Wilf Mannion

Football's Pioneers: Wilf Mannion

De Montfort University’s Dr. Catherine Budd tells the story of Wilf Mannion, the ‘Golden Boy’ who became a rebel.
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Described as both a genius on the field and a rebel off it, the footballing achievements of Wilf Mannion (1918-2000) were curtailed by an inflexible transfer system that undervalued the needs of the player.

Had Mannion been playing professional football today, he would have been a multi-millionaire but he was unable to take advantage of the increased popularity of football in the immediate post-war period. Despite winning 26 England caps, scoring 100 goals in the Football League and making 357 appearances, Mannion saw out his working life as a labourer, having taken little money out of the game.

He began his professional career at Middlesbrough in 1936, making his debut aged just 17. He was an established first-team regular by his second season, playing a crucial part in Middlesbrough’s fourth-placed finish in the old First Division in 1939, producing dazzling, match-winning displays.

He made his England debut in 1946 against Northern Ireland. Mannion picked up where he had left off before war had broken out, scoring a hat-trick in his first game, and a further eight efforts in eight games for England that season. He was lauded by his team-mates for his control and speed.

Stanley Matthews described him as 'the Mozart of football', and Tommy Lawton called him 'a majestic player, like a tiny ballerina in football boots'.

It was then, at the peak of his footballing abilities, that Mannion sought out a club where he could make more than the maximum wage of £12 a week that he was reportedly being paid by Middlesbrough.

Knowing that some clubs offered players ‘assistance’ to allow them to earn more, he handed in a transfer request with the intention of moving to Oldham Athletic, a club in the Third Division but one where he would be able to supplement his income.

Middlesbrough immediately set a transfer fee of £25,000 knowing that no club would be capable of paying such an amount. So, after 18 years with the club, Mannion went on strike for five months.

With no other offers, he was left with no choice but to re-sign for Middlesbrough, playing for them for a further five seasons.

Mannion was back in the spotlight again in 1954, when, having retired from playing, he turned to journalism. Now he was able to hit out at his old employers and at the contradictions of the transfer system. 

His outspoken nature, however, meant that the Football League imposed a lifetime ban on him, should he ever choose to come out of retirement. As Mannion stated: "They used to call me the Golden Boy of soccer but I reckon the halo is a bit tarnished now. From now on, I'll be the Naughty Boy of soccer to the Football League. At least my case will serve as a warning to other professional players who try to tell the truth."

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