Fifty years ago today England won the World Cup for the first and only time in history. Hugh McIlvenny writing in the following day’s Observer quite correctly described it as “The greatest moment in the history of English football.” Unfortunately 1966 has also become English football’s greatest burden.
The 1966 tournament had been notorious for defensive football, negative tactics and, on occasions, ill temper, but fortunately the final proved to be an occasion of excitement and honest endeavour, even if there were few moments of exceptional skill. Unlike the matches that preceded it the final was a very open affair. The Sunday Telegraph’s match statistics show an incredible 95 goal attempts over the 120 minutes of play, 47 from England and 38 from West Germany. Apart from the six goals, 28 shots were saved, the remainder being blocked or off target, but there were only 18 corners (and only six to England).
England went one down on 12 minutes when Haller’s shot eluded goalkeeper Gordon Banks. Six minutes later Geoff Hurst equalised with a header and this remained the score at the break. Fifteen minutes from time it appeared that victory for the home team was assured when Martin Peters shot from the edge of the box. Then came heartbreak for England with just two minutes remaining. West Germany were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box and although the initial effort cannoned off England’s wall, the ball eventually passed across the goalmouth where Wolfgang Weber slid home the equaliser.
In extra time England could have folded, but instead provided a powerful response. Ten minutes into the first period came one of the most controversial moments in World Cup history. Alan Ball’s cross was met by Geoff Hurst who powered in a shot that ricocheted off the underside of the bar, down and out into play. The referee did not initially award the goal but consulted his linesman who confirmed that the whole of the ball had crossed the line. Forever known to Germans as the “Wembley Tor” there has been much analysis ever since as to whether a goal should have been awarded or not. Whatever the case, the fact is, for right or wrong, the goal counted. Germany responded with a series of attacks on the England goal then in the very closing stages came Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal. A powerful left-foot shot from the edge of the box worthy of winning any match. The goal enabled BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme to enter the collective folklore as an abiding memory of England’s triumph with his comments: “Some people are on the pitch! They think it's all over! … It is now, it's four!”
England’s success was built on meticulous planning and hard work. Manager Alf Ramsey worked at his task as a club manager might, taking the players on tour to Scandinavia shortly before the tournament to help focus them on the task. David Miller in the Sunday Telegraph wrote “One cannot but say that England are not a great team, probably not the best team in the world … what matters is that they were the best here in England this July.” According to Soccer Star, the popular weekly magazine, England were “Artisans” whose victory was down to “determination, enthusiasm and sheer guts.”
Most importantly there were no obvious weaknesses in the team. Three of the players, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, were world class performers, as good as any in their position anywhere in the world. The other eight men offered the components any team requires for success: hard work (Ball, Stiles, Hurst and Hunt), honest endeavour (Cohen, Wilson, Jack Charlton) and silky skills (Martin Peters).
While West Germany recovered relatively quickly from what must have been a huge disappointment, the England team has never really moved on from that 1966 success. West Germany (Germany) won the tournament in 1974, 1990 and 2014 to add to three European titles (1972, 1980 and 1996). England has never progressed beyond the semi-final stage of any major tournament in the last 50 years.
This is remarkably at odds with the success of the Premier League, but perhaps also a reflection of this. Money and power in English football are held with the clubs, not with the FA or the national team. The impression often given (whether accurate or not) is that many players see playing for England as a side show to the main event, success at club level. It is often forgotten that the success of 1966 was not built on exceptional talent throughout the team, it was achieved by a team of 11 men with complementary talents who worked together for a common objective with honest endeavour, believe their manager and a will to work for him, plus some talent as well. If England are to achieve success in the future they need to return to these basic principles.