Heroes, wingers and Tom Finney

Last updated : 23 January 2015 By Dave Thomas

And, it was good to see during the two weeks that Burnley were not in the bottom three. I could look at the tables happily.

It occurred to me there were two possibilities: that the win against QPR was the peak, that this was as good as it was going to get, and defeats against Spurs and then Palace were the low spots that marked the beginning of the end to keep going and survive and stay up.

OR, the welcome rest would mark the beginning of phase 2 of the campaign to stay up with renewed vigour, fit muscles and revived spirits. It's the latter that appeals to me. This will go to the last game of the season, I said to a pal, away to Aston Villa, a side that had scored even fewer goals than Burnley. Book your tickets, now. It could be the game that decides who goes down, Burnley or Villa.

I'd been reading the Independent, the 30p cheap edition. I always get one when I use a free voucher for a hot chocolate at M&S while Mrs T looks round the clothes for bargains. The girls behind the counter there know me now. You are supposed to get one tiny biscuit with the drink. They automatically give me two. It must be my good looks.

Anyway: there was a big double page feature about Robert Duvall. It said he was in his 80s but was in the running for another Oscar. He said something that was interesting in the interview; that even though was 84 he still had heroes that he looked up to. Duvall is one of my heroes. Lonesome Dove is my favourite Western. He is spellbinding as Gus McRae, the grizzled old cowboy taking a herd of cattle to Montana. I've watched it four times at least, never get tired of it, and when I watch it, I am Gus. I imagine it's me in the saddle, me being laconic; it's me being ornery and stubborn as a mule, me dispensing homespun cowboy wisdom in one short sentence.

Maybe it's the same with football too. Those of us who watch it week after week imagine it's us out there identifying with the players we like, be they stubborn defenders blocking shots and making thunderous tackles, or dazzling forwards scoring super goals. If we were good enough we'd be out there. But we're not so we can only imagine and watch. During a game these guys are an extension of ourselves.

What heroes have Burnley had in their long history? Bert Freeman in the Cup Final in 1914, Adam Blacklaw at Reims, Ian Britton against Orient in 1987, Brian Jensen saving pens at Chelsea in 2008, Wade Elliot at Wembley in 2009; which players have made a difference, truly contributed something special, as a one-off like Trevor Meredith with a goal that won a title, or with years of long service like Jerry Dawson.

My pal Keith mailed after the youth team beat Cardiff City 3-1 in the FA Youth Cup at Turf Moor. 'Best game I've seen all season,' he wrote. 'None of this passing the ball round the back four malarkey. We even had wingers who can get round the full-back.' I sat up and took notice at that.

Wingers: younger fans might not even know what wingers were. Well: in the old days they were usually tiny blokes with a short back and sides who had fairy-dust in their size-5 boots and played by the touchline. That was their place. They were always last to be picked in school playground games when they were at Junior School because they were so small.  When they grew up they had one simple job, to beat the full-back, and whip a cross over at perfect head height for bruising centre-forwards to wallop home. Wingers were often so small you could hang them on the tree at Christmas. They played in snow in those days and if the snow was deep enough all you could see was their head bobbing up and down.

Wingers were the real heroes back then. The treatment they got from scowling full-backs was merciless but whenever they were crunched and flattened, up they got, brushed themselves down and started all over again. Number 7 was always outside right. Number 11 was always outside-left. Number 56 was the bus I used to get from Victoria Road in to Leeds city centre or a squad number today when a club has so many players it doesn't know what to do with them and like Chelsea sends 20 of them out on loan.

One winger was usually the tricky one, the one that went this way and that, dribbling, the ball tied to his feet, jinking left, jinking right, a sudden body swerve, turn the full-back inside out, drop the left shoulder but go to the right, sell him a dummy so he went cross-eyed or fell over. A winger like Tom Finney sold more dummies than Mothercare. At least that was the theory and five times out of ten it worked. The other five times it didn't and it was the winger who was felled, very often flying a few feet up into the air before landing. Brian Pilkington was the master in the late 50s at Turf Moor. He was a treat to watch, about the size of a Meerkat but with the heart of a lion. Ralph Coates was another later in the 60s, but with more meat on him. Both he and Brian came off the field at full-time black and blue from head to foot.

Just sometimes a winger emerged who bucked the trend, wingers you kept well clear of who reversed the process of receiving the bruises. Wingers like Billy Elliott and Gordon Harris kicked first and then sped past the full-back. They retaliated first, as the saying goes. Nobody messed with them. Sometimes wingers swapped wings to escape the full-back marking them. Now it was full-backs swapping sides to avoid Billy Elliott and Gordon Harris.

