Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: Prologue

He wasn’t first choice: that was Jimmy Adamson of Burnley. And when the job offer did come, he didn’t agree straightaway. Alf Ramsey had enough about him to negotiate, and, courtesy of those elocution lessons he always denied, the voice to do it with. In 1962, these words were not blindingly obvious:

I think an England manager must make up his mind what players he has and then find a rigid method for them to play to. If any player, no matter how clever an individual is not prepared to accept the discipline of the team’s method then I can see no advantage in selecting him.

The football conundrum is that it is a team game with all the room in the world for individual expression. The weight has to go somewhere. In England, with a traditional dribbling game, it went to the individual. In Scotland, with a traditional passing game, the team was more the thing. Ramsey hated Scots. But he thought like a Scot about England.

To get him, the FA had to change the habits of ninety years. No more selection committees. Ramsey was to be in total charge of tactics and team selection.

That was more than a change in manning and demarcation. It completely altered the cultural place of the England team in the national game. The selection committee, with Walter Winterbottom’s involvement, would try to put together a winning side, true. But an England shirt was also seen as a reward for service. And there was a pork barrel element to it too: committee members would favour players from their own clubs. All this would now stop, and something else take their place.

But Ramsey’s desire to pick the team himself didn’t make the complete sense in 1962 that it makes now. There was still very little football on television, and what there was was insufficient for tactical analysis or judgment of players or the spotting of new talent. The England manager would need a thousand scouting eyes. He’d need to attend matches as often as he could.

In 1962, with the maximum wage only just abolished, football club squads were far larger than they are today – probably at least twice the current size. They would be predominantly English. Furthermore, the retain-and-transfer system, which still had a year to live,  meant that a lot of top talent was trapped in the lower divisions. Picking the best squad from such a throng, let alone the best side, was a formidable task.

By 1962, too, the war babies were coming into England contention. They were the best fed generation before or since, and their crucial street football years had been clear of cars. Hungary aside, the South Americans, who’d sat out 1939-45, dominated post-War football. By 1966, England would have a new group ready to take them on. And what a group it was: between 1966 and 1972, the First Division had enough talent to carry seven different title winners, all of them memorable sides.

What’s more, this group were in receipt of better training and tactics that any previous English players. Ramsey himself had played in both the 1-0 defeat to the USA in 1950 and in the 6-3 Hungarian disaster. He wasn’t the only man in English football to spend the ’50s suffering from and obsessing over these experiences. Joe Mercer and Walter Winterbottom went into the schools to institute Jimmy Hogan-style skills training; Stanley Matthews pioneered modern playing kit; Don Revie brought Hungarian ideas to Manchester City. And the clever Scots, Busby and Shankly, had arrived.

By the end of the 1960s, the culture would have changed, and working class male talent went, successfully but with no track record, into music. But before the decade was out, England would send a team to the top of the world and bring it safely back again. Four times. Once before Ramsey, in 1961, Winterbottom’s last great side with the young Jimmy Greaves. In 1964, the year of Johnny Byrne. In ’66. And – it’s right by my calendar – 1970.

It was done despite a querulous press corps (“What’s it about, Alfie?”) and some spectacular condescension from television and middle class media. It ends, as we’ve seen, in endless remembrance, celebration and a lifetime of receiving lifetime awards.

Ramsey took over in May 1963. 1961 had been great, but better was to come. What’s the sound of England when it begins to wind up towards something remarkable?

It’s this:

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One response to “Alf Ramsey Picks The Team: Prologue

  1. The last of the swing bands.