To say the truth, I hadn’t heard a word about this gentleman until the football world all over the networking sites went numb with the news of his death. That’s when I came to know what a legendary player he used to be. So, I thought of sharing some of his achievements that came in the 1950s, and we didn’t get a chance to see.
Nat Lofthouse, affectionately called “Lion of Vienna” after his goal against Austria in an international match was a One-club man. Born in 1925 in Bolton, he started his career as a youth player with Bolton Wanderers and ended his sparkling 22 year career with the same club. In the meantime, he had achieved what many could just dream of. He also played 33 international matches, netting 30 goals on the way. He still holds the record of highest goals scored for Bolton and is sixth in terms of leading goal scorers for England. But it’s not just the number of goals he scored that makes him a football legend, but also the fact that his competitive spirit and loyalty to his club are still unmatched.
Remembering him, many footballers of his time regard him as a great team player. Robert Galvin, the author of Football’s Greatest Heroes defines him as “the last great champion of a dying breed: the traditional English centre-forward – the talismanic figurehead given the job of leading the line, taking more than his share of knocks, and scoring most of the goals.”
Sir Thomas Finney, who is also known for his loyalty towards his club Preston North End remembers Nat for “his speed, fearlessness, a hard shot in either foot, good heading ability, and a robust frame to stand up to all the physical stuff.”
Sir Bobby Charlton, United’s great said: “The first time I ever saw a professional game Nat was playing as a centre forward. They were talking about him then as a youngster who had just burst on to the scene. He was just fantastic – a leader, strong, great in the box, a talisman. You have to put him in with those two great players. Tommy Finney and Stan Matthews were wingers and outside the influence of the 18-yard box, but Nat Lofthouse, you just put the ball in there at any height and he was so brave. He just scored phenomenal goals in the air. He was a great player without any question. In his day if you were a centre-forward you had to do more than score goals; you had to lead and you had to be tough. In those days football was a hard, tough game. It wasn’t like today where they glorify everything. The pitches were bad, the ball was heavy, the equipment was awful, but he loved the game of football, and he was ever so proud to be a part of it.”
Like many players of his time, the beginning of Lofthouse’s football career was affected by the ongoing World War II. “It toughened me up, physically and mentally” Lofthouse recalled. Too young for military service, he worked in a coal mine, pushing tubs of coal, building his strength and fitness.
But the wait was worth it. He played his first league match, coming on as a substitute and scoring twice in a 5-1 win against Bury. He made his first start for the club in 1946, post war, against Chelsea. He scored twice in that game too, though Bolton lost 3-4 to Chelsea. His success at club level earned him an international cap and in 1950, he played his first match for The Three Lions in a 2-2 draw against Yugoslavia. His most memorable performance on international duty was his two goals against Austria in 1952 that earned him the title of “Lion of Vienna”. During the match, Lofthouse was knocked unconscious briefly, but insisted on returning to the action despite a knee injury. “The courage Nat showed was typical of him,” Alf Ramsey said. “The way he insisted on coming back on lifted the heart of every Englishman in the stadium. It made us redouble our efforts to keep the Austrians out.” His winning goal, which came even though the Austrian defenders committed three fouls on him in the process, was lauded to the skies.
Two FA Cup finals can be added to his list of memorable performances. In the final of 1953, the Matthews final, he scored once, hit the post and was almost knocked unconscious. He kept playing on but couldn’t save his side from a 4-3 defeat against Blackpool. After the match, Nat said “When it was all over, I felt it couldn’t have gone to a better man. There were no recriminations in our dressing room. I don’t think a bullet would have stopped Stan in the last twenty minutes.”
However, in the II FA Cup final, he ended up scoring twice and his side earned a hard fought 2-0 win against Manchester United. Although, the second goal is still a topic of discussion, yet his performance that day could be termed as extraordinary.
Born and bred in Bolton, he played his 503rd and last game against Birmingham City in December 1960, following a long lay-off with a ligament injury. He played his final international match against Wales on 26 November 1958. In his glorious career, Nat scored 255 goals in his 452 league appearances and 285 in 503 overall for Bolton.
Soon after his retirement, he was appointed as the Assistant Trainer with the club and in 1967; he took on the role of Chief Coach. On December 1, 1968 he became the full time manager of the club, having held the post as a part time manager earlier too. He went on to become the Executive Manager of the club in 1978 and in 1986, became the Bolton Club President, a post he held till his death. He also released an autobiography in 1954, titled “Goals Galore”. He was a freeman of the city of Bolton and received an OBE in 1994 for his services to football. In 1997 Bolton named the East stand of the Reebok stadium after the top scorer in their history. Lofthouse married Alma Foster in 1947 who died in 1985.
His death can be considered as a death of an era. The strong, physical style of play that the “No.9” of that time played has been taken over by a tactical and fast style of play now days. His generation used to play a simpler game tactically, with No.9 as the pivot of attack. In the words of Len Shackleton, “Billy Wright won the ball and passed it to me. I gave it to Stan Matthews who ran down the wing and centered for Nat Lofthouse, who scored.”
A true legend, Nat died in a nursing home on January 15th, 2011. The Bolton Club website declared his death as the saddest day in club’s history but added that they will always remember him for all the reasons of celebration he gave to the fans.