Stanley Matthews was one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. But because his sport was soccer, many Westporters have never heard of him.
That’s a shame. But now, everyone here can join the rest of the world in celebrating a man so revered for his skill, sportsmanship and stardom that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
And the reason Westporters will know about this amazing man — one who played in the brutal English First Division until age 50 — is because local residents made a full-length film about him.
The group includes Matthews’ son, Stanley. Yes — the same Stanley Matthews Jr. best known in this area as a tennis pro.
Since its video-on-demand release in the UK in October, “Matthews: The Original Number 7” has earned rave reviews. BBC and Sky Sports are negotiating for broadcast rights. American rights are under negotiation too.
Westport’s involvement with Matthews dates back 40 years. In 1977 Joe Pierce — a native of Scotland who became was an early FCIAC soccer star at Stamford’s Rippowam High School — was playing on a local amateur club.
One day, teammate John Gould — a Westporter best known as a drummer with the Average White Band — brought a friend: Stanley Matthews Jr. At 18 the younger Matthews had been a 3-time junior Wimbledon champion. He beat Ilie Nastase in the French Open, at the height of the Romanian’s career.
Matthews Jr. was a very good soccer player. But he was even better at tennis. He relocated to Weston, and bought the 4 Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton. He and Pierce became good friends.
For all his accomplishments, Sir Stanley’s story had never been fully told. But 3 years ago, Pierce decided it was time to give him the treatment he deserved.
There was a lot to tell. He was the first “modern” soccer player: He trained by running on sand and adhered to a strict vegetarian diet, while his teammates caroused and drank beer. And although he was the oldest player ever to represent England internationally, he lost 6 of his best years to World War II.
Stanley Matthews (left) was a wizard with the ball.
After retiring in 1965, he spent time in the townships of South Africa. Apartheid was in full force. But Sir Stanley taught black youngsters how to play — and formed a team in Soweto that, against all odds, headed to Brazil to compete.
“He was the first global sports superstar,” Pierce says. “He was the Babe Ruth of soccer, with the worldwide appeal of a later player like David Beckham.”
As a boy in Scotland, Pierce watched movie newsreels with the news of the day. They showed all the important people: Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe. And Stanley Matthews.
“He was a mythical figure for me,” Pierce says.
With the help of Stanley Jr., Pierce unearthed vintage footage of Matthews playing with Stoke City and Blackpool, 2 of England’s best — and most blue-collar — mid-century clubs.
Pierce — whose film title is executive producer, and who for a time ran Intensity Tennis Club, a rival to Stanley Jr.’s 4 Seasons — wants every young soccer player in the US to see the film. They need to learn about the roots of their game.
But, Pierce insists, it’s aimed at non-fans too. Matthews’ humanitarianism is an integral part of his story.
Sir Stanley died in 2000, age 85. More than 100,000 people lined the streets of Stoke-on-Trent to pay tribute. His ashes were buried beneath the center circle of Stoke’s stadium.
Today — thanks in part to a Westport connection — Sir Stanley Matthews’ life and legacy live larger than ever.