by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
28 September 1946: England’s “golden boy” of a golden generation scores a hat-trick on his international debut
In 1946 professional football returned to normal after the Second World War had seen its suspension on a nationwide basis. This included the restoration of the British Home Championship; the 52nd time the tournament had been held. The first game of that season’s tournament was on 28 September 1946 at Belfast’s Windsor Park where England beat Northern Ireland 7-2.
Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton, Raich Carter and Bobby Langton all scored for England in the game but the undisputed star was Wilf Mannion, who got a hat-trick. Small but sturdy, and blessed with mesmerising ball skills, Mannion was nicknamed “the golden boy” because of his shock of blonde hair, and he was widely considered to be one of the finest players of his generation, which is no small accolade when considering the quality of the players he was surrounded with at the time.
As a boy Mannion had grown up in the South Bank area of Middlesbrough, honing his football skills on a patch of wasteground with whatever was available to kick around. This would include tin cans, rags made into a ball, even pig’s bladders from the butchers were used, and as Mannion himself said, “if you could control that you were a ruddy genius.”
Having impressed at junior level Mannion, at 18 years of age, was offered a contract with Middlesbrough at the beginning of the 1936-37 season. He did enough in the reserves to earn a call up to the first team, making his debut on 2 January against Portsmouth due to the injury of regular inside-forward Micky Fenton. With Fenton fit again Mannion returned to the reserves, but at the beginning of the next season he was picked to start in the first XI and scored in the first two games of the season. His development into a top player continued with Matt Busby, then a player with Liverpool, describing him as a “wonder boy” after being given the runaround in one particular game. In the 1938-39 season he made everyone sit up and notice him when he scored four goals and created a few others in a 9-2 win over Blackpool on 10 December. The game became known as ‘Mannion’s match’ and a local newspaper reported, “Standing out in this Brough victory, whirlwind-like, and leaving us almost breathless, was four goals Wilfred Mannion… He shared in the movements which led to most of the goal scoring, especially in the first-half. The lad gave a positively dazzling exhibition.”
His career was then halted by war. He was to see action in France and Italy as well as being part of the Dunkirk evacuation, during which a local newspaper erroneously reported that he had been killed. In 1942 while briefly back in England he stayed long enough to make his first appearance in an England shirt in an unofficial international in a 2-1 win against Scotland in January 1942. Soon after though he was sent back to war, firstly to South Africa, then Italy, where he was involved in very heavy fighting. His battalion, whose commanding officer was the England cricketer Hedley Verity and who was killed by Mannion’s side in 1943, suffered heavy losses throughout the Italian campaign. Mannion, although he had escaped serious injury, had been deeply traumatised by seeing so many of his fellow soldiers being killed, and his condition deteriorated to such an extent that he was withdrawn from active service for a while and sent to Cairo for convalescence where he unfortunately fell ill with malaria.
He finally ended the war safe and fully fit and when the first season resumed in 1946 he showed form good enough to be called up for his first proper England cap against Northern Ireland. It was not just the fact that Mannion got a hat-trick in the game that caught they eye, but his all round performance. The News Chronicle reported: “Even allowing for the glaring weakness in the Irish side, England gave a remarkable display of skilled footwork, clever distribution and balanced team work. Mannion fitted in perfectly with Carter and Lawton and took his chances with the ease of a master.”
Mannion scored 8 goals in 10 international appearances that season and his England team mate Stan Matthews was left to describe him as “the Mozart of football – stylish, graceful, courtly, showing exquisite workmanship with the ball,” after a scintillating performance in a 10-0 away win over Portugal. In total Mannion would play 26 times for England, scoring a highly creditable 11 goals, his final cap coming on 3 October 1951 in a 2-2 draw against France. His career was nearly cut short though after he refused to sign a new contract at Middlesbrough at the beginning of the 1948-49 season, having heard tales from his England team-mates of other clubs getting around the maximum wage then imposed on players with under the counter payments.
Middlesbrough were steadfast in their refusal to let him go with manager David Jack stating, “ Why should we let the best player in Britain go?” and telling the Sunday People that, “If Mannion won’t play for us, he will never play in League football again.” In those days the club effectively owned the player and even if a player was out of contract the club retained the registration meaning he could go nowhere else unless the club agreed.
