Magician, Stakhanovite, Stanley Matthews: A Brief History of English Football’s Anxiety – Part 3

This is a series on the history of English Football’s Anxieties.
Here’s part 1 – Masturbation and muscular Christianity, part 2 – It’s Bad Manners Being Clever!
Disclaimer: This feature is not so much about Sir Stanley Matthews (born 1st Feb. 1915- died 22nd Feb. 2000) as it is about the idea of Stanley Matthews (born 2nd May 1953 – ).


“But it’s pelting out there!” said a meaty man wrapped in an offending shade of bright yellow that only raincoats can dignify. “You’ll catch your death in this rain,” he said in a reproachful shrill that attempted to outdo the whistle of the kettle across him and nearly succeeding.

The Blackpool clouds made their admonishment heard with a dramatic rumble, accentuating the effect of the pause. “I intend to catch my living,” said Stanley Matthews, whose face had the glow of translucent countryside windows at dawn – windows which always have an unobstructed vista of what’s important.

He poured the tea into three cups and placed them on two saucers. He did all this without needing to look away from the guest in yellow. Two cups for himself, of course. Stanley Matthews, like most English heroes, couldn’t possibly be expected to start his day without tea.

A creature of good habits, he wore an apron when he made tea, and, like most heroes, his gallant adventures in the kitchen and on the football field (mostly) rewarded him with the most priceless adornment of all – a knowing smile. He wore it like a medal.

A knowing smile is a sign of many things, one of them being the quality of definitude over doubt. Doubt means inaction, and inaction leads to the very English trait of brooding. Brooding means procrastination, which is, of course, a royal waste of time. And in those days, as many trans-Atlantic telephone operators would remind you, time is money. Money comes mighty handy in post-war Britain.  

Wasting little time (and on good days, none at all), every day, he’d drive to Blackpool beach right after early-morning tea and jog, nay, gallop through rain and high water till his legs gave away and still be back in time for brunch. Cereal, toast and honey (and on bad days, another cup of tea, because he deserved it).

The Blackpool beach provided the ideal English match-day experience. Contesting with soggy leather balls, boots as light as sheet anchor and ankle-deep mud meant kicking a ball felt like kicking back the sea. The English sea and the English game demanded deep-sea trawlers/tug-boats, not gondolas. Stanley Matthews, however, if it makes sense, was a veritable Catamaran.

A catamaran (/ˌkætəməˈræn/) (informally, a “cat”) is a multi-hulled watercraft featuring two parallel hulls of equal size. It is a geometry-stabilized craft, deriving its stability from its wide beam, rather than from a ballasted keel as with a monohull sailboat. Being ballast-free and therefore lighter, catamarans often have a shallower draught. The two hulls combined also have a lesser hydrodynamic resistance, requiring less propulsive power from either sails or motors. The catamaran’s wider stance on the water can reduce both heeling and wave-induced motion, and can give reduced turbulence.

To take this analogy forward, I’ll be borrowing another, naturally. “The ball was not kicked by his (Matthews’s) feet,” noted Arthur Hopcraft in The Football Man, “but nudged between them deftly, like butter being chopped up by a two-pat grocer.”

Here’s another: Defenders seemed to be “scattered around the field like becalmed yachts,” John Moynihan observed in the FA Cup Final of May 1953 (renamed the Stanley Matthews final), facing Matthews’s manoeuvrability. Matthews had the time to suck on his pipe, toot his horn and wave. But he was a non-smoker, an all-round gentleman and, as per public records, did not own a Catamaran. So, he did no such thing.

Speaking of manoeuvrability, Matthews was already the Sultan of Swing on the pitch even before the (swinging) sixties hit puberty or thumbed rides to dingy discotheques.

“Stanley Matthews’s swerve was something which defied analysis… ” conceded Brian Glanville, who was a proud man and who was usually pretty damn good at analysis, understandably, having made a living making words hop along in longform text, like Hopcraft.

By the time you’d read the other half of Glanville’s quote, which is, “…just as it defied attempts to counter it,” the ball would already be curling deliciously into the hungry stride of Matthews’s team-mate, and into the net. And in the time it’d take for you to read this line, the full-back would have just about got off his backside, staring slack-jawed, first, at Matthews, then, the goal-scorer who’d be wheeling away in celebration, and back at Matthews. Matthews would have helped him up and dusted the poor sap’s shorts if he wasn’t obliged, as per customs, to join in the celebrations.

