THE FIRST TWENTY YEARS OF THE FWA FOOTBALLER OF THE YEAR
IN September 1947 Charles Buchan and three other journalists were returning by boat having just witnessed a 5-2 win for England over Belgium in Brussels. It was during the homeward journey that they decided to form an invitation-only Football Writers Association.
It was Buchan who suggested that the Association should give an annual award to ‘to the professional player who by precept and example is considered by a ballot of members to be the footballer of the year’. In effect, the idea was to choose players who were not just among the outstanding performers in the previous season but also played the game in ‘the right way’.
The inaugural winner of the award set out the criteria right from the start. Stanley Matthews and Blackpool reached the FA Cup Final where they lost 4-2 to Manchester United but there was little doubt that is was the Tangerines’ winger who had been the outstanding player that season. He had also been playing at the top for 15 years but had not yet claimed a major trophy.
The following year it was the winning skipper in that previous year’s final, Manchester United’s Irish wing-half and skipper Johnny Carey, who took the award. Carey had led his side to the runners-up spot behind Portsmouth in the league that season, one of four second-place finishes he captained them to before finally claiming the title three years later.
In 1950 Joe Mercer, who lifted the cup at Wembley after Arsenal had beaten Liverpool, took the crown. Mercer was another receiving the trophy in honour of a top-class career. He had been somewhat rescued by Arsenal after being cast aside at Everton and repaid the Gunners, showing great leadership and skill.
The following season saw a second Blackpool player taking the honour when Harry Johnston was given the award. Johnston was in the 17th year at Bloomfield Road and would retire in 1955 having played almost 400 league games for the Seasiders, his only professional club.
All four winners to date were past their 30th birthday at the time they lifted the statuette suggesting that the honour was being given for more than just the single season’s performance and more for a ‘body of work’.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and England captain Billy Wright was given the honour at the end of the 1951-52 season. Part of the decision to give the award to Wright might have been based on his unbeaten season as captain of England as Wolves, his club, had played through a moderate campaign which saw them finish in 16th place in the league and suffer a 4th round defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup.
The 1952-53 season featured the famous ‘Matthews Final’ and perhaps the most obvious choices would have been either Stan again or teammate Stan Mortensen who had scored a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers at Wembley. Instead the writers, perhaps not wanting to give a second award to the same man so soon, and not wishing to see a third Blackpool player take the trophy, gave it to Nat Lofthouse, a member of the Bolton team that so nearly took the trophy back to Burnden Park.
The parade of greats claiming the trophy continued the following season when the ‘Preston Plumber’, Tom Finney was chosen as the 1953-54 recipient. Giving the award to Finney was further proof that it wasn’t necessary to be member of a winning team to scoop the trophy. Finney was, like most on the list, a player admired by football fans whether or not he played for their own club.
Manchester Ciy’s Don Revie was given the statuette in 1955. City hadn’t come close to winning anything but Revie’s revolutionary new deep-lying centre forward role and tactical astuteness may have helped convince the voters.
In 1956 it was a second City winner in succession when Bert Trautmann’s heroics at Wembley, where he played on after suffering a broken neck and earned a cup winners’ medal, made it hard for the writers to look anywhere else than to the German when voting for it’s winner.
In 1957, Finney was nearing the end of his career at Preston and had played the last of 76 matches for England. He had an outstanding season for the Deepdale club and Bernard Joy handed over the trophy after the 35-year-old was voted in as the first two-time winner.
1957-58 was something of an outlier. Tottenham Hotspur had failed to come close to claiming either of the two domestic trophies but the FWA still chose the relatively young Danny Blanchflower making him the second Irishman to take the trophy, although unlike Dubliner Carey, Blanchflower came from the North. Perhaps as much as anyone on the list Blanchflower fit the profile the FWA were looking for. A thinking man’s footballer who played the game in what was considered the ‘right way’.
The 1958-59 season saw lowly Luton Town reach the Cup Final. They fought bravely at Wembley but were pipped to the trophy by Nottingham Forest. Veteran Syd Owen, in his final season as a player, took the award.
Bill Slater of Wolves chalked up another one for the vets taking the award after leading his team to the verge of the double in 1959-60. The Molineux men were pipped to the 1st Division title, finishing a point behind Burnley and then beat another Lancashire club, Blackburn Rovers, to lift the FA Cup.
Slater had been the last amateur to play in an FA Cup Final when he was in the Blackpool team that played Newcastle in the 1951 match, had played for Great Britain in the 1952 Summer Olympics and had then gone on the win three titles with Wolves
In 1960-61 Tottenham Hotspur won the double and, despite having won the award only three years before, the writers found it impossible to look beyond the massively influential Blanchflower who followed Tom Finney as the second two-time winner. Spurs had other greats who could conceivably have been given the trophy; the massively-influential Dave Mackay had played a big part in the team’s success whilst John White, whose life was to end so tragically just three years later also played a huge role. But so integral was Blanchflower to the team’s season that he was given a second statuette.
In the 1961-62 season Burnley completed their own double – of the ‘bridesmaid’ kind – finishing as runners up in both the league and the cup. It would surely have been nothing more than a small consolation when Clarets skipper Jimmy Adamson scooped the writers award. Another one-club man, Adamson had led Burnley to the first division title in 1959-60 and it was perhaps fitting that he should receive recognition.
The 1962-63 season saw the third two-time winner, this one 15 years after he first claimed the award. Stanley Matthews, holder of the inaugural statuette, took it again after returning to his first club, Stoke, and inspiring them to promotion back to the first division. Matthews richly deserved his second trophy and also became the first man to be voted as Footballer of the Year with two different teams.
Having led West Ham to victory in the FA Cup final and taken over as captain of England, Bobby Moore must have been a fairly simple choice in 1964. Moore had already proven himself as a leader and his calm, measured style of play clearly fit the voters’ ideals in choosing their winners.
After the 1964-65 season the choice wasn’t quite so straight forward. In the end the writers picked their first-ever Scottish winner when giving the award to Bobby Collins of Leeds United. At 34, Collins was coming to the end of a fine career with Celtic, Everton and Leeds, and his team had fallen just short – similar to Adamson’s three years prior – of claiming both domestic major honours, having finished runners-up to Manchester United in the league and lost the FA Cup Final to Liverpool.
The choice of Bobby Charlton in 1965-66 was probably one of the easiest the writers had to make, despite both domestic honours going to Merseyside clubs. Charlton’s performances, including those for England were consistently superb and within a few short months he would play a major role in his country’s World Cup success.
In 1966-67 it was kept in the family, brother Jack Charlton following Bobby in claiming the statuette after, again, a fine campaign for both club Ialthough Leeds had finished the campaign in a slightly disappointing 4th place) and country including, of course, being a member of that World Cup winning side.
In 1967-68 it was time for the younger generation at last. George Best proved that his popularity wasn’t confined to youngsters, and his displays in inspiring Manchester United to European Cup victory no doubt proved the clincher among any voters who might have been looking elsewhere.
Our second part of this look back at the award winners comes next week, and starts with the first – and still only – joint winners, and will end as overseas players make their mark in a big way!