City mourned for favourite son

Sir Tom Finney's coffin is carried at St John's Minster
Sir Tom Finney's coffin is carried at St John's Minster
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Among the merriment of Christmas and as we look towards the final days of the year, this is also a time for reflection on the last 12 months and those we have lost.

Preston lost its favourite son on February 14, 2014, Sir Tom Finney passing away peacefully at the age of 91.

A city mourned and football worldwide mourned the death of the former North End and England star who dazzled and entertained for club and country.

Tributes came from far and wide, remembering Sir Tom who was loved and respected in equal measure.

While it had been in 1960 that he had last kicked a ball competitively for PNE – his only club – the admiration for him had not diminished in the 44 years since.

The Preston Plumber, as he was nicknamed, might have been someone watched by grandads and fathers, yet he bridged generations.

He was North End’s club president and until his health faded in later years, was a regular visitor to Deepdale for matches and to collect his fan mail – of which there was sack-loads every week.

Ten months on from his passing, Sir Tom has not been forgotten by PNE and their supporters – far from it.

His name is sung from the stands at every game, the 475 travelling fans who ventured to Peterborough just before Christmas sang about him near enough from first whistle to last.

Many of them were too young to have seen Sir Tom play but stories of his ability have been passed down from generation to generation, while black and white film footage gives glimpses of what he was all about.

A mosaic has recently been put up in the reception area of the Sir Tom Finney Stand, made up of 11,999 tiles and depicting the famous Splash picture.

Ultimately, the best tribute to him will be for North End to win promotion from League One.

Sir Tom’s passing came on Valentine’s Day, such an appropriate occasion for him to be reunited with his beloved wife Lady Elsie, who had died in 2004.

News of his death started to filter out in the evening and it did not take long for the tributes to start pouring in.

Fans began to visit the ‘Splash’ statue outside Deepdale to lay flowers and leave football scarves and shirts as their mark of respect.

The Splash stands between Sir Tom Finney Way and the Sir Tom Finney Stand – Preston had honoured him many times when he was alive.

When the news of his death was officially confirmed later that night, it began to dominate the headlines on media outlets.

ITN’s News at Ten carried the story and social media became a wall of tributes from young and old.

I was at home by the time ITN informed its 10pm viewers of Sir Tom’s death, a night out with my wife cut short to begin gathering stories and tributes for the Evening Post.

Ringing round contacts in the football world beyond 10pm can be tricky in some circumstances but on this occasion, the late hour mattered little to people.

Football folk – friends and former team-mates of Sir Tom, leading figures in the game – were only too happy to talk fondly of the great man.

Messages left on voicemail were returned without hesitation.

I wrote at the time how ex-PNE boss Craig Brown had rung me back well after midnight.

Like every manager at PNE down the years – and there have been many – all had the support of Sir Tom in his role as club president.

During the Gary Peters and David Moyes years, he got an invite to the training ground on a Friday to watch sessions and have a general chit-chat.

Players of the time recalled with fondness how there was always a word of encouragement from Sir Tom, a man they found down to earth and humble.

The LEP’s front page on the Saturday morning after his passing read ‘Tears for Sir Tom’.

For North End themselves, they had just a few hours to organise fitting tributes ahead of the Saturday afternoon clash with Leyton Orient. That week, the focus had been on promoting the Orient game, generating as much interest as possible to bolster the crowd for the visit of a promotion rival.

Suddenly the focus switched to remembering the genius of Sir Tom and to their credit, PNE did a fine job.

Permission was sought of the Football League and of the match day referee for the Preston players to carry the name Finney across the back of their shirts.

Arrangements were made for floral tributes to be presented to Sir Tom’s family.

The media descended on Deepdale in their droves that Saturday morning, foreign television crews working shoulder-to-shoulder with national newspapers and radio.

The tributes around the Splash grew by the minute, shirts and scarves from other clubs placed next to those of Preston – there were no boundaries, no rivalries.

Before kick-off, in front of a crowd of more than 13,000, Preston skipper John Welsh and his Orient counterpart Nathan Clarke led the teams on to the pitch.

The captains carried wreaths, blue and white in Welsh’s hands, red and white in Clarke’s, which were presented to Sir Tom’s son Brian and grandson Paul in the centre circle.

