I missed playing alongside Nat Lofthouse by just a year – his final England game was in 1958 but I made my debut in 1959. The great man scored 30 goals in 33 internationals, and I’d like to think we might have formed quite a partnership had he been a few years younger. Nat’s death earlier this month will have devastated the people of Bolton because, apart from his outstanding goalscoring exploits, he was a genuine working class hero, a local lad who was born and raised in the town and a one-club Bolton Wanderers man. There have been very few players who have boasted quite the same status within a club or a town as Nat. Tom Finney, at Preston, is perhaps the only other one.
Nat lived alongside the people of Bolton, travelled to the match with the people of Bolton and drank beer with the people of Bolton. And in the Bolton Working Men’s Club, they’ve never had a roped-off VIP area full of tarts and champagne at £800 a bottle! Bolton truly was a town where men were men. For those they dismissed as “southern softies”, there was simply no more daunting place to visit than Burnden Park.
Bolton Wanderers were just horrible. Defenders like Big Derek Hennin and Bloody Massive John Higgins were the most physically and verbally intimidating I ever went up against. You may have seen the famous footage of Lofthouse literally barging Manchester United keeper Harry Gregg over the goal-line to score the clinching second goal in the 1958 FA Cup Final. Never mind the goal being disallowed, he’d have got a red card for it now. But Bolton played the game like that, pretty much from one to 11.
Remarkably, I went there once with Chelsea and won – and as we walked off the pitch I distinctly remember Big Derek telling Bloody Massive John “how the hell did we manage to get beaten by this bunch of ****ing pansies?” You just could not wait to get in the dressing room, lock the door, then get on the coach to Manchester and the train back to London.
Nat’s heroics were the subject of legend for any football-mad kid in my schooldays. One barnstorming performance against Austria in 1952 earned him his ‘Lion of Vienna’ nickname, and I know that one of his team-mates from that day was still talking about it in hushed tones to inspire us during the 1966 World Cup – a certain Alf Ramsey. Nat was a great battering ram centre forward, but to score the amount of goals he did required a lot more than just brute force.
Newcastle’s Andy Carroll is probably the nearest modern-day player to Lofthouse – in his physical stature, his playing style and his status as a local boy made good. The sad thing is that there is no way you can imagine Carroll, nor any other young player, enjoying that same life-long association with one club.
While every footballer has been toasting the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the maximum wage, we were also waving goodbye to the bygone age of hometown heroes such as Nat. Let’s face it, it was a little easier to be ‘loyal’ when there was no way of financially bettering yourself with a move. But whenever you went to Bolton for a match or a function, you would always see Nat there as honorary club president. If he’d worn a ten-gallon hat and a sheriff’s badge, you could not have been any more certain that Nat was THE man in that town – but he carried his lofty status with complete humility as well as pride. It was John Lennon who said “a working class hero is something to be”. He might have written that line about Nat Lofthouse.