Sir Tom Finney was 90 on Thursday. Among football followers, even those born long after he played his last match for Preston North End in 1960 will be aware of the high esteem in which this immensely gifted yet utterly modest player has always been held. Fifty years from now the name of Mario Balotelli may well strike a chord with ageing Manchester City fans but by then, to the English game as a whole, he might as well have been a minor member of the chorus at La Scala.
In the postwar years there was a considerable debate, not least among members of the Football Association international committee who, at that time, picked the England team, about whether or not Finney or Stanley Matthews could be accommodated in the same side. The contrast in their playing styles should have settled the matter straightaway.
Whereas Matthews gently teased defenders into making a challenge before beating them with a feint, a swerve and a burst of speed over five or 10 yards, Finney's approach, while no less skilful, was more explosive. And while Matthews was largely about creating chances with accurate crosses and passes Finney would seize on every shooting opportunity he could get.
During his 14 years at Preston he scored 210 times in 473 matches. For England he scored 30 in 76 and for a fortnight was the country's leading international scorer until Nat Lofthouse equalled his record. Finney is the sole survivor of the England side that memorably beat Italy 4-0 in 1948. That day Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Tommy Lawton and Wilf Mannion completed a forward line that really could have been heralded as a golden generation.
So it was with a spring in the step that a football-mad teenager arrived at Wembley for the 1954 FA Cup final between Preston and West Bromwich Albion. In the previous final Matthews had inspired Blackpool's famous recovery from 3-1 down to beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3. Now Finney, like Matthews, had the chance of a long-awaited Cup winner's medal.
What a let-down. Finney has always admitted that it was one of his poorest games while confessing that on the day he was not fully match fit. This could have been one reason for his uncharacteristically subdued performance as Preston lost 3-2. Another was the regularity with which Albion's Ray Barlow dropped back from midfield to support his captain, Len Millard, who early in the game was struggling to keep up with Finney.
It is often tempting to wonder how outstanding footballers of the past would cope in the modern game. Transport the Finney of the 1950s to the 21st century and he would find opponents queueing up to close him down. Finney left Anfield in the spring of 1988 after seeing Liverpool outplay their championship rivals, Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, 5-0 saying that he never thought he would see English football played with such skill at such speed.
A latterday Finney would surely adapt to the increase in pace but the greater intensity of the game might present a bigger problem. That said, the 48-year-old Matthews faced Tommy Docherty's precocious young Chelsea team, which included Terry Venables, Eddie McCreadie and Bobby Tambling, when Stoke won 1-0 in front of a crowd of more than 66,000 at Stamford Bridge in 1963 and did not look out of place.
One way Finney might find it easier now compared with, say, 20 years ago would be in the greater protection he could expect from referees, who are well on the way virtually to outlawing sliding tackles whether or not the studs are showing. When Finney was playing in the 40s and 50s the destructive tactics of the 70s and 80s had yet to cast a blight over the English game. True, some teams are still criticised for being too physical although, compared with their cynical forebears, they are more hearties than heavies.
For a modern Finney surely the biggest bonus would be the perfection of most pitches, which allows the ball to run smoothly at speed and enables the Arsenals, Manchester Uniteds, Barcelonas and, yes, the Swanseas to concentrate on their precise passing games. Finney played most of his football on fields that became mudheaps in winter and by spring were grassless, bumpy deserts.
A lasting personal memory of Finney is of a white-shirted figure darting past two Spanish defenders on a foggy November afternoon at Wembley in 1955 before scoring England's third goal in a 4-1 win. Good to know he is still around.