The Potteries came to a standstill the day that Sir Stanley Matthews took his final journey 20 years ago today.
Reporter Martin Spinks, who was on duty for the Sentinel that emotional day, recalls the sights and sounds as the city’s favourite son was laid to rest.
It was Stoke-on-Trent’s very own state funeral, the day a city came to a standstill in homage to the late, great Sir Stanley Matthews.
Tens of thousands of people lined the 12-mile route taken by the funeral cortege on Friday, March 3, 2000, a week after the Wizard had died at the age of 85.
Footballing royalty mixed with mourning supporters in paying tribute to a homegrown hero.
Sir Tom Finney, Gordon Banks, Nat Lofthouse and Sir Bobby Charlton were honoured with the task of being pall bearers outside Stoke’s St Peter’s Church.
“I think this whole occasion,” said World Cup-winner Banks, “has been a credit to the people and the city of Stoke-on-Trent.
“We have given him a marvellous send off and it is a day we shall not forget here in Stoke.”
Indeed, the city had done him proud, just as he had always done his city proud.His final journey was a poignant farewell to the landmarks defining his great life.
The cortege paused outside his old school, St Luke’s in Hanley, where more than 400 children stood in silence.
“He never forgot his old school,” said head teacher Michael Hampton, “and would come and visit whenever he could.”
The cortege passed along Penkhull New Road under gloomy skies and then, during a 40-second stop outside his home, it began pouring with rain.
“It’s tears from heaven,” remarked one onlooker.
The Victoria Ground, a backdrop to so many Matthews headlines over the years, was but a scrap of wasteland to the naked eye by the year 2000.
But it was matchday again, it seemed, as thousands stood dutifully along the streets and grass banks leading up to the site of the old ground to accompany the cortege beneath unforgiving skies.“Come on Stan,” fans shouted.
And on the site of the old centre spot lay a tribute which read: “This is it Stan, this is where it started. From the people of Stoke you will never be parted.”
John Price, who was among those watching the coffin pass by, adorned with red and white carnations, commented: “Stoke was in Stanley Matthews’ blood and there was nothing that could compare to watching him fly down the wing with everybody cheering him on.”
The Britannia Stadium, the Potters’ shiny new home, also doffed its cap in reverence. A mass of floral tributes had begun gathering since news of his passing first broke, while shirts bearing the colours of clubs from far and wide were laid to rest or tied to bollards.
Thousands had filed in to take their place in the main stand to applaud the cortege’s lap of honour around the pitch.
Pensioner Tommy Wood, fresh from a four-and-a-half hour train journey from Plymouth, said: “He put Stoke on the map and I know that fans of other teams look up to him as the best player in the world.”
The centre of Hanley also held its breath as the cortege passed the original Matthews statue outside the Potteries Shopping Centre.
Mavis Mayer, among those in the heart of Hanley that day, observed: “It takes a sad day for everybody to come together and this is a very sad day.”
Dianne Gibbons MBE, one of many Sentinel reporters deployed to cover the events of that moving day, described how the roof of the hearse was smothered with tulips and daffodils thrown by fans.
“It was a quite extraordinary day, a day like no other,” she wrote. “It was a day you wanted to be at the very heart of – to be part of a legend Potteries folk will never see again.”
St Peter’s Church, in the heart of Stoke, was the centrepiece for a day of mourning and celebration.
A crowd estimated at around two-and-a-half thousand, most of which was stretching for just the merest view, burst into spontaneous applause as the cortege drew up outside the main gate some 10 minutes before the service was due to begin.
Along with the pall bearers – Messrs Finney, Banks, Lofthouse and Charlton – there was Sir Stan’s old Blackpool team-mate Jimmy Armfield, England World Cup winner Jack Charlton, former Stoke greats Denis Smith, Terry Conroy and Mike Pejic, ex-player and manager Chris Kamara, then manager Gudjon Thordarson and the club captain Nicky Mohan.
There, too, was former FA chief executive and Blackpool supporter Graham Kelly, Sports Minister Kate Hoey, PFA chief Gordon Taylor, another former Stoke City player in Garth Crooks, and Potteries-born TV personality Nick Hancock.
After the service, Terry Conroy observed: “Sir Stan was very much a man of the people and so I am particularly pleased that people outside the church and in the city were able to share the service with those of us privileged to be inside.”
Mike Pejic added: “The turnout shows what people think about him even now and what a great man he was. He was the best.”
Jack Charlton recalled: “I knew Stan from my early 20s and for some reason he took a shine to me. I would often have a cup of tea with Stan and his wife whenever I was in Stoke.
“And you won’t believe this, but he even brought me breakfast in bed on one occasion when I was staying at a hotel here in Stoke. He was a truly lovely man.”
Speaking after the service, Charlton’s tearful brother Bobby added: “It was a lovely service and it did Stan’s memory proud. I thought the whole thing was a great tribute to the man. He was eternal.”
There was one significant postscript to the day, of course, but it would remain secret for several years after the great man’s demise.
Only close family and select club officials knew where Sir Stan’s ashes were buried after his cremation. They were sworn to secrecy, but rumour eventually became fact when it was revealed they had been buried deep beneath the centre circle at the Britannia Stadium.
Then chief executive Jez Moxey said: “We spoke long and hard with the family before deciding to keep the ceremony private.
“We all felt nothing could top the funeral service which sent Sir Stan off in style and, as he was a private man, it was only fitting the burial was a private family occasion.
“The ceremony was very moving and it is wonderful to know he will be with us forever.”
A statue, revered as one of the best in football, was installed behind the Boothen End and overlooking the city the following year, unveiled by Kevin Keegan.