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Nicknamed ‘Golden Boy’ during the 1940s because of his mop of blood hair, Mannion was a tricky inside-forward of stunning ability. A supremely gifted inside-forward for Middlesborough and England, his talent was allied to a rebellious nature which led him to take on the game's hierarchy and stage a one-man strike against his club.
Wilfred James Mannion was born in South Bank Middlesborough on 16 May 1918. He was one of ten children of Irish immigrant parents. Mannion played in local leagues before he signed professional for Middlesborough in September 1936. He remained with them unto 1954, scoring 110 goals in 368 appearances. Only five feet five inches tall, he was widely regarded as one of the all-time great forwards for his ball-control, speed and scoring ability.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Mannion’s career was interrupted by the Second World War. A front-line soldier with the 7th battalion of the Green Howards in France, Sicily and the Middle East, he was deeply traumatised by his experiences in combat. He also suffered jaundice and malaria.
Shortly after the resumption of his career, Mannion fell out with the Middesborough’s board of directors. Dissatisfied with the maximum wage of £10 per week, Mannion wouldn’t sign a new contract for the club and arranged to drop into the 3rd division with Oldham Athletic so that he would have the time to run a business on the side, selling chicken coops.
Middlesborough stood firm. ‘Even if we were given a cheque for £50,000 we would not transfer Mannion,' the Boro manager said. ‘Why should we let the best player in Britain go?' Relations deteriorated, and in 1948, Mannion staged a one-man strike in a bid to force the issue, refusing to sign a new contract. He was out of the game for the best part of six months, waiting for the stalemate to be resolved.
This state of affairs also impacted on his blossoming England career. Mannion had made a sensational debut on 10 May 1947 when selected for England's first official post-war international scoring a hat-trick in a 7-2 drubbing of Northern Ireland. He played twenty-six times for his country and earned the admiration of his fellow players. Stanley Matthews once said of Mannion: ‘Wilf is my idea of a perfect inside partner.' Ramsey said: ‘He was in a class of his own as a skilful strategist.' Manager Walter Winterbottom said. ‘Wilf had stunning ball-control and high deftness of touch. He was always prepared to fit in with Finney, a clear indication of his greatness. When a super player in his own right is prepared to subordinate himself to the optimum needs of the team, he puts severe stresses on his own inclinations. But in doing it he confirms his own greatness.'
After retiring as a player in 1954, Mannion joined Hull City. However, in a series of newspaper articles he made a number of controversial statements, including allegations of illegal payments. The Football League reacted by banning him for life. In 1956 he joined non-league Cambridge, and before the end of that season the Football League rescinded the ban. Mannion finally retired and returned to his native Teesside, working in a series of unskilled jobs on building sites, the railways and steelworks.
He spent many years fighting for a testimonial that had been denied him by Middlesborough. The club finally agreed in 1983 to a joint testimonial for Mannion and his club and England colleague George Hardwick.
He died in 2000 aged eighty-one, after a prolonged illness. His memory still lives on outside the Riverside Stadium in the form of an eight foot brass statue. One of his greatest fans was Brian Clough once declared: ‘Wilf played football the way Fred Astaire danced.’