The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 56

December 8, 2010

Here’s a book review from issue 48, May 1996 – now it so happened that this particular piece called down quite a lot of flak on my head at the time – but please bear in mind that it’s only a bit of fun and it all was a very long time ago – I am not prepared, at this late remove, to defend any of the opinions expressed herein.

It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

Albion, dear Albion. It’s the eve of the European Championships and the reminders of 1966 are being churned out thick and fast. But hey, if you look into it, it really wasn’t such a big deal…

it is now!” by Roger Hutchinson (Mainstream Publishing – £14.99) p>

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDespite the blurb on the dust-jacket telling us that this is “a tale that no sports fan will want to miss”, only an incurable optimist would believe that Scots will be fighting their way into Waterstones to get their hands on a book subtitled ‘The Real Story of England’s 1966 World Cup Triumph’.

If there was a hit parade for the worst days of the twentieth century then 30th July 1966 would be pretty near the top in Caledonian circles.

In that context I thought that Mad Mac had finally taken complete leave of his senses when he asked me to review this publication. But, and this is a very cautious but, there’s slightly more to this book than the usual pish about toothless Nobby dancing a jig with big Jack while Bobby wipes his hands on some unsuspecting punter’s coat before meeting the Queen. It is by no means just another uncritical celebration of the day when some people were on the pitch and the English football team were on top of the world.

In fact, one could say that this is a fairly subversive recounting of the old familiar tale. While duly acknowledging the extent of England’ s achievement, (after all, they are one of only six countries who have won the World Cup) (seven nowFrance won 2 years after this article was first published – pedantic Ed) the author has set out to demonstrate that something very nasty indeed happened to football in 1966. He maintains that football’s ‘Age of Innocence‘ came to a complete and final stop at the very moment Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucketwhen Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered the deathless phrase “...it is now“. And what’s more, the death of that age of innocence was a calculated murder, coldly and deliberately planned and executed by Alf Ramsay.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

Around TAG mansions you could find any number of semiliterate bruisers prepared, at short notice, to disgorge ten thousand words on why England don’t deserve any credit for winning the world cup, but it’s important to note that the author of this book, Roger Hutchinson, is himself an Englishman. On the face of it he cannot be accused of performing a hatchet-job on England’s greatest sporting success out of anti-English sentiment. On that basis alone, his views perhaps merit slightly more attention than the spleen-venting harangues which we’ve all indulged in every time the BBC dream up yet another bogus reason for re-screening endless footage of Hurst’s hat-trick etc.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe opening section of the book is a semi-biography of old Alf himself. Alf was born in 1920 but lied about his age for most of his professional career, making himself two years younger than he actually was. He played professional football in the immediate post-war years. Whether or not that was truly an ‘age of innocence’, it’s certainly true that 40′s and 50′s Britain was a very different place from what it is today. People knew their place and the class structure was still rigid despite the dislocation caused by five years of war. The author succeeds in portraying the slightly seedy cap-doffing atmosphere of that era in English history, when working class chaps like Alf struggled to break through the barrier into the middle class. It’s the Orwellian Britain of ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying‘ and ‘Coming Up For Air‘. An era when Stanley Matthews received notification of his selection for the England team in a letter from the FA which began, “Dear Matthews“. An era when the players wore pin-stripe suits and bowler hats off the field, and baggy jumpers and cut-off Long Johns while playing.

Alf comes across like a character out of Dad’s Army, an amalgam of Captain Mainwaring (“Now, listen here, men“) and Sergeant Jones (“The fuzzywuzzies don’t like it up ‘em“) with just a hint of East Cheam’s Tony Hancock and the Peter Sellers of ‘I’m alright Jack‘ thrown in. That he felt some sense of shame in his origins was demonstrated by the fact that, as a young man, he took elocution lessons in an effort to rid himself of his working-class accent. The author notes, with a hint of malevolent pleasure, that those lessons merely resulted in making Alf forever afterwards sound like a Voortrekker struggling to pass himself off as a Broadcasting House newsreader.

