Dave Hill, the author of England's Glory: 1966 And All That, addresses some of the misconceptions that have developed around England's finest hour
Anyone with a healthy suspicion of nostalgia and a wholesome dislike for chest-beating patriots can be forgiven for feeling cynical about England’s triumph in the 1966 World Cup. After all, if you delve beneath the standard memories of the final against West Germany, of Kenneth Wolstenholme saying what Kenneth Wolstenholme said as Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick, of Bobby Moore wiping his hands on his shorts before shaking hands with a laughing Liz Windsor, and of Nobby Stiles’ woodentops war dance during the lap of honour, what are the unvarnished facts?
Not, as older readers may recall, wholly glorious. The final, of course, was the complete football drama, but it wasn’t until they eclipsed Portugal (and the marvellous Eusébio) in the semi-final that England summoned a performance of dash and glamour. Before that they had been hugely ordinary against mostly unexceptional opposition. They had an excuse for their impotence against Uruguay in the tournament’s opening game: the tension was tremendous and Uruguay (though weakened by the absence of several key players contracted to uncooperative Argentinian clubs) were an accomplished defensive side. In such circumstances a goalless draw, though disappointing, could be forgiven.
But recalling the grace and power of Bobby Charlton’s opening goal in the ensuing fixture against Mexico, as people often do, helps obscure the fact that England had looked clueless in attack until that moment and the home crowd had signalled it’s impatience with a chant of “We want goals!” They got one more and England won 2-0. Yet in beating France by the same scoreline three days later Alf Ramsey’s side were again incoherent, despite the curly-haired Robert Herbin being hobbled in the first few minutes. Substitutes were not allowed in (to give it its full title) the Final Series of the Eighth World Cup Competition, so France were effectively reduced to ten men. Yet still England floundered for long periods.
Thus the host side advanced to the quarter-final against Argentina with trepidation, not simply because the South American outfit captained by the imperious Antonio Rattín were infamous spitters and off-the-ball ankle-tappers, but also because they had looked a better team. Apart from Rattín, who ran the midfield at a lofty canter, they had a daring artiste in Ermindo Onega and a dandy striker called Luis Artime, known in Buenos Aires as The Handsome One. Artime had scored three times in the group games and Onega (his team mate at River Plate) was sufficiently feared as his chief supplier to be made the special responsibility of Stiles, England’s totemic midfield harasser.
Adulatory accounts of England’s triumph rarely acknowledge that Stiles might easily not have played against Argentina at all. Towards the end of the match against France he committed what many regarded as a terrible foul on the artful Jacques Simon . Yet it went unpunished by the Peruvian referee Arturo Yamasaki, and it was while Simon lay clutching his leg that England penetrated a distracted French defence for a second time to make victory safe.
However, a watching FIFA official made use of his curious power to “book” a player from the stand, and in the post-match furore pressure was put on Ramsey not to select Stiles to play against Argentina who already had a player sent off in a blood-curdling goalless showdown with West Germany.
Ramsey, who had little time for officials, would have none of it. But, of course, the Argentina match eventually entered the national folklore not because of anything Stiles did but because Rattin was sent off after 36 minutes by the prickly West German referee Rudolf Kreitlein, a dismissal that which acquired an epic quality thanks to the towering Argentinian’s contemptuous stalk back towards the Wembley tunnel pursued by vindictive cries of “Dago!” by fair-minded Englishmen in the crowd. Rattin’s removal was undoubtedly deserved, yet the ensuing chorus of chauvinistic glee all but drowned out the observation made (surprisingly) by a member of the House of Lords that England had committed more fouls in the match than the South Americans and so had nothing to be pious about. Little has changed since.
In mitigation, though, the team could point to the goal by Geoff Hurst which finally separated the two sides, the sublime near-post header from a wide-angled Martin Peters cross which the pair had practised to perfection on the West Ham training pitch at Chadwell Heath. It marked the start of Hurst’s marvellous contribution to the England campaign, a contribution which, despite his three goals in the final, has not been appreciated as fully as it should.
And maybe that’s the problem with the more sceptical perspectives on the most celebrated sporting achievement in England’s post-war sporting history. Yes, the romantic view is too rose-tinted to be true. And yet dissident readings of the events of July 1966 tend not to give Alf Ramsey and his players the praise they deserve. Indeed there are those – pundits and fans alike – who go so far as to argue that the day the Jules Rimet trophy was hoisted at Wembley marked the onset of a dark age in English football.
Such contentions usually spring from an aesthetic complaint about the way Ramsey’s team played. Yet this is based on the dubious assumption that the stone-faced England manager was in abject thrall to defensive instincts. Sure (or, as the posh public Alf would have put it, “most certainly”), there’s no doubting his dedication to eliminating risk. Yet although the winning team is famously recalled as the “wingless wonders”, Ramsey’s record shows that he consistently picked specialist wide players (even though he sometimes asked them to play deep, as he had done to such brilliant effect with Jimmy Leadbetter when winning the with Ipswich) since succeeding Walter Winterbottom in the autumn of 1962, and that he only dispensed with them completely when the exceptional challenge of the Argentina contest caused him to recall the combative, short-passing Alan Ball rather than give another chance to John Connelly, Terry Paine or Ian Callaghan, who each had a turn on the flanks in the group matches.
