Sir Tom Finney is widely regarded as one of the greatest English footballers of all time and rightly lauded as a loyal servant of his home town club, Preston North End. Yet it could all have been very different had it not been for the intervention of the Preston chairman in summer 1952.
Finney had to wait until the age of 24 to make his professional debut for North End due to the disruption of the Second World War. His bow was much-anticipated; Finney had already built a formidable reputation playing football around Europe with the Armed Forces at the tail end of the conflict. Remarkably, just twenty-eight days after his league debut, he made his first appearance in the white of England’s national team.
Finney’s abundant talents were a shining light in an often-mediocre Preston side that lurched between First and Second Divisions during the early part of his career. He was accomplished with both feet, a scorer of goals and a creator of goals who was at home anywhere across the forward line. Despite his brilliance, Finney’s weekly earnings were capped by the Football League’s maximum wage (£14 in 1951), so he continued to run a plumbing and electrical business on the side, giving rise to the “Preston Plumber” moniker.Embed from Getty Images
In May 1952, the President of Palermo Football Club, Prince Raimondo Lanza di Trabia, travelled to Florence to watch Italy take on England in a friendly international. The hypnotic dribbling of the visitors’ diminutive outside right made quite an impression on the President – and three months later he launched an ambitious bid to bring Finney to Sicily.
Palermo offered Preston £30,000 for the services of 29-year-old Finney, a sum close to the prevailing world transfer record. Finney himself was invited by Palermo to name his price – and was eventually offered a £10,000 signing-on fee, whilst the two-year contract on the table entitled him to £130 per month, plus bonuses, a car and a villa. It was scarcely believable; here was a humble Lancashire plumber being offer unimaginable riches and an exotic lifestyle by a mysterious Italian aristocrat.
Finney was eager to accept the offer, but it was a mark of the times that the decision ultimately lay not with the player but with Preston’s hierarchy. Chairman Nat Buck was at pains to avoid the difficult situation of blocking the transfer of his star player, so he attempted to talk Finney out of it. When it became clear Finney had already made up his mind, an extraordinary board meeting was called.
Preston’s board were steadfast in their refusal of the transfer. This prompted Palermo to make a counter-proposal that would see Finney move to Italy on a one-year loan before returning to North End. This temporary loan arrangement ventured into uncharted territory and would have required an exceptional ruling from the English FA. In order to sway that decision, Palermo signalled their willingness to release Finney for England internationals. But it was all to no avail as Preston once again flatly refused the offer.
“We still refuse to let Finney go, whatever the offer” Buck definitively declared.
And that was that. A deferential Finney accepted the decision and signed a new contract, going on to make a total of 433 appearances for his home town club.
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