A fortnight of mourning for Preston’s greatest son

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Brian Ellis reflects on the sad loss of Sir Tom Finney 12 months ago this week.

We always knew when the day came it would stop the city and the soccer world in their tracks.

Tributes at the Sir Tom Finney Splash Statue at Deepdale

Tributes at the Sir Tom Finney Splash Statue at Deepdale

Yet few expected the official period of mourning for Sir Tom Finney to last a whole two weeks.

For many, the private grief continued beyond the public outpouring of sadness sparked by the passing of Preston’s greatest-ever 
son.

A year on, the pain may not be as raw as it was in February 2014, but there are times when it can still bring a tear to the eye of even the most hard-bitten supporter.

Sir Tom, one of the finest footballers in the world ever to pull on a pair of boots, would have been humbled, even embarrassed, by all the fuss.

Deep down he knew the esteem in which he was held. But when, at the grand old age of 91, a true legend departed, the farewell afforded to him surpassed anything the city had seen before.

The Finney family were so overwhelmed by how Preston and the wider football community paid homage, they described his civic send off as “a great comfort at the saddest of times.”

A statement of thanks read:” The wonderful turnout for the civic funeral epitomised just what dad meant to everyone and he, like us, would have found it a humbling experience.”

The service at the Minster brought the city to a standstill. The great and the good of football turned out in larger numbers than for any funeral in the past.

But, then, Sir Tom was soccer royalty.

And for the nation’s favourite game this was as near to a state occasion as it could get.

Almost a fortnight earlier the great man had passed away in the nursing home where he had been living since his health and vitality had begun to diminish.

It was the evening of Valentine’s Day and social media went into meltdown when first it was rumoured - and then later confirmed - that the iconic Tom Finney had died.

Bars and restaurants filled with Friday night revellers fell silent. Was it true? Had he really gone?

A sense of disbelief swept the city and would continue through to the following morning when, in the cold light of day, the awful truth would finally sink in.

The Evening Post sports and news teams reacted on the night with late changes to Saturday’s paper.

“Tears for Sir Tom” was the headline on the front page when it hit the news stands in the early morning.

Inside it was “Farewell to a True Legend” with tributes flooding in from a host of football celebrities and former team-mates and also an article proclaiming: “A Civic Funeral is Fitting.”

Preston’s then Mayor, Coun Veronica Afrin, paid tribute to his life both inside and outside football, saying: “I am very upset on a personal level but they are selfish tears.”

North End’s game against Leyton Orient on the Saturday afternoon saw a massive outpouring of love for the club’s greatest ever player.

A minute’s silence was impeccably observed, of course, with a spontaneous round of applause ringing out around the ground in the seventh minute in honour of his shirt number seven.

The Preston players all wore shirts with Finney’s name on the back.

By Sunday the famous Splash statue outside the Deepdale stadium had become a shrine to Preston’s best-loved son.

Football scarves, flags, shirts, photographs and messages were mixed with scores of floral tributes, turning the monument into a makeshift altar, somewhere for thousands of fans to worship when they turned up at the ground to pay their respects in the only way they knew how.

The statue would remain like that for more than two weeks, bathed in colour and a magnet for supporters and tourists alike, stopping to take pictures or just stand in quiet contemplation.

Tributes continued to pour in for a true superstar. Monday’s Evening Post summed up the mood by proclaiming “A City in Mourning” and charting Sir Tom’s life in a special 24-page pull-out, saluting him as both a footballer and an ambassador for the city where he spent all his life.

Leading figures from the football world queued up to talk about a figure who was universally admired as a player and a man.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter joined the tributes saying: “Very sad news that Sir Tom Finney is no longer with us. Had privilege of watching the man play at 1954 World Cup.”

Former England captain David Beckham, who spent time at PNE on loan early in his career, said: “I was lucky enough to have met him – and he was not just an England great but a true gentleman.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “Sad news about the passing of Sir Tom – one of the great England players.”

And former North End full-back George Ross, who was a young player at Deepdale as Finney was coming towards the end of his illustrious career, added: “The news has left me in bits. I’m numb. Sir Tom was a hero of mine.”

Our special commemorative supplement will be in the Lancashire Evening Post on Saturday February 14, 2015 (Also available to tablet subscribers).