Why Sir Alf Ramsey was English football’s great man of the people

Why Sir Alf Ramsey was English football’s great man of the people

Reminiscing of a time before he became Ireland’s pre-eminent sports writer, Con Houlihan recalled the World Cup of 1966 with particular affection: “It was the first to be broadcast on television in this country.” Houlihan may well be correct in suggesting that ‘we have never been the same since.

Hastening the end of a prejudicial period where Irish and English sports were often held at a mutually exclusive distance, the 1966 World Cup encouraged the demise of green ignorance in favour of a more open, energetic form of sporting participation – none more so than with football. “A great tournament [that] brought a new dimension into [their] lives, witnessing England become World Champions was only troubling in so far as it raised the question, ‘What will we do for the rest of the year?'”

It is a question, curiously, that many English viewers have been asking ever since.

International success, however relative, tends to cast a long shadow. As the European Championships get underway again this summer, it is barely conceivable that three of the previous six winning nations since 1988 will not even take part; and that with an extended format in place. Building upon such success is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Not much by way of imagination is required in determining the impact that winning the World Cup subsequently had on English football. Bobby Charlton, a key figure in ensuring this success, rightfully called it a “part of history”, an event that has long since transcended sporting achievement alone. Victory in ’66 measured out the high-point and, perhaps to English football’s detriment, the general expectation thereafter of what “England expects”.

Warranted though grievances with future international disappointment may occasionally have been, it is somewhat surprising nonetheless that 1966 has almost become a burdensome parameter that English football becomes more disillusioned with as failed attempts to replicate it continue to mount up. Alf Ramsey, the manager behind this fleeting moment of great success, appears more susceptible than most to the begrudging nature of those who have struggled to build upon the winning foundation he laid down. In possession of a known distrust for England’s football media, Jonathan Wilson’s insight pertaining to Ramsey’s England in his Inverting the Pyramid elucidates greatly upon the manner of Ramsey’s confounding reception:

Given that he led England to their only success, it seems bizarre that the general assessment of him should be so ambivalent. While there are those who look back on 1966 – as others before them had looked back to Herbert Chapman, or to the 2-3-5 – and see it as the blueprint for all football to come, and there are those who seem somehow to blame Ramsey for having such devotees, as if it were his fault that, having been successful, others without the wit to evolve should seek to copy him.

Even as England won the World Cup, respect for him was grudging: “His detractors would point to his dissection of the game as though it were a laboratory animal,” as his biographer Dave Bowler put it. Not that he cared, but it did not help Ramsey’s reputation that he was so wilfully cussed.

Untouchable with regards to the substantial gains he made as England manager, Ramsey is concurrently looked upon with a touch of disapproval reserved for those that have gone beyond mere mortal expectations.

When probed for an insight into the kind of man Alf Ramsey was, a former Spurs team-mate could only come to the following conclusion: “A human man? No, Alf Ramsey is a football man, and that’s all I know about him.”

To most of us for whom Ramsey remains a perennial figure of football’s past, investigations pertaining to the sort of person he was rendered a similarity, I felt, with a Peep Show description – allowing for a contemporary dint – reserved for Mark by way of Super Hans; ‘And you, well you’re a real meat and potatoes, straight up and down, Beef Wellington, don’t trust the Argies, dick in the vagina, Cheddar Cheese and Chicken Tikka Masala man.’

Epitomising a variety of Englishness – nationalistic, stoic, reserved and loyal – that perhaps did not transmit favourably with the growing paraphernalia of fame and media intrusion that was emerging within the professional game, the antiquated Ramsey provided an easy target, irrespective of his success. He did not appear a suitable moderniser. In truth however, his emergence on the international scene was revolutionary. He was not

He was not the pioneering figure in determining the demonstrative authority a football manager was required to uphold, yet Ramsey certainly was the first to do so when afforded the opportunity of managing England. With Ipswich Town (1955-63) Ramsey had “defied expectation – they do the simple things accurately and quickly; there are no frills about their play and no posing. They are not exciting; they do not make the pulses race … maybe, after all, there is a virtue in the honest labourer.”

