merits. In truth, they were different types of player: Matthews all elusive elegance, Finney a surging, swerving dribbler.

Finney could also play on the left, and when the pair played on opposite wings England enjoyed notable success. In 1947 they put 10 goals past Portugal and the following year four into Italy's net in Turin – a match that Finney considered the finest of his international career. The next year against Scotland a rifled shot from outside the penalty box brought Finney's former commander, Bernard Montgomery, to the dressing room to offer his congratulations.

Finney's stardom meant that there were many offers enticing him away from Deepdale. But he remained and in 1951 inspired the side to win the Second Division title, and promotion back to the top flight. Two years later, a team which had once been rubbished as the "Preston plumber and his 10 drips" was pushing for the League title itself. In the penultimate game of the season they beat title rivals Arsenal. But when the two teams finished level on points, the London side's superior goal difference saw them crowned champions.

Apart from that, Finney's closest brush with silverware came in 1954, when he was voted Footballer of the Year and guided Preston to the FA Cup Final, only to have the worst game of his career and West Bromwich won 3-2.

In 1956, when Finney was 34, he moved to centre-forward. The move proved a huge success as willowy guile, rather than oak-hearted brawn, brought him nearly 70 goals in the next three seasons. In 1957 he was again Footballer of the Year as Preston scored 100 goals to be runners-up in the league.

He prospered less in the World Cup. In the historic 1950 defeat by the US he hit an upright; in the 1954 competition he did not play particularly well; and in 1958 he was soon injured. Perhaps his best luck came in 1953, when he was dropped in favour of Matthews, and was thus spared England's humiliation by Puskas's Hungarians.

Having decided to retire at the end of the 1959-60 season, Finney played his final game for England in a win over Russia in 1959, during which he took his international tally to 30 goals, then a record. His was the final pass that created a further 44 goals for strikers from Lawton to Charlton and, despite the outmoded tactics that saw them flounder in the World Cup, England won 51 of the 76 games in which Finney played. He was equally effective in the 17 matches in which he represented the League, winning 14 while his side averaged four goals a game.

He played only once more. In 1963, at the age of 41 and having not touched a ball for two years, he turned out in the European Cup for Irish part-timers Distillery as a favour. Ranged against him were the Portuguese champions Benfica, led by Eusebio in his pomp. Finney shimmered in the rain as Benfica escaped with a 3-3 draw.

Having played in an era of the maximum wage (£20 a week) only a move abroad might have secured Finney's financial future. The chance came, in 1952, when Palermo offered him a £10,000 signing-on fee, and a weekly salary of £130. But the Preston board rejected the offer. True to his generous nature, Finney always felt he had made a good living from football and did not begrudge modern players their wages; but he did believe that money had undermined the appeal – for players and spectators alike – of local clubs such as the one to which he remained forever loyal.

He returned to the plumbing and heating firm he had set up with his brother after the war. It thrived and came to employ more than 120 people. Finney also sat on the first pools panel in 1963 and wrote several books on football, as well as covering games as a journalist. He became a Justice of the Peace and chairman of Preston's Health Authority and was involved with many charities. He was also president of Preston North End and was deeply touched when a stand at Deepdale was named for him.

Tom Finney was knighted in 1998. He married, in 1945, Elsie Noblett, with whom he had two children.

Sunday Independent