Goal.com's Top 50 English Players: Wilf Mannion (40)

Goal.com are counting down England's greatest players of all time and at number 40 is one of England's greatest players of the immediate post-war years, Wilf Mannion...
No.50 - John Terry
No.49 - Tony Currie
No.48 - Terry Butcher
No.47 - Gerry Hitchens
No.46 - Paul Ince
No.45 - George Camsell
No.44 - Wayne Rooney
No.43 - Jackie Milburn
No.42 - Roger Hunt
No.41 - Rio Ferdinand

Born16/5/1918, Teesside
England26 caps, 11 goals
Middlesbrough, Hull City

Wilf Mannion's story is a classic case of a footballing genius born at least half a century too early for his unique talent as a crowd pleaser to have been adequately rewarded. Instead of earning a comfortable living as a sporting icon, Mannion's career was blighted by conflict and controversy, rebellion and recrimination. He emerged from humble orgins, and returned to grinding poverty - but only after illuminating the football firmament as one of England's brightest stars, and securing his place as Middlesbrough's greatest ever player.

The inside-forward who became known as ‘Golden Boy' in the 1940s because of his dazzling skills and distinctive blond hair, was born Wilfred James Mannion on 16 May 1918, in South Bank, a shipbuilding community next to Middlesbrough on Teesside. The son of an Irish immigrant who worked at the local blast furnace, Wilf was one of five brothers and five sisters.

He loved nothing better than playing football on wasteground in South Bank, later recalling that, "We'd play with anything: cans, rag balls, we'd even get a pig's bladder from the butchers and if you could control that, you were a ruddy genius." They would play on any surface, however rough or bumpy. Such challenges helped him develop his ball control and dribbling skills.

In 1925, aged 13, he played in a North versus Midlands trial for England Schoolboys at Durham but, despite impressing, was told that he would not be selected because, at only 4ft 2in tall, he was deemed so small he might get hurt.


Playing the Rest of Europe
At 14 he left school and became an apprentice welder at Smith's Dock, soon leaving to work in a rolling mill, but all the while playing football for South Bank St. Peter's in the local leagues until, in  September 1936, he signed for Middlesbrough on wages of £3 10s (£3.50) a week, with a £2 bonus for playing in a first-team win. After impressing in the reserves, he made his first-team debut in January 1937 when the regular inside-right was injured. Still small (he never topped 5ft 5in, but was stocky), it was clear he had exceptional ball craft and a footballing brain.

The following season he became a regular in Boro's first-team, scoring in his first two games and soon becoming a target for some rough handling by opposition defenders unhappy about being made to look foolish. Jimmy Seed, manager of Charlton Athletic, observed, "Mannion is a marvel. I've never seen a boy take the ball away from experienced players in such tantalising fashion as this one." Matt Busby, then a Scotland international wing-half with Liverpool, admitted that Mannion had given him the run-around and described him as "Wonder Boy".

His fame was spreading, and against Blackpool in December 1938, Mannion scored four goals and made a few more as Boro won 9-2. That season (1938-39), Middlesbrough scored 93 goals and finished fourth in the First Division, the youngster striking up a formidable partnership with George Camsell.

Then, like many others, Mannion was robbed of the prime years of his footballing career by the outbreak of the Second World War. In January 1940 he joined the Green Howards, a North Yorkshire-based infantry regiment of the British Army, serving as a front line soldier. He was sent to France and took part in the battle to stop the advance of the German Army during the Western Offensive. Although a local newspaper reported that Mannion had been killed in action, he was actually one of those evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940.

"it would be great if i could get a chance to see a clip of Mannion playingl he sounded like an incredible player. thx for this article." - ceech | a port
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Back in England, he was selected to play for his country in an unofficial international against Scotland in January 1942, the first of four wartime games he played for England that did not carry full international status. But he was soon posted to South Africa, and in July 1943 was part of the force that invaded Sicily in an attempt to overthrow Benito Mussolini. His commanding officer was Hedley Verity, the Yorkshire and England cricketer, and Mannion later recalled, "I remember we lost half the company that day. We were pinned down all day by the enemy. Hedley was caught in the crossfire and hit in the chest. He was a wonderful man and I was his company runner for a number of years. We served together all over the place."

Mannion also fought in the battles around Anzio on the way to take Rome, but his battalion suffered such losses that it was eventually withdrawn so that it could be reorganised and reinforced. Bertie Mee, who would later manage Arsenal to the League and Cup Double in 1970-71, served with Mannion, and reported that Wilf had taken such a pounding that he'd been downgraded medically and withdrawn from active service suffering from shell-shock, having lost comrades either side of him in the line. He was sent to Cairo to recover but almost immediately developed malaria.

Yet, despite his traumatic wartime experiences, Mannion had fully recovered by the start of the 1946-47 season, when English League football resumed. Indeed, his form was such that he was awarded his first full international cap in September 1946, scoring a hat-trick as England beat Northern Ireland 7-2. 

