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Legends of Club Football: Nat Lofthouse

Lofthouse lifting the FA Cup in 1958. In 1997 when Bolton Wanderers opened their new Reebok Stadium, the East Stand was named in his honour.

Only a few clubs spread across the world can boast of a player who has not only been born and bred in, but has also spent his entire career at the club, and made a deep impact while being there. Present stats reveal that players are swayed more by glamour than loyalty, which leaves a few privileged clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United to boast of such players. Ryan Giggs, Iker Casillas, Paul Scholes and Steve Harper are the popular names that ring a bell in this regard. However, the footballing fan world is completely oblivious to  players who have shed the limelight and stayed away from the media frenzy.

Nat Lofthouse is a classic example of such a player.

Lofthouse is probably the only player that Bolton have ever had who stayed through the club through thick and thin, although in all fairness he played in the club’s ‘Golden Era’ of football, which saw Bolton perform exceedingly well. Lofthouse became associated with the club as a 14-year-old, when  World War I was just round the corner. He was a classic example of a traditional centre forward, one who is generally not found in today’s era.

Lofthouse came across as a  player who resembled the present day marvel comics hit Iron Man. With high tensions in Europe and the World War around the corner, Lofthouse gained his physique courtesy of his work in the mines of his beloved hometown during the course of World War II, an experience described as:

“Up at 3.30 am, catching the 4.30 tram to work, eight hours down the pit pushing tubs, collected by the team coach, playing for Bolton”

- Dean Hayes, in his book ‘Bolton Wanderers’

Throughout his career, Lofthouse enjoyed the company of great players such as Tom Finney and captain Harry Goslin, who lost his life in Italy courtesy of the World War. During his first few years at the club, Lofthouse could do just three things, the basic requirements for league football at that time. He could run, head and shoot, and these qualities were further polished by then trainer George Taylor. Even after his retirement, when he interacted with the media, he’d always humbly credit Taylor for his illustrious and long career.

“Lofthouse’s particular genius was that he prospered because, after a stern lecture by Taylor, he worked so hard on the three things he did well that he learned to do them even better. He delivered.”

- Goals Galore

Despite his on-field qualities, Lofthouse came across as a modest, humble and level-headed man. He did not marry a celebrity like Victoria Beckham, get caught in spats with players and managers like Carlos Tevez or try to be the centre of paparazzi gossip like John Terry and Ryan Giggs. He did have one trait that he shares with Wayne Rooney – his commitment, strength and fitness to get through 90 minutes week in-week out, in a time when there were inferior training facilities and substitution of players was not allowed.

The skipper is held on the shoulders of his team mates after Bolton win the 1958 FA Cup. Lofthouse scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Manchester United.

Lofthouse is a player who has one of the better ratios in terms of appearances and goals, with a goal almost each time he played for England. It is a general notion with club managers that a defender is bigger, more muscular and stronger than the strikers he possesses, but Lofthouse defied that with his superior physique compared to many of the defenders in an era of football when the game was played the hard way; an era which gave fans the opportunity to notice the character of the players they were watching.

Lofthouse was popularly dubbed the ‘Lion Of Vienna’, a fitting name given to him upon his brace scored against Austria in Vienna, a game in which England prevailed 3-2 victors. His reaction to the dubbing was one of modesty, which illustrated his humility and respect for his opponent; a trait which led him to give it his all every time he stepped on to the grass.

Despite being elbowed in the head, fouled, and brought down by the Austrian goalkeeper, he stayed on the pitch and scored the winning goal. Later in the same season he scored 6 goals for the Football League in a 7-1 victory over the Irish League. The next year he was named the FWA Footballer of the Year.

His humility was also seen when he was hailed a ‘Lion Heart’ by the British soldiers who survived the War.

Lofthouse crashed into goalkeeper Harry Gregg, knocking him unconscious and into the goal (pictured below). Shoulder barging the keeper with the ball was legal then, and the incident partly contributed to a change in the laws.

Lofthouse rose to fame in the 1958 FA Cup final for both the right and wrong reasons.

The final was played against a grieving Manchester United, who had lost their Busby Babes in Munich that season. However, the survivors – Denis Violet, Harry Gregg, Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes (who captained the team on the day) had marked a personal achievement by making it to Wembley. With Sir Matt Busby watching from the stands, Lofthouse put in an inspired performance against a weakened United by scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory in which he was nigh unstoppable against a hapless United defence without the services of the deceased Duncan Edwards, Jackie Blanchflower (who was alive but would never play again), Eddie Coleman, Roger Byrne and others.

His second goal, however, was the infamous knock on Harry Gregg, which sent the strong and hard goal-keeper tumbling into the back of the net, an incident that will live in infamy.

The goal was given to Lofthouse, and he was named Man of the Match for that game. This incident only illustrated his strength, as the collision with Gregg left him rather badly injured, and yet he continued to soldier on. But so bad was the degree of the injury that he was eventually removed from play on a stretcher, weeping as he went off.

This was truly a defining moment which highlighted his character and passion for the game.

Lofthouse made his international debut at the age of 26 in 1950, and won his last cap in 1958. He scored 30 goals in 33 games.

Lofthouse won 33 international caps, his 30 goals giving him one of the best goals-to-games ratios in England’s history, and he was also awarded an OBE for his services.

Lofthouse’s commitment to Bolton Wanderers reminds us how commercial football has become today. He proved he was not money-minded. In fact, he was overwhelmed when he signed his first contract for the club with the amount of money they had to offer.

“His signing-on fee when he joined Bolton in 1939 was £10 – he’d never seen so much money before and nearly fainted when he was given a pair of white five pound notes.” 

- Paul Simpson (UEFA Champions League Magazine editor and renowned British columnist and blogger) 

Football lost one of its greatest icons when Lofthouse passed away on the 15th of January, 2011, at the age of 85, a time in which Owen Coyle had led Bolton Wanderers to an FA Cup semifinal.

BOLTON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 24: Floral tributes to the late Nat Lofthouse are seen during the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea at the Reebok Stadium on January 24, 2011 in Bolton, England.

Coyle vowed to win the game for Lofthouse, a promise that would never become reality as they were eliminated by Manchester City and relegated the following season to the Npower Championship.

However, nobody will forget what Nat Lofthouse gave them in the past, and the fact that Owen Coyle and Kevin Davies still remember him fondly just sums up how much he was respected, loved and worshipped by both players and fans.

“The name Nathaniel comes from a Hebrew word which means “God has given”. Luckily for Bolton, England and football, Lofthouse was never content to rely on what God had given him”. 

- Paul Simpson

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