Here I am, well over a week into the 2020 Olympics and still trying to adjust to high-energy team games being played in cathedral silence.
I try to make up for the empty grandstands by shouting instructions for players and imprecations at referees, but modern electronics do not yet permit my curses (or occasional praise) to be heard. I should have known better because I was told 70 years ago by a man who played soccer before multi-thousands in the great sports arena of the world that players on the field could never isolate single voise curses or praise from the massed voices in the stands.
My advisor on great spectacle crowds and their vocabularies was a young man named Stanley Matthews, still regarded by many as the greatest soccer player of all time. I hold no claim to long-life friendship with “call me Stan” Matthews.” He was just the quiet bloke who parked his car in the next bay to my truck in a South Shore Blackpool parkade in the immediate years after the Second World War. He played football
My first job after the war, driving medium to long-distance freight from Blackpool to London in the south, Glasgow or Edinburgh in the north. Day trips with a crack of dawn start; back home by around 5 p.m.; park the truck; catch a streetcar for a 20-minute ride home.
Stan lived in South Blackpool in those days and, with his wife, ran a small hotel near the seafront. He would be parking his car around 5 weekday afternoons, then walk home after a brief pause waiting for my tram to arrive. We talked about anything and everything, but rarely about football. It was during one of those rare chats that he talked about his decision to leave his hometown club Stoke City and join Blackpool, where he had been stationed with the RAF during the war.
The transfer was a big story happening just after Great Britain had played a Best of Europe team in Glasgow on May 1, 1947. Stan had been selected to play. The first 11 players selected received 14 Pounds each – a little more than $50 each for the game. For league play in those days he got $20 a week during playing season, roughly half that in summer.
Stan was 32 when he was traded fom Stoke City to Blackpool, and some were suggesting he was getting old for the game. I asked him how he handled the “getting old gossip.” He just smiled and said: “We’ll see.” The end of play record for his football career shows Stan was the oldest ever to play in England’s top division (50 years and five days); the oldest player to represent his country (40 years and 104 days). On January 1, 1965, he became the first footballer to be knighted for services to the game.
I never got the chance to call him Sir Stanley, having joined the flood of post-war immigrants to Canada in 1948.
I did get the chance to ask in a last chat-walk before I sailed West for “one great outstanding memory” in his playing career, and he surprised me. I was sure it would be what went down in the history books as “The Matthews Cup Final – 1953,” a classic story with a classic Matthews ending.
Stan was already famous for having won just about every honour the international world of soccer could offer – except the highly coveted FA cup winner’s medal. Twice Blackpool had been to the finals – and failed.
At halftime, on May 2, 1953, Bolton Wanderers were leading Blackpool at Wembley 2-1. Ten minutes into the second half, it was 3-1 with Bolton fans planning victory parties and Blackpool fans trying to hide their team colours to avoid verbal abuse from their north-of-England neighbours.
Twenty-three minutes into the half, Matthews decided that if he wanted the gold medal it was time for high gear. The magician came to life. He danced down the right wing almost to the corner flag with the ball at his feet and then crossed an immaculate pass to Stan Mortensen, his striker. Mortensen made no mistake with a thunderbolt volley into the Bolton net. Score 3-2.
Mortensen scored again on a perfectly placed free kick with two minutes remaining, adding his tying goal to his first Blackpool goal before halftime, thus completing a rare hat trick of goals for an FA Cup Final. Score 3-3 – with only seconds to play. Those were gut-wrenching seconds. Matthews had the ball again and was ducking and weaving his way for a clear pass to Mortensen.
His cross was a fraction off target and behind Mortensen but fell at the feet of teammate Bill Perry who struck the ball fast and very sure. Final score: Blackpool 4, Bolton 3. Stan Matthew’s medal collection was complete.
So, what was the one great memory that stayed with Sir Stanley if it wasn’t the Matthews FA Cup Final? He thought for a few seconds and asked if I had ever heard “the Hampden Park Roar?”
I had indeed read about the legendary hundred thousand voice scream designed to intimidate visiting teams when Scotland takes the field and at double volume when it scores. But I had never heard it the flesh.
Stan said on the field you felt the roar more than heard it; that it was like goose-pimples or a light cool breeze on the skin. An assurance to the home side that the house was full of friends and a warning to visitors to be on their best behaviour. He said “I shall never forget feeling the breeze of the Roar the first time I heard it and trembled.”
I wonder what today’s athletes feel in the great silence from 60,000 empty seats. Pleased and encouraged by Instagram and Twitter posts no doubt, but I have a feeling they would prefer a Hampden Park Roar.
(Foootnote: For a fascinating review of Sir Stanley “in life and on the field” check “Sir Stanley Matthews Remembered” on Youtube.com. It’s a review of his life from his 1915 birth in Stoke-on-Trent to his death in 2000 at the age of 80. He returned to Stoke for his final playing years. The program is rich with movie clips including the famous 1953 cup final. For good measure while in YouTube you can check The Hampden Roar. Turn the sound up. Put the cat or dog out. Don’t try to interpret the words. It’s a 100 thousand voice ROAR not Evensong.)