Alf’s desire to keep his humble beginnings strictly private persisted well into his life. We’re told that in an interview in the early sixties a radio journalist asked Alf where his parents lived. Alf replied, “In Dagenham, I believe“.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOne story about Alf which is not recounted in the book, but which appeared in ‘When Saturday Comes’ a few years back, is also worth retelling in this context. Alf was providing co-commentary on a televised match, when the floodlights failed. The players left the field and after about five minutes the commentator, searching for some small-talk to pass the time, said to Alf, “Well, Alf, how long do you think this delay will last for ?“. With his by now customary contorted elocution, Alf contemptuously replied, “Ah em not an electrician“.

This then was the peculiar Colonel Blimp figure whose destiny it was to strangle the age of innocence and simultaneously deliver football’s greatest prize to England.

A Group of Alf Wits

Central to the author’s theme of murdered innocence is the fact that, whatever else they were, England’s World Cup winners were not entertaining or exciting to watch. Alf set out to build a team to win the cup. The manner in which victory was to be achieved was of no significance. Silky skills, superb technique, aesthetically pleasing football, and all other fannying around of that sort could safely be left to the Brazilians, Hungarians, French and Portuguese etc. England could dispense with all of that nonsense, because England were going to win, and that was all that mattered.

Thus ‘Ramsay’s Robots‘ were born. Alf firmly believed that eleven stout yeoman English men, properly organised, would always prove superior to any collection of foreign sand-dancers. After all, the forefathers of these men built an empire on which the sun never set. To achieve the apparently impossible, Alf was faced with the same dilemma which has confronted every Manager of England before and since, namely choosing between, on the one hand, players of flair and imagination (who could sometimes turn out to be liabilities) and, on the other hand, solid dependable chaps who would never do great things, but would never let you down.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAt the core of this book, and at the core of Alf’s success, was his decision to opt for the solid, reliable Geoff Hurst while dumping the mercurial talents of Jimmy Greaves. The comparison between Greaves and Hurst was the original comparison of the Derby winner and the carthorse. Whatever one thinks of Greaves in his current persona of ignorant, loudmouthed, bigoted TV pundit, no-one who ever saw him play could deny that he was one of the greatest and most exciting players in world football since the war. That Ramsay saw fit to replace this great player with Hurst, a fair but by no means outstanding centre-forward of the old English type, says much about Alf’s whole philosophy.

That his decision paid off in the most spectacular fashion imaginable puts him beyond criticism. But Hurst was by no means the only example of ‘solidity’ being preferred to flair.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe whole English team was constructed on the same basis. Look round the team. Nobby Stiles. Jack Charlton. Cohen and Wilson. Ball and Hunt. It’s pretty gruesome. Younger readers who didn’t see that team in action need only imagine modern-day Wimbledon sides to get the picture.

Just ten days before they won the world cup England defeated France in a group qualifier (this was Greaves’ last appearance). The author describes the play of the imminent world champions as follows,

The French flair and fluency contrasted wonderfully with such English tactics as the 25-yard direct free-kick (put the ball down and stand sharply back as Jack Charlton comes lumbering up at the end of a 50-yard sprint to thump it at the scoreboard), or the overlapping full-back (watch George Cohen make his way to the corner-flag before flighting a cross towards the hindmost photographer), or the direct route to goal (look for Jimmy Greaves making his run, let him go, give him time to get comfortably offside, and then punt the ball in his general direction)”.

But, but, but… England won! Who cares that they played like a pub team. Certainly not Alf Ramsay who said, “We want to win and please people the way we play, but winning comes first. Let the crowds boo if they want to. They’ll cheer all right when we win”.

(Don’t) Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Ultimately that last sentence is what this book is all about. The ‘age of innocence’ is said to have died when Alf Ramsay devised a method of winning football matches with a team that couldn’t really play football very well, didn’t entertain in any meaningful way, and didn’t give a fuck about either of these apparent handicaps.

To blame England exclusively for the death of innocence may be a substantial over-simplification. After all, Inter Milan and others had been spending their time for several years prior to 1966 in systematically removing all the joy from football at the top level. However, England’s role in ushering in a new era of out-and-out cynicism should not be underestimated. Celtic’s European Cup triumph of 1967 and the Brazilian magic of 1970 can really be seen in hindsight as relics of the old age, mere blips in an otherwise fairly unrelieved procession of organisation triumphing over skill.

