Me And Alf
48 years ago, Alf Ramsey, England team manager, wrote to a small boy to talk about the 1966 World Cup win. Here is why.
I was born in 1957, and until I found the trapdoor to adulthood, and escaped to university in the late seventies, lived in a dull London suburb called Wembley.
London’s under-10s were too young to appreciate the Swinging Sixties, but we didn’t mind. We had more pressing concerns, like scrambling round crumbling bomb sites and being chased down empty streets by aggrieved, fist-waving adