Sir Alf Ramsey

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Sir Alf Ramsey Pencil Portrait
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Few patriotic fans of a certain age will forget the events of October 17, 1973, when England – proud champions of ’66 – would be consigned to soccer’s wilderness for nearly a decade. The national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup in Germany the following year, would herald the end for manager Sir Alf Ramsey, the architect of our country’s greatest success. A young teenager at the time, I was as guilty as millions of others, for being carried away on the crest of the British media’s unceasing wave of anti-managerial sentiment; the beleagured Ramsey cutting a forlorn figure as he left the pitch on that calamitous of nights. Perhaps if we’d all realised at the time, that World Cup glory would remain as elusive as ever more than four decades later, then the Football association might not have have been as hasty in its decision to terminate its contract with our greatest ever national manager.

What would follow afterwards is testimony to the British psyche, and our resentment of the near heroic status conferred upon the select few. Despite having won the World Cup for England in 1966, Ramsey would be hounded out of office after 11 years of unstinting service and unprecedented success, with a severance payment of £8,000 and a meagre annual pension of £1,200, albeit one commensurate with standard 60ths defined benefit terms. In his last year as England manager, his salary was a pitiful £7,200 – less than some Division 3 managers were earning. To add insult to injury, Don Revie, Alf’s permanent successor, was paid £25,000. His reward for guiding England to its greatest sporting success was a gratuity of £6,000, of which £3,500 went directly to the Treasury. He would use the balance to pay off his mortgage.

Worse would follow in the years to come. Despite several offers to return to league management in the late 60’s, no such entreaties would be forthcoming by the mid 70’s. Ultimately, his enormous expertise would be ignored; and with no position within football to help guide the next generation, Sir Alf would find himself – at the premature age of 54 – totally discarded. Ill health, resentment, and financial penury would mark his final years…………

The real tragedy of Ramsey’s managerial career was not the events of 1973, but a series of misfortunes that would undermine his team’s very realistic chance of retaining the World Cup in 1970. Success in Mexico would have made his position unassailable, and any decision to wind down, his and his alone.

Sadly, it was not to be. “Sir Alf,” a biography by Leo McKinstry, succeeds in reappraising an essentially shy man, a walking talking PR disaster, and a manager genuinely ‘loved’ by those players committed to his masterplan. Never awarded a winner’s medal for the 1966 World Cup victory, his treatment at the hands of the Football association – particularly in light of the media fawning over today’s overpaid, overpriced prima donnas – was, and remains, despicable.

Under construction.

As the 70’s progressed, it became obvious that Sir Alf was never going to successfully fill the shoes left by Geoff Hurst. Whether holding up play, utilising his skills at diversionary running, heading and shooting powerfully or simply working relentlessly upfront – and often alone – the West Ham striker was a classic team player. England won the World Cup without any major contribution from Jimmy Greaves and could easily have retained the trophy four years later without him. The Manchester City striker Rodney Marsh, was hailed as Hurst’s natural successor, but would progressively be viewed by the England manager as a “fucking idiot.” Ramsey was astute at deploying tactics, and having asked Bobby Charlton to shadow the German captain Beckenbaur throughout that famous ’66 final – thus denying the Manchester United maestro any chance of individual glory on that hot July afternoon – he was hardly likely to offer any tactical leniency to a skilful risk taker like Marsh.

Speaking in 2009 about his relationship with the England manager, Marsh was surprisingly candid.

The thing you have to remember is that Alf Ramsey and I came from the same place. We were both cockneys. The other thing is that Alf tended to speak in a very poncey plum-in-the-mouth way. It was all “Oh hello Rodney and how are you?”. To me it was all complete bollocks. The last time I was picked by him for England we had a team talk before the game and Alf told me we all had to work harder. “Rodney you in particular,” he said in his accent. Then he said: “if you don’t work hard I’m going to pull you off at half time.” And I said: “Christ, at Man City all we get is a cup of tea and an orange.”

Nobody laughed. And not only that, but it was the last time I ever got picked. There was a direct correlation between that sarcastic remark and me not playing again. But to be fair to Alf I also hadn’t played well for England. That’s not an excuse or a reason; it’s just an explanation.

