Cables Greats: Fred Finney

1945-46 was a season caught between war and peace. Families wanted men-folk posted abroad to return as soon as possible, and everyone craved for a return to normal life. For the football community normal life meant the re-establishment of proper competitive matches – to the old league championship and FA Cup. But there were problems. Victory in Europe was celebrated on 8 May 1945 but Victory in Japan not until 15 August. With so many men scattered across the globe, the Football League decided to postpone a return to normality until the 1946-47 season and continue in the meantime with the strictly unofficial regional war leagues and friendly matches. If it denied spectators the thrill of proper competitive league football, the preponderance of guest appearances by some of the leading wartime players did at least give spectators a chance to see familiar names turning out for unfamiliar teams in unlikely places, whether in league competitions, unofficial internationals or apparently random competitive matches. Under what other circumstances could they ever see Bill Shankly playing for Liverpool in a wartime local derby against Everton, Cables’ Bill Rainford playing alongside Stanley Matthews in an Isle of Man XI or Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen making his international debut not for his native England but as a makeshift centre forward for Wales in a friendly international against England in September 1943? The Football Association, on the other hand, decided to re-launch the FA Cup competition for the 1945-46 season. In an attempt to create more interest, the Association decided that for this season at least some of the earlier FA Cup rounds would be played over two legs. When members of Football League Divisions One and Two entered the competition at their usual 3rd-round stage in January 1946, a great many players made their official debuts after six years biding their time. Liverpool FC was drawn against Chester, the first leg scheduled away on Saturday, 5 January 1946. The Anfield side won 2-0, and the occasion was marked by debut appearances of no less than eight players, including Laurie Hughes, Ray Lambert, Bob Paisley and Billy Liddell. The debutantes also included two men destined to play for Cables: goalkeeper Harry Nickson and wing-half Fred Finney.

Fred Finney was born at the Green Dragon, Warrington Road, a public house run by his maternal grandparents the Rothwells, on 10 March 1924. His parents were Joseph Finney and Edna nee Rothwell and he had a brother (Bernard) and two sisters (Joan and Rhona). Between 1935 and 1941 Fred attended Prescot Grammar School where, like Bill Rainford (see the Cables programme for 5 October 2013), he achieved distinction on the sports field. He captained the football, cricket and tennis teams and, three years after Rainford, won the Victor Ludorum. By the time he left school World War Two had broken out. Initial plans for Fred to train as a teacher at Alsager College, Cheshire, were set aside in favour of temporary employment in the BICC accounts department while awaiting call-up. Ambitions to play football at the highest level were given a boost on 8 August 1941 when eighteen-year-old Fred, standing six feet tall with a muscular build to match, signed as an amateur for Liverpool. He made his debut on 14 March 1942 in a North Region War League match at Rochdale, Liverpool winning easily 8-2. Six further appearances were made towards the end of the 1941-42 season but only one the following season. The reason? In the autumn of 1942 Fred, aged eighteen-and-a-half, enlisted in the Royal Navy. (Thoughts of choosing the RAF had been abandoned when his elder brother Bernard was shot down and killed early in the conflict.) Fred went on to serve with distinction as a First Lieutenant aboard Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) 390.

It is uncertain how much football Fred played during the war. The lfchistory website claims ten matches in all. One was an away match against Everton on 29 December 1945 – just one week before Fred and seven other Liverpool players made their official debuts in that cup match at Chester. Unfortunately for Fred, the home leg against Chester on Wednesday, 9 January 1946 witnessed his final first-team appearance for the Reds. Liverpool used a total of 38 players during the 1945-46 season and it is likely that Fred was considered surplus to requirements by manager George Kay. He was not alone. He remained on the Anfield playing staff until his contract expired at the end of the 1946-47 season. With Liverpool winning the First Division Championship that year, it must have been a joyless farewell for the twenty-three-year-old defender.

Little is known about his football career between the summer of 1947 and June 1949 when he signed for Cables. He certainly spent some time at South Liverpool, following his ex-Liverpool team-mate the goalkeeper Alf Hobson (who also later signed for Cables). According to unpublished notes for Neville Walker’s book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street, Fred appeared as a guest for Cables in a charity match against Everton in May 1949. His debut proper came at the start of the ensuing season when he lined up at left-half alongside the charismatic centre-half and captain Bert Jelly and Harry Topping at right-half. As usual, Bert Taylor covered the game for the Prescot and Huyton Reporter: ‘Defending keenly, [Finney] attacked dangerously.’ Another match covered by Taylor and featuring the formidable half-back line of Topping, Jelly and Finney was away at Wigan on Saturday, 15 April 1950. Despite ending in a 1-1 draw the match was described by Taylor as a ‘personal triumph’ for the young Harry Grisedale, appearing as an inside-right in one of his earliest first-team matches.

Fred was a great team-mate. A gentleman on and off the field.

Harry Boydell

As with his career at Liverpool, Fred seems to have left Cables prematurely, moving with his Prescot team-mate Sandy Lyon to South Liverpool after just one season and arriving at Holly Park ready for the start of the 1950-51 campaign. A year or so later he was joined by another former Cables star Harry Boydell, who played just in front of Fred on the left wing. Harry remembers with great affection Fred and his wife Celia picking him up every Saturday in Fred’s van and giving him a lift to South’s matches. After three or four seasons at South Liverpool Fred, in his early thirties, hung up his boots. There were probably two main reasons: family and work. On 23 September 1950 Fred had married a young nurse called Celia Hughes at St Mary’s Church, Prescot. Celia gave birth to a daughter (Gaynor) in September 1951 and another daughter (Karen) in October 1954. With mouths to feed, it was small wonder that Fred decided to give up football in order to concentrate on a career in industry, a decision reinforced by the birth of a third daughter (Deborah) in June 1960.

Fred was the most respected man in the business world.

Fred’s son-in-law Graham Roberts

Mouths were fed by Celia’s work as a nurse and Fred’s highly successful career in the floor cleaning business. After the war he acquired a position as a salesman with Russell Kirkby of Kirkby, distributors of floor cleaning material. Leadership qualities gained no doubt at Prescot Grammar School and the Royal Navy helped him rise through the ranks to sales manager and later sales director. In April 1971 Fred set up a cleaning supplies company of his own, based in Skelmersdale, called ‘Topstar’. News of his expertise soon reached the ears of Johnson Wax of Racine, Wisconsin, USA, who appointed Fred’s company their key UK distributor.

Away from his desk Fred relaxed with his family, eventually acquiring four grandsons (Matthew, Nathan, Simon and Floyd) and three granddaughters (Naima, Billie-Jean and Eleanor), and pursued sporting interests in tennis (as a member of Prescot Tennis Club) and bowls, playing at his birthplace the Green Dragon as well as Prescot Conservative Club and City Road, St Helens. He suffered his first heart attack when he was forty but worked on for over two more decades, retiring on health grounds aged sixty-two in 1982. He was stricken with Parkinson’s Disease aged seventy in 1994 but lived on another ten years, dying in Whiston Hospital, a stone’s throw from where he was born, on 16 January 2005.

He was a true gentleman and sportsman. In possession of an impeccable temperament, he spoke with quiet and polite authority. He was also a very popular man. His son-in-law Graham Roberts recalls an occasion when he and Fred attended a match at South Liverpool. Despite the fact that Fred had not visited Holly Park for a good many years, he was welcomed back like a close friend. He was that sort of guy.

I am indebted to Fred’s daughter Gaynor Roberts, her husband Graham and their son Simon for countless family details and anecdotes, and to Neville Walker for access to unpublished notes for his book ‘From Slacky Brow to Hope Street’.

Glyn Williams