Sir Stanley Matthews, Wizard of the Dribble

Sir Stanley Matthews, the only soccer player to be knighted while still playing, was one of the first stars of the sport. On his birthday, we look back at his remarkable career.

Born in Stoke-On-Trent on 1 February 1915, Matthews grew up the third of four sons of a former professional featherweight boxer turned barber. His father wanted young Stanley to follow in his footsteps, but Matthews had little interest in boxing. The elder Matthews agreed to allow the boy to pursue a soccer career only if he could make the England national team as a youth player. Stanley Matthews rose to the challenge, making his debut for the England youth team at just 14.

His professional career started three years later when he signed a contract with 2nd Division Stoke City. A year later, they won promotion to the 1st Division. By age 18 Matthews’ success at Stoke earned him his full international debut, where he scored in a 4-0 win against Wales.

But as Stoke City struggled in the 1st Division, he found himself in danger of getting dropped by England and requested a transfer to another club in 1938. When the fans found out, thousands of them staged protest meetings and marched outside the stadium. Matthews elected to stay.

That year he accompanied England on a friendly tour of Europe. In May 1938 pre-war tensions were running high, as England found out when they faced Germany in Berlin and were told to give the Nazi salute while the German national anthem played prior to the game. The English players initially refused, but British officials were so worried that any incident might spark a war that the British Ambassador ordered the players to acquiesce. Match attendees Joseph Goebels and Herman Goering were no doubt pleased to see the England eleven giving the raised arm salute, though they were surely less happy with the score. England won 6-3.

On 1 September 1939 the German forces invaded Poland and World War II began in earnest. During the war, Matthews served as a corporal with the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Blackpool. League play was suspended, but Matthews was allowed to appear in periodic exhibition matches, guest playing for clubs ranging from Arsenal to Wrexham.

Like many of his generation, Matthews had been robbed of some of his finest footballing years, and when he again requested a transfer, this time Stoke City relented. Matthews was sold to Blackpool in 1947 for £11,500 and a bottle of whiskey – considered a pricey sum for a player who was already 32 years old. Blackpool manager Joe Smith figured Matthews probably had another 2-3 years left in his legs. Smith was wrong. Matthews would go on playing for another 18 years, helping Blackpool to what stands as their most successful decade in the club's history.In English soccer lore, Blackpool’s acquisition of Matthews is considered one of the best transfers of all time.

His longevity was largely the product of discipline. Matthews was a vegetarian and a teetotaler, his first drink of alcohol not coming until he sipped champagne in the locker room to celebrate leading Blackpool to the FA Cup in a match that came to be known as “The Matthews Final” for his brilliant dribbling displays. But his longevity was also a product of his playing style. Where many wingers relied on sheer speed, he relied on craft and guile to beat his opponents.

Walter Winterbottom, manager at the time for the English national team said, “Stanley’s dribbling was unique. He would receive the ball and then transfix [his opponent] like a snake would and just hold the ball in front of him. The man would try to lunge at him, and that’s when he’d beat him.”

Matthews himself put it this way in a BBC interview: “I was cruel on the field. I wanted to beat my opponent. I wanted to destroy his confidence. Because when a player has no confidence on the field, you can do whatever you want with him.”

Cruel in that sense though he might’ve been, he was a true gentleman of the game and was never booked in any of the more than 700 professional matches that he played. Opposing fans and players alike were known to applaud his more outstanding displays. He won the first European Footballer of the Year awards ever given in 1956, and in 1965 was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “services to football.”

After finally retiring at age 50, Matthews stuck around the game, but had little success as a manager. In 1968, he found himself embroiled in controversy when the 4th division club he managed, Port Vale, were expelled from the league for making illegal payments to players. Matthews moved to Malta, where he coached for a season before returning to England.

When Matthews died 23 February 2000, more than 100,000 fans lined the streets of Stoke-On-Trent to witness his funeral procession. Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed him as “model of sport” and tributes poured in from former teammates and opponents.

“He was one of the greatest players the game has even seen,” former England manager and player Sir Bobby Robson told The New York Times. “He ranks alongside players like Pele, Maradona and Cruyff – and he was one of ours.”

Pele himself would certainly agree, having once referred to Matthews as “the man who taught us the way football should be played.”

More than a decade after his death, soccer fans the world over still remember the gentleman known as “the wizard of the dribble.”