World War II had an effect on football just as it did any other walk of life, practically anywhere in the world. The latest subject of the England Greats series knew that better than most. Stan Mortensen was one of countless players whose club and country careers suffered between 1939 and 1945 and part of the crew of a Wellington bomber that crashed in Scotland during the war, killing two of his colleagues and leaving another with only one leg.
During the war Mortensen played for Wales against England; as England’s reserve in a 1943 war international, he appeared as a substitute for the opposition when they ran out of players due to injury. But Mortensen was England through and through and would cement his place in the nation’s footballing history on more fronts than one.
Born in South Shields in May 1921, he signed for Blackpool in 1941 but had to wait until after the war (during which he appeared for Bath City and Arsenal as a guest player) to make the first of his 300-plus appearances for the club. He made his name domestically in the FA Cup, where a remarkable run of goals in twelve consecutive rounds – including a final goal in 1948 – preceded Mortensen’s finest achievement.
While certainly not under-appreciated, Mortensen’s FA Cup Final hat-trick at Wembley in 1953 has been overshadowed. Joe Smith’s Blackpool came from behind three times to defeat Bolton Wanderers 4-3 in what came to be known as the Matthews Final in honour of Mortensen’s namesake, whose performance that day was truly awe-inspiring. Mortensen scored all three equalisers, cancelling out goals by Nat Lofthouse and Bobby Langton before sensationally making it 3-3 with just a minute to go. Bill Perry won it for Blackpool in stoppage time.
It would be the only trophy of Mortensen’s career, but in an England shirt he was peerless.
It started in blistering fashion. Mortensen took just a minute to open his account, scoring the first of four debut goals in a 10-0 demolition of Portugal. 19 more goals would follow for England, a superb goalscoring record at international level by anyone’s reckoning. But just one of those goals came in Mortensen’s only major championship, the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. He opened the scoring in Rio de Janeiro against Chile – the first ever England goal in the World Cup – but two defeats ended Walter Winterbottom’s team’s participation.
The first of those defeats has now become arguably the second most famous moment of Mortensen’s career. Four days after beating Chile, England travelled to Belo Horizonte to face the United States of America, a team assembled at the eleventh hour in a nation with no professional league.
Like Mortensen, some of the USA players had recent military experience, and their battle on the field would later be recreated in the movie The Game of their Lives, in which USA goalkeeper Frank Borghi is portrayed (loosely) by Hollywood star Gerard Butler and his team becomes competitively fixated on Mortensen, played by Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale as a transatlantic caricature of a plummy, sophisticated and slightly smug English footballer.
In reality Mortensen was a bit tougher, at bit rougher round the edges. He later managed Blackpool and was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Sadly, Stan was long gone by then. He died in May 1991, almost 70 years to the day after he was born on the Tyne & Wear coast.
England’s World Cup history has had its ups and downs, from glorious victory in 1966 to qualifying failures and ignominious exits. But it all began with a goal from our most dangerous weapon at the Maracanã in 1950.
England career: 1947 to 1953
England caps: 25
England goals: 23
Major championship appearances: World Cup 1950