Still, I had a good run: I think Stan Bowles only played twice. People like Charlie George and Tony Currie only got a couple of games. But I don’t blame Alf Ramsey; I blame myself.

All that stuff about maverick players, it was the culture of British football at the time and I don’t regret for one minute my attitude towards football. I’m not speaking for any other player but I was born a free spirit and I played the game the same way. You either loved it or you hated it. I make no excuses for that and I wouldn’t change a thing. Did that contribute to me to only getting nine caps? Probably.

English football has always been scared to do the outrageous. I think you could name on one hand people like Paul Gascoigne, Rodney Marsh, Matt Le Tissier, Peter Osgood of that ilk who have been given a chance. The average England player has a great engine, hard-working. You could argue that Wayne Rooney could be that Maverick-type player and, probably, the big difference is that Wayne Rooney runs himself into the ground for the team, and I never did that, I always felt there were other players to do that. One of the biggest compliments paid to me was in Alfredo di Stéfano’s book where he says that Rodney Marsh was the most gifted footballer outside of Brazil. That made me feel good. I played against his Valencia team twice and we fucking murdered them.

But you couldn’t have a team of Rodney Marshes. You’d never get the ball. I would hold my hand up and say that I was a luxury player and I make no bones about that. But I would argue the point that my generation of player underachieved. Why players like Bowles and George didn’t get more caps you’d have to ask Ramsey. But I would say one thing: If you count the caps of Frank Worthington, Bowles, Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Rodney Marsh and Alan Hudson, Carlton Palmer has got more caps than all those players combined. I think that tells you something. During Graham Taylor’s time England had a midfield with Andy Sinton, David Batty, Carlton Palmer and Geoff Thomas. How the fuck are you going to win a World Cup with a team like that?

Thus endeth the case for Ramsey’s defence. A pity therefore, that the national press was not privy to such insider views at the time – a little more support for the national team would have gone a long way.

Recommended viewing

Anglia News: Interview With Ipswich FC Manager Mr Alf Ramsey 1961

Alf Ramsey (A Film Profile) 1969

A film profile of Sir Alf Ramsey, which traces his life from his childhood days, his playing career with such teams as Southampton, Spurs and England, and his days as manager of Ipswich Town, right up to his present day job as the England team manager

As early as ’69, he was complaining about the lack of co-operation from First Division managers in respect of player availability for international duty. This disappointing trend would continue for years, most notably in 1972 when Brian Clough declared his Derby County centre half Roy Mcfarland unfit for the European Nations Cup Quarter final tie at Wembley against West Germany. Ramsey would be compelled to field an uneasy defensive alliance between Hunter and Moore, whilst Clough’s man would take to the field just three days later in another league match. The Rams would eventually secure their first ever league title, whilst England would endure the ignomy of home defeat against its arch enemy, and eventual exit from the tournament. Memories are long at the Football Association, and in his eventual pursuit of the top managerial job in the country, the enigmatic Clough did himself few favours that weekend.

Recommended reading

Sir Alf (Leo McKinstry) 2006

Ramsey’s life is a romantic story of heroism. Often derided by lesser men, he overcame the prejudice against his social background to reach the summit of world football. Whatever the rumours about his Romany background, Mckinstry is quick to point out that the allegations were never conclusively proven.

The son of a council dustman from Essex, Ramsey had been through a tough upbringing. After army service during the war, he became a professional footballer, enjoying a successful career with Southampton and Tottenham and winning 32 England caps, the last of these in the infamous 3-6 defeat at the hands of the legendary Hungarians.

But it was as manager of Ipswich Town, and then the architect for England’s 1966 World Cup triumph, that Ramsey will be most remembered. The tragedy was that his battles with the FA would ultimately lead to his downfall. He was sacked after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup and was subsequently ostracised by the football establishment. He died a broken man in 1999 in the same modest Ipswich semi he’d lived in for most of his life.

Drawing on extensive interviews with his closest friends and colleagues in the game, McKinstry succeeds in unraveling the true character of this fascinating and often complex football legend.