After taking the job as manager of the national team in 1963, using calm, measured terms, and with an understated confidence bereft of any braggart posturing, Alf Ramsey publicly declared that England would win the World Cup in 1966. Not that they might, or that they could, or even that they should; but very definitely that they would. Those practised, clipped tones were simply stating facts. England will win the World Cup in 1966. And they did! Of course, with hindsight it doesn’t sound so much ‘out there’ but back in 1963, to use the modern vernacular it took some bottle. Ramsey had one key factor on his side though, he knew that by adding his ideas and a few new faces to the players bequeathed him by Walter Winterbottom he could turn England into the best team in the world and one of the greatest in World Cup history.
Let’s start with a little context. The World Cup was already three tournaments old when the FA deigned to join in what would become the biggest single-sport event on the planet in 1950. Before the Second World War, Uruguay and Italy, twice, had been hailed as world champions, but in the new post-war era, England had stepped onto the stage. They expected to feature as stars, front and centre. In typical insular fashion there was a greatly inflated idea within the country of where England stood in comparison to the rest of the world. Now those assumptions would be tested and, like a bucket of ice water thrown onto someone slumbering deep in the arms of Morpheus, it would bring forward a rude awakening.
The first two attempts at turning perception into reality ended in the group stages at the Brazil Finals in 1950, and then, thanks to an insanely complicated format for the Switzerland tournament in 1954, the quarter-finals. They resulted in England being given a tournament ranking of eighth and then seventh, respectively. In 1958, that slipped back to eleventh, before climbing back to eighth in 1962. All in all, it was hardly commanding form and comparing it to the tournaments post-1966, was about par for the course. The only exception being a fourth-place finish in Italy under Sir Bobby Robson, when penalties did for England in the semi-final. The two most recent Finals gave England their worst placings, thirteenth in 2010 and a dispiriting twenty-sixth in 2014. In fact, excluding 1966, England’s average placing was just slightly worse than ninth. But creeping into the top ten isn’t what England were expecting. So how good were Ramsey’s team that managed to buck the trend and lift the Three Lions above this mediocrity to the top of the footballing tree.
The squad that Winterbottom had taken to Chile for the 1962 Finals had changed drastically by the time Ramsey named his players for the World Cup held in England. There were ten names included in both events, but whilst players such as Eastham, Flowers and goalkeeper Ron Springett remained unselected throughout the tournament, and John Connelly only played in the opening game against Uruguay, some others, who cut their teeth in the tournament four years earlier, were now at the peak of their powers.
Among these were four players who would not only form the spine of Ramsey’s team, but would also be also be classed amongst the greatest players in their positions of the era. At 28 years-old, and with 27 caps behind him, Gordon Banks was the epitome of excellence. Often described at the time as being as ‘Safe as the Bank of England’ looking back, it sounds a less complimentary sobriquet, than was intended. In defence was the incomparable Bobby Moore. Aged just 25, he was the skipper of the team and the man who played in defence with the majesty of a cultured midfielder. Not only a squad member in 1962, he had also played, offering glimpses of the burgeoning talent that would burst into full flower across the next decade. Further forward was Bobby Charlton. The legendary Manchester United forward was the fulcrum of England’s attacks and his ability to run forward with the ball at his feet, disrupting the most disciplined of defences, coupled with his cannonball shooting prowess was a key factor in England’s triumph. Even four years later, then 32 years old, Charlton’s prowess was such that Helmut Schön, West Germany’s manager was prepared to sacrifice the creative influence of Franz Beckenbauer in order to man-mark Charlton Other than for some Eastern Bloc consolidation of voting, Charlton would surely have won the Ballon d’Or of 1966, but lost out to Flórián Albert of Hungary, finishing as runner-up. Add in the Merseyside duo of Roger Hunt and Ray Wilson, who had both been in Chile as well, and the core of Ramsey’s team had case-hardened experience of top level competition. Jack Charlton hadn’t journeyed to South America, but at 31 he was not only a hardened centre-back who knew all aspects of the game, he was also the ideal counter-point to Moore in the back-line, and the two dovetailed perfectly. There was one other player, another veteran of Chile, who looked exceedingly likely to be key to Ramsey’s planning before the tournament got under way, who had also featured in 1962, but injury curtailed his contribution.
