BY Vince Cooper
ALTHOUGH he earned a great deal of his reputation, and indeed his nickname, for one performance, Nat Lofthouse, ‘The Lion of Vienna’ was a tremendous servant for his country for eight years, bagging 30 goals in just 33 games, and for his club for over 30 years. He was probably the last of the ‘old fashioned’ centre forwards, leading the line with toughness, taking plenty of knocks and giving them out too.
The youngest of four sons, Nathaniel Lofthouse was born in Bolton on 27 August 1925. His father, Robert, was a coal bagger and head horse keeper for the Bolton Corporation but once his footballing skills come to the fore it was quickly apparent that there was no way Nat would be following in Dad’s footsteps full time.
Having played his first organised game as an emergency goalkeeper for his older brother’s school team, conceding seven times and upsetting his Mum by playing in a new pair of shoes (he would later redeem himself by cleaning them ‘as good as new’), he quickly moved into attack his more natural position, due to his size, and established himself as the star centre forward for Castle Hill school. There have been many claims that Lofthouse and Tommy Lawton went to the same school but in fact Lawton went to nearby Folds Road.
Nonetheless Lawton’s legend was cemented locally and Nat became a huge fan, often travelling to Goodison Park to watch him play for Everton.
Lofthouse was chosen to represent Bolton schools against Bury. Promised a new bike if he scored a hat-trick in the match he actually went four better, getting all the goals in a 7-1 win, establishing himself as one to watch.
Next in line was a trial for Lancashire schools. Returning on the bus after the game he was shocked to find Tommy Lawton waiting for him. “We were introduced and I stood there tongue-tied”, Nat would later recall. “he said to me ‘always try to bang in one or two and remember, it’s goals that count’. I could only nod like a dim-wit”
It didn’t take long for Lofthouse to start getting attention from professional clubs and in 1939 at the age of just 14 he was persuaded by Bolton Wanderers manager Charles Foweraker to sign for his local club with a little help from another important man in the city.
The Mayor of Bolton, Alderman Entwhistle who was also a director of the club approached the youngster and asked him to sign and, along with the manager they managed to stop the local lad from leaving town although as he had already been a regular spectator at Burnden Park. Scot Foweraker, who started at the club as a gateman when the ground opened in 1895, had taken over as manager in 1919 and would go on to serve Wanderers for an outstanding 49 years, 25 as boss.
Like many aspiring youngsters one of Nat’s early jobs at the club was cleaning the boots of the senior pros and he always paid special attention to those of star forward Ray Westwood, one of the players he had cheered from the sideline when a star-struck spectator.
Lofthouse received a £10 signing-on fee and put pen to paper for Bolton on 4 September 1939 the day after Britain had declared war on Germany causing the abandonment of the Football League season.
Wanderers gave the then 15-year-old his debut on 14 March 1941 in a wartime match with Bury again providing the opposition. Two goals in a 5-1 win gave a taste of what was the come.
Although he was too young for military service Nat did his bit for the war effort, being one of three members of the 35-strong Bolton playing staff to work as a Bevin Boy and coal miner (the other 32 all joined the armed forces – mostly signing up for the 53rd Bolton Field Regiment – almost immediately after war broke out signed).
He later admitted that the experience in the mines helped his football career saying that his stint; “helped toughen me both physically and mentally. Pushing the ‘tubs’ made me fitter than I had ever been before. My body became firmer and harder, I learned to take hard knocks without feeling them”.
He continued playing for Bolton throughout the war and on Saturdays would wake at 3:30 a.m. go to his mining job at 4:30 a.m and work for eight hours before going on to play for his club. Lofthouse would later say; “The miners of Britain are the finest fellows in the world”.
Prior to Lofthouse’s arrival on the scene Wanderers had relied on former Spurs star George Hunt for the majority of their goals. Once Lofthouse arrived Hunt moved to right-half and was later transferred to Sheffield Wednesday.
In his autobiography ‘Goals Galore’ Lofthouse was fulsome in his praise of Hunt, whose nickname was ‘The Chesterfield Tough’. He said: “I would have an hour or two off to receive coaching from George and firmly believe that these private coaching sessions played a big part in my advancement.
“George Hunt, who was a very fine centre forward himself, [He won 3 England caps scoring once and netted 169 times in 294 games in a war-interrupted playing career] and he possesses the rare ability to pass on to youngsters his own deep knowledge of the game.
“Out on the pitch at Burnden Park I learned more from George in an hour than I could from most people in a year”.