In the thirty years since England’s success most European Cup Finals have been incredibly turgid to watch, while the World Cup itself has produced a series of shockingly bad concluding matches, culminating in the inevitable nadir of the current champions having won the cup-final without even remotely looking like scoring a goal. (Brazil defeated Italy on penalties after 0-0 draw in the 1994 final)

The national teams which have played the most aesthetically pleasing (age of innocence) football during that period (Holland and France spring to mind) have generally met the same inevitable fate (i.e. coming to grief on the rock of German organisation and method). Roger Hutchinson suggests that Alf Ramsay’s England was the blueprint for the change in mental attitude which produced a despisal of the fripperies of the game in favour of adherence to system. Unfortunately for us, mere supporters of the game, the fripperies are the only things which make football worthwhile. The only emotion I felt about Brazil systematically winning the cup in 1994 was acute depression.

They Don’t Think It’s All Over (the Line)

If all of this isn’t cynical enough for you then Roger Hutchinson goes further and suggests that England’s triumph was not achieved without considerable off-field jiggery-pokery. He says that England’s semi-final against Portugal was originally scheduled to be played at Goodison Park (where Portugal had played most of their earlier games) but was switched to Wembley (where England played all of their matches) in mysterious circumstances.

He tells us that throughout the tournament there was considerable disquiet (particularly from the South American countries) at the preponderance of European, particularly English, referees allocated to the matches. Thus they looked on benignly as artistes like Pele were kicked out of the tournament by more ‘robust’ European opponents. In that context, Hutchinson’s chapter describing the notorious quarter-final between England and Argentina, when two cultures clashed under the supervision of a German ref is particularly recommended.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Something which the BBC never mentions is that the whole of the rest of the world is convinced that the entire tournament was loaded in England’s favour from start to finish. Which brings us neatly to the age-old controversy of that ‘goal‘ in the Final.

Roger Hutchinson gets his cards right on the table, saying, “If the referee gives it, it is a goal. But it should not have been. The whole of the ball did not cross the line “. He hints that the Russian linesman who effectively awarded the goal may have been influenced by his Second World War experiences in making his decision. A few years ago I saw a magazine article which pithily described the thoughts which flickered through Mr. Bahkramov’s mind in the milli-seconds between the ball bouncing on the line and the whole world looking at him for adjudication, viz, “The ball bounced on or about the line. What do I do? Let me think – Operation Barbarossa, the motherland invaded and raped by the Germanic hordes, 3 years of living hell, 20 million dead – GOAL !!“.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI must say that that suggestion is just as credible as the usual old bollocks about ‘it must have crossed the line otherwise Roger Hunt would have followed through and put it in anyway‘. Hutchinson does a demolition job on the ‘Hunt theory‘ which is also recommended reading.

This book is not free from flaws. It is said that Archie Gemmell (sic) was sent off in the Germany-Scotland world cup qualifier in 1969. Shurely shome mishtake! Shurely it was Tommy, and shurely this was one of the most famous sendings-off of all time. Page 85 contains an extraordinary statement which I would like to hear the author justifying, viz, “Teams from the undeveloped world such as Belgium, Holland and Scotland”

So far as his style is concerned, the author has a liking for the archaic phrase ‘in their pomp’ (no, I don’t know what it means either) which he uses sufficiently often to irritate. These are all minor carping criticisms of what, in fact, is a surprisingly enjoyable and stimulating book.

England winning the world cup has hung over Scottish people of a certain age like a nasty little cloud for the last thirty years. This book goes some way towards blowing that cloud away. It also makes me bold enough to predict that Terry Wideboy will not be following Ramsay in lifting a major trophy at Wembley this summer. While the rest of the World has learned the lessons of 1966, and now ally system to flair, England are still left with system alone. While Le Tissier sits at home and mopes, the likes of Batty, Platty, Incey and Mincey will be ‘parading their skills’.

Disaster looms.

Good.

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