- Sir Alf Ramsey led England to the world title in 1966
- He would have celebrated his 100th birthday on January 22, 2020
- On the anniversary of his death, April 28, 1999, a look back at the career of the legendary trainer
When England, recognized around the world as the home of modern football, first won the FIFA World Cup in 1966, even the phlegmatic Queen Elizabeth II couldn’t contain her joy. As Wembley Stadium is the scene of celebrations and scenes of popular jubilation fill the streets, only one man in the country seems able to keep his cool. Alf Ramsey, the coach responsible for this historic success, is content to display a broad smile without moving from his bench.
Since then, no one in England has forgotten Nobby Stiles’ dance step or the images of Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet Cup. Likewise, no one has forgotten Ramsey’s reservation, which personifies calm and dignity throughout the country. The General had a keen mind for all things football. His tactical intelligence allowed him to modify his system according to the circumstances, and his thoroughness rubbed off on the players and, on the whole. Ahead of his time, his greatest asset was his ability to get the best out of his men.
Wonders Without Wings
Ramsey was appointed head of England after bringing Ipswich Town from the Third Division South to the domestic championship in just seven seasons, between 1955 and 1962. “We’re going to win the World Cup.” It was with these words that Ramsey took up his duties as coach in 1963. However, the Essex native has never felt particularly at his ease among journalists. Despite all the respect the press has for him, a heavy 2-5 defeat against France in the qualifiers for the European Nations Championship earned him his first criticisms.
But Ramsey, international 32 times as a right-back for Southampton and then Tottenham, is not fooled. He refuses to give up his great project: a team without a winger, a position yet globally associated with English football. He implemented a new 4-4-2 system, which earned his team the nickname of wingless wonders (the wonders without wings).
The players have always maintained their confidence in Ramsey. “It was mutual,” said tenacious Stiles, who, after a hard tackle on French playmaker Jacques Simon in England’s 2-0 win, had seen the press run wild against him. Despite the efforts of those who would have liked to see him excluded from the team for the quarter-finals, his coach will support him until the end. “He was showing such loyalty to his players that we would have walked the water for him.”
“And I’m not just talking about the players. Everyone who was on that team was giving their best for Alf. Before the game against Argentina, I was in the bathroom putting on my contact lenses. when Harold Shepherdson, Ramsey’s assistant, walks in. He grabs me by the throat, pushes me against the wall and says, ‘Don’t you dare drop Alf.’
A place in history
Despite Ramsey’s promises, few experts predicted England’s victory, even in front of their home crowd. Sixteen years earlier, England suffered a humiliating defeat to the United States in Brazil. For his last selection three years later, Ramsey took part in the sinking of his team at Wembley against Great Hungary (3-6). In Switzerland (1954), Sweden (1958) and Chile (1962), England did not go beyond the quarter-finals. A priori, there was no reason to think that the English would be able to dethrone Pelé’s Brazil …
The hosts started the tournament with a draw (0-0) against Uruguay and followed with an unconvincing victory against Mexico (2-0). A new success on the same score against France gives color to England before facing Argentina in the next round. In a tense match, at the end of which Ramsey will treat the Argentines “animals”, the English prevail on the smallest of margins. From then on, a whole nation began to dream of success.
At this point, with a fit Gordon Banks in goal and Imperial Bobby Moore in defense, Ramsey’s men have yet to concede a goal. The Portuguese Eusebio will be the first to shake the English nets, from the penalty spot, eight minutes from the final whistle. But this feat will come much too late since at that moment, Bobby Charlton had already scored twice. With this 2-1 victory, England reach the final, where they find West Germany, a team to which they have never lost.
Even if England retain their invincibility against Germany, the epilogue of this 1966 FIFA World Cup is nonetheless full of rebound: the Germans who equalize in the last second, the very third English goal. contested, Geoff Hurst’s hat trick, and finally deliverance. All this, under Ramsey’s impassive gaze. Hurst, the hero of the match, remembers how Ramsey had been able to motivate his troops before extra time: “Alf never raised his voice, but he knew how to be convincing.”
Descent into hell
A year later, Ramsey becomes Sir Alf and England continues to accumulate successes. The team Ramsey picked to defend their title in Mexico in 1970 looks even better than the one England had excited about four years earlier. In addition, Ramsey possessed the ability to instinctively find the right words to get the best out of his players. In addition to this gift for psychology, the breeder extended his influence to the smallest details, including the organization of trips, the composition of menus or fitness programs. With the approach of the Mexican competition, his hold on the selection is almost total. “Alf really had it all planned out before he went to Mexico,” Stiles recalls. “Today his methods would seem obsolete, but at the time they were revolutionary. Nothing escaped him.”
But the reigning world champions will suffer a series of incidents that will put Ramsey’s talents to the test. It is first of all its captain Bobby Moore who is arrested by mistake, accused of having stolen a necklace in a Colombian hotel. Then, a few days before the revenge against the FRG in the quarter-finals, it’s Gordon Banks, at the top of his game after an anthology stop in front of Pelé, who falls ill.
This quarter-final will be a turning point in Ramsey’s reign. Peter Bonetti, Banks’ replacement, made a mistake that allowed the Germans to come back to 2-1 in the second half. At this point, Ramsey makes the decision to release Bobby Charlton. Minutes later, the FRG equalizes and Ramsey’s reputation crumbles. Ultimately, Gerd Müller gave his side the victory in the second half of extra time and England left the competition.
When England, after a home draw with Poland, miss out on qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Germany 74, Ramsey’s past exploits find no favor in the eyes of anyone. Thanked at the end of the meeting, he puts an end to 12 years of presence at the head of the national team. During this period, he will have won 69 victories for 27 draws and 17 defeats. “It was probably the worst half hour of my life,” he admitted, referring to his dismissal. “I found myself in a room full of bureaucrats staring at me. It felt like this was a trial and I was going to be hanged.”
However, the popularity of this farmer’s son has never wavered. In every edition since 1966, England has always wondered if it will once again experience the glory that Ramsey has brought it …