Nat Lofthouse was everything you will not find in a footballer today. Even his nickname, the Lion of Vienna, is something you wouldn't dream of bestowing upon the modern player. The wording of the epithet is indicative both of the era and the man himself. To be awarded the label of Lion, once reserved for realm's greatest warriors, is to be christened with one of England's most enduring symbols. It was no more than Nat Lofthouse deserved.
The great Nat Lofthouse was born to humble beginnings on the 27th of August, 1925 to Richard and Sarah Lofthouse. Nat was the youngest of four boys. His father was a coal-bagger for the community's co-operative before becoming the head horse keeper for Bolton Corporation. Richard Lofthouse brought up his family on a weekly wage of just £2 10s. His mother stayed at home and cared for the four boys.
From an early age, Nat was a Bolton Wanderers supporter. However, given his family's financial stance and the need to care for four boys, the young Lofthouse could not afford to pay for entry into Burnden Park to watch his beloved Whites. Instead, Lofthouse would famously climb the walls at Burnden Park in order to get into the ground for free. In the swing of things and in its heyday, the stadium could hold up to 70,000 people (albeit in close quarters) so one boy without a ticket would not be easily noticed. Lofthouse was witness to a Bolton Wanderers golden age of top flight success throughout the 1930s and although the Trotters won three FA Cups in Nat's life time, he was too young to witness the 1926 and 1929 wins over Manchester City and Portsmouth. The third? He won that.
Nat Lofthouse began playing football as a very young boy. He wasn't part of an illustrious academy early on, like those you see in the modern game. Instead, Lofthouse honed his skills on the empty lots and wasteland that were more than common around the northwest during the day. Nat was always a big boy and because of that, often found himself in goal, acting as the last line of defense for whatever ragtag side he found himself playing on. That didn't last long though, as soon as Lofthouse was placed up front and the goals flowed.
At the age of 11 in 1936, Lofthouse tagged along with one of his brothers to watch his older sibling play for the school that they both attended, Castle Hill. During the game, Nat was told to play in net, and being the kind of child that relished the opportunity to get on the field, didn't complain. On that day, Lofthouse was wearing a brand new pair of shoes, a major luxury at the time. There are many stories about footballers of the day who started developing at a later age simply because they were not able to afford even basic footwear and it was a gift of shoes by a family member or friend that really allowed them to get going. Yet, Lofthouse loved being on the field and was going to take every opportunity he had.
Lofthouse wasn't very good in goal though, conceding seven goals in his first outing. Upon coming home, he was the recipient of a stern scolding from his mother for ruining his brand new shoes. Instead of scarring him, the experience seemed to instill a sense of purpose when it came to scoring goals which was reflected throughout his career. After the game for Castle Hill, Nat asked the school side's manager for more games. Thanks to his size, a healthy 12 stone (168 pounds) by age 15, he was played up front in a center forward position and it was there that Nat thrived. Lofthouse soon played for the Bolton Schools XI and made his debut in a 7-1 win over Bury Schools. Lofthouse scored all seven goals for Bolton.
A few years later, on Sept. 4, 1939, the day after World War II broke out in Europe, as nearly all of the Bolton first team went off to war, Lofthouse went to Burnden Park, put pen to paper and signed for Bolton Wanderers as a youth player. Nat was discovered by James Entwistle, the Mayor of Bolton at the time. Entwistle, like Lofthouse, was an avid Wanderers fan and was named to the club's board in 1937. He would later serve as the Chairman of the Board on two occasions: in 1952-1953 and again from 1961-1963. He was made the club's Vice President for life in 1969.
Following his discovery, Nat Lofthouse was signed by then-Bolton manager Charles Foweraker, who had, at that point, been manager of the club for 25 years (and would manage for a further five years). Foweraker was the club's most successful manager ever, bring the FA Cup trophy to Bolton on three occasions in a span of seven seasons (1923, 1926, and 1929). And so, Lofthouse had achieved his boyhood dream, to be a Bolton Wanderers player, at age 14. Too young for military service, Nat was determined to work hard on and off the field.
As though fate declared it, Nat's debut for Bolton's first team also came against a Bury side, on March 22, 1941. This time he only managed to score a brace, the fourth and fifth goals in a 5-1 victory at Burnden Park. With essentially all of the first-teamers away at the war, it was comparatively easy for Nat to work his way into a regular starting spot, and by the time the regular league resumed in 1946, that spot was effectively sealed for the next 14 years.
By 1942, all males in the United Kingdom aged 18-51 (with a few exceptions) were eligible to be conscripted by the government into wartime service. In 1943, Nat Lofthouse was called upon to serve as a Bevin Boy at the Mosley Common coal mine. During World War II, nearly 48,000 men served in the coal mines, the majority of which were chosen at random during the conscription process, with that number including volunteers. Of all those conscripted into service between the ages of 18 and 25, around 10% went to work in the mines.
