TOMMY Banks paid a personal tribute today to Sir Tom Finney, describing the former Preston North End and England international as the “Messi of his day”.
Banks, the oldest survivor of Bolton’s FA Cup-winning team of 1958 will be one of a number of former Wanderers players and officials who will attend this afternoon’s funeral of the “Preston Plumber” who died earlier this month, aged 91.
The football world will pay their respects to the modest man many regard as one of the greatest footballers of all time, but 84-year-old Banks has special reasons for attending the civic service at Preston Minster.
In their playing days they were rivals at club level – often going head-to-head with Banks playing left-back for Wanderers facing Finney on Preston’s right wing – but they were team-mates and room-mates on international duty for England.
And the straight-talking Boltonian has no doubt where Finney, who played 473 league and cup games for Preston and won 76 caps for England, ranks in his list of the all-time greats – comparable to Lionel Messi, the supremely talented Barcelona and Argentina “number 10”.
“Tom was the best player, in my humble opinion, playing during my career – and that includes (Sir Stanley) Matthews,” Banks said from his Farnworth home.
“He was the Messi of his day – or he would have been if he had got his own way because he always wanted to play inside forward and not on the wing. He preferred playing deeper, like Messi does.
“But they always insisted he played on the wing, whether it was on the right or the left. For Preston he was a right-winger but he was left-footed, so when he played for England, because Matthews played on the right, they put him on the left.
“He sometimes played on the left for Preston and that suited me fine when we played them in the first game of the 1958 cup run because I never liked playing against him.
“He once paid me a compliment saying I was one of two or three good full-backs he played against but he was too good for me.
“On that day (Wanderers won 3-0 at Deepdale in January 1958) he played on the left and that was ideal for Roy (Wanderers’ tough-tackling right-back Hartle).
“But Tom could play anywhere. That’s why I put him in front of Matthews, who was good – there’s no doubt about that – but he could only play on the right wing.
"He’d have loved playing today.
"Tom was an inch shorter than me at 5ft 7ins but he was really good in the air and scored a lot of goals with his head – he played centre-forward for England.”
Indeed, Finney played all along the forward line for England and was one of the more influential figures, along with skipper Billy Wright, in the national side.
So when Banks was called up for the first of his six caps ahead of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, he found a highly-respected ally in his fellow Lancastrian.
“He took me under his wing saying ‘stick with me, these lads (from the Midlands and London) won’t understand you’,” Banks recalls of his time rooming with the man who, at that time, had played 73 of his 76 internationals.
“He was a real gentleman, a really nice bloke who had no airs or graces. So was Billy Wright.
"In fact I always had the feeling they were Walter Winterbottom’s unofficial assistants. I’m sure they used to get together and help him pick the team. After all, they knew the game inside out.
“They’d been playing long enough. Finney played his first game for England in 1946, straight after the war.
“He’d been a bit of a war hero too. He drove a tank from El Alamein in Egypt to Berlin – but you’d never hear him boast about anything he did, on the football field or off it.
“He was such a humble man.He really had the common touch, but most were like that then.”