THE BIG INTERVIEW
The anaesthetic was beginning to wear off as Colin Wood groggily began to open his eyes in the convalescence suite at Wrightington Hospital, in Appley Bridge, near Wigan.
The former Daily Mail sports writer had just undergone major hip replacement surgery only a matter of hours earlier.
Suddenly, he was shaken from his slumber by the sound of his phone ringing.
Barely able to move, Wood summoned the strength to reach out to his bedside cabinet and clasped hold of the receiver, holding it to his ear.
‘Hello, is that Colin? It’s Tom Finney here, how are you?’
Wood said: “I think it’s got to be one of the proudest moments of my life.
“I had gone in to hospital to have my hip done in 1996 and the first call I received after my operation was from Sir Tom Finney.
“I couldn’t believe it that Tom had rung up to see how I was.”
Wood, who lives in Tarleton, had built up a close relationship with the Preston North End legend – who sadly passed away two weeks ago – after initially meeting him more than 30 years previously.
The young reporter had been commandeered by his superiors at the Mail to cover Finney’s one and only appearance in Europe in 1963.
Although he had finished playing for Preston in 1960, Finney was enticed out of retirement by Irish club Distillery for a European Cup tie against Portuguese champions Benfica.
“I was asked to report on Sir Tom’s European Cup match for Distillery against Benfica at Windsor Park,” he said.
“We actually met at the airport.
“There was only me from the Press at Manchester Airport. I don’t know why…all the others must have travelled from London.
“We just got talking and after a while, Sir Tom said to me, ‘Have you booked in yet’?
“I said I hadn’t, so we ended up sitting next to each other on the flight to Belfast.
“We stayed in the same hotel and caught the flight back together.
“We shook hands at the end and we remained friends ever since.
“Obviously I had seen him play before but that was the first occasion I got to meet him.”
Indeed the very first time Wood saw Finney play was when Preston visited Stamford Bridge in 1956 to play Chelsea.
The match will forever be remembered for the iconic ‘splash picture’ taken of Sir Tom.
The famous photograph was the inspiration behind the statue of Sir Tom, which takes pride of place outside the stand which bears his name at Deepdale
Wood said: “I was in the Royal Signals in Colchester. I did my two years’ national service in the Army.
“My father Arthur worked for the railways and he used to be able to get free travel.
“So he got me tickets from Colchester to London and back so I could go and watch the game.
“I wasn’t a Preston fan nor a Chelsea fan – I’m a Torquay United fan.
“The only reason why I went to the match was to see Sir Tom play.
“So I stood on the terraces and got soaked obviously. I don’t remember the moment during the game when the famous splash picture of Sir Tom happened.
“There were so many splashes going on during the match.
“Obviously it wasn’t until the newspaper came out the next day with the photo of Sir Tom did you then realise what a great picture it was.”
Born and raised in Paignton, Devon, Wood had begun his journalistic career at his local paper the Totnes Times.
After moving to London to work for South West Press – where he became sports editor – Wood landed a plum role in the early 60s as the Mail’s man on Merseyside, covering the fortunes of both Liverpool and Everton.
His new role would mean he would regularly come into contact with legendary former Liverpool manager – and ex-PNE star – Bill Shankly.
The great Reds boss was unique in many ways with his style of management, and unlike many of his contemporaries of the time, he would cultivate a close working relationship with the Press. Long before media conferences became the norm, Shankly was one of the very first managers to hold meetings with reporters the day before games in his Anfield office.
On one particular occasion, Wood remembers sparking a debate among his fellow reporters and Shankly, which ended in the Liverpool manager ringing up his counterpart at Manchester United – Sir Matt Busby, who settled the argument.
“At the time Bobby Charlton had become the big idol of English football.
“He had just come into his pomp,” Wood recalls
“We were in Shankly’s office when a discussion broke out among us about which was Bobby Charlton’s strongest foot, because he was so two-footed.
“Straight away before anybody had the chance to say anything, I said he was right-footed.
“Everybody else said, ‘No Colin, you’re wrong he’s a left-footer’.
“Anyway this discussion took place. Shanks then looked at me and said, ‘Why do you say that he’s right-footed Colin?’
“That’s when I told him about this game I saw.
“It was Sir Tom Finney’s final international for England in 1958 at Wembley.
“It was a 5-0 win over the Soviet Union and it turned out to be Sir Tom’s 76th and last appearance for England.
“I remember Johnny Haynes scored a hat-trick and Nat Lofthouse also scored to equal Sir Tom’s total of 30 international goals.
“Bobby Charlton scored the other goal with a penalty – and he took it with his right foot.