Mannion continued with his refusal to sign a contract or play and as a result found himself overlooked for the England team selected to play Northern Ireland on 9 October 1948, a decision not greeted with universal approval. John Macadam of the Daily Express argued that, “all the fatuities about football being a team game and the team being greater that the individual were exploded sky-high by the performance of the England team at Belfast; exploded by the absence of one man – Wilfred Mannion;” Roy Peskett of the Daily Mail added, “By his temporary departure from football, Wilf Mannion has taken something from the England team that will be difficult to replace… In the two fixtures this season the England team has not shown the form which took them to the top of the international tree last season.”
Mannion complaining that he had enjoyed more freedom in the army was forced to accept a job in Oldham courtesy of an Oldham fan and businessman Frank Armitage, who hoped he would be able eventually to get Mannion as a player at Oldham. Middlesbrough tiring of the situation intimated that they would accept offers in the region of £30,000 for Mannion, but the player refused to be treated in a manner what he described as being treated like cattle at an auction and railed against the inflated transfer fee being asked stating that he would “refuse to sign for any club that pays, or even offers to pay, Middlesbrough over £12,000 for me.” Chairman of the Players’ Union Jimmy Guthrie gave Mannion his full support and said, “The transfer system as it is at present was evolved in the days of Alf Common. It just will not do today. We want a free market and none of this present restriction.”
Despite interest from Oldham, Villa, Everton and Arsenal, none of who met Middlesbrough’s valuation, the club and the player finally agreed to settle their differences as they were both feeling the effects of the stand-off. Not playing had cost Mannion £400 in lost wages, and it was widely assumed that the club had agreed to reimburse him as they had seen themselves struggle without him and lay fourth from bottom of the First Division. With everything settled and Mannion back in the side Middlesbrough climbed the table while Mannion himself won his place back in the England side.
That was not the last time Mannion was to be embroiled in controversy though. He retired from playing after Middlesbrough were relegated from the top division in 1954 and took a job as journalist with the Sunday People for whom he wrote a series of hard-hitting articles exposing corruption in football. Through the articles he alleged, amongst other things, that an unnamed club had offered him £3,000 for him to sign for them, and that another club had offered him a “in name-only” job as a salesman with a wage more than double the footballers’ maximum wage to supplement his players’ wages. In other articles he was scathing of England manager Walter Winterbottom’s ability as a coach.
This was all too much for the FA, and Mannion, who had been encouraged to come out of retirement by Second Division Hull in December 1954, was given a life-time ban from playing in the Football League when he refused to name the club he had written about who had tried to offer him money to sign (He was later to confess that it was Aston Villa). Writing in the Sunday People afterwards Mannion stated, “They used to call me the Golden Boy of soccer but I reckon the halo is a bit tarnished now. From now on I’ll be the Naughty Boy of soccer to the Football League. That’s all right by me. At least my case will serve as a warning to other professional players who try to tell the truth. You can whisper these things in the dressing-rooms; talk of them behind closed doors; but for goodness sake don’t let the public know. Sympathy was great for Mannion, and writing later about the matter Bill Shankly said that, “It is so sad to think back to the absolute atrocities that the authorities of the game did to him. They took away his livelihood”
Unable to play in the Football League Mannion appeared for a number of non-league clubs between 1954 and 1962, including Poole Town, Cambridge United, King’s Lynn, Havershill Rovers and Earlstown. He also ran a pub for a while, before joining the production line of the Vauxhall car plant in Luton. He eventually moved back to Teeside working for ICI and later labouring on building sites. While in Teeside he took a FA coaching course but found it impossible to find a job inside football, and in 1965 it was revealed that he had been forced to sell his England caps and was living on unemployment benefit.
He found some work in the 1970s when The Daily Mail employed him as a journalist, and financially things improved when Middlesbrough agreed to hold a testimonial match for him on 17 May 1983 against an England XI managed by Bobby Robson, who had always described Mannion as his footballing hero. A crowd of 13,710, over 3000 more than the season’s average, came to show their support.
Wilf Mannion died on 14 April 2000 at the age of 81, and his death was widely mourned. Thousands packed the streets as his funeral cortege made its way to Middlesbrough’s cathedral for a service attended by such footballing dignitaries as Nat Lofthouse, Tom Finney, Bert Williams, Bobby Robson, Bryan Robson, Peter Reid, Juninho, Jack Charlton, and Brian Clough who once said of Mannion “Wilf played football the way Fred Astaire danced.” Mannion is also commemorated by a statue at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, but he should be remembered not just for his football skills, but also for his courage in taking on the footballing authorities and club owners in an age when footballer’s rights to a fair wage and freedom of movement were extremely limited.