Ramsey clearly had a core of players who were not only exceptional, but also experienced. He would complement these with a group of younger legs and eager minds. George Cohen and Nobby Stiles fitted a similar pattern to Jackie Charlton. Both had missed out four years previously, but at 26 and 24 respectively, were accomplished players. Among the tyros were three players who would star in the tournament. Alan Ball was just 21 years old, but once Ramsey had settled on his first choice eleven, the Blackpool player was seen as indispensable, especially in the system Ramsey played. Martin Peters was a year older than Ball, but with just three caps. He too would cement a place in the team that triumphed, whilst the story of Geoff Hurst’s World Cup needs no trailer. Going into the tournament with just four caps behind him, he would net as many goals as that across the Finals, with of course three coming in the Final itself— a distinction that remains unique in the World Cup to this day. For every tale of joy though, there is one of dismay. Jimmy Greaves was the hottest of hot-shot strikers. In a pre-tournament tour of Europe, he had notched four goals in a single game and seemed in prime form, almost guaranteeing goals for Ramsey. In a tournament that played out so gloriously for England however, Greaves would be the man who missed out.
This was the blend of experience, youth and boundless talent that Ramsey would shape into world champions, and become one of the greatest international teams of all time. The ingredients for Ramsey’s plan were then in place, but he needed the ideal recipe to ensure that they combined to produce the perfect dish. In what was a major break with the established norm, especially across Europe, Ramsey developed a system of a condensed midfield, without traditional wide players deployed as out and out wingers. It allowed his team to dominate the centre of the pitch and became known as his ‘Wingless Wonders.’ This wasn’t dogma though, it was an assessment of the players at hand and applying a system that would concentrate on their strengths to extract the maximum effect.
Having the tournament staged in your own country can be advantageous of course, but not having to qualify can be a double-edged sword. Shorn of the pressures of getting there is advantageous, but a lack of truly competitive games can be less than useful in bringing players to a high point of preparation. In the tournament’s opening game therefore when England faced Uruguay at Wembley on 11 July, a frustrating goalless draw may well have been the result of what coaches nowadays often call being ‘undercooked’ for the big games. It may also have had the added advantage of both deflating overblown expectations, reducing pressure on the players and, at the same time, delivering a kick up the backside to ensure the next games would be better. If the latter was the case, it worked, as England would win every game from there, up to and including the Final nineteen days later.
Five days later, against Mexico, it was a sharper England, showing a more urgent edge to their forward play. They dominated early on, but coming towards the half-hour mark, still hadn’t found the back of the net. At times like this, you need your big players to step, up and that’s what Bobby Charlton did. Driving forwards into the Mexican half, he jinked left, and then right, opening up the angle for a shot. “Maybe a shot from Charlton?” questioned Kenneth Wolstenholme commentating for the BBC. It was, and it thundered into the net. It didn’t announce that England were on the march, it blasted it out, with trumpets blaring. A second-half goal from the unassuming, but deadly efficient, Roger Hunt made the game safe.
Things were looking so much brighter and the rest of the teams in the tournament were put on notice that England were a growing force to be reckoned with. The one blot on the landscape though was that Greaves, despite playing well in both games had failed to secure that most valuable of currencies for a striker; a goal. Against France, in the last of the group games, he would strive with renewed vigour to score, but the game would end in frustration and dismay for the Spurs striker.
Back at Wembley on 19 July, England had the luxury of knowing they had already qualified unless they tumbled to a heavy defeat to the French. Mexico and Uruguay had both completed their programmes, the latter being eliminated having garnered just two points. The South Americans however had four points and if England wanted to top the group, they would need at least a draw. By now though, England had found their rhythm and a further two goals from Hunt saw them to victory with something to spare.
Two wins after the slow start was just the sort of progress that teams who ‘grow into a tournament’ produce. Whilst everyone else was excited at what this meant, in a quiet corner sat a disconsolate Jimmy Greaves. Not only had he failed to score again, one attempt where he found the net was ruled out for offside, he had also suffered a severe gash to his shin, meaning he would at least miss the quarter-final game, when England would face an Argentina side whose robust approach had taken West Germany to the wire in the fight to top their group. From here on in, if England had genuine pretentions of joining the elite of world football, they would need to show they were up to the task.
With Brazil kicked out of the tournament in more ways than one, the Argentines were the main flag-bearers for South America and would be tough nuts to crack, especially as England were now shorn of their ace marksman who was, to use the old idiom, due a goal. Ramsey brought in Geoff Hurst to replace Greaves, and the team that faced Argentina would remain in place right through to the final.
If the group games had allowed England to play through a sticky start, this South American team was on another level to the Uruguay side that Ramsey’s men had toiled without reward against in the opening game. Clever on the ball and technically gifted, they didn’t shy away from a more agricultural ploy when it was called for. England would need a tenacious display if they were to progress to the last four.