Taking over a Third Division South outfit in 1955, Ramsey turned Ipswich Town into champions of England within seven seasons. Despite having spent only £30,000 assembling their squad – a figure that Wilson recounts was “less than a third of what Tottenham paid to bring Jimmy Greaves back from Italy” – Ramsey and Ipswich ascended to English football’s peak at the club’s very first time of trying. A tactical ingenuity and strong working relationship with his players had enabled the forty-two year old Ramsey achieve something remarkable. An unknown entity to their opponents given their meteoric rise, it cannot be overlooked that by 1962/63 many opposing teams had formulated suitably reactionary tactics capable of stemming Ipswich’s progress. When Ramsey departed for his new F.A. office at Lancaster Gate, ‘Ipswich had won just two of fifteen games.’ Albeit impossible to predict what would have transpired for Ramsey and Ipswich Town had the England position not become available, one thing that would remain assured was Ramsey’s tactical capability to reinvent and inspire belief in a system of his devising. It would prove the most vital asset in his managerial armoury as he undertook the England role.

A tactical ingenuity and strong working relationship with his players had enabled the 42-year-old Ramsey achieve something remarkable. An unknown entity to their opponents given their meteoric rise, it cannot be overlooked that by 1962-63 many opposing teams had formulated suitably reactionary tactics capable of stemming Ipswich’s progress.

When Ramsey departed for his new FA office at Lancaster Gate, Ipswich had won just two of 15 games. Albeit impossible to predict what would have transpired for Ramsey and Ipswich Town had the England position not become available, one thing that would remain assured was Ramsey’s tactical capability to reinvent and inspire belief in a system of his devising. It would prove the most vital asset in his managerial armoury as he undertook the England role.

Although the tactical innovation deployed by Ramsey as he developed his English team cannot be overlooked (and shall be mentioned sporadically here on in), the inevitable verbatim quoting of Wilson’s insight into such matters renders this a discussion left best to the pages of Inverting the Pyramid. Of equal intrigue, however, is the personality of Ramsey’s approach.

As we regress into an era of contemporary football management heavily reliant – if not, in fact, dependent – upon a more diversified approach to the general tasks we associate with a manager, it is fascinating to consider that prior to the appointment of Ramsey as England manager, the selection of the English national team was subservient to the deliberations of a committee. Given his experience at club level (Walter Winterbottom for example, Ramsey’s predecessor, had managed England for almost 16 years without any prior managerial experience), Ramsey was unsatisfied with such a reductive prospect in 1963.

Accepting the position upon the remit that he would be in possession of full control over team selection, Ramsey undertook the role of England manager in heretofore unknown circumstances. Paraphrasing thoughts Arsène Wenger would make clear years later regarding the pertinence of the manager in relation to the club (or nation in this regard), Ramsey became more important than any preceding figure who had held this position before him, more important than any player in the side, and, as it eventually would come to pass in 1974 as England failed to qualify for the World Cup, ‘when it doesn’t go well’ it is the most important figure who must take the fall.

A fastidious preparatory approach allowed Ramsey to oversee 38 games in charge of England before they would undertake their first group stage match in the 1966 World Cup. Given England’s automatic passage through to the 1966 World Cup as hosts, much of his preliminary work had to be carried out over a range of international friendlies and relatively minor tournaments. It proved a highly productive time for Ramsey as he bled in many previously uncapped players with the intention of deciphering what England could realistically hope to do in a tactical sense.

Although enthusiasm is rarely found wanting in the more established players of a World Cup host nation, the prospect of complacency was not one to be entertained by Ramsey. While Bobby Charlton regarded England as favourites going into the ’66 World Cup, a story told by Gordon Banks subsequent to England’s eventual crowning as World Champions allows for some insight into the operational aspect of Ramsey’s approach.

Accepted as Ramsey was to be the sort of man who would never give too much away, Banks, England’s first-choice goalkeeper throughout the tournament and FIFA’s Goalkeeper of the Year on six separate occasions, recalled the final gathering of the England team before going their separate ways after an international match. As Ramsey proceeded to shake each player by the hand and thank him for his work, Banks had the temerity to suggest he would “see him next time.”

An undoubtedly innocent remark, Ramsey nonetheless questioned whether Banks had now started picking himself. A fastidious surveyor of players in their club surroundings, Ramsey simply did not seem to leverage his selection policy upon status alone. If this incident could happen in the wake of already having achieved World Cup success, one need not imagine how demanding the criteria for selection were in the build up to 1966. A further rebuke perhaps to the unavoidable ease with which a selection committee may have chosen to stick with safe options, if even Gordon Banks had reason to be wary, nobody else was safe either.