In 1945 19-year-old Nat played a big part as Wanderers captured the War Cup (North). They overcame Southport (Lofthouse got a hat-trick), Accrington Stanley (where he scored twice), Blackpool (where he hit five over the two legs), Newcastle (three more for Lofthouse) and Wolves, where he shockingly failed to score, before beating Manchester United 3-2 on aggregate in the final. There Lofthouse got the only goal of the first match.
There was then a ‘Cup Winners Cup’ played between the winners of the North and South tournaments. This was a one-off and Bolton came from behind to get the better of Chelsea 2-1 at Stamford Bridge with goals from Hunt and Lol Hamlett. Although he failed to score in the ‘Cup Winners Cup match there is no doubt that, with 13 goals, he was the star of the show.
Whilst there was no official league football in 1945-46 (Wanderers finished 3rd in the Football League North) the FA Cup was restarted. Having seen off Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool and Middlesbrough, Bolton were drawn to play Stoke City – Stanley Matthews and all – in the two-legged quarter final.
After a 2-0 away win at the Victoria Ground where Ray Westwood bagged both goals the second leg was played seven days later – and tragedy struck.
An estimated crowd of 85,000 turned up at Burnden Park with fans climbing in after the gates had been shut. Overcrowding resulted in spectators spilling over onto the touchline. Still more fans entered and the crush resulted in the death of 33 people.
The players were taken off the pitch but, amazingly returned half an hour later to play out a goalless draw with bodies laid out along the touchline covered by coats. Bolton were then beaten in the semi-final by Derby County.
Due to hostilities, Lofthouse didn’t make his league debut for Wanderers until the 1946-47 season. In the first match of that campaign they travelled to London to play Chelsea matching him up against hero Tommy Lawton. The new forward scored twice but Lawton matched his feat and Chelsea scraped to a 4-3 win.
In the following day’s Weekly Dispatch, John Robertson wrote; “Lofthouse’s first goal left me open-mouthed. It was taken from 40 yards and swerved like a mad thing past the astonished Robertson in the Chelsea goal.”
In early 1947 he asked for a transfer with Tottenham Hotspur said to be seriously interested in his services but the Bolton board turned the request down and he quickly got back to business finishing the season as the club’s top scorer with 18 goals, a feat he repeated in the following campaign.
On the morning of Saturday 6 December 1947 he married Alma Foster and in the afternoon scored twice as Wanderers beat Wolves 3-2.
Lofthouse was a constant at the head of the Wanderers goalscoring charts and his exploits, which included four goals in a win for an FA XI over the Army were finally rewarded by the international selectors in 1950 when, after scoring the only goal in the B team’s win over the Netherlands at St James’ Park he went on the FA tour of Canada and North America.
The FA XI were unbeaten in their 11 matches but Lofthouse still managed to finish on a losing side. For the game with Saskatoon the local team only had nine players so Lofthouse and Tim Ward of Derby County switched sides but couldn’t prevent their team losing 19-1.
Lofthouse earned full international recognition when he was called up to play for his country against Yugoslavia at Highbury in November 1950. After receiving a congratulatory telegram from hero Lawton he had a debut to remember grabbing both goals in a 2-2 draw, beating former ballet dancer Vladimir Beara with a close-range shot from a cross from Les Medley and Johnny Hancocks then provided a pinpoint centre which Nat converted with a diving header.
Despite the double strike many, including leading football writer John Thompson remained unconvinced.
Thompson would later write: “I came away with the impression that Lofthouse was game and persistent, a fine footballer, but not quite an England leader”.
The view was clearly shared by the selectors as it was back in reserve with Newcastle’s Jackie Milburn at the head of England’s attack. But he continued banging in goals with either foot or his head for his club and the selectors eventually decided they couldn’t ignore him.
Lofthouse returned to the National line-up for the October 1951 home international draw with Wales and then got both goals in the 2-0 win over Ireland in November followed by another in a 2-2 draw with Austria where he headed home an Alf Ramsey free kick after 76 minutes to level the scores.
After failing to score in the win over Scotland at Hampden the centre forward went on England’s 1952 summer tour. The first game finished 1-1 in Italy where Ivor Broadis got England’s goal and then came the match which earned that Lion of Vienna nickname.
England travelled to to meet an Austria side that at the time we’re considered among the best in Europe and who had the better of the 2-2 draw at Wembley six months before.