Tom Finney, his international team-mate who celebrated with him infrequently, did a commendable job defining the undefinable. “Stan was like a mongoose,” Finney offered. “When the defender lunged, he wasn’t there.”

Comic book artist Scott McCloud talks about the importance of closure between images of sequential art in many of his books concerning storytelling. In technical terms, Stanley Matthews running at a full-back was sequential art, but the kind that made defenders search the images in their minds for closure between the flashes of two moments: one of Matthews’s hunched back and grandfatherly fragility – his battered shins inviting some young terrier to sink his muddy teeth (studs) in, and make a name for himself – and then, one of old-country Merlinian magic. In days where there was no Sky Sports video analysis or Monday Night Football hosted by Jamie Carragher, defenders went to their graves without reconciliation.

“Bloody brilliant!” photojournalists would exclaim seeing this. “How old is the bloke now? Sixty?” Stanley Matthews was a fresh 41-year-old when he evaporated the swagger of Nilton Santos, the world’s best full-back at the time. He kept doing unto others as others would do until the age of 50. He could have gone on for 10 more years, but his missus in her infinite wisdom put her foot down.

In Germany Stanley Matthews was called Der Zauberer. ‘Mágico’ in Brazil. In Italy, the adjective ‘meraviglioso’ became synonyms to ‘Matthews’. In the British Isles, they called him ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’, ‘Old Merlin’.

Sir Stanley Matthews CBE 1915 - 2000

Fairy tales do magicians a disservice. The fairy-tale tellers, taking certain editorial liberties and being mindful of word limits set by The Brothers Grimm Book Handling and Publishing Pvt. Ltd. and such, exclude the years of dejection and self-doubt a wizard worth his sage (leaves) has to go through. Unjustly, the struggle is not taken into account by the dear reader/spectator.

All those exotic ingredients you hear them ever-so-casually chuck into the stew didn’t grow on rose bushes – and even if they did, they still have to be acquired. As far as wizards go, Stanley Matthews mined for those ingredients like a Stakhanovite miner would mine for gold.

A gnat’s whisker – that was the difference between a misstep and a mishap – a flying boot caving his world in. He was a man who teetered on the very edge, on the touchline, on the chalk line tightrope swaying back and forth between glory and ignominy. He operated in, in Sir Terry Pratchett’s words, ‘’spaces that would have barely accepted even the best credit card’.’ For those lucky to have seen him in the flesh, or the hanging mist where his flesh was moments ago, they remember him as the man who ran every red light in memory lane.

Those who remember him, remember his face – he had one of those faces which seem like it was never really young. A worker’s face, a miner’s face, with glued-back hair, chewed-up lips, cheekbones that could cut wind, and sad, hooded eyes.

“His eyes had deep hurt that came from prolonged effort and certainty of more blows,” described Hopcraft.

“The anxiety showed in Matthews too: the frail miner’s fear of the job which must always be done – not joyfully but out of a deeper satisfaction, and for self-respect,” Hopcraft added. 

For the first time, a dribbler in the English game evoked empathy. Fans were afraid for Stanley Matthews every time he lined up against a beastly full-back who wouldn’t have been out of place in a slaughterhouse, or with a war-axe in the Crusades. In transference of this frailty and duty, Matthews found himself in the minds and hearts of hard working-class men- a symbol of his age and class brought up amidst principles and an ever-looming danger of debt and despair. Thus, Matthews became the missing (umbilical) link between yesterday’s dribblers and today’s.

One of the many things that come with a knowing smile is the acute awareness of the task cut out, that could often turn it into a grimace. But Matthews never flinched. And while his eyes may have carried the sadness of his predecessors, his smile told us he knew that he was there in spite of his times, and bloody well knew what to do about it.

Everything I do, I get a kick out of. Enthusiasm is… success. I may have a different outlook on life from a lot of people. I always think of what’s going to happen tomorrow. Even if I only have a walk, I’ll get the biggest thrill!

– Stanley Matthews

Next issue: Part 4 – Vinnie Jones, the Portrait of an Antagonist


Srijandeep Das

Srijandeep is Football Paradise's number 8. The all-action, box-to-box midfielder of football writers. He's a Sports essayist, Subkultur journalist, Electronic producer, Digital artist, Stand-up comedian. He's also (justifiably) full of himself.