Deepdale fell silent in tribute on the sound of the referee’s whistle.

The game was to finish in a 1-1 draw, a scoreline almost incidental to the occasion.

Over the coming days, the Splash continued to be the centre point for tributes.

It was announced that Sir Tom’s funeral would have full civic honours and be held at St John’s Minster on Thursday, February 27.

Around that time someone commented that the funeral would be akin to a service afforded to royalty.

In the eyes of Prestonians, it was their own state occasion, their own royalty.

A balance had to be struck between remembering his greatness on the football pitch and allowing his family the room to mourn – we lost a football legend, the Finney family lost a father, grandad and uncle.

The funeral was invitation-only because of the pressure on space in the Minster, with the great and good of Preston North End past and present together with football dignitaries attending.

Deepdale was the meeting point for the mourners on a cold and crisp morning.

They were then bussed to the city centre in a fleet of coaches.

PNE’s stadium was also a venue for the public to watch the funeral on the big screen.

Steadily the pavements along Sir Tom Finney Way began to fill up, young and old there to pay their respects.

Groups of primary school children arrived with their teachers, age no barrier to an occasion both sad and uplifting in equal measure.

For those youngsters, it was a history lesson in real time and even at their tender age they recognised the importance of the occasion.

People took an hour off work to be there, wanting the opportunity to pay their respects.

The funeral cortege passed by en route to the city centre, one last drive for Sir Tom past his football playground.

Some of those lining the road clapped in respect, some stood silent, some lowered their heads.

The ‘grandad’ floral tribute in the hearse was a reminder that this was very much an occasion for the family despite all of the outside attention.

In the city centre, the streets were lined by thousands of folk, many of who had turned up early in the morning to get a vantage point. The pavements were 10 deep in places, packed in particular on Lancaster Road near to the Town Hall and Guild Hall and down to the junction to Church Street where the procession turned left to the church.

I watched the funeral on the big screen at Deepdale, sat in my usual seat in the press box.

While there to do a job and report on the day, emotion was never far away.

Even the most stoic of folk would have done well to have held back the odd tear.

Indeed, when the screen showed the cortege pull up outside the Minster, there was hardly a dry eye to be seen.

The pallbearers were Simon Grayson, John Welsh, Joe Garner, Ian Bryson, Alan Kelly and Graham Alexander, six men who fittingly represented Preston North End past and present.

They had been chosen in close consultation with Sir Tom’s family.

Speaking to all of them in the days afterwards, they were deeply honoured to be asked to carry the great man.

Many other ex-PNE players were sat in the pews and the full squad of the present day were in attendance.

Father Timothy Lipscombe, Vicar of Preston, began the service with an address to the congregation.

He said: “In his life, and even in his death, Sir Tom has united the people of Preston.

“Everyone has a cherished and lovely story to tell about him.”

Those few words delivered by Father Timothy set the tone perfectly.

Jimmy Armfield addressed the service, talking about his friendship with Sir Tom.

Armfield said: “Tom didn’t dive, he didn’t feign injury.

“He was world famous but he never won a championship medal or an FA Cup winner’s medal.

“He won something much more important: the hearts of his team-mates, the supporters, opposing players even and of the whole country.”

Armfield recalled how Sir Tom, after his retirement and when covering an England game as a newspaper columnist, had driven him home from an international against Wales in Cardiff.

His alternative journey home, carrying an injury, would have been by train and Sir Tom was having none of it.

Former Preston team-mate Tommy Docherty added a touch of humour to the service.

The Doc commented: “He was amazing, he had two great feet and made ordinary players on his team look good – and I should know!”

Back at Deepdale, people followed the service with the same respect they would have done had they been sat in the church.

Around 3,000 folk were in the ground, eyes fixed on the screen hanging from the roof of the Bill Shankly Kop.

After the service, there was a private committal away from the public gaze, a chance for Sir Tom’s family to say their final goodbye.

It won’t be too long until the first anniversary of his passing is upon us.

The PNE fans’ Gentry Day has been organised for the February 14 trip to Notts County, subject to FA Cup commitments.

Departed friends, relatives and past players are uppermost in the mind during the now annual celebration – Sir Tom among them.