This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It was a terrific romp, the long summer of Swinging London. Michael Caine kicked off the pivotal year of 1966 in March, when his name went above the title in Alfie. By August, when the Beatles released “Revolver”, and Pearly Kings did the Lambeth Walk down Carnaby Street, Noel Coward’s “smokily enchanted” city was the capital of the world.
Between those bookends, on 30 July, England’s footballers won the World Cup at Wembley. The country which, legend insists, had invented the game could finally claim to rank above all others. Before 1966, the national team had known only misery, and failure has been a companion in the six decades since. On one tumultuous day, however, eleven young men in strawberry-jam shirts wore crowns.
Only two are still with us: the knights. Bobby Charlton was England’s stand-out star that summer, and Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the final, as West Germany submitted 4–2 after extra time. Duncan Hamilton’s wistful book gives those men their due, but its main purpose is to look again at the solitary soul who inherited a wayward group of players in May 1963 and turned them into champions.
If you were searching for a man who represented the antithesis of Sixties window-dressing, he would look like Alf Ramsey. Although he was 46, he looked 15 years older. He wore a collar and tie at all times (like many of the supporters) and spoke in a faux-genteel voice that could never disguise his early years in Dagenham as the son of a “totter”.
This dutiful professional, who had made First Division champions of unfashionable Ipswich Town, offered few words to those outside his bailiwick — and cared little, for he enjoyed the fierce loyalty of his men. Having predicted that England would win the World Cup, he earned that admiration by fulfilling the promise with a team greater than the sum of its parts.
His first decision was to put three pips on the shoulder of Bobby Moore, the finest left-half in the world. Then he identified Gordon Banks as the goalie — the greatest who ever lived. Finally, he turned Charlton from a left-winger into a roaming midfielder, where his ferocious shooting made him unpredictable and, at his best, uncontainable.
The fourth outstanding player is remembered as the man who lost his place. Jimmy Greaves, the expert goal-snatcher, never won Ramsey’s complete trust. As Hurst scored the winner against a gifted, provocative Argentina team in the quarter final, and claimed those three goals against the Germans, he justified the manager’s hunch. England also beat an excellent Portugal team in the semi-final, so they deserved their triumph.
There was a falling-off. Although England took a strong side to Mexico in 1970, they were unseated by a violent tummy bug that ruled Banks out of a quarter-final meeting with the Germans, who overturned a two-goal deficit. It was another German victory, at Wembley in April 1972, that eventually stopped Ramsey’s clock. English football had always valued hard work above high skill. Now it had become antediluvian.
Treated like a serf by the ghastly Sir Harold Thompson, chairman of the Football Association, Sir Alf (as he became in 1967) endured a bitter retirement, and his final years were a diminuendo. In his eleven years in charge of the national team, the man who achieved a unique feat never earned more than £7,200.
Nor did his players prosper. Moore died from prostate cancer at 51 with an inadequate OBE, whereas another of those FA gargoyles, Bert “the inert” Millichip, hawked his knighthood around West Bromwich. As ye reap …
Alan Ball was felled by a heart attack at 61. Banks, who lost his right eye in a car accident, was another cancer victim. Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Jack Charlton were brought low by dementia. Bobby Charlton lives on in a fog.
Their great day, as Hamilton says, “is becoming a memory of a memory”. Yet to old-timers, alienated by the greed, reflexive dishonesty and oikishness of the modern game, with its media cheerleaders and bewildering jargon, those marvellous boys will remain forever young. None were saints-in-waiting. Equally, none wore a tattoo, feigned an injury, “broke the lines” or needed to be prodded into singing the national anthem. As years went by, some had to pawn their winners’ medals to make ends meet.
The game was poorer then, yet so much richer in spirit. Hamilton has chosen his subject well and composed a moving tribute.
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