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The story of Nat Lofthouse and Bolton Wanderers' first-ever World Cup goal

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Nat Lofthouse only got one opportunity to play at a World Cup Finals – and his solitary experience of the grandest stage of them all was not without incident.

Only three Bolton Wanderers players have scored in a major international tournament, and long before Radhi Jaidi or Chung-Yong Lee, it was the great Lion of Vienna who was flying the international flag for the club.

Sixty-seven years ago to the day, Lofthouse walked out in 30 degree heat in the Swiss Alps to face Belgium at the 1954 World Cup, in what proved England’s highest-scoring tournament clash ever.

England had managed just two goals in a disastrous debut at the 1950 tournament, which saw them knocked out in the group stages after a shock defeat to the USA, followed by another against Spain.

Four years later they travelled to Switzerland in the midst of an even greater identity crisis after an unblemished record at Wembley had been obliterated by Hungary, who after beating Walter Winterbottom’s men 6-3 in London, then hammered them 7-1 in Budapest the following May, just a month before the tournament kicked-off.

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Lofthouse – who only two years earlier had been lauded for his heroics against Austria and bestowed the nickname which stayed with him for the rest of his days – had been forced into international exile for several months as England preferred Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen and then a succession of other more mobile centre-forwards before bringing Bolton’s finest back into the squad for the World Cup itself.

The trademark of a tournament played in searing Swiss heat was high-scoring games. A record 5.38 goals were racked up per game in 1954, more than double any World Cup finals played since Spain 82, with the marginal exception of USA 94.

The highest-scoring game of all was played at the quarter-final stage between Austria and the hosts, during which both goalkeepers suffered heat exhaustion in a game which finished 7-5 to the Austrians and went down in history as the Hitzeschlacht von Lausanne (Heat Battle of Lausanne).

An odd tournament structure pitted seeded England and Italy against two unseeded nations, Switzerland and Belgium, but not each other, in the group.

Belgium proved tough opponents in Basel, taking an early lead through Leopold Anoul, cancelled out by Newcastle United’s Ivor Broadis.

Just before half-time, Lofthouse got his chance to shine. Tom Finney broke down the right and clipped a cross towards the near post where the Bolton striker flung himself full length to head the ball home.

“You can find footage of the goal itself,” explained Lofthouse biographer, Matt Clough. “It is a fantastic header and I believe Nat is quoted himself as saying he didn’t know why he’d tried to head the ball in the first place, as it had reached him at shin height.

“He committed to it and it ended up being a trademark Lofthouse header, brave as you like, putting his head where people wouldn’t put their foot.”

Despite being 28, Lofthouse actually became England’s youngest-ever goal-scorer at the World Cup, a title he relinquished the following game when Wolves’ Jimmy Mullen netted against Switzerland – a game which Lofty missed through illness.

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England looked out of sight when Broadis added a third just after the hour but the Belgians rallied again, Anoul getting the second and Henri Coppens forcing the game into extra time – a competition rule which did little to help the players in such extreme temperatures.

Lofthouse scored a fourth with a terrific angled half-volley from Broadis’s pass but the Belgians levelled again three minutes later as Portsmouth’s Jimmy Dickinson headed past his own keeper.

The Swiss press made Belgium favourites for the competition after they had shown such spirit but a defeat against Italy in their next game meant an early return home.

England beat the Swiss and then restored Lofthouse to their attack for the quarter-final against Uruguay.

He scored again, albeit England wilted in the heat of the day and lost the game 4-2.

“I think for Nat it had been personal vindication for having been dropped for several months before the tournament,” Clough said. “Before the Hungary defeat England had probably considered themselves the best team on the continent, if not the world, but after a really indifferent period they went into that World Cup needing someone who was tried and trusted.”

Sadly, with no European Championship, it would be the only major tournament that Lofthouse was able to represent England.

Post-Munich Disaster, the untimely death of Tommy Taylor had led to calls for Lofthouse to be taken to the World Cup finals in 1958 alongside team-mates Tommy Banks and Eddie Hopkinson.

“It was a little like after the 1953 final with Stan Matthews,” Clough said. “People wanted him back in the England team and I think he ended up on the reserve list, a bit like James Ward-Prowse or Jesse Lingard are this summer. It looked like he was going to but England chose to take one centre-forward, Derek Kevan, and Bobby Charlton, who infamously didn’t feature at all. Famously, when Walter Winterbottom flew back his son asked him why Bobby never played.

“Nat did come in for a few final appearances after the 1954 World Cup but that unfortunately was his one and only chance to shine on an international stage like that.”

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