Andy Walker

Have you a sporting hero?

23 posts in this topic

My first sporting hero was Stanley Matthews. I first became aware of him when I listened to the radio commentary of the 1953 FA Cup Final (Blackpool v Bolton). I was only eight and according to the commentator, Matthews was the main reason that Blackpool won 4-3. My dad told me he was the best player in England. My dad took me to the cinema that week and we saw the final on the news section of the programme.

My dad also agreed to take me to see him the next time he played in London. Later that year I saw him play against Spurs at White Hart Lane. Despite his age, he was 38 at the time, he was amazingly fast. I recently checked this out by watching the DVD on the 1953 cup final. He was clearly the fastest player on the pitch. The most impressive aspect of his game was his ball control. It was if the ball had been tied to his right foot. He also had a very good body swerve that enabled him to unbalance the defender.

Over the next few years I travelled all over London to watch Matthews play. It is difficult to convey the sense of excitement that he created when he got the ball. I only saw him play in away games (my dad refused to take me to Blackpool) yet he always received a tremendous reception from the crowd.

I was not alone in wanting to watch Matthews. Blackpool had the best away gates in Division One for seven years in a row during this period. It was estimated that his presence was worth 10,000 extra supporters.

I last saw Matthews play for Blackpool in 1961. He was 46 years old. Not that he gave up playing football. He dropped down a division and joined Stoke City. The following year he helped them get promoted and he remained playing at the top level until after his 50th birthday. He then went to Malta where he played and coached the Hibernians until he was 55.

Jimmy Armfield played with Matthews between 1955 and 1961. This is what Armfield had to say in his autobiography, Right Back to the Beginning (2004):

Stanley Matthews celebrated his 42nd birthday on 1 February 1957. The following day, Blackpool played Charlton Athletic at The Valley. There were over 30,000 people in the ground and, long before the kick-off, the atmosphere was electric. Shortly before three o'clock, Stan emerged from the players' tunnel and to a man, those 30,000 supporters burst into song - `Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Stanley, happy birthday to you!' I have never heard anything like it before or since and it summed up the depth of feeling for Stanley among his own people, the ordinary football fans - Matthews was truly the people's champion.

Other players have received a similar ovation from their own supporters at their own ground, but this was 250 miles away from Bloomfield Road on a cold, wet February day in south London and there can't have been more than a few hundred Blackpool fans in the ground. It was a memorable moment. I was an impressionable 21-year-old, just half his age, and had played in around 50 first-team games compared with Stanley's record of more than 600 appearances. The Valley choir brought a lump to my throat and I am sure the rest of the Blackpool players felt the same - all except Stanley Matthews. He never showed a flicker of emotion and just got on with the job of ruining Charlton's day. He produced all his party pieces and we strolled home 4-0.

Stanley was, and I believe still is, the greatest footballer of all time. He crossed the generation gap, making his name before the Second World War and continuing into the 1960s. He made the first of his 54 peacetime appearances for England as a 19-year-old against Wales at Cardiff on 29 September 1934; his final interna¬tional was a World Cup qualifier against Denmark in Copenhagen on 15 May 1957, incredibly three months after his 42nd birthday. He also played in 29 wartime internationals and made almost 800 league and cup appearances for Stoke and Blackpool. Stan retired at the age of 50 shortly after becoming the first footballer to receive a knighthood. He always claimed he went too soon.

He lifted his sport into the modern era and he made professional football a real career. He was a talisman for the professional game. In all, he was to football what Donald Bradman was to cricket, Fred Perry to tennis, Joe Louis to boxing and Jesse Owens to athletics - men who took their sport into a new era and gave it a new dimension. To this day, people know exactly who they were, what they achieved and what they stood for. Stan did it for football and that's what made him different…

When I started playing for the first team, I simply couldn't believe I was in the same dressing room as Stan. It was a small room and I used to sit and stare at him with a sense of awe. Nothing changed in the ensuing years. Towards the end of his Blackpool career, I sometimes used to wonder how he made it out on to the pitch at that age, but once he crossed the touchline, he was a different man. Blackpool Football Club was never quite the same after he rejoined Stoke in 1961.

