It’s hard to believe that English football took so long to name the best player in the country each season; but that all changed in April 1948 when Stanley Matthews became the first recipient of the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year Award.
The accolade was the brainchild of Charles Buchan, a former professional footballer-turned writer and founding father of the Football Writers’ Association who, in 1947, suggested that recognition should be given to “the professional player who by precept and example is considered by a ballot of members to be the footballer of the year."
So, on April 23rd 1948, Blackpool’s Stanley Matthews - a tricky right-winger with a superb sense of balance and frightening turn of speed which earned him the nickname 'The Wizard of Dribble' – was announced as the inaugural winner.
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Having started his career at Stoke City, Matthews quickly became a household name and having scored 57 goals in 259 games for The Potters joined Blackpool for £11,500 in 1947 at the age of 32 - a move that didn’t just revive his career but took it to another level as he transformed a somewhat average team into one of the most exciting sides in the country.
With his best days seemingly behind him, he had been running a bed-and-breakfast while turning out for Stoke, probably believing he only had a few more years left as a player with his illustrious career coming to a close.
But Blackpool boss Joe Smith had other ideas and was quickly rewarded as a rejuvenated Matthews formed a formidable front-line with Stan Mortensen which helped the Tangerines finish ninth in the First Division and reach the FA Cup final.
As a result, there was little in the way of celebration after receiving his award and just 24-hours later Matthews was stepping out onto the famous Wembley turf as his Blackpool side faced Manchester United in that season’s end of season showpiece – eventually going down 4-2.
Matthews would go on to play for another 20 years and famously won the FA Cup with Blackpool in 1953, a game known as the ‘Matthews Final’ which was, incredibly, his only top-flight honour in the game - though the personal accolades kept on coming.
In 1956, he was named winner of the inaugural Ballon d’Or, a prize given to the best European footballer each year and in 1963 was again voted FWA Footballer of the Year at the age of 48 to become just one of a handful of players to receive the award twice - eventually hanging up his boots after nearly 700 games for Stoke and Blackpool at the ripe old age of 50.
“When I look back over my career, those two Footballer of the Year awards mean so much to me. They represent what I achieved over a long period, and I am very, very proud of them,” he would later say.
Today the award is still selected by around 400 football journalists who are members of the Football Writers’ Association with the names on the famous trophy reading like a who’s who of footballing legends from home and abroad.
The likes of Billy Wright, Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney took the spoils during the glory days of English football in the 1950s while Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and George Best represent the greats from the swinging ‘60s.
Billy Bremner, Gordon Banks, Kevin Keegan, and Kenny Dalglish are just some of those who were recognised in the 1970s with Ian Rush, Neville Southall, John Barnes and Gary Lineker following them in the 1980s.
The 1990s saw the first regular run of overseas players lifting the award with the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann, Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp and David Ginola following in the footsteps of Alan Shearer and Chris Waddle while Arsenal legend Thiery Henry remains the only man to receive the award on three occasions in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
The Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award remains one of the most respected and cherished honours a player can receive in their career and will continue to be so however much the game changes and evolves.
Fitting then that Stanley Matthews, who did so much to grow the game of football and promote the sport around the world through his professionalism, dedication and outstanding ability, should be its first ever recipient.