Not many were fortunate enough to spend as much time with Preston North End legend Sir Tom Finney as Eric Jones did, and those who were are unfortunately no longer around to tell their tales.
As Eric, 88, stood looking over Deepdale, the famous ground where he spent six seasons, he reminisced on his time with PNE legend Finney ahead of the sixth anniversary of Sir Tom’s death this Friday.
Finney played more than 400 times for North End between 1946-60 and won 76 caps for England making him one of the country’s most decorated players.
The pair weren’t only great friends during their time together with the Lilywhites, but that relationship carried through to the England international’s later years when Eric would go and visit him.
Eric said: “I have met many gentlemen in my life, but after my father I rated Sir Tom as the nicest man I’ve ever met in my life and this was not because of football but because of how he conducted himself as an outsider from football.
“I don’t think it needs to be said how he’s revered in this particular town or in the country or the world at large because he was certainly the greatest player I have ever seen and been lucky to play with.
“He was Preston North End, always will be, always was, and always one of my greatest men in sport.
“He was something very, very special and today I don’t think you could put a price on the man. He would be priceless.”
Jones joined PNE just days after he left the Royal Air Force, where he had spent two years, and was stunned by the warm welcome he received from the man he felt was the world’s best.
Eric said: “Sir Tom had a peg two pegs away from me and I was absolutely astounded.
“He welcomed me in and said ‘welcome Eric, you’re a local lad like myself, I hear you’ve got quite a bit of skill and you will develop it at this club’.
“I thought ‘what a wonderful greeting’, the greatest player in the world greeting me as if I’m one of them, which eventually I became. It was possibly one of the nicest moments of my life certainly in sport.”
They both played in the same position and, for the most part, Sir Tom was the reason why Eric was kept out of the first-team in the 1950s.
Jones was given his chance though when Finney picked up a groin strain, although the supporters who came to see PNE’s derby against Burnley weren’t aware they wouldn’t see him play.
Eric remembered: “We had a big audience that came down from Lancaster way and the Lake District to see the great man and I don’t blame them. It was well worth the journey.
“We were in the tunnel and I heard ‘change to the North End programme, Jones in place of Finney’. Well they all started booing.
“They’d not come to see a snotty-nosed kid from Deepdale, they’d come to see the great man.
“I thought ‘blimming heck I’m not even on the field yet give us a chance’.”
Eric not only has fond memories of his great friend, but also special mementos which cannot be matched by any other person in the world.
He was given the cap which Sir Tom had worn at the unveiling of his statue outside of Deepdale by his son Brian and he also holds the last ever signature Finney wrote before his death.
“I’ve got seven drawers full of mementos of my football career and that always stays in top drawer place.
“I take it out now and again and have moments of thought about the six seasons we spent together. They’ll never be forgotten.
“Fortunately, I’m 88 now and I’m still compos mentis. The unfortunate thing that happens to older people has not yet touched me and I’m ready to deal with it now and when, but I can still remember all these things which is very, very nice.”