The inside story of how Stoke City pulled off their greatest ever transfer

It was 59 years ago today that Stanley Matthews signed again for Stoke City and things were never the same again. Here is the story of how it came to pass.

On Saturday October 7, 1961, Stoke lost 3-0 at Leyton Orient to sink to 19th in the old Division Two.

The Potters had stopped in the capital after a 4-1 League Cup mauling at Charlton in mid-week. It was their ninth season outside the top flight and they were just two points outside the relegation zone.

No wonder Sentinel correspondent Norman Gosling was in a miserable mood as he sat down at Brisbane Road to file his match report.

“It was a poor day for Stoke,” he wrote, “with not a solitary bright light to blink through their defeat. Both in attack and defence, Stoke failed to raise a hope.”

But unbeknown to Gosling, there would be a positive to come out of this trip, and a pretty big one it was at that.

Manager Tony Waddington, was working furiously behind the scenes to pull off perhaps the most sensational transfer in the club’s history; the return of Stanley Matthews.

Waddington later recalled: “We were playing down in London and staying as usual at the Russell Hotel where, by coincidence, the Blackpool team were also staying.

“Stan was not turning out for them at the time, although he was with the team.

“I could see he was unsettled during a brief conversation and took it from there.

“Our chairman, Gordon Taylor, was down in London primarily because his horse, Concealdom, was running at Lingfield Park.

“I talked my way into the owners’ enclosure, much to Mr Taylor’s surprise, and he said: ‘Have a go for Stan if you like, but frankly I would not bet on your chances. Better have a bet on my horse.’

“Concealdom won by a mile, so I made a few quid and then started talks with Blackpool chairman Albert Hindley, who initially said he was not too bothered about a fee.

“Eventually we settled at £2,800, but at the board meeting the next day Hindley denied any knowledge of our agreement.”

Matthews had been promised a testimonial and a free transfer, but instead Blackpool were suddenly demanding a fee of £3,500.

It almost ended negotiations.

A director even told the player: “Just remember, we made you.”

An angry Matthews hit back, saying: “When I came here the club had a few hundred season ticket holders. Now it has over 12,000, so don’t tell me you made me.”

Waddington and Stoke director Albert Henshall persisted in their overtures and eventually coughed up the asking price, hoping it would be covered in increased gate receipts back in Stoke.

The 46-year-old winger was on his way home after 14 years.

“Stan’s wages were £30 at Blackpool. He was so keen to return he said he would sign the contract without even looking at the wages,” said Waddington, who gave him £50 a week.

“That was surprising at a time when Johnny Haynes was on £100-per-week at Fulham and a lot of players were starting to seek higher wages.

“Not many players would be prepared to commit themselves to that extent. Stan did not know his terms when he signed his contract.”

Stanley Matthews, the 46-year-old Blackpool and England winger, signs for Stoke City before BBC “Sportsview” television cameras in Manchester. Watching him are, from left, Eric Hayward, Blackpool’s assistant manager, Albert Henshall, the Stoke City chairman, and Tony Waddington, the Stoke City manager.

Matthews only had one stipulation: that the transfer had to be announced in the Sunday Express, where he featured with a weekly ghosted column.

Waddington said: “Stan even suggested the headline, ‘Matthews may sign tomorrow’. I retorted, ‘Make it Matthews WILL sign’ and he agreed.

“The signing was televised on BBC’s Sportsnight programme, one of the first transfers to be screened live on television.

“Even then one of the Blackpool directors said: ‘We are making a mistake. We have decided to keep him.’ I told him it was too late, and said Stan had signed before the television programme.

“That was not strictly true. He had only agreed verbally and the signing actually took place in front of the cameras, but the Blackpool board had accepted defeat.”

It was the signing of Matthews’ old Blackpool team-mate and close pal Jackie Mudie seven months previously that opened a route back for Matthews in the first place.

“Jackie added the most important contribution to our early survival (in Division Two in 1960-61),” said Waddington, “and, perhaps most important of all, the chance to sign Stan.

“He suggested that we ought to have a go again for Stan. Then Dennis Wilshaw contacted me to say Stan was playing in Canada and looked very fit, even at his age.

“Selling him in the first place must have been the biggest blunder of all time.”

Stanley Matthews is mobbed as he arrives back at the Victoria Ground for his second spell with Stoke City.
Stanley Matthews is mobbed as he arrives back at the Victoria Ground for his second spell with Stoke City.

The reaction to Matthews return was incredible, and Waddington decided to keep him out of an away trip to Plymouth in order to make his second debut in a home match.

The big day came against Huddersfield Town on October 28, when a crowd of 35,974 turned up to watch the returning hero inspire a 3-0 victory. That was 27,565 up on the attendance for a 1-1 draw with Preston at the Victoria Ground on October 14, the day before the Matthews deal was announced.

But the star attraction didn’t half give Matthews’ new manager a dose of the collywobbles as the terraces filled in the build-up to kick-off.

“Few people knew about the fear I had before the game when Stan appeared to have been taken violently ill,” explained Waddington.

“He spent most of the time in the bathroom being sick, and I must confess I was worried sick myself.

“It needed Mudie’s knowledge of Stan to set my mind at rest. He said it was normal practice for Stan to be like that. He explained Stan liked to get up any food he may not have digested properly earlier in the day.

Stanley Matthews’ second debut for Stoke City, against Huddersfield, after his return in 1961. The crowd for the previous home game had been 8,409.

Matthews injected a new belief into the club, and Stoke marched to the Division Two title and promotion in his first full season back at the Victoria Ground.

The old magic was still there, even if Waddington had to find an ingenious method to prepare his stage

“Stan preferred the surface to be soft,” he recalled. “That started the water treatment. We obtained some special anti-freeze liquid, and the fire brigade would come out and flood the pitch.

“I recall Stan walking from his hotel in Stoke to the ground in his brown suede shoes with thick heels followed by hordes of youngsters, like a modern-day pied piper.

“He would test the pitch as the water came up around his ankles and say: ‘It could do with a little more water, Tony.’

“The stuff we put on the pitch ruined the grass, but the lads were happy and we won promotion on it.”

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