Consideration of the playing personnel Ramsey could choose to have at his disposal may suggest in hindsight that he was in possession of a ‘golden generation’ of his own. With Banks, Bobby Moore and Charlton alone, it is conceivable to imagine why Charlton was fairly confident of England’s chances upon entering the tournament in 1966. Yet, though their continued fulfilment of the criteria Ramsey set forth for selection was clearly unwavering, of the other eight who started the World Cup final against West Germany, six had been given their international debut under Ramsey’s three years of management to that date.

Perhaps the most intriguing choice of all with relation to Ramsey’s self-belief in cultivating a styled system by which England would play, the international debut of Leeds United’s Jack Charlton – brother of Bobby – would come shortly before his 30th birthday. Recounting the event a few years later, Jack Charlton recalls asking Ramsey outright why he had been picked, now of all times. With the same forthright simplicity that on occasion appears to be hiding a greater truth, Ramsey informed him that he did not necessarily select the best players, rather, sticking with the best players for his system. By Charlton’s 31st birthday he would be a world champion.

In possession of a skills-set reserved for those most masterful of managers, Ramsey’s unwavering rigidity and belief proved as prophetic as it did damning for those unwilling to secede. Although he may have expressed it in more dignified terms himself, Ramsey’s ruthlessness was on par with the sort Sir Alex Ferguson would demonstrate shortly after him, both managers ensuring they “got rid of the c***s” as they located them.

A pejorative dependent upon their suitability for the common cause rather than any personal slight (speaking exclusively of Ramsey here; Ferguson’s rap sheet is hardly so ideological), Ramsey’s selection policy based upon player performance saw him largely overlook the prolific goalscorer Jimmy Greaves (44 goals in 57 England appearances), when an injury sustained in a final group game against France in 1966 ruled him out of the quarter-final appearance against Argentina.

His replacement, Geoff Hurst, would go on to score four goals in the remaining three games (including a hat-trick in the final itself) and Greaves, despite only being 26-years-old in 1966 would play three more games for England before retiring from the international scene in 1967. Informing Ramsey that he had no intention of playing a bit-part role in the England squad, there was really no choice left to him but to take his permanent leave.

The dynamics surrounding England’s World Cup success however cannot be granted their appropriate dues without a margin of concern being allowed for the tactics Ramsey employed before and throughout the tournament itself. As noted, for a broader consensus of the manager whom Jonathan Wilson describes as being at the forefront of the pragmatic English approach to football tactics, read Inverting the Pyramid. For now, it is inescapable to consider Ramsey and his successes without mentioning his innovative tactical approach with regards to England’s success at 1966, at the very least. The importance of tactical ‘tinkering’ to Ramsey’s approach demonstrated why absolute control of team selection was a prerequisite to his appointment in the first place.

Recounting the ultimate dilemma that would have befallen Ramsey otherwise – and had naturally hampered Winterbottom before him – Wilson demonstrates that ‘if a group of men was simply voting for the best players to fill each position, the positions had to be laid out in advance, without much regard for balance or the interaction between players’.

Already somewhat perturbed by the difficulties that extended periods apart did to his attempts at fostering a ‘team’ mentality within the English set up, Ramsey understood that any particular yard gained with relation to the communicative capabilities between manager and player, and player with player, was progress worth working hard for. Ramsey’s control in this regard allowed him to undertake the national role in parameters closer to that of his club manager equivalents.

The task of locating and implementing an effective system became that bit easier for Ramsey as a result of his determination to act in a managerial manner that he was familiar with. With reference to more recent debates pertaining to the possibility of accommodating Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the same English midfield, it is fascinating to consider the audacity of Ramsey’s belief some 40 years before that with a rigid plan in place one could have rendered greater success from an English side then in possession of Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews.

Hastened along after two chastening defeats in 1964 to the world champions Brazil (5-1) and a rigidly organised Argentina side (1-0), Ramsey’s acknowledgment of the benefits in a systematic approach going forward generated a period of experimentation in which many of those who would end up World Champions two years later got their international break. Although the wily, often secretive developments of Ramsey’s tactical planning was aided by the relative inaccessibility of constant surveying and scouting by major opponents, this was a hindrance equally felt by Ramsey in his own preparation. Augmenting his approach as needed, the labours expended in the

Augmenting his approach as needed, the labours expended in the build-up to the World Cup came to fruition at just the right moment in time. Akin once more to Alex Ferguson who would follow in his wake, Ramsey – despite the fact that English football was still perhaps behind their global rivals in terms of tactical nous on the whole – knew and was capable of making the right decision at the right time. Having fastidiously worked it out beforehand, Ramsey waited until the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina to competitively reveal his 4-1-3-2 formation; England’s ‘Wingless Wonders.’