The day for Bevin Boys was a long and tough one. Many would travel more than a mile down into the earth for around eight hours per day of very hard, physical work. In his 1999 book, Bolton Wanderers, Dean Hayes illustrated what a typical day looked like for Lofthouse:
The Bevin Boy program came to an end in 1948. Had Lofthouse not been a Bolton Wanderers player, life would have been extremely difficult for him. For 47 years after the program wound up, Bevin Boys were not recognized as full contributors to the war effort (despite being conscripted). They could not receive service medals and were not guaranteed a return to their old jobs, unlike those serving in the armed forces. Half a century after Victory in Europe Day (VE Day), they were finally recognized as contributors to the war effort by Queen Elizabeth II.
Writing in his 1954 autobiography Goals Galore, Lofthouse discussed his time in the mines:
"The job proved to be the best I could possibly have had. It made me fitter than ever I had been before. My body became firmer and harder. I learnt to take hard knocks without feeling them. My legs became stronger and when I played football I felt I was shooting with greater power."
However, partially due to this, Nat Lofthouse did not always experience the utter adoration of the fans. Times during and just after the war were hard for Bolton, especially after the "golden age", and Bevin Boys were commonly seen as cowards or unpatriotic men seeking to avoid the dangers of active combat. It was impossible for Bolton fans to feel this way for long however, he was the club's top scorer that first season after the war, with 21 goals in all competitions.
The next season, on Dec. 6, 1947 Nat Lofthouse married the love of his life, Alma Foster, to whom he would remain married until her death in 1986. His devotion to Alma was matched only by his love of Bolton, and true to form, that Saturday Nat got married in the morning then played football in the afternoon at Burnden Park. The match in question was a 3-2 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Nat scored 2 of Bolton's goals.
In spite of his prolific scoring, it took England selectors a few seasons to notice the boy from Bolton, Lofthouse's first England cap came in November of 1950 at the late age of 25. It was a friendly against the old Yugoslavia, with Nat scoring both England goals in a 2-all draw. While it was perhaps not the greatest result, he clearly impressed, and after missing a few matches in between, Lofthouse played every game for England between October 1951 and November 1953, a total of 18 matches.
One of those matches would turn out to be the definitive 90 minutes of his England career, at what was then called Praterstadion in Vienna on the 25th of May, 1952. The stands were filled with British troops, who had remained stationed throughout Austria in the aftermath of the war. Tensions between the two countries were still high politically, and this showed in the stands and on the pitch.
It was a close match, and neither side was shy about using force, a game far away from today's well-regulated affairs. Austria equalised just two minutes after Nat Lofthouses opening goal in the 25th minute, and while England once again gained the advantage shortly after, the teams went into halftime level at 2-2. If anything, this inspired a more violent second half, with both sides desperate for a meaningful win.
In the 83rd minute, Tom Finney tapped the ball to Lofthouse on the halfway line. Nat charged forward with the ball, in typical Lofthouse fashion receiving an elbow in the face and a tackle from behind. Somehow, he managed to get the shot off before colliding with the Austrian keeper. He hit the ground before the ball went over the line, knocked out cold for one of the most famous goals of his career.
When he came to, he was the Lion of Vienna, an epithet that stuck for the rest of his life. In a football match bearing the weight of sport, politics, and differing ideologies, Lofthouse approached the pitch as though it were a battlefield, sacrificing his body (and probably a few brain cells) to win an important, poignant, and unexpected, victory for England.
That game launched one of the best periods of his career, which previously Lofthouse had been decidedly unsatisfied with, receiving little praise for his international efforts, and little respect from anyone barring Bolton fans. Even at that time, Bolton was an unfashionable club that hadn't exactly been lighting up the league for 10 years, and Nat felt this was slowing down his career. He had even handed a transfer request in several times, unsurprisingly rejected by the club in the days before there were agents to campaign on his behalf.
That changed in the 1952-53 season. He was declared English Footballer of the Year, an accolade he was given on the eve of the famed Stanley Matthews Final in the FA Cup. In that game, Blackpool came back from 3-1 down to win 4-3, largely thanks to the heroics of Matthews, although he was no doubt helped by the fact that the Wanderers were effectively down to 10 men throughout much of the second half as Eric Bell was playing through a torn hamstring. Disappointing loss aside, Lofthouse scored the first goal of the match just 75 seconds in, meaning he scored in every round of the competition that season. He also topped the list of Division 1 scorers with an impressive tally of 30 goals. When Lofthouse was given another shot at the FA Cup, he didn't let it slip away.
The Bolton Wanderers reached the final again five years later. They did not have a particularly tough path to Wembley facing mostly Division 2 and 3 sides, although they did knockout Division 1 champions of that season Wolverhampton in the quarter finals. As with the other definitive match of his career, the match was emotionally charged, this time due to the fact that the opponents, Manchester United, had been decimated only three months earlier in the tragic Munich Air Disaster.
