Tom Finney is fondly remembered as one of the all time greats of English football. Admired for his flawless technique and humble attitude, Finney ended his remarkable career with Preston North End in 1960, making over 400 appearances for his local club and winning 76 caps for his country.
He is often categorised by football followers as part of the remarkable one-club wonders, a rare breed of professionals who have only represented one club throughout their entire playing career. However, strictly speaking, this is untrue.
There is no denying Tom Finney’s footballing greatness and legendary status for a second, but he did however, represent another club in an extraordinary turn of events which saw him pitted against some of Europe’s club elite at the age of 41.
Three and a half years after he had announced his retirement from Preston North End, Finney received a telephone call from George Eastham Sr. - the father of the Newcastle United, Arsenal and Stoke City star George Eastham who revolutionised football’s transfers by successfully appealing the retain and transfer system , and the then manager of Belfast based club, Distillery FC.
Having piped Linfield FC to the Irish League Championship the season before, Distillery had gained qualification to the prestigious European Champions Cup. It was set to be a baptism of fire for Eastham’s men as they entered the European stage for the first time and were subsequently drawn against giants, SL Benfica, armed to the teeth with the likes of Eusebio, Jose Augusto and Antonio Simoes, who had reached the final of the competition at Wembley only four months before.
It seemed a daunting and colossal task for ‘The Whites’ and it was evident that Eastham needed some firepower himself for this deadly encounter.
In a bizarre twist to the tale, he decided to call upon his friend, Tom Finney, in order to inspire his crop of local lads and also to add his own brand of flair to the side.
After much persuasion, and the thought that Finney himself had never actually been able to take part in the European Champions Cup with North End, the ‘Preston Plumber’ decided to leave his tools at home and follow up on Eastham Sr.’s offer.
After a three and half year absence and at the age of 41, Tom Finney had officially made his return to football in September 1963.
In front of a 20,000 strong crowd at Windsor Park in Belfast, Tom Finney sported the white strip of Distillery, the same colour that he had famously worn for Preston North End and England many occasions previously.
It must have been something special to witness the shock of the SL Benfica ranks on a wet September evening in Belfast, for them to behold one of the all-time greats of football among such an obscure and virtually unknown set-up, making an unexpected return to the game.
The same man who 15 years previously had put the Portuguese to the sword in a 10-0 demolition of the national side in Lisbon and who also managed to score four against them in a 5-3 romp in Liverpool. The Portuguese were very familiar with Tom Finney’s exploits and his deadly goal scoring touch.
Faced with the task of inspiring the Northern Irish part timers against one of Europe’s elite club sides, Finney donned the number 9 shirt for Distillery, rather than the number 7 strip that he famously graced while playing on the Deepdale turf, and took the role of centre forward in this surreal saga.
Before the SL Benfica stars could shrug off their shock of seeing the legendary Tom Finney in a Distillery FC strip, the semi-professionals got off to a flyer. Defender John Kennedy put the Northern Irish club in front within the first minute of action against the previous years’ finalists. It looked as if the famous Benfica side that had dominated European club football with back to back European titles only two years previous, were shocked into submission. While Serafim Pereira equalised for the Portuguese on 15 minutes, winger Kenny Hamilton converted for the part timers to ensure that the Ulstermen ended the first half as leaders.
As Serafim again equalised on the hour mark for the visitors, the versatile Freddie Ellison put the underdogs in front yet again, the third time they had done so in this clash.
While it looked as if the ‘Preston Plumber’ had inspired the modest Distillery side to victory on their maiden European voyage, another footballing great made his mark on this surreal encounter. With only two minutes left on the clock, the famous Eusebio pounced to hit a late equaliser for The Eagles, depriving Distillery and Tom Finney of a dream victory. However, Benfica had failed to take the lead once during the game, a fantastic effort from the semi-professional outfit, aided by Finney.
As the referee called time on a thrilling 3-3 encounter, so too did Tom Finney on his playing career once more. Rather than finishing his remarkable career at Deepdale where he had spent his entire playing career for his local boyhood club, Finney made his final bow at Windsor Park, Belfast in the European Cup.
Despite the fairytale football that transpired in the first leg in Belfast, the men from Northern Ireland were brought back to reality in the return leg in Lisbon. Without the dazzling presence of a legend within their ranks, Distillery were easily brushed aside 5-0 by The Eagles, with the likes of Eusebio, Antonio Simoes and Serafim Pereira registering their names on the score sheet. Distillery were defeated 8-3 on aggregate, while Benfica would progress to meet Borussia Dortmund in the next round.
Although the European adventure was brief for Belfast outfit, Distillery FC, it was certainly memorable, most notably due to the unexpected return of a true footballing great. After a playing career that began nearly 17 years previous and at the age of 41, Tom Finney finally made his first appearance in the European Cup. It was Finney’s final bow from competitive football.
Picture via Colorsport.