I HAD got to only the fourth paragraph of Chapter One in the new book Answered Prayers when I threw it down in disgust at the phrase ‘the peel of Bow Bells’. If this was going to be the standard, why bother?
Reluctantly I persevered with Duncan Hamilton’s account of England’s triumph in the 1966 World Cup – mainly because it would have irked the stingy Northerner in me to send a mint-condition £25 volume to the charity shop. And I’m glad I did.
When you get over the infelicities there is much to enjoy, particularly the detailed portrait of Sir Alf Ramsey, the shy, awkward soul who steered his team to glory yet never received the credit he deserved.
‘He was among the motivating spirits of the 1960s, despite being, culturally and socially, entirely out of kilter with them,’ writes Hamilton. ‘Amid the tumult of that decade, his manner, his appearance, his attitudes, his accent and his slightly tortured syntax and stiff turn of speech meant he looked and sounded as though he didn’t belong, the puritan aghast at an orgy.’
I have written before about my ecstasy as an 11-year-old when England won the World Cup. Hamilton was only eight at the time and struggled to understand the significance of the achievement. He has spent most of his life trying to rectify this and interviewed nearly all the protagonists to produce a formidable collage of fascinating facts.
Most noteworthy of all is the contrast between today’s obscenely rewarded footballers and their counterparts in the middle of the last century. I knew that Tom Finney supplemented his sporting income by working as a plumber, but not that Stanley Matthews ran a hotel, Ted Ditchburn worked behind a desk at a ticketing agency and Stan Mortensen had a fancy-goods shop. The maximum wage, which applied to stars and journeymen alike, was a princely £12 a week. The Manchester United prodigy Duncan Edwards, who would be fatally injured at the age of 21 in the 1958 Munich air disaster, used to ride in his tweed jacket ‘on a Raleigh bicycle the two miles from his digs to Old Trafford, tying it to a drainpipe with knotted string’.
Alf Ramsey’s predecessor as England manager, Walter Winterbottom, was not so much a has-been as a never-was. After a poor playing career curtailed by injury, he was in charge for disasters such as the 1-0 defeat by the United States in the 1950 World Cup and the 6-3 hammering by Hungary at Wembley in 1953. ‘He smoked a pipe and often wore round, dark-framed spectacles which made him look like a university professor specialising in some obscure branch of chemistry. He often spoke like one, too, adding unnecessary complexity to simple tasks and using a blackboard and chalk to demonstrate them.’
Tommy Lawton said he ‘got a migraine’ from trying to decipher Winterbottom’s diagrams. He and Stanley Matthews walked out of a team talk, Lawton telling the manager: ‘Look, Walter, let’s stop all this guff. It’s simple – get the ball on the wing to Stan, get him to cross it and I’ll head it in.’
To make matters worse, the England team were chosen by a committee of between nine and 11 selectors, most of whom had never played the game. They included ‘two grocers, a contractor for London Transport, a retired businessman from Wolverhampton and a Huddersfield solicitor with a knighthood. The chairman was Arthur Drewry. He was linked with the fishing industry in Grimsby’.
Hamilton reports that the FA received £50,000 gate money from matches at Wembley, of which a mere £550 was divided between the 11 players. Matthews and Lawton were called in to explain their expenses. ‘Matthews had charged the FA for a cup of tea and a scone – total cost, sixpence. Lawton, forced to change trains, overestimated the fare by twopence. He discovered the FA’s secretary had gone to the bother of studying the timetables and ticket prices. Denis Compton tried to claim “miscellaneous” expenses but was rebuffed with the put-down that no England player was “intelligent enough either to spell the word or know what it meant”.’
Alf Ramsey, who himself represented England 32 times in a distinguished playing career, was appointed manager of Ipswich Town, in the Third Division (South) in August 1955. For extra pay, he became club secretary too. His chairman was the flamboyant, hard-drinking aristocrat John Cobbold, who would become the first man to say f**k on live television in 1962, three years before theatre critic Kenneth Tynan. A local TV interviewer asked him: ‘Can you tell me what you do at Ipswich Town?’ The succinct reply: ‘F**k all.’
Ramsey, born to a poor family in Dagenham, East London, was ashamed of his working-class accent and tried desperately to improve it. ‘If stressed – especially in front of a TV camera – he could get himself into an awful tangle by trying to be something that he clearly wasn’t, which was smoothly articulate. Ramsey tended to choose the wrong word in his struggle to find the right one’:
There is great harmonium in our dressing room.
In the second half we were pushing at an open jar.
It’s so hot the compensation is running down the walls.
I may have to make altercations to the side.
Eat your heart out, Hylda Baker!
Despite a constant shortage of cash at the club, within six years of taking over at Ipswich Ramsey had taken them into the First Division, equivalent of today’s Premier League. After six weeks of the 1961/2 season he gave each player £18 to buy new football boots from a sports shop in the town. His star striker Ray Crawford wanted an Italian-made pair costing £30.
‘Can I have them?’ he asked.
Ramsey said yes, so long as Crawford paid the £12 difference himself. ‘We’re on a budget, you know.’
Hamilton writes: ‘Crawford invested in those boots. He scored 33 goals in them.’ And Ipswich went on to win the league. ‘No riches followed the title for them. Since there was no bonus scheme at Portman Road, John Cobbold gave every player a pay rise of £10. The Football League stipulated that the prize money, amounting to £1,500, should be distributed among the squad strictly on the basis of the number of games played. John Elsworthy, who had featured in 41 of them, earned £2.12s [£2.60] for each appearance – before tax. With that small windfall, he bought his wife a washing machine.’
Chairman Cobbold had a hate-hate relationship with his Burnley counterpart Bob Lord, whom I wrote about here. According to Hamilton, ‘Lord would merely have been a bizarre character if he hadn’t become a morally repulsive one. Like many chairmen of his era, he picked a turnstile at Turf Moor and raked the money from it into his own account. He so disliked criticism, even in its mildest form, that he regularly refused newspapers entry to the press box. He regarded the clamour to put matches on television as “a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run TV”, exposing his anti-Semitism.
‘Cobbold couldn’t stand being in the same room as Lord, whom he christened “bollock chops”. He summed up his revulsion in five words: “I hate racists and snobs”. When Cobbold heard Lord belittle the directors at Leeds United for being Jewish, he complained in writing to the Football League. Unfortunately the man who slit open Cobbold’s letter at League headquarters was Lord, who told a minion to “chuck it away”.’
Cobbold was a fascinating character. His mother Lady Blanche was once asked before an FA Cup final if she would like to meet the Prime Minister. ‘I’d rather have a gin and tonic,’ she replied.
Writing his memoirs, Cobbold was advised to grab the reader’s attention as soon as possible. His opening sentence was: ‘F**k, said the Duchess, waving her wooden leg.’
After England performed abysmally at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, it was clear even to the moronic ‘suits’ at the FA that Walter Winterbottom’s time was up following 16 years of failure. Despite never having been a manager, Burnley’s Jimmy Adamson was offered the job. Wisely, he turned it down. ‘He knew the FA’s committee expected the England manager to treat them like royalty while they treated the manager like an equerry.’
The stage was set for Alf Ramsey, as I will describe in next week’s column.
Old jokes’ home
Three conspiracy theorists walk into a pub. And you seriously expect me to believe that it’s a coincidence?
A PS from PG
There is, as Jeeves rather neatly put it once, a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune and I could see clearly enough that this was it.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season