Seventy years ago today Ayresome Park saw probably the greatest individual perfomance by any Middlesbrough player anytime anywhere. Not in terms of goals, or tackles, or saves, but 90 minutes of total domination by one man...
In the records it’s simply a mid-table meeting finishing Middlesbrough 4 Blackpool 0. But to Boro fans it will always be The Mannion Match.
On Saturday November 22nd 1947 Blackpool came to Ayresome Park in good spirits, even without the injured Stanley Matthews. A year earlier they’d won 2-1, exorcising the memory of a 9-2 thrashing the last time they’d been there in 1938, when 20-year-old Wilf Mannion scored four. They knew all about him, or so they thought.
There was a hint of what was to come when Boro thrashed Grimsby 5-0 at Blundell Park a week earlier, with Mannion setting up four of them, taking them up to eighth in the First Division after a disappointing start.
Then on the Wednesday Wilf set up two more goals as England beat Sweden 4-2 at Highbury, as he and captain George Hardwick won their 12th caps.
Come Saturday he was tearing Blackpool’s defence apart right from the kick-off, but the first goal didn’t come until just before half-time from Cec McCormack.
After that it was all Mannion. He set up the other three goals for Micky Fenton, Johnny Spuhler and McCormack again. He brought two great saves from the Blackpool keeper Jock Wallace (the same man who’d let in nine in 1938), danced around the pitch with the opposition utterly unable to get the ball off him, and when one of his teammates did give it away he kept chasing to win it back like a man possessed.
"He moved his body a couple of inches and had three men running the wrong way,” wrote journalist Cliff Mitchell. “Behind every Boro attack - and there were plenty of them - was the guile, the incomparable craft of a brilliant Mannion. He was the consummate football artist.”
The highlight though, the moment when a packed Ayresome collectively gasped, came not from a goal or shot, but when he controlled a high ball with his head, ran along the field bouncing it like a performing sea lion before letting it roll down his back and trapping it under his heel. He was literally untouchable. Blackpool certainly tried but he was just too quick for them.
Blackpool recognised this as performance rather than arrogance, and joined a guard of honour to applaud Mannion off at the end.
Even his notoriously curmudgeonly brother Tommy, his biggest critic, was impressed. “It was the only time he ever gave me a good word,” said Wilf.
It took nearly half a century until the reason became clear. He was in love. And his new fiancee Bernadette was watching him for the first time. Even though she lived just round the corner from Ayresome Park she had no interest in football, like Wilf’s father Thomas, brought up on Gaelic Games in Mayo, something the child of many a Teesside Irish immigrant can relate to.
But then romance was in the air - after all Princess Elizabeth had married Prince Philip only two days earlier. “I just wanted to impress her, so I produced all the skills and tricks I knew. The only problem is that she came away thinking I played like that every week,” Wilf admitted many years later. Some of his teammates, ignorant of the story behind it, muttered the same question afterwards.
And for once there were plenty there to see it - 38,936 of them, although of course it later became become around 80,000, like the 30,000 who claim to have been at the Port Vale match in 1986. Like Ian Botham in 1981, Jesse Owens in Berlin, Dan Carter against the Lions in 2005, there was a genius at the height of his powers, and they were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Among them was 12-year-old Brian Clough, who said Mannion played like Fred Astaire danced. George Hardwick, watching it all from left back, called it "a virtuoso display of Wilf’s innate talents.” No wonder when Nat Lofthouse first saw Pele he said “that lad reminds me of Wilf.” Afterwards Leeds tried to buy him for a record £15,000.
The impact of the match remains such that his statue outside the Riverside should really have him swerving not shooting - and with a couple of tangerine-shirted figures flailing several yards behind.