Only two players from Manchester United's side that lost to Aston Villa in the previous year's final took the field on May 3, 1958, Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton, and a further two were survivors of the disaster. Six of their colleagues had died in the crash, including United's only goal scorer from that final, Tommy Taylor. Two players were so injured they were never able to take to the football pitch again, and the final player, goalkeeper Ray Wood, was still recovering from injuries sustained. Needless to say, the whole country and a good portion of the 100,000 fans packed into Wembley that day were behind the battered and bruised Manchester side.
Once again, Nat Lofthouse made his intent known early on, scoring his first goal 3 minutes in, bounding onto the ball inside the 6-yard box and poking it in. United played well in the first half, but their attacks were continually stopped by the Bolton defense "like waves breaking against a rock," as one commentator noted. In the second half, the Wanderers looked the better team, as the thrown-together nature of Manchester United began to show. The Reds came close several times, including a shot that went off the post, but it was Bolton's day, and in the 50th minute Nat Lofthouse sealed that with his infamous second goal.
The Bolton boys launched another attack, ending with a Ray Parry shot on goal. Harry Gregg, a survivor of the crash who would go on to be one of United's best goalkeepers ever, could only manage to deflect the shot. Lofthouse saw his chance and took it, barging both Gregg and the ball into the back of the net. It would have certainly resulted in a straight red card by today's standards, but was adjudged to be fair at the time. Just about.
And so with that barge, Lofthouse won Bolton's fourth, and final to date, FA Cup, famously proud of his "£110 team" that cost no more than each player's signing-on fee. It was a typical Bolton team, and they won in a typical Bolton fashion: the measured combination of a bit of skill with a healthy helping of muscle. That was the last moment of real glory for Lofthouse's playing career, and for Bolton as well.
Nat Lofthouse scored his last goal for the Three Lions on Oct. 22, 1958 in a 5-1 win over the USSR. His final match in an England shirt came just over a month later, a 2-all draw against Wales. Over his international career, launched at such a late age, he scored 30 goals in 33 games, a scoring ratio that is unmatched by any England player with more than 5 appearances to this day.
His last appearance for Bolton came on Nov. 17, 1960, a draw against Birmingham, after missing all of the 1959-60 season due to an ankle injury sustained in a pre-season tour of South Africa. He was forced to retire at the age of 35 because of his persistent injuries. All in all, he tallied up 255 goals in 452 league games, and 30 goals in 51 cup matches. He was the club's top scorer in 11 out of the 13 seasons between 1946-47 and 1958-59, with his highest tally in a season resting at 35 goals, attained in that final season of 1958-59. Bolton finished in the top half of the table for 6 of those 13 seasons. He is still Bolton's top scorer of all time.
Lofthouse wasn't just a career Bolton man, he was a lifetime Bolton man. Even when things were not in his favor, Lofthouse was not one to complain or pity himself. He made the best out of every situation and was often the first to say that he was happy to be earning a living by playing the game that he loved so much. There may have been no better example of this than in 1954 when Serie A side Fiorentina put in a lucrative offer for Lofthouse (one that would have allowed him to live very comfortably after retirement) but the club turned it down. Because the move came before the age of player power and agents controlling moves, Nat didn't have any say in the matter. Not once after that did Nat protest or fight Bolton's decision.
Not long after his retirement from football, Nat took control of the Castle Pub on Tonge Moor Road in Bolton. He was famous for entertaining the clientele with some of the many stories about his time as a professional footballer. In fact, there's a very funny joke from Lofthouse's time behind the bar:
Harry Gregg (the Manchester United goalkeeper that Nat famously clattered over the goal line for Bolton's second goal in the 1958 FA Cup final) was driving through Bolton and decided to stop at the Castle Pub for a drink. Harry sees Nat manning the bar and the two talk for a while with Gregg finally ordering a pint. When the goalkeeper tried to give Lofthouse the money for his pint, Lofthouse refused. Harry says to Nat: "that's very nice of you." Nat responds: "That's alright, Harry. We don't charge goalkeepers around here."
On top of running the Castle Pub after his retirement, Lofthouse maintained a number of different positions with Bolton Wanderers. Owning the public house was not the most rewarding career choice to the man who only wanted to see his boyhood club do well. In July 1961, Lofthouse accepted a boot cleaner and assistant trainer position at Burnden Park. Six years later, he was promoted to the head coach position, and the following year, he took to managing the club.
1968 rolled around and Nat Lofthouse was appointed caretaker manager of the club. Bill Ridding, the man that had managed Wanderers for 18 seasons, had left the club just before the start of the 1968-1969 season. Ridding had been prominent in Nat Lofthouse's successful rise and had led the Trotters to the 1953 and 1958 FA Cup finals, famously winning the second one. After that 1958 final, Bolton had started slipping and were ultimately relegated to the old Second Division in 1964. The team nearly went back up at the first time of asking but a third-place position would not be enough for them.
