Nat Lofthouse – An England and Bolton Wanderers legend

The passing of Nat Lofthouse is an appropriate point at which to pay tribute to the man’s achievements and his legacy. Not only was he Bolton Wanderers’ highest ever goalscorer as well as their greatest ever player, he remains England’s sixth highest scorer as well as being seventh in terms of strikes in the history of England’s top division. In that regard, he belongs in the same company as other great domestic and international strikers from these shores such as Steve Bloomer, Dixie Dean, Jimmy Greaves and Alan Shearer. However, it was not merely the goals and the accolades which make him a football legend, but the competitive spirit which he embodied, and his loyalty to the Trotters for two decades having signed as an apprentice at 14.Every kind word said about the man, as well as his footballing honours and OBE, is richly deserved.

Like many of his era, the beginning of Lofthouse’s football career was stalled by the ongoing events of World War Two, during which he worked as a Bevin Boy in Mossley Colliery. These were of course times of hardship and rationing, and it was this hard graft that bred characters who could shrug off life’s setbacks and get on with it. Such an outlook was to typify Nat’s play on the field, with a fearless approach towards the physical aspect of the game along with an understanding that sometimes one would be on the receiving end of rough treatment from opposing defenders. Never was this determination more evident than in England’s 2-3 victory in Austria on 25 May 1952. That he injured himself scoring the winning goal mattered not to Lofthouse, who commented later: “We won the game. That’s all that mattered – England won.” He would rightly and appropriately acquire the nickname ‘the Lion of Vienna’ for his performance in the face of what could best be described as rugged defending, and his 30 goals in 33 games for his country is an outstanding record in any era.

Of course he was fortunate to be playing centre forward in a side that had Sir Tom Finney and Sir Stanley Matthews operating on either flank, and Nat’s humility shone through when he described his game as an ability to “run, shoot and head.” Of course he was better than he gave himself credit for, as for every pinpoint ball into the penalty area, the team requires a man who can hit an instinctive shot or bravely compete for a header. Lofthouse’s swiftness off the mark and anticipation of the break of the ball were also understated, possibly as his aerial prowess and undeniable bravery were such obvious trademarks. Finney himself paid this tribute to his former England team-mate, “He was a very strong player, great in the air, very powerful. Once in possession, he was very difficult to knock off the ball.” In domestic football, he was the mainstay of a Bolton side that had mixed fortunes in the post-war years, often in the bottom half of the First Division. Having scored 18 goals in each of his first two seasons, he managed to break the 15 barrier on 11 separate occasions, 20 goals or more five times, 25 on three occasions, and a mammoth 32 in the 1955/56 season during which he was the First Division’s top goalscorer. He was also Footballer of the Year in 1952/53.

Lofthouse will also be remembered for his two FA Cup Final appearances, in which he captained the club that meant so much to him. Having scored in every round of the 1953 competition including the final, he was unfortunate to be on the losing side in the ‘Matthews final’ that was settled at the death by a strike from Bill Perry. Wanderers were of course successful five years later, with the second of Nat’s brace in the final the subject of controversy. The goalkeeper on the receiving end of that shoulder charge, Harry Gregg summed it up when he said:“I’d given out a few smacks in my time, some intentionally some unintentionally, so when it’s your turn you don’t complain.” That the two remained friends afterwards speaks volumes about the context in which that goal was scored. This was a period in which the physical aspect of the game was deemed to be as important as the technical one, and the ability to compete and take one’s knocks was taken as a given.

Nat Lofthouse was a truly formidable player this era, and this writer has always agreed with the analysis of man from another sport. Richie Benaud once stated that: “A great from one era would be a great in any other” and Lofthouse certainly comes into this category. A courageous and tireless worker who appeared not to know the meanings of the words ‘quit’ or ‘complain’ he was the type of man as well as the calibre of player that one would want leading their line.

Nat Lofthouse – Honours

Footballer of the Year 1953
First Division Top Goalscorer 1955/56 (32 goals)
FA Cup Winner 1958
British Home Internationals winner 1953/54, 1954/55

Order of the British Empire (OBE) 1994
English Football Hall of Fame (2002)

Career

Bolton 1946-1960 – 285 goals in 452 appearances
England 1950-1958 – 30 goals in 33 appearances

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