Mannion retained his place in the England attack and scored eight goals in eight internationals that season. After a 10-0 victory over Portugal in May 1947, Billy Steel, the Scotland inside-forward who watched the game, commented, "Wilf had a field day. He certainly caused chaos. That is typically Mannion, always plotting and scheming to get results the easy way and what is easier than two short passes leaving a player free to shoot at goal." Legendary England winger Stanley Matthews said, "In that game, it was the best forward line I played in. They were all so skilful - wonderful players," adding of Mannion that he "was the Mozart of football - stylish, graceful, courtly, showing exquisite workmanship with the ball".

Centre-forward Tommy Lawton said, "There is no question about it - Wilf was a genius. He had a football player's brain to start with - one which didn't need to be coached. He was quicksilver in his thought. Every time he passed you knew you had bags of time to play the ball... The ability was there, the desire was there and the confidence was there. He used to give you the ball at the right time and would always be in the right place to get it back again." And Tom Finney, who also played against Portugal, commented, "Wilf Mannion was a class-act, the inside-forward I rated as my perfect partner on the left-flank. He could have taught telepathy and had the uncanny knack of getting the ball to you at just the right angle and with just the right pace."

One of Wilf's greatest performances was in Glasgow, in May 1947, when he scored twice in Great Britain's 6-1 win against the Rest of Europe.

Mannion had an appreciation of his worth, and it was more than Middlesbrough were paying him, which - in the era of the maximum wage - was £12 a week in the season and £10 a week in the summer, with a £2 win and £1 draw bonus. Mannion was aware that some clubs offered players sinecure 'jobs' and other perks that circumvented the regulations as inducements to get them to sign. And in 1947 he shocked Middlesbrough by seeking a move to Third Division Oldham Athletic. He planned to play and run a business at the same time, an option unavailable to him at First Division Middlesbrough.

Boro responded by setting a prohibitive transfer fee that neither Oldham nor any other club could meet. Their manager, David Jack, said, "Even if we were given a cheque for £50,000 we would not transfer Mannion. Why should we let the best player in Britain go?"

The rules then governing the registration of players allowed clubs to retain an out-of-contract player against his wishes, a situation that persisted until George Eastham successfully challenged it in the courts in 1963. "Against this soccer serfdom, even the Army seemed to be a haven of freedom," said Mannion.

Relations between himself and Boro soured, and in 1948 he staged a one-man strike in an attempt to secure his release, refusing to sign a new contract. That meant he was ineligible to play for England, making him effectively an outcast. Eventually, the impoverished Mannion backed down.

In his absence, Boro had slipped to fourth from bottom of the First Division. But once he was reinstated, results began to improve and they managed to avoid the drop that season. He enjoyed five more seasons of top-flight football with Boro, and in 1950 played in his one and only World Cup. It was an ill-fated excursion to Brazil, where, in the newly-built Maracana stadium, he scored one of England's goals in their 2-0 win over Chile, but also featured in the next game, when they were sensationally beaten 1-0 by a scratch United States team in Belo Horizonte.

When Middlesbrough were relegated at the end of the 1953-54 season, Mannion decided to call it a day. He had scored 110 goals in 368 games for Middlesbrough, and 11 times in 26 internationals for England. His most prolific League season with Boro was in 1952-53, when he scored 19 goals in 41 games.

Despite having retired in 1954, he decided to make a comeback with Hull City on December 24 that year. However, he had written a series of articles for newspapers in which he'd made a number of contentious statements. He'd exposed corruption in football, claiming that a League club had illegally offered him £3,000 to sign for them, that he had also been offered extra money for "a job in name only as a salesman", and that he'd been offered £15,000 to join Juventus. In another article he attacked the incompetence of the England selectors and the coaching of then England manager Walter Winterbottom. The Football League challenged him to substantiate the claims about illegal payments, and when he refused he was banned for life and never played league football again, though the life ban was subsequently lifted.

In 1956 he joined Cambridge United of the Eastern Counties League, retiring again in  1958. He had a spell running a pub in Stevenage, and in February 1960 joined the production line of the Vauxhall car plant in Luton. Nine months later he became manager of non-league Earlestown, but in October 1962 they went bankrupt, Mannion was sacked and he returned to Teesside to work for ICI and later as a labourer on building sites.

The man once described by England team-mate (and later World Cup winning manager) Alf Ramsey as the "greatest soccer brain in modern football...in a class of his own as a skilful strategist", had truly fallen on hard times.

However, Middlesbrough belatedly staged a joint testimonial match with George Hardwick for Mannion on May 17, 1983. Hardwick and Mannion are commemorated by a statue each at the Riverside Stadium, behind the old iron gates from Ayresome Park, where both played in their prime.

On April 14, 2000, Wilf Mannion died in hospital, at the age of 81. He was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2004 in recognition of his impact on the game in England.


Represented England in the 1950 World Cup, and Great Britain against the Rest of Europe in 1947.
Inductee of the English Football Hall of Fame.

DID YOU KNOW ... That another former Boro hero, Brian Clough, idolised Mannion, saying of him, ‘Wilf played football the way Fred Astaire danced'.

Graham Lister, Goal.com

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