After a brief stint as the caretaker, Nat Lofthouse was named the full-time manager of Bolton Wanderers and stayed in the post until 1970. Unfortunately, Bolton were not able to right their sinking ship under the Lion of Vienna and at the end of the 1970-71 season (after Lofthouse had left the post), Bolton were in 22nd place and relegated to the Third Division (an all-time low until the 1987-1988 season). Nat would again take the caretaker reins on three more occasions including the summer of 1971 (in between seasons) and, briefly, in 1985 between Charlie Wright leaving and Phil Neal getting the job.
Speaking During his "Nat Lofthouse: This Is Your Life" show, Lofthouse had said of his time as manager:
"I think the worst thing Bolton Wanderers' directors ever did was ask me to be manager. The only thing worse was when I said ‘yes.' I wasn't cut out to be a manager."
Following his first go at managing the club, Lofthouse took an administrative manager role at Burnden Park before being appointed as the club's chief scout. Nat's time in that role also didn't go to plan and the legend was relieved of his duties in 1972. It was something that Lofthouse would later describe as "the worst moment of his life." Still, the Lion of Vienna's time with the Trotters was nowhere near done as just a few years later, he became the club's Executive Manager.
During his playing career, Nat Lofthouse was deservedly celebrated for his numerous on-pitch achievements. The plaudits for the Lion of Vienna didn't stop after he hung up his boots though.
In 2003, Nat Lofthouse retired from Bolton Wanderers for a second time. On this occasion, he relieved himself of day-to-day duties at the club but remained on board as an ambassador for the Trotters, attending matches and club events for years to come.
The Lion of Vienna's impact to Bolton Wanderers was just as important off the pitch as it was on. Speaking at Nat's "This Is Your Life" show, Bolton Wanderers' commercial manager at the time, Alf Davies shared just how crucial Nat Lofthouse's presence at the club was:
"In 1982, we hit on some hard times and in 1982, we had just six weeks to live before the bank called time on our activities. We had to do something quickly and we had no identity at that time. The team was struggling, the club was struggling. The only identity was Nat Lofthouse. We put him in front as the lifeline President ... I would say without fear or favor the man was more important to Bolton from ‘82 onwards than ever he was in the ‘50s."
A year ago today, Bolton Wanderers announced plans to immortalize the Lion of Vienna with a statue in front of the Reebok Stadium. The statue's pose was chosen by the club's fans as well as Nat Lofthouse's surviving family. Sculptor Sean Hedges Quinn will depict the captain leading his team onto the pitch and will be emblazoned with Nat's final words:
"I've got the ball now, it's a bit worn, but I've got it."
The project, funded by the people of Bolton and fans of the club, is due to be completed on August 27, 2013, or what would have been Lofthouse's 88th birthday. According to Bolton Wanderers, the statue proposal has received a phenomenal reception and is well on target for the scheduled due date. Club Chaplain Phil Mason added:
"We are absolutely delighted with the work Sean has done; the image captures Nat perfectly - his strength both physical and mental and his great sense of purpose on and off the field. "
You would be very hard-pressed to find a sane person that had a negative thing to say about Nat Lofthouse. That is, a sane person that wasn't scared of facing the Lion of Vienna on the pitch.
On Jan. 15, 2011, Nat Lofthouse passed away quietly in his sleep in a Bolton nursing home at the age of 85. The funeral was held 11 days later with 500 invited guests and members of the public inside Bolton Parish Church. Thousands more stood outside in the streets with speakers erected so that the public could hear the service. There were a number of football legends and people that the Bolton Wanderers faithful hold dear on hand to pay their respects to the legendary Nat Lofthouse.
With him passed away a piece of Bolton Wanderers Football Club that will never return. Nat Lofthouse was Bolton in a way that the modern day equivalent of Kevin Davies, however loved by the fans, could never be. He was born with Bolton in his blood, and he played his football, lived his life in a way that reflected that. His very style of football embodied Bolton, an appreciation for power alongside skill which is still part of the club today. His lifelong dedication to the club was not work, but a manifestation of who he was.
Outside the church, it was former Bolton manager Jimmy Armfield (1971-1974) who perhaps summed it all up best:
"It's the fact that he was a one-club man. That's the thing more than anything else. It happened a lot in our day as it were, of course. People like Tom Finney and myself, people like that. But you always associate Nat with Bolton. That's the two words that go together and the thing about Nat was, as well, that you don't need to put his surname there, do you? You just say Nat.
"He was probably one of the best centre forwards England ever had, very aggressive and combative with great speed.
"'He was everything a centre forward should be and was a great one-club man."
He was the Lion of Vienna.