“Shanks asked me if I was certain and would I put money on it, to which I replied I would.
“So Shanks picked up the phone and rang Matt Busby.
“I actually knew Matt Busby quite well too.
“Anyway Shanks told him about this discussion we were having about Bobby and told him what I had said.
“Matt said to Shanks, ‘You can tell Colin that he’s right so give him the money’!”
Wood has nothing but fond memories of Shankly, although he was once nearly on the receiving end of a severe tongue lashing from the ex-Liverpool boss.
Wood, who is now aged 77, wrote a piece lauding the talents of Manchester United and Northern Ireland great George Best – hinting that he could be rightly claimed as the greatest.
Wood, who is married to Janice and has one daughter and four sons, said: “George is someone else I became very good friends with.
“I remember writing a piece which said that George was, arguably, the best.
“I tried to keep the piece as open as possible.
“You have to remember that I saw Tom play towards the end of his career whereas I saw George play when he was at his very best.
“But I remember Shanks having a real go at me after a match at Manchester City.
“Shanks just idolised Sir Tom. He would always call him Tommy.
“He came out with so many famous quotes about Tom.
“One of my favourites quotes was when Shankly said, ‘If you went to see a match in which Tom Finney was playing, he had such style, that you would name him man of the match before the game’.
“I remember this particular occasion. I had been invited into the boardroom by Joe Mercer, who was the Manchester City manager.
“Shanks came over to have a go at me for this piece I had written and I think it was Joe who sort of got hold of him and pulled him away.
“But that was the thing about Shanks.
“He could have a row with you but the next day he would be inviting you around for a cup of tea in his office.”
Another manager in a similar mould to Shanks, who would not hold a grudge, was Brian Clough.
It was Wood who broke the exclusive story of Clough’s departure from Derby County in the early 1970s.
Despite chasing Wood around Wembley Stadium before England’s doomed World Cup qualifying match against Poland in 1973, Clough remained on good terms with the journalist in the ensuing years.
“One of the biggest exclusives I ever had was back in 1973,” Wood said.
“I had the exclusive on Clough quitting Derby. I think it was the year after they won the title.
“I got it from a source who I first got to know when he was working at Preston North End.
“A short time after I broke that story, I was working for the BBC as a researcher for the World Cup qualifier between England and Poland.
“It was the match when England created about 30 chances but failed to qualify for the World Cup.
“Clough famously called the Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski a ‘circus clown in gloves’ before kick-off on ITV.
“But on that day I got to Wembley, parked my car up and got in the lift to go to a BBC conference.
“As I got into the lift, Clough saw me and started shouting at me across the lobby and followed me into the lift.
“He was demanding to know where I had got the story about him quitting Derby from.
“He continued to follow me right into this BBC conference.
“Both the BBC and the ITV used to cover the matches in those days and Clough was working for ITV.
“BBC and the ITV were big rivals and I think it was Clough’s assistant Peter Taylor who said to Clough that it was probably best that they came out of the BBC conference.
“I used to get on reasonably well with him. He wasn’t like Shanks, in the sense that he did not have the same personality or warmth that Shanks had.
“But he could have a row with you one day and still talk to you the next.”
Perhaps two of the biggest stories Wood worked on were the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters.
He was at the European Cup final in 1985 when Juventus defeated Liverpool 1-0, although the scoreline became insignificant after 39 supporters of the Italian club were killed.
He was not at Hillsborough in 1989 when 96 Liverpool fans died, as he had gone to report on Everton’s semi-final victory over Norwich.
Wood, now retired after finishing as a freelancer in 2010, admits he has enjoyed a wonderful career, rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest names in football.
Unlike nowadays, players of yesteryear would go out socialising with their Press counterparts.
Every Christmas, the management of both Everton and Liverpool would enjoy a festive get-together and meal.
“It started with Shankly,” Wood said.
“He and Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans would go out for a Chinese meal with all the Liverpool Press lads.
“Then later on Howard Kendal and others from Everton, like Colin Lee and Joe Royle, would come along.
“I remember one year we went for a meal and Alex Ferguson was in the same restaurant
“You don’t have that kind of relationship nowadays.
“I think that’s down to two things. One is with the way the players and agents are now.
“The other is the way the Press are now. There was more trust back then.
“They trusted you more. They would tell you stuff off the record and if you broke that trust that would be the end of the relationship.
“In my day – probably up until 10 to 15 years ago – all of us would have the telephone numbers of the manager, his assistant, all the players and reserve-team players.
“We would have everybody’s home number. When I finished in 2010, I don’t think I had a single Everton or Liverpool player’s telephone number.
“Everything now is done through either the club or an agent.”