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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Finney and the MK Enigma

Maidenhead United's ongoing flood break presented an ideal opportunity to make my annual trip to watch Preston North End on Tuesday night as they visited MK Dons. Once it became clear the weather had settled down enough for at least professional football to continue, it looked like I had a smooth evening. There was a conveniently timed direct train from Shepherd's Bush to Bletchley, and the Dons' website had allowed me to buy a ticket for the away end for collection from the stadium box office so all was well as I boarded the train at ten to six.
However I'd been on the move for only a few minutes when the driver announced the train would be terminating at Watford Junction. No problem there would be plenty of trains to Bletchley I thought until I discovered that all services leaving Euston had been suspended due to a death at Milton Keynes. This was the second time this had happened to me in a month. I turned back at Paddington at the end of January when I realised I would miss the kick off at York Road for the Weston-super-mare match, this time however I had already bought a match ticket so had little choice but to plough on. Having waited for the best part of an hour a Bletchley train arrived and I got to my destination shortly after kick off.
Thanks to the official MK Dons Twitter account I knew where my ticket was waiting so after getting the first cab off the Bletchley station rank I was able to pick it up and sprint round to the away entrance and use the automated turnstile in time to only miss the first quarter of an hour. With the game goalless this meant the only event of note that I missed was the opportunity to pay my respects to the late Tom Finney.
Although it was pleasing to see an appropriate amount of media coverage of the footballing Knight, it was a shame that some of it was used to push a journalist's own agenda and perpetuate a myth or two. The simple fact of the matter was that Finney was one of the greatest footballers the game has produced anywhere in the world and naturally the people of Preston loved him for it. In the words of his peer at great rivals Blackpool Stanley Matthews: "To dictate the pace and course of a game, a player has to be blessed with awesome qualities. Those who have accomplished it on a regular basis can be counted on the fingers of one hand – Pele, Maradona, Best, Di Stefano, and Tom Finney.", whilst his North End team mate Bill Shankly simply described him as “the greatest footballer ever”.
I suspect Matthews would have added Cristiano Ronaldo to his list had he lived to see the Real Madrid talisman flourish so imagine if you will a middling Premier League club, coming from a smaller conurbation than the biggest clubs, which would rarely trouble the end of season honours board but could still hold its own. Maybe Norwich would be a good current comparison. Now imagine Ronaldo spending his entire career at Carrow Road and you have the situation which led to Finney's team mate Tommy Docherty recalling how the North End team would often be described as "a plumber and ten leaks".
Finney was of course known as the Preston plumber as this was his trade outside of the game. So next consider Ronaldo running  a similar business a short walk from the ground right up to his retirement, maintaining his involvement with the club and regularly attending matches. This explains why Finney became such an icon in the town of Preston. He represented an all time world class talent who never forgot his roots.
Yet amazing as this was it is not enough for some who seek to mythologize Finney in order to express their disgust for the modern footballer, citing Finney's war record and refusal to accept a lucrative offer from Palermo. However the truth shows Finney was as much a human as the rest of us and in my eyes all the better for it.
Simon Kuper inteviewed Finney for his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War, asking him about the War Cup Final of 1941, when Preston beat Arsenal. Wasn’t it odd, he asks, to play the final in bombed-out London? ‘I wasn’t all that interested in the war when I was playing,’ Finney answers. ‘I was only 18. And the main concern was to go down and beat them . . . I wasn’t really all that interested . . . I mean, other than the fact that we wanted England to win the war.’ 
As for the move to Palermo, the power clubs had over their players meant Finney never had the opportunity to reject it himself instead the Preston chairman Nat Buck dismissed it out of hand saying "If tha' doesn't play for us, tha' doesn't play for anybody." However it was Finney himself who took the offer to his Chairman after a discussion with his wife Elsie, musing it would take ten years at North End to earn what he could get in a year in Italy.
Indeed having lost a significant chunk of his career to the war and the opportunity to become financially comfortable for life, his continued commitment to the Preston cause and general air of humility only serves to make him a more admirable individual and explain one of the most heartwarming events I have ever seen at a football ground. 
I regularly attended Deepdale in the early 90s and by the 1993/94 season the club was starting to experience something of a resurgence in Division Four under the management of John Beck. As part of this revival home fans replaced away fans at the Town End, a covered terrace behind the goal which was a lot smaller than the opposite Kop and therefore generated a better atmosphere. It was there that I stood when Sir Tom brought one of his great grandchildren to the game, introducing him to the crowd before kick off. Given a ball the toddler started to kick it towards the Town End goal, and the whole ground started to cheer as he eventually emulated his great grandfather by hitting the back of the net.
Who knows what Finney would  have made of Milton Keynes Dons, a manufactured club which looks the part in a magnificent stadium but like their new town peers Crawley and Stevenage are basically treading water in Division Three. The attendance last night was reported as being over seven thousand but I doubt that half that figure were actually at the match, the rows of empty seats belying the fact that the club has not had time to grow a support to match its surroundings. Of course this is all due to the egregious manner in which the Dons arrived in Buckinghamshire, the irony being that, if like Crawley and Stevenage, local businessmen had poured money into a new non league club, in all probability they would have climbed to the same level pretty quickly but would occupy a ground built up as the ground grading required to accommodate a growing but still small support.
It was easy to see why Stadium MK had been shortlisted as part of the doomed England World Cup 2018 bid. I like the way you enter onto a balcony overlooking the pitch, with the lower tier built into the ground. The club marketing and customer service was also excellent but I was a little perturbed by the passport size photos of children which decorated the walls resembling a memorial to innocents of some unknown genocide. Above all there is a wonderful feeling of space and light, and unpleasant walk to the station aside I would love to see a proper club host a game here in a packed stadium.
Instead hampered by an inevitably heavy pitch which looked quite cut up I was served the usual lower division Football League fare of bags of physical effort, sound technique but little in the way of goals. Preston were the better team for the seventy five minutes I watched, although could not be said to dominate, with the result in the balance til the end. The second half produced more in the way of goalmouth action. For Preston Keith Keane came closest when he hit the post, whilst at the other end makeshift defender Jake King headed a Daniel Powell effort off the line after goalkeeper Declan Rudd had a rush of blood to the head and ended up well out of his penalty area.

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