After that grim quarter-final victory Ramsey was unlikely to change a winning team as the tournament approached its climax. And this brings us to the eternal controversy over Jimmy Greaves. The great goalscorer’s omission from the final line-up despite recovering from a gashed shin sustained against France was undoubtedly a personal tragedy, and today erstwhile squad colleagues murmur their agreement with the widely- held theory that his sad descent into alcoholism was hastened, even triggered, by this desperate disappointment.
But was the absence of Greaves a tragedy for English football? Is it further proof that Ramsey profoundly mistrusted flair and had a thoroughly negative approach to the game, an approach which contaminated the national team for years, if not decades, after?
Again, the evidence does not really sustain the accusation. For a start (as Greaves himself has acknowledged), it’s hard to argue with Geoff Hurst’s presence on the score-sheet. Furthermore, Ramsey’s record shows that, far from looking for excuses to dump Greaves, he had always wanted the Tottenham man in his England attack. Absences through injury and, notably, through a bad bout of jaundice during the first part of the 1965-66 season partly conceal the fact that Greaves was the only forward who Ramsey consistently regarded as his first choice for his position up to and including the group matches in 1966.
(It is also sometimes implied that the reserved, mannered Ramsey thought that the incorrigibly chirpy Greaves a flawed character. The two men’s very different attitudes to their roots in working-class Dagenham make this a tempting conclusion. But it is less easy to argue that any such personal opinion affected Ramsey’s assessment of Greaves as a player. In any case he seems to have had at least as many off-the-field run-ins with Greaves’ friend and drinking partner Bobby Moore and Ramsey’s dedication to his young captain is beyond dispute.)
You often hear claims that Ramsey knew what his England team would be long before the tournament started. This is a myth. Agreed, he’d found his ideal defence in April 1965 when the established Banks, Cohen, Wilson, and Moore were joined by debutantes Jack Charlton and Stiles, who generally augmented the back four as (as Ramsey once put it) an advanced sweeper. But his forward preferences were unclear right up to until he was obliged to name his World Cup squad of twenty-two in June 1966. Strikers Barry Bridges, Frank Wignall, Alan Peacock, Mick Jones, Fred Pickering, Joe Baker and Johnny “Budgie” Byrne (like wingers Gordon Harris, Alan Hinton, Peter Thompson, Derek Temple and Bobby Tambling) were all contenders at various points in the eighteen-month run-up, but none of them made the squad. In comparison Greaves was an ever-present.
Geoff Hurst actually came into the picture very late, winning his first cap at Wembley only in February 1966 against, of all opponents, West Germany. The match proved a dismal rehearsal for the incredible final to come with Stiles – wearing nine for the night – scoring the only goal. But Hurst retained his place and was allotted the number ten shirt in the squad suggesting that he had secured a place in Ramsey’s provisional first choice side as Greaves’s striking partner.
Yet for the curtain-raiser against Uruguay Hurst was displaced by Roger Hunt. “Sir Roger”, darling of the Kop, is often demeaned as a typical Ramsey player, a reliable artisan rather than an artiste. Surely, it is often implied, if hindsight justifies Ramsey’s retention of Hurst for the final it cannot do the same for Hunt. But again the record books render this judgement arguable. Few would dispute that Greaves was the more gifted player, and although Hunt was an established member of Ramsey’s squads he was essentially Greaves’s understudy. Yet Hunt had a better ratio of goals per game under Ramsey – prior to the Would Cup Greaves had scored twenty-one times in twenty-six matches and Hunt eleven times in twelve. And in the group matches Hunt scored three of England’s four. True, none had been classics. But the Liverpool man could hardly be punished for doing what he had been picked for.
Greaves meanwhile looked below par and would very likely have been dropped by Ramsey for the Argentina match even if he had been fit. Faced with the prospect of penetrating a packed and knowing defence the options offered to Ramsey by the tall, athletic Hurst – so good in the air and at receiving the ball, selflessly with his back to goal – were persuasive. And after the Hurst-Hunt pairing functioned well in the thrilling defeat of Portugal, dropping either would not only be painful but would have risked damaging the chemistry of the whole team.
So the wingerless, Greaves-less, 4-4-2-shaped England that walked out to face the indestructible Uwe Seeler, the lithe young Franz Beckenbauer, the imposing Willi Schulz and company was not straightforwardly the reflection of a soulless, suspicious, over-cautious man as Ramsey was often accused of being.
Nor was it mechanically produced from some soccer-science master plan. Although the defensive personnel remained unchanged, the rest of the side owed its make-up to a combination of team selections which were perfectly logical in their context (and which all paid off) and an appreciation that a team that prevails against top-class opposition gathers cohesion from experience.
And how they needed that cohesion – that strength – in the final, a match whose ebbs and flows, errors, moments of brilliance and sheer dramatic intensity still make compulsive viewing thirty years and many re-runs later. Furthermore, it was a team whose members (and reserves who watched in agony from the stands) retain a wholly admirable loyalty to each other to this day.
It may not have been total football but it was, for the most part, honourable, brave, and true. That’s worth applauding. It may even justify millions of English folk continuing to kid themselves that the late Tofik Bakhramov of Azerbaijan was definitely right to tell Gottfried Dienst of Switzerland that, yes, it crossed the line.
From WSC 112 June 1996. What was happening this month