Cris Freddi pays tribute to the inscrutable Sir Alf Ramsey, who died on April 28, 1999
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the reaction to Sir Alf Ramsey’s death, but it raises a point or two. Some of the football writers praising him today tried to bury him when he was England manager (“Ramsey’s Robots” they called his teams). The change wouldn’t have surprised Alf, who was always suspicious of them. He probably knew the passage of time would provide a sense of perspective. He was just pissed off it took so long.
In a way, winning the World Cup made a rod for his own back by confirming a nation’s preconceptions: we invented the game, we were still the best at it really. I may be wrong, but it seems to have taken all this time for people to realise that 1966 was a blip, by an under-achieving football country, and not something to do with divine right.
At the time, the success seemed to breed complacency born of a superiority complex. It allowed us to moan about England’s way of playing instead of celebrating the fact that we won the thing at all. Thirty years later we’re just grateful it happened and rightly so. Even under Ramsey, we probably wouldn’t have won it away from home.
Alf might well have known this, but it’s hard to be sure. His public pronouncements were confident to the point of providing his critics with ammunition: “Most certainly we will win the World Cup...We have nothing to learn from Brazil.” He even thought Hungary were lucky to win 6-3 in the match that ended his international career.
But all this may have been purely for our consumption, and I don’t think he cared about us much. I suspect he agreed with Billy McCracken that if football fans knew anything about the game “there’d be 50,000 of them on the pitch and 22 of us in the stands”.
So if we wanted to think of him as a cold fish and an oddball, it was water off his back. How would he celebrate winning the World Cup? “With a proper cup of tea.” How did he and Lady Vicky settle their tiffs? “We shake hands and make up.” If the press chose to use examples like that as sticks to beat him with – well, fuck them and anyone who believed them. I’m using the word because he did. To a journalist welcoming him to Scotland he responded: “You must be fucking joking.” To Jimmy Greaves: “If you want a fucking drink, you can come back to the fucking hotel and have one.” He spoke his players’ language, no doubt about it.
So much so that none of them seems to have had a bad word for him, which surprises you a bit. Here is a manager with the reputation for being suspicious of flair and maverick tendencies. So there ought to be the odd player giving him a tough time in print. Presumably Peter Osgood thought his England career should have been longer than 223 minutes. You’d expect some disgruntlement from Rodney Marsh, Alan Hudson, Tony Currie, Greaves himself.
But if there has been any, I can’t remember seeing it. Virtually every one of his England players seems to have had nothing but respect for the way he treated them. Go out and play the way you play for your club, that’s why I picked you. The drinks are on me after the game (“giving the gin and tonics a hammering” according to Greaves and Bobby Moore). Again, behind the public face, someone who was only really comfortable in the company of footballers.
He also comes across as a man of his time – and it wasn’t the Sixties. As a kid, I could never understand Harold Wilson being called a progressive young prime minister when he was clearly a middle aged geezer in a raincoat, and it was much the same with Alf. There was a kind of wartime feel about them.
Nowadays he wouldn’t try and hide his Romany background with elocution lessons. But before the era of Cockney photographers and Merseyside pop groups, everybody was taking them: they helped keep enemies at bay. Mind you, I’m making an assumption here. Bobby Moore thought the elocution lessons were simply the real Alf coming out. A riddle wrapped in a mystery all right.
This is interesting up to a point, but I’m not sure it’s any of our business. He would have wanted to be judged purely on his work in football, which is fair enough. And for the most part, his work was high class. As a full-back, he was slow but brainy and took penalties coolly. His passing and reading of the game which won him the nickname “The General” made him England’s first-choice right-back until he was nearly 34 and his diagonal crosses for Les Medley and Len Duquemin helped Tottenham’s push-and-run side win the league title in 1951 – their first season back in the First Division.
As a coach, he was up there with the greats, at least for a while – his wingless wonders alone were enough to prove it. Don’t forget that the term wasn’t used disparagingly at the start and that Alf fully understood the value of wingers. He gave Terry Paine 19 caps, Peter Thompson 16, John Connelly 11, and was looking for them right up to the World Cup quarter-final: Derek Temple, Gordon Harris, Ian Callaghan. But what do you do, asked Moore, when they don’t show “the right attitude, the right temperament, the right something. I’ll tell you. You use Ballie and Martin Peters.”
After three poor performances at the start of the 1965-66 season, he used Ball on a revolutionary night in the Bernabéu. The Spanish full-backs were left with no one to mark, England’s full-backs came up in attack and Spain’s manager thought it all “phenomenal”. England were “far superior in their experiment and their players”. Nor was it the dreary defensive measure we’ve been led to believe. Film of the match, won 2-0 by England, shows white shirts buzzing around the Spanish area, Moore coming forward to make one of the goals. And England didn’t bore anyone in the World Cup semi against Portugal.
The system reached its peak in 1969 (France were beaten 5-0, Scotland 4-1) and 1970. Half the 1966 players were still there, Mullery was better on the ball than Stiles, and Ramsey had the wing-backs he wanted in Terry Cooper and Keith Newton. Just their luck that FIFA scheduled midday kick-offs in terrible heat and thin air.
Alf should have gone after that. His reputation would have survived the rather freakish defeat by West Germany (his use of substitutes is a bit of a red herring). Instead he stayed, and wasted everyone’s time. I spent the early Seventies defending him, but my heart wasn’t always in it. England used the high ball too much and he began to make mistakes, such as using Norman Hunter and Peter Storey together in midfield when England needed to win by two goals in Berlin in the 1972 European Championship quarter-final. By the end, it wasn’t just the press who thought his time was up.
But at this range it doesn’t take much of the shine off. Few managers got so much out of the players available to them. Only one of his 1961-62 Ipswich Town side was capped, but they won the title in the club’s first season in the top flight, using a deep-lying veteran winger, twin strikers and players running from deep. Alf had pulled a fast one and he knew it. When he moved on to the England job, the rest of the First Division sussed Ipswich out. The following season they finished 17th, the one after that they were relegated.
Given limited resources with club and country, Ramsey achieved one-off wins of the highest order. Those old enough to have seen them feel a bit like Henry V’s boys on Crispin’s Day, and Alf could have told us we would. He probably knew they wouldn’t happen again in his lifetime.
From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month