Off the field, he was a gentle man, but on it, he was totally ruthless. That's the side of him not many people knew. I'm not talking about his physical approach because Stanley was never booked in all those games for club and country and rarely com¬mitted a foul. But his psychological approach was unforgiving and he used to urge me to impose myself on my opponent, not to show him any mercy. He demonstrated this in a game at Chelsea in the late fifties when their defenders, especially a young left-back called Ian McFarlane, made life tough for Stan in every sense of the word. It went on for over an hour. Matthews never com¬plained to the referee and each time he was flattened, he picked himself up and got on with the game. Eventually, even he had to yield and left the field after taking one knock too many on his thigh. I thought we had seen the last of him for the day and as he hobbled across the old greyhound track that ran around Stamford Bridge, some Chelsea fans taunted him with cries of, ‘Have you finished, Stanley’.

Seven or eight minutes later, Stan reappeared on the greyhound track, his thigh heavily bandaged. I asked him if he was OK. In reply, he pointed to his feet and barked, ‘Just get the ball over here.' I did exactly that and what happened next was truly remarkable from a man in his fifth decade. Looking back, I would love to have a film of that last 20 minutes as he tormented Chelsea's defenders to the point of humiliation. We won 4-1 and Stan scored the last goal. I have never seen him so riled - by the treatment meted out by the Chelsea players and possibly by the mockery of a few fans. He responded in the way he knew best, by ruthlessly destroying his opponents. Once, he beat McFarlane, stopped and allowed him to get back just so that he could beat him all over again. He was determined to humiliate Chelsea and he succeeded. In that mood, he was lethal.

At the end of the game, the crowd applauded him from the field but Stanley quietly made his way back to the dressing room without a hint of an acknowledgement. In fact, he never had any communication with the crowd. It just wasn't his style. Nor did he approve of other players displaying their emotions. I remember a game against Bolton at Bloomfield Road when Stanley was injured and watching from the stand. We won 2-1 and I played well. As I came off the field at the end, the crowd cheered me and shouted well played and I raised my hand in acknowledgement. I bumped into Stan at the ground on the Monday morning and he said, ‘Why did you lift your arm up as you came off the field on Saturday?'

‘Well, the crowd were cheering me ...'

‘Yes, because they knew you'd played well. But you don't need to respond like that.' I took the point, never even considering a reply.

People have described him as a loner but that is not strictly true. He did his own thing as far as training was concerned and out on the pitch, too. It was no use trying to dictate to Stanley how he should play and, in the immortal words of Joe Smith, it was a case of ‘if in doubt, give it to Stan'. But while he was never really one of the lads, he enjoyed the jokes and the dressing-room banter and nothing made him happier than sitting down along¬side Joe on the way home from away trips, recounting tales of old times and old players, sometimes fairly heavily embellished, I'm sure. One of his favourites concerned his first away trip to London as a Stoke player. He used to laugh about how his mother packed his best pyjamas and made sure he had everything he needed for the trip. He roomed with Freddie Steele, another Stoke player who went on to represent England, and at about quarter to ten on the Friday night, the senior players said to the two youngsters, `Right lads, time for bed.' Stan and Freddie duly retired for the night and turned out the light in their room. Needless to say, they couldn't sleep and about half an hour later were disturbed by a knock on the door. Stan went to see who was there and in marched the rest of the team bearing bottles of beer, which they opened and poured into the china jerry under the bed.

Then they produced cups and started swilling down the ale. Stanley simply couldn't believe what he was seeing. He was horrified, and 20 years later, when I first heard him tell that story, he still had an expression of disbelief on his face. He vowed never to become involved in anything like that and true to his word, he never smoked or drank alcohol. He was fanatical about his fitness and was prepared to deprive himself of the good things in life to achieve his goal of becoming a great footballer. He never changed as the years rolled by. Sometimes on a Monday, he would not appear for training, preferring to stay at home and starve himself, resting his body completely. He just drank water or carrot juice to sustain himself, a way of cleansing the system and preparing for the battles ahead. Nobody else even dreamed of doing anything similar.

