Sir Alf Ramsey , distinguished footballer and still more distinguished manager, who took England to their only World Cup final victory in 1966 at Wembley, where a Geoff Hurst hat-trick and a still hotly disputed goal defeated West Germany, has died aged 79. Though he would win so many honours both as player and manager, he came curiously late to the game, turning professional with Southampton only when he was 24.
Born in Dagenham, Essex, an East End overspill town, his original aim was to become a grocer; unfair analogies might be drawn with ‘Grocer’ Heath since, like the former prime minister, Ramsey worked with limited success on his original accent. But it never prevented him from getting through to the players he initially managed, with success almost unlimited.
Joining the army – more precisely the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry – in 1940 proved the turning point in his life. Southampton noted him when he played for his battalion against them. Southampton won the game 10-0, but Ramsey had impressed them enough to be signed on amateur forms. He was then a centre-forward with a powerful right-footed shot, but after he had finally turned professional in 1944, Southampton’s manager, Bill Dodgin Sr switched him to right-back.
Impressed by the poise of the Manchester City left-back, Sam Barkas, and encouraged to practise by the former Portsmouth left-back, Bill Rochford, Ramsey won his first England cap in December 1948 against Switzerland at Highbury, only to lose his place for both club and country the following year to Bill Ellerington.
Southampton’s loss was Tottenham’s gain. Their manager, Arthur Rowe, signed Ramsey in the summer of 1949, and he became the most influential player in the ‘push and run’ side which won the second and the first divisions in successive seasons. Nicknamed ‘the general’, he was a calming and reassuring influence on the whole team. He had little pace, and was much assisted by his right-half, Bill Nicholson, and his outside-right, Sonny Walter. But his positional sense was excellent – he always used the ball with skill, and his passes back to the goalkeeper, Ted Ditchburn, often broke up one attack and set off another.
Such back passes, however, had their nemesis, notably in 1951 when one cost a crucial goal in an FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park against Blackpool.
Ramsey first played for England in the 1950 World Cup series in Brazil, including the ill-fated game at Belo Horizonte when they lost 1-0 to the United States. Altogether he gained 32 England caps.
In 1955, he became manager of the then unfashionable third division side, Ipswich Town. Cleverly making the most of scant resources, using the fragile Scots veteran Jimmy Leadbetter as deep left-winger, supplying a forceful spearhead of Ted Phillips and Ray Crawford, Ramsey got Ipswich promotion in his second season. In 1961 they topped the second division and, echoing Tottenham’s achievement a decade earlier, took the championship in 1962.
Ramsey was loyally supported by the patrician Cobbold family, who owned the club. There could scarcely have been a greater contrast between him and the racily uninhibited chairman, John Cobbold, but the two men complemented each other admirably. That year, Ramsey also took over as manager of the England team, knowing that his country would host the World Cup finals in 1966. Uncharacteristically, he announced that England would win the World Cup. Things started badly when, early the following year, they lost 5-2 to France in Paris in a European Nations’ Cup qualifying game, but from then on, Ramsey began to build the kind of team he wanted.
He was never afraid to change it. The World Cup finals were well underway when, having previously placed much emphasis on wingers, he decided that the ones he had weren’t working, and dropped them, deploying instead a 4-4-2 system which would be deemed his ‘wingless wonders’. There were those who felt that though it eventually did win the World Cup, the strategy did great harm to English football, thanks to its imitators, in the years to come. The decision to drop Jimmy Greaves, the finest inside-forward of his time – and the most prolific scorer – also caused great contoversy.
But criticism never overtly bothered Ramsey. His loyalty to his team was absolute, his contempt for the press scarcely dissembled. Football, he said, was something he deemed immensely important. Those who hadn’t played it at a professional level were plainly beyond the pale.
West Germany’s late, somewhat fortuitous, equaliser in the World Cup final at Wembley saw Ramsey at his most inspirational. Two days earlier, when the England team trained at Roehampton, and he decided to omit Greaves, he was asked whether he still thought they would win the World Cup. There was a strangulated pause until he at last answered, ‘Yes.’
As the disappointed, wearied English players sprawled about the turf, Ramsey told them, ‘You’ve won it once. Now you must win it again.’ With the help of Geoff Hurst’s crossbar-hitting, controversial, goal, they did – at which little Nobby Stiles, kept in the team by Ramsey despite official displeasure from the Football Association after he had fouled Jacky Simon, of France, in front of the royal box, cried, ‘You did it, Alf! We’d have been nothing without you.’
Ramsey had an excellent team in Mexico in the 1970 World Cup and might have gone beyond the quarter- finals had Gordon Banks, a superb goalkeeper, not drunk a fatal glass of beer and been ruled out of that crucial game, which, in the end, was lost to West Germany in Leon after England had led 2-0.
Throughout the tournament, Ramsey was plagued by echoes of his comments in the 1966 tournament, after a bruising match against Argentina in the quarter-finals. The Argentine players had virtually run riot after the game, and an incensed Ramsey had proclaimed that he hoped, in the semi-final, England would meet a team which wanted to play football ‘and not act as animals.’
In later years, he seemed to lose his touch. Crucial games were lost and he was forced out of his job – before his contract ended – in 1974. It was a sad anti-climax, and there was another when he unsuccessfully went back into club management with Birmingham City. He seemed by then to have mislaid his essential rapport with players, and he retired to Ipswich, where he lived a reclusive life with occasional forays into journalism.
Knighted in 1967, he married Vickie Answorth in 1951. She and their adopted daughter, Tania, survive him.
• Sir Alfred Ernest Ramsey, football player and manager, born January 22, 1920; died April 28, 1999
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