In a fractious encounter, Argentine skipper Antonio Rattin was dismissed in the first-half and England eventually won through with a Hurst header inside the last twenty minutes. It was hardly a game for the purists, but had the invaluable outcome of England proving they could win out in such battles. Ramsey’s team had acquired a hard centre.
The semi-final pitted England against a Portugal team who had hardly endeared themselves to the watching public by indulging in the sort of rough-house play that Bulgaria had opened up with against Brazil. Such was the effect of the tactic that Pelé was literally kicked out of the tournament after the Portuguese were almost lining up to hack at him. Against England though, that approach had been foresworn and one of the best matches of the tournament took place at Wembley on 26 July, when England faced Portugal and their own top striker, Eusébio, who would go on to be the tournament’s top scorer.
England’s opponents were anything but a one-man team though, and in the tall José Torres and the elegant Mário Coluna, they had plenty of other players who could turn a game in their favour. It was decision time for Ramsey. Greaves was now available again, but while the erstwhile main man up front had failed to find the net in his games to date, Hurst had notched the winner in his only outing. Whether Ramsey sensed a moment of fate or not, he stuck with the guy in the shirt and, in a scenario inconceivable before the tournament started, Greaves lost out.
The game itself was a thrilling encounter, with both teams pushing for goals and England intent on probing the space behind their opponents’ high back line. The ploy delivered twice with Bobby Charlton netting on both occasions following up on through balls that had caused problems for the Portuguese defence. A late penalty by Eusébio meant a stressful last ten minutes or so, but England saw the game out and they were through to their first World Cup Final. Ramsey was on the cusp of delivering.
Donned in the red shirts and white shorts that, since that date, England always seem to try and default to when facing German opposition, England took to the field at Wembley on 30 July. The game itself would be a roller-coaster of emotions for both teams and include probably the most controversial goal of all time in such a high-profile game. West Germany netted first, when Helmut Haller scored following a weak England clearance a dozen minutes in. It was the first goal Banks had conceded in the tournament from open play. The only other blot on his copy book being Eusébio’s penalty.
England would equalise six minutes later when Hurst nodded home from a quickly-taken free-kick by Moore, and that’ s the way it stayed until, closing in on the last ten minutes, Peters swept England ahead. For all the world it looked like the winning goal until in the dying seconds, Wolfgang Weber forced the ball home after a scramble in the England goalmouth. It was surely a dispirited England that gathered around Ramsey at full-time, but in his quiet way he simply told his players, “You’ve won it once. Now you’ll have to go out there and win it again.”
Into extra-time, Hurst’s ‘was-it-wasn’t-it’ goal caused ructions as an Azeri linesman—wrongly identified at the time as Russian—and a Swiss referee found a common language of nods and gesticulations to confirm that the ball had crossed the line. And with time drifting away, Hurst crashed the hat-trick goal to ensure that England were world champions. Bobby Moore wiped the mud from his hands on the velvet drapes of the Royal Box before proving it to the world by lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy.
World Cup winners, but were they the best team in the world? The answer is surely in the affirmative. Aside from the opening game, they had won every contest, succeeded in all types of matches, exhibited a robust defence and a flair for goals, even when shorn of their iconic striker, and displayed a resilience to battle back on the rare occasion when they conceded. The tournament also confirmed the status of a number of their players as truly world class. Banks, Moore and Charlton would surely have got into the overwhelming majority of, if not all, other teams, across the globe. Above that though, Ramsey had constructed a method that allowed his players to produce an output greater than the sum of its parts. Not only did England have great players, they had one of the best teams of all time.
Four years later, England would go the Finals as holders and, despite losing out, put up an entirely creditable defence of the trophy. What sort of esteem were England held in at the time? A couple of quotes from Brazilian players that went on to win the trophy offer up illustrations. Before facing England in the pivotal group game, contemplating an injury, midfield general Gerson said “This is the match that stands between us and our third World Cup. If I am to damage the leg badly it is better that I should do it against England.” Following the game, in which he scored the winning goal, legendary forward Jairzinho summed up the game, “This game a special game, this the final of the World Cup!” Brazilians clearly considered England to still be one of the best teams in the competition.
Winning the World Cup in 1966 was both a boon and a bane for all the managers and players that followed the greats of 1966, let alone the fans. They had reached out and touched the sky. For lesser mortals, all attempts to replicate their achievements were doomed to failure. Ramsey’s World Cup winners left behind a legacy that required honouring, but to date seems too high for any to reach. There’s always hope of course, and whilst memories remain of ‘Jules Rimet still gleaming’ there’s an ambition to dine at football’s top table again. All England need are the right manger, the best players, and the correct method. Oh, well.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘World Cup’ edition of These Football Times magazine).