Bit by bit, at about the same pace that rickets disappeared and kids drank free school milk, wingers got a bit taller, like Willie Morgan and Leighton James. Maybe Wade Elliott at Turf Moor was the last true winger we saw that was able to get by his man on the outside using pace and get the cross over. Before him, Glen Little was mesmeric at his best, a true dribbler, the ball tied to his laces.  Who will forget his destruction of Spurs in the Carling Cup at Turf Moor when he came on as sub. A less likely looking winger you could not wish to see, quite the opposite of the little guys of yesterday you could fit in a shoe box. Little was large and wouldn't mind anyone saying he was no oil painting with his sticky-out chin and larger than average hooter. He had bony elbows and knobbly knees and always reminded me of Mr Punch at the seaside. You could well imagine him scooting past a defender leaving him behind on his backside and chortling 'that's the way to do it; that's the way to do it.' 

I once saw Tom Finney in his prime; well at least my father told me I did. It was years ago, obviously, and was in the days long before I was tall enough to really see what was going on and this game was no exception. In fact it was worse than usual because Finney was a top name who drew the crowds in although he was so badly paid he had to work as a plumber on a weekday. Anyway, we squeezed into the enclosure, the bit where you paid a bit extra under the Longside roof, and I spent the 90 minutes looking at the backs of the blokes in front and their raincoats. That was all I saw the whole time. I saw not one bit of the game and certainly not the great legend. There wasn't even room to swing my rattle, one of those wooden things that are now banned by Ground Safety Officers. At the end of it all I hadn't a clue what he looked like but on the way home my father looked down at me and spoke: 'well lad you can tell all your pals now; today you saw the great Tom Finney.'   

I did actually see Stan Matthews though in the game when Harry Potts ordered a very young Alex Elder to follow him everywhere, stick to him like glue and not let him out of his sight. The story was that Elder even followed him into the lavatory at half-time and after that stood and had a cigarette with him. There was no stigma attached to smoking back then and Matthews was handsomely paid to actually advertise them.

I also saw winger Gordon Harris in the buff. Actually a lot of people did when he was pictured starkers in the Burnley Express, not in any kind of page 3 pose, but simply to show how he was covered in bruises from the neck downwards to his ankles, some of them the size of a meat plate, after the roughest of games up at Newcastle sometime in the mid-60s. Seeing that picture made you realise what these blokes went through. The picture was so horrific that there were reports of several elderly ladies fainting when they opened the paper and saw it. It was a game after which the whole Burnley team either limped back to the coach or were carried on. Marvin Sordell is therefore not the first Burnley player to appear starkers in print. The Sordell picture is quite the opposite of Gordon's and comes on the front cover of Sport magazine, one of a series of pics that celebrate athleticism. Of course it is, as Kenny Everett would say, 'all done in the best possible taste.'  Marvin's muscles ripple, biceps bulge, the pecs perky, the six pack glistens and sinews sizzle. Thankfully his naughty bits are well out of sight behind the oak-tree thighs.

Those guys of the 50s like Pilky earned a pittance and even that was reduced in the summer. In complete contrast in the paper the other day was the story of Bafetimbi Gomis (I bet he isn't a plumber from Ramsbottom). Currently plying his trade at Swansea, he reportedly wants to leave. But: Swansea cannot sell him for less than £8million unless they are happy to lose money.  Because: what happened was they signed him last summer on a free transfer and gave him an astonishing £8million signing on fee, payable at £2million a year. So even if he leaves now and doesn't complete his first year, they still owe him £8million. It's a story that would fit perfectly into a book that might be written one day by someone I tweet with, called 'Football is Sh*t, so why do I love it so much?' I saw that title and knew exactly what he meant.

Gomis elaborated on the situation and said that his 'entourage' would meet Swansea people to discuss things. His ENTOURAGE, his bloody entourage if you please; the best Pilky ever had was a gang of schoolboys who would walk with him to the bus he got back to his digs. It was a surprise to all of us when Bob Lord sold him to Bolton Wanderers and probably bad news for Brian when he realised who he would be up against in training games at Burnden  - Roy Hartle and Tommy Banks. At Burnley he only faced them twice a year and now it was every day.  He must have gone pale at the thought.  'Oh f*ck,' he probably muttered when he realised.

Pilky will be an all-time Burnley hero. So too will little winger Trevor Meredith. They both scored in the 2-1 win at Maine Road that won the title for Burnley in 1960. The two smallest players scored two of the biggest ever goals. Meredith played because John Connelly couldn't. He had always been the 'reserve' even though he was good enough to walk into most other First Division teams that season.  Born on Christmas Day, 1936, and brought up on a Shropshire farm that used people not machinery, learning his skills kicking the ball against the cow-shed doors, he went on to score a goal that won a title. Pilkington had scored the first. City had equalised. Meredith scored the winner.  From farm to fame you might say. Even after that, he remained behind John Connelly in the pecking order but when Connelly left, he next found himself behind Willie Morgan and left to join Shrewsbury Town eventually becoming a teacher. He experienced one glorious moment of fame, a moment that will not be forgotten.

Wingers, a relic of the past, heroes, how lucky we are at Turf Moor to have seen so many, let's raise a glass.