In front of 65,500 fans at the Prater Stadium, including hordes of British soldiers, Lofthouse gave England the lead when he smacked home a half-volley from 12 yards after being set up by Jackie Sewell. Austria hit back to equalise, Sewell restored the advantage but the home team levelled for a second time.
Then, in the 83rd minute ‘keeper Gil Merrick cleared the ball from a corner and Tom Finney flicked it on to the centre forward near the halfway line. Lofthouse, chased by the Austrian defence, carried the ball into the area and placed it past goalie Musil for the winner. He said later; “I never saw the ball enter the Austrian net for the best goal of my life”. He had been clattered by a defender as he shot and was carried from the field.
In the Daily Herald, Clifford Webb wrote; “Every man-jack did a hero’s job, but the player who provided the really tremendous thrill for the frantically cheering English colony was Nat Lofthouse.
The performance certainly cemented Nat’s place as England’s number nine and six goals for the Football League against the Irish League further underlined it. He started his country’s next 12 internationals scoring 13 times.
It was, perhaps, fitting that Finney played a key role in the famous goal. Lofthouse once said of the ‘Preston Plumber’; ‘He was that good he could cross the ball making sure the laces were facing away from my head.’
On the domestic front Lofthouse enjoyed an outstanding 1952-53 season. He scored 22 goals in 36 games for a Wanderers team that finished 14th. He also led his side to the FA Cup final, giving them a 2nd minute lead against Blackpool to compete a record of scoring in every round. Bolton were 3-1 up with just 22 minutes to go but their opponents, inspired by Stanley Matthews, stormed back to win 4-3. Despite this disappointment the player ended the season on a high when he was named Footballer of the Year.
Hurt scoring the winner against Ireland, Lofthouse missed the November 1953 match against Hungary at Wembley where the home team were hammered 6-3 and also suffered a wrist injury causing him to withdrew from the squad that went on a short tour in 1954 which included a 7-1 humbling at the hands of the same Hungarian team in Budapest.
Back in the England line up for the World Cup, he scored three times including one in the 4-2 quarter final defeat at the hands of Uruguay.
In the next two seasons he continued scoring regularly with the 1955-56 campaign particularly notable. 32 goals in 36 games for his club and four in five international matches seemed to cement his place as the country’s leading marksman. The goal he scored when coming on as substitute for the injured Tommy Taylor against Finland in Helsinki was the 29th for his country taking him past Steve Bloomer as England’s all-time leading scorer
But suddenly his place in the national side was gone, replaced by Manchester United’s Taylor. After Taylor’s tragic death at Munich he was included in the 40-man squad for the 1958 World Cup but failed to make the final 22.
This came at the end of another fine season for Wanderers in which he scored 17 goals in 31 league matches and finally won a major domestic honour, bagging the two that saw Wanderers capture the FA Cup, seeing off a Manchester United team decimated by Munich 2-0 to give Lofthouse his winners’ medal having scored in every round of the competition.
The 1958-59 campaign provided a final high point in Lofthouse’s international career. Recalled to the national team line-up for match with the USSR he provided the final goal in a 5-0 win. He then played in the 2-2 draw with Wales in November 1958 but, at 33 years old, and even though he had scored 29 times in 37 games for his club that proved to be his final cap and he ended his international career with an outstanding record of 30 goals in 33 starts.
Despite that flirtation with a move to Spurs (they came back in for him a second time in 1954 but were again rebuffed) and an audacious attempt by Fiorentina to take him to Italy, Lofthouse remained a one-club man. He said of his career; “For me Football is pleasure with pay. Speaking as a Bolton Wanderers player, I must say we get the best of everything”.
There is no doubt he gave everything to his club, and to the game. He hung up his boots in 1961 having scored 285 goals for Wanderers.
He ran a pub for a while, whilst still coaching at his one and only club but the lure of football proved too great.
Lofthouse returned to Burnden Park full-time in 1968 spending a mostly nondescript three-year spell as manager. He later served as chief scout, caretaker manager, executive manager and as the club’s president from 1986. Awarded an O.B.E in 1994, Lofthouse suffered from dementia in his later years and passed away at the age of 84 in 2011.
Nat Lofthouse’s statue now stands proudly outside the University of Bolton Stadium. He really was the complete centre-forward. Quick off the mark, an ability to shoot with either foot, with strength and agility in the air an innate ability to be in the right place at the right time.
That statue is a fitting tribute to a man who gave his all, for both club and country throughout his life.