With Pride and Affection
Sir Tom Finney, CBE,who died in February at the age of 91, was not only a legendary soccer player, he was a tireless servant of the people of Preston in his many capacities. Proud Prestonian Stuart Leaver reminisces and pays tribute to Sir Tom.
I was privileged to know Sir Tom for over 60 years. My late father and grandfather were season ticket holders at North End, and they used to sit in the West stand with Alf Finney, Tom’s father.
I started attending Deepdale at about the age of eight, and I was one of those hundreds of kids squashed together on the cinder path that stretched around the pitch. It was here that I first set eyes on Tom from about five yards! On the odd occasion that my father and grandfather couldn’t attend a home game, either due to illness or work commitments, I sat in the stand with Alf, watching his son performing his magic.
I continued to support North End but didn’t attend all games because I had started to play the game myself regularly. After a few seasons of playing on the parks, and about the same time Tom retired, I took up the whistle and commenced refereeing locally at first then further afield as I climbed the referees’ ladder.
As for Tom, and with his footballing days behind him, he became a high profile figure in Preston life and this proud citizen worked tirelessly for many charities and organisations including The Alzheimer’s Society, Meningitis Research Foundation, Cancer charities, Heartbeat and Babybeat. He was a magistrate in the town for 23 years and became the chairman of the Preston Health Authority. On the sporting front, Tom was always willing to turn up at youth award evenings, school events and various sports clubs to add a little magic to the proceedings, and he encouraged several generations of youngsters take up sport. No other city had such a role model for its young people.
Our paths crossed on many occasions over the years, particularly at sports related events and presentation evenings and it was fascinating to be in conversation with him. He was never critical and always constructive in what he was saying. I remember on one occasion the subject of refereeing standards cropped up and he told me: “I feel sorry for referees. We all make mistakes but being criticised and verbally abused is not on. After all it’s a difficult job at the best of times.”
In 1988 Tom was the subject of ‘This is Your Life’ on TV when Michael Aspel surprised him with the big red book, and then of course in 1998 Tom was invited down to Buckingham Palace with his wife Elsie, son Brian and daughter Barbara to receive his overdue Knighthood. Now we really could call him Sir Tom!
Unfortunately, not long after this happy occasion, Elsie was diagnosed to be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the years her condition deteriorated and Sir Tom became her full-time carer. Sadly she passed away some 10 years ago.
Following the death of Elsie, Sir Tom concentrated his efforts in helping the Alzheimer’s Society raise funds which eventually led to the opening of a resource centre and library in the town for those suffering from the illness. Not only did known charities benefit from his support but, being so approachable, individuals like myself were grateful for his co-operation and willingness to give his time to help and support various events with his presence. This carried on into his later years, as he tried his hardest to attend every function he was invited to.
Sir Tom meant everything to the people of Preston. As a footballer he was one of the greatest footballers England ever produced, if not the best, and he was rightly held in the highest regard, not just in the country, but across the world. His name commanded respect at the highest levels. He was the most sincere, honourable man and yet saw himself as an ordinary man of no special virtue. He was so humble and level headed, a gentleman who really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I think back to all those years ago when my father and grandfather were in raptures with his wizardry, week in week out, and I thank him for that. As for me, I value and cherish my association and involvement with Sir Tom over many years and I am grateful for that.
Sir Tom Finney was a legend in his own lifetime and will be remembered by the people of Preston with pride and much affection for what he gave to them both on and off the field. The saying ‘Service before Self ’ is more than appropriate. RIP Sir Tom.