If I urgently needed to find Stanley, the first port of call was South Shore beach at 8.00 a.m. He would be there almost without fail, wearing a pair of slacks, a windcheater and flat cap, going through his deep breathing routine, his morning exercises and some gentle jogging. Then he would report for training at 10 o'clock - all this in his late thirties and early forties. I followed his example, taking an early morning run on the beach until I was 60. He was supremely fit, with excellent legs. He had a thin body but strong thighs and good calves. In fact, I used to wonder if he did extra work on his thighs away from the ground. I don't think I ever saw him out of breath during a match, he never tired and you couldn't give him the ball often enough. Throughout his career, he worked ceaselessly at his sprinting. England team¬mates Tom Finney, Alf Ramsey, Billy Wright and Nat Lofthouse spoke with awe about Stanley's pace over the first five yards. He was like lightning from a standing start. Stan used to say that was all that mattered. ‘Once you get the ball past your opponent, you must have the pace to leave him behind for good.' That was his forte and he could bring a defender to a halt like a matador confronting a bull and then suddenly take off. Once he was away, there was no catching him.

I once asked him what was the secret of his success and he replied, `Work and practice. Practice, practice, practice. Players don't practice enough.' He was a perfectionist. As a boy, he used to persuade the local butcher to give him a pig's bladder. He would blow it up and run down the street, flicking it on and off the walls; or he would roll paper into a ball and practise with that. That explains why he was the greatest dribbler the game has ever seen and why, for example, I never saw him put a corner behind the dead-ball line. Think about that - in 34 years as a league professional, nobody could recall him putting the ball behind from a corner.

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He vowed never to become involved in anything like that and true to his word, he never smoked or drank alcohol. He was fanatical about his fitness and was prepared to deprive himself of the good things in life to achieve his goal of becoming a great footballer. He never changed as the years rolled by. Sometimes on a Monday, he would not appear for training, preferring to stay at home and starve himself, resting his body completely. He just drank water or carrot juice to sustain himself, a way of cleansing the system and preparing for the battles ahead. Nobody else even dreamed of doing anything similar.

What a dull choice for a "sporting hero."

My own sporting heroes have all had sufficient talent to avoid such deprivations.

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What a dull choice for a "sporting hero."

My own sporting heroes have all had sufficient talent to avoid such deprivations.

I suppose it is a sign of the times that a man who has self-discipline is seen as "dull" and "unexciting". He was of course never booked during his career. Of course, Wayne Rooney with his tantrums is far more exciting.

One area of his life where he did not show self-discipline was in his dress. All his life he tried to keep up with the latest fashions and had the most appalling ideas on colour combinations.

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What a dull choice for a "sporting hero."

My own sporting heroes have all had sufficient talent to avoid such deprivations.

I suppose it is a sign of the times that a man who has self-discipline is seen as "dull" and "unexciting". He was of course never booked during his career. Of course, Wayne Rooney with his tantrums is far more exciting.

One area of his life where he did not show self-discipline was in his dress. All his life he tried to keep up with the latest fashions and had the most appalling ideas on colour combinations.

You miss the point of course John. This has nothing to do with behaviour in sport.

I have some admiration for sportspeople who achieve great heights through hard work and dedication - take Nick Faldo for instance - 6 major golf championships, a committed eater of vegetables, enormously driven and about as much natural ability as can be found in Seve Ballesteros's little finger.

I have no admiration for people who can't behave in a sporting manner in a sporting environment.

Sporting heroes are thus because they are able to make the very difficult seem easy and natural. Hats off to those dullards like Faldo and perhaps your ancient footballer who achieve things the hard way but I'd rather my heroes were a little more out of the ordinary.

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European & World Champion Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko.

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Two great performances at the same time, Andrea Bocelli singing Caruso and Plushenko on ice, fascinating!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2oM-y013MM...feature=related

Edited by Cigdem Eksi

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In no particular order

Carl Lewis, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, Lothar Matheus, Zinedine Zidane, Diego Maradona

Woods probably is my current favourite. Though Maradona, Lewis, Tyson and Matheus have been inseparable and omnipresent in the list. Since the early/mid 80's only Woods and Zidane have infiltrated the list.

My recently deceased Uncle once played against Matthews in the '50's in Australia and Matthews tried to get him signed up for Blackpool. My Uncle wouldn't move though. He went on to represent Australia at the Olympics in football and carried a leg of the torches Journey when they were recently in Oz.

I've been meaning to post some of the clippings I've assembled recently.

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Bucky Effing Dent.

As a kid I was a huge Yankee fan and I liked Bucky Dent. I happened to have been watching the game when he hit that big homer over the Green Monster. I had fingers crossed, I was praying, and it happened!

I was jut one of those moments, and I was a young kid.

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