Sir Tom casts a long shadow

Sir Tom Finney in action against Uruguay in the 1954 World Cup
Sir Tom Finney in action against Uruguay in the 1954 World Cup
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When Bailey Wright was named in Australia’s 23-man squad for the World Cup this week it handed him the chance to become the first Preston player in more than 50 years to play in the finals since Sir Tom Finney.

Sir Tom – who passed away in February this year aged 91– played in three World Cups for England, representing the Three Lions in 1950, 1954 and 1958.

He played in England’s first World Cup in 1950, which was also staged in Brazil.

But it ended in humiliation.

England arrived in South America with a stellar squad but crashed out after an embarrassing 1-0 defeat to part-timers USA in Belo Horizonte.

Speaking to the Evening Post in 2003, Sir Tom recalled the 1950 exit.

He said: “It was horrendous. The Americans were supposed to be there just to make up the numbers in the World Cup.

“They were a collection of all sorts of nationalities who had gone to the US to live.

“We could have played them 100 times, and 99 times have whacked them comfortably.

“I remember we went to the States two or three years later and beat them 6-3. But on this particular day it all went wrong and they embarrassed us.”

England opened their campaign in the 1950 finals with a 2-0 victory over Chile, thanks to goals from Stan Mortensen and Wilf Mannion.

Manager Walter Winterbottom rested key figures Stanley Matthews and Jackie Milburn for the game against the American.

And a part-time dishwasher and student accountant popped up to heap misery on Sir Tom and his team-mates in what remains one of the biggest upsets in football history.

Pot-washer Joe Gaetjens dived full length to deflect Walter Bahr’s spectacular long-range effort past England keeper Bert Williams in the 38th minute.

England – and Sir Tom –crashed out of the cup in the group stages after losing by the same margin to Spain in their next match.

He said: “To say it was embarrassing is an understatement. These things happen in football.”

Sir Tom played again at the 1954 finals in Switzerland, when England reached the quarter-finals, only to be knocked out by holders Uruguay.

But in Sweden, in the 1958 tournament, the Preston Plumber set a goalscoring record that stands to this day.

He became England’s oldest scorer at a World Cup finals and oldest ever penalty taker – aged 36 and 64 days – in a match against the USSR.

He fooled the Soviet keeper Lev Yashin by taking the penalty with his ‘wrong foot’ in the 85th minute to earn a 2-2 draw.

The Evening Post reported: “Finney ambled to the ball with 59,000 pairs of eyes on him and, with that familiar push of his, scored this vital penalty which saved England from defeat against Russia. As usual, the ball went in just inside the post.”

England drew 0-0 with Brazil and 2-2 with Austria but did not advance to the knockout stages after losing 1-0 to the USSR in a play-off match.

The finals were Sir Tom’s last outing at a World Cup.

Now fifty-six years later, Wright has the opportunity to emulate the great man by playing on the biggest stage of all.