A SOLITARY bell rang out into the silence and those closest to Nat Lofthouse, The Lion of Vienna, said their final goodbye.
In stark contrast to the thousands who lined the streets at his funeral in Bolton on Wednesday, it was left to a small gathering of family, close friends and neighbours to inter the legendary striker’s ashes, alongside those of his late wife Alma, at St Anne’s Church in Turton yesterday.
A dignified memorial service was attended by those who knew the man best, and it was here that Nat’s son, Jeff, passed on the details of his final hours in the Beechville Nursing Home, where he died on Saturday, January 15.
“I’m told dad had a sudden surge of energy, which sometimes happens when people reach their final day,” he told a gathering of around 60 people.
“During the course of the afternoon, he insisted on being shaved. He insisted on being dressed, which had not happened for some time.
“If you remember him, you will know how immaculately dressed he always was. Always a shirt and tie and jacket, never an open neck.
“It was the first time in 10 days that he went down to the dining room. He ate dinner, and had more than he had managed for the past two weeks. He went back to his room and Wayne, the nurse, helped him back into bed where he went to sleep for the final time.
“But I am told that before he went to sleep he said something.
“‘I’ve got the ball now. It’s a bit worn, but I’ve got it.’”
Speaking to The Bolton News before the service, Jeff revealed that he had been travelling back and forth between his house in France to be with his father as his health deteriorated.
“Mildred, dad’s companion, had been there every day with him,”
he said. “I saw him get worse over the past few weeks. He recognised me, but he was weak.
“The last time I saw him, I spent time with him in his room watching television.
By then, he had taken another step down.”
Jeff — whose wife, Michelle, had to remain at home in France because of a broken kneecap — spoke of his pride earlier this week as Boltonians turned out in force to honour one of their own.
He conceded that the family had long since accepted that they must share their father with the wider world.
“My mother was the centre of the family, with dad it was always football,” he smiled.
“Whenever we went out, he always had time to talk to people who stopped him in the street.
“He always had time to sign autographs. I once went to Bolton market with him and it took us two hours because all the traders knew him.
“The public had a demand on him and he gave so much. It got to the point that he couldn’t walk anywhere in private.”
Such was his father’s popularity, that Jeff remembered his Bolton School headmaster having to issue an apology after his appearance disrupted a school sports day.
In his later years, Jeff would escort his father to the Reebok to watch his beloved club.
“He was even being asked for his autograph then,”
Nat’s daughter Vivien and companion in his later years, Mildred, were among those family members at the service.
Bolton Wanderers were represented by chairman Phil Gartside, secretary Simon Marland, chief executive Allan Duckworth and promotions manager Andrew Dean and directors Des McBain and Gordon Seymour.
A touching eulogy was read by Alf Davies, the former commercial manager at Burnden Park.
Mr Davies recalled the significant efforts Nat had made during the early eighties to raise money to help Wanderers avoid bankruptcy. “The banks had called time on us.
There was nowhere left to go,” he said. “But nobody could connect with the people of Bolton better than Nat.
“I often say it, but there might not be a Bolton Wanderers today if it were not for his hard work.”
A small collection of scarves and floral tributes had been placed just inside the picturesque church grounds; a tiny fragment of the swathes that still lie outside the Reebok Stadium to this day.
But, perhaps illustrating the broader appeal of an England forward who had scored 30 goals in 33 internationals, laid across the modest plaque on arrival at the church was a single red rose, placed by an unnamed Liverpool fan, with the inscription: “You’ll never walk alone.”
While Nat’s ashes were interred to the ground by those who loved him as a father, a neighbour, and a friend away from the football pitch, it was fitting that with his last words, he conjured images of the game to which he gave so much of his life.
Nat Lofthouse — Bolton born and bred. A Wanderer to the very end.