It is impossible to travel to Preston North End's famous old Deepdale stadium without being repeatedly reminded of the club's favourite but far from forgotten son, Sir Tom Finney. Greeted by a statue of the great man outside the ground and seated in his eponymous stand for the match, visitors to the ground are left under no illusion that Sir Tom's shadow still hangs comfortingly over the club and although it is now more than 50 years since he last pulled on the shirt, the decades have not dimmed Preston's affections for the local boy who scored 187 goals in 433 Football League appearances for PNE.
Sir Tom was born a stone's throw from the stadium back in 1922 and this year he will celebrate his 90th birthday in early April. It is a milestone that will certainly not go unmarked at Deepdale and it will be another opportunity for the younger generation to learn about the exploits of the striker fondly known as the 'Preston Plumber'.
The club's love affair with Sir Tom began in 1937 when the 15-year-old signed as an amateur. The teenager could have signed on the dotted line even sooner but his father insisted he complete his apprenticeship in the family plumbing business before putting pen to paper, hence the nickname, but the Second World War meant his first team debut was delayed.
His time in the club's youth ranks was not wasted though and it was in the junior sides that he first came to the attention of a Scottish midfielder by the name of Bill Shankly. The two would play together for Preston after the War but even in those early days, Sir Tom is quick to acknowledge the influence the future Liverpool manager had on his career.
"He used to take an interest in the junior side and watched us whenever he could which was usually when we had a weekday match," he said. "He would always make a point of coming to talk to us, telling us how much he'd enjoyed it. He had a very keen interest in the game. He would tell us that he felt proud watching us and that we played for a great club. It lifted you six feet because as a junior you looked up to those sort of people. He was such a wonderful character and a wonderful player to have in your side because he didn't know what the word 'defeat' meant."
Many years later, Shankly was more than happy to repay the compliment. "Pele was a great player. He must rank one of the best of all time but I've said that Tommy Finney was the best I've seen and I'd bracket Pele, Eusebio, Cruyff, Di Stefano and Puskas up there with him."
The end of wartime hostilities saw Sir Tom play first team football for the first time in August 1946 and in his debut season, he scored seven goals in 32 league appearances. It was a promising return but far more significant was his potent blend of pace and power, an aerial threat that belied his modest stature and above all, his remarkable dribbling ability. The fact he could kick equally well with either foot, enabling him to play left or right wing as well as centre forward was merely the icing on the cake.
Over the next 13 seasons, Sir Tom continued to find the back of the net with reassuring regularity. His form earned him the first of his 76 caps for England in 1946 and a trip to Brazil for the World Cup in 1950 but at club level silverware proved maddeningly elusive and the closest he and his Preston team-mates came to glory was their appearance in the 1954 FA Cup final against West Bromwich Albion. The Baggies had done their homework however and negated Sir Tom's threat with two man markers and PNE were beaten 3-2.
The side also finished as First Division runners up in 1953 and again in 1958, but while Sir Tom never lifted a major trophy, individual accolades were much more forthcoming and he was voted the Footballer of the Year in 1953-54 and again in 1956-57, the first man to win the award twice.
His final, emotional appearance for the club came against Luton Town in 1960 and a crowd of 30,000 crammed into Deepdale to salute their hero one last time. In playing terms, it was the end of a remarkable journey that begun 23 years earlier.
Sir Tom's association with his hometown club of course did not simply end when he hung up his boots. He remains the club president and in 2002 the club unveiled his statue 'The Splash' in his honour, commemorating an iconic moment from his career in a game against Chelsea which was famously captured by a photographer at Stamford Bridge.
"The game was in 1956," Sir Tom said. "There had been a big downpour just before the kick-off. The match would not have been played today because there were huge pools of water on the playing surface. I was going past a defender and the ball ran into a pool of water. It was a fantastic photograph and it won the Sports Photograph of the Year award. The sculpture is a true likeness."
There are not many footballers who had statues dedicated to them but then there haven't been many players quite like Sir Tom.
FOOTBALL LEAGUE RECORD
Preston North End (1946-60) - 433 League appearances, 187 goals