Sir Alf Ramsey led England to World Cup glory in 1966
The iconic coach would have turned 100 on 22 January 2020
We look back at the man who gave England its finest football moment
Not even Queen Elizabeth II could contain her joy on 30 July 1966 when England, recognised as the birthplace of modern football, finally captured the FIFA World Cup™. As wild celebrations erupted inside Wembley Stadium and scores poured onto the streets up and down the country, it seemed there was just one man able to remain calm. Alf Ramsey, who had masterminded the nation’s greatest-ever sporting triumph, raised a warm smile but, remarkably, kept his composure as well as his seat on the bench.
Like Nobby Stiles’ jig and Bobby Moore’s lifting of the Jules Rimet trophy, the image of a restrained Ramsey sticks with every Englishman even 40 years after the famous event, underlining the importance of the role played by their coach and the quiet dignity that he personified. The ‘General’ also possessed an astute football brain, was flexible with his tactics, yet a strict disciplinarian, and as a technician was well ahead of his time. But perhaps his greatest talent was his ability to get the best out of his players.
“We will win the World Cup,” the Essex man announced with uncharacteristic bravado as he took the national-team reins in 1963. Never at ease among the press but nevertheless widely respected, a 5-2 loss to France in a European Nations’ Cup qualifying game had many within the media questioning the appointment. But Ramsey, who in his playing days as a right-back won 32 caps for England and a league championship with Tottenham Hotspur, was willing to take a major gamble by dispensing with the wingers English football had become identified with. He replaced them with an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, which led his side to become known as the ‘wingless wonders.’
Whatever criticism he took from the media, Ramsey’s loyalty to his players was always returned. “It worked both ways,” explained midfielder Nobby Stiles, who, despite a vicious tackle on French playmaker Jacques Simon during England’s 2-0 group win, was backed to the hilt by his manager amid calls for him to be dropped for the quarter-finals. “Because he was loyal to you, you’d run through brick walls for him. And it wasn’t just the players. Everyone concerned with England was doing it for Alf. Before the Argentina game I was in the bathroom putting my contacts in when Harold Shepherdson [Ramsey’s assistant] came in. He grabs me by the throat, pushes me against the wall and says, ‘Don’t you let Alf down’.”
Despite Ramsey’s bold prediction, most football experts did not think England, even as hosts, could win the tournament. After all Ramsey himself was in the England team that suffered a humiliating defeat by the United States at the 1950 finals in Brazil. His last cap, three years later at Wembley, came on the day Hungary’s magical Magyars famously destroyed the home team 6-3. In three subsequent FIFA World Cups – Switzerland ’54, Sweden ’58 and Chile ’62 – England had failed to go beyond the last eight.
There was little reason to suspect that Ramsey’s men could dethrone Pele and Co, but England were about to wake up to the world. A goalless draw against Uruguay kicked off the finals for the hosts, which was followed by an unconvincing 2-0 win against Mexico. However, a confident 2-0 victory over France showed the team were moving in the right direction, and after vanquishing Argentina in a rugged 1-0 match – Ramsey infamously referred to the Argentina players as “animals” after the contest – the nation began to believe in the coach and his ‘wingless wonders’.
With Gordon Banks in goal and captain Bobby Moore majestic in front of him, England had not conceded a goal in the tournament to that point. When their net did bulge for the first time, it came just eight minutes from time in the semi-final against Portugal, and Eusebio’s penalty was too late to undo the damage of two Bobby Charlton strikes. That 2-1 success put England into the final where they would face West Germany, a side they had never lost to.
While the form book was in England’s favour, few could have predicted the full drama of the 1966 FIFA World Cup final – Germany’s last-gasp equaliser for 2-2, England’s controversial ‘third’ goal, Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick and finally the jubilation – all with Ramsey sitting resolutely on the bench. Hero Hurst related how Ramsey convinced the team to fight on before extra time: “You’ve won it once. Now go and win it again.”
A knight of the realm
Alf became Sir Alf a year later and under his charge, the 1960s continued to swing for English football fans. Many commentators believed the team Ramsey took to Mexico ’70 were even better than the champions of four years before, and the paternal England coach seemed to instinctively know what his players needed to perform at their best. Together with this psychological insight into the machinations of the modern professional, Ramsey’s hand extended as far as travel arrangements, diet and fitness. His planning and control were even more exact for the Mexico finals.
“Alf’s preparations for Mexico were incredible,” remembered Stiles. “They’d be reckoned obsolete by today’s standards but in those days they were revolutionary. No stone was left unturned. He even took HP Sauce to Mexico. I’ll always remember that – HP Sauce on the tables.”
“We had some tremendous individual players and we all had one thing in common – Sir Alf Ramsey. It’s easy to spot players who have ability. What’s not so straightforward is realising which personalities will combine well to form a strong team. That was Alf’s strength.”
But the world champions were hit by incidents off the field that would test Ramsey’s managerial abilities to the full. First, his captain and great ally, Bobby Moore, was falsely arrested for stealing a necklace from a shop in a Colombian hotel. And, before the quarter-final rematch with West Germany, Banks – who made a miraculous save from a Pele header in the 1-0 group defeat by Brazil – fell ill. The resulting quarter-final in Leon was a turning point in the England coach’s reign.
An error from Banks’ replacement Peter Bonetti gave the Germans a lifeline at 2-1 in the second half, and Ramsey’s decision to take off Charlton just minutes before Uwe Seeler’s goal brought the contest level has been viewed as the moment when the boss’ messiah-like reputation was lost for good. Gerd Muller’s winner in the second period of extra time left England toppled in the most dramatic of fashions.
By the early 1970s football was transforming, and the change from black-and-white TV was accompanied by more colourful coaches who were more engaging with the media. Ramsey’s momentous feats in the 60s found little currency when after a one-sided home draw with Poland, England failed to qualify for the 1974 finals in West Germany. “If Bobby Moore had wept, we would have all wept with him,” said the deflated coach whose dozen-year reign came to an end. In all, Sir Alf’s England teams registered 69 victories, 27 draws and 17 losses.
“It was the most devastating half-hour of my life,” Ramsey later said of his sacking. “I stood in a room almost full of staring committee men. It was just like I was on trial. I thought I was going to be hanged.” The 53-year-old son of a smallholder remained the people’s champion, though, and with every passing year his unique feat of leading England to victory in the game they gave to the world appears more and more remarkable.