In truth, the promise of ‘wonder’ does appear more relevant to the unique approach undertaken rather than the style of play such a system encouraged. With the particular involvement of Geoff Hurst, England were afforded a ‘less spectacular forward, but one capable of winning the ball in the air and holding it.’ However, with Nobby Stiles providing an aggressive – occasionally excessive, more often than not effective though (Ramsey had threatened to resign after the third group stage match with France in which a ‘dreadful tackle by Stiles on Jacky Simon’ had prompted the F. to ask Ramsey whether he really needed to preserve with Stiles’ involvement; he did) – cover for Moore and Charlton behind him, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters in front, an impressive work-ethic and stamina topped off by Greaves’ replacement Hurst and Roger Hunt, ‘the lessons of England’s defeat in the Maracana two years earlier had been learned.’

No longer so blatantly susceptible to the formidable planning of strong opponents, England was exerting a degree of control that could suitably harness the best qualities of their strongest attacking players, i.e. Bobby Charlton. For the semi-final tie with Portugal, their demonstrative approach enabled Stiles to neutralise Eusébio – the reigning Ballon d’Or and eventual top-scorer at the 1966 World Cup – while Charlton ensured victory with both goals in a 2-1 win for England.

Thus came the final with West Germany; ‘the second-greatest game of association football’ that Con Houlihan claims to have seen (he doesn’t mention the first irritatingly). With a 4-2 victory England became champions of the world. While the nature of the controversy surrounding England’s third goal will continue to simmer, the closing fourth (Hurst’s hat-trick goal), a long pass from Bobby Moore into the path of Hurst and met with an explosive finish was, as Ramsey’s former Ipswich Town player Jimmy Leadbetter testified, ‘just the kind of goal Ramsey had delighted in at Ipswich: no fuss, just a simple ball and an emphatic finish.’ As it was at Ipswich Town, so it would be – on occasion anyway – with England.

Despite ascending to such heights at his first time of asking, it was only a calamitous collapse against West Germany in the 1970 World Cup final that potentially halted England’s progress to a consecutive World Cup final. Leading 2-0 with slightly over 20 minutes remaining, West Germany would equalise and go on to snatch a 3-2 win in extra time as Ramsey oversaw what would be his final World Cup game in charge of England. The heroics of the Polish goalkeeper (Jan Tomaszewski) an agenda driven Brian Clough would persistently dub ‘a clown’ ultimately then cost Ramsey’s England a place at the 1974 World Cup. Coming under

The heroics of the Polish goalkeeper (Jan Tomaszewski) an agenda driven Brian Clough would persistently dub ‘a clown’ ultimately then cost Ramsey’s England a place at the 1974 World Cup. Coming under increasing pressure long before his eventual departure was confirmed, Ramsey was portrayed in a light that ultimately befalls many great footballing innovators (Louis van Gaal being perhaps the most recent recipient of such vociferous negativity): he was finished, all out of ideas.

That England has only truly once come close to repeating Ramsey’s feat (Italia 90) is increasingly troubling when one considers the strides made in that time by the opposing nations Ramsey’s England had stood so valiantly against. Perhaps however a truer reading would be to thus look upon Ramsey’s achievement not as the deliverance of England’s divine place at the top table of international football, but as an exemplification of the incredible ability and confidence he had in spending an inordinate amount of time watching not just his opponents but his own players also in their club environment, and manifesting a footballing approach that satisfied his findings.

Not at home in the wider European corridors of Rinus Michels, Helenio Herrera or Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Ramsey’s footballing intelligence was accommodated with a fearless tendency to utilise what was necessary to ensure the most effective approach. Recalling comments Ramsey made regarding the objective of his role, Wilson demonstrates the Englishman’s proclivity for winning ‘football matches. That’s all.’ A dangerous, unpleasant mantra when carried on by managers incapable of understanding the adaptability required in taking such a ‘simple’ approach, for Alf Ramsey it was a formula for unprecedented success.

By Arthur James O’Dea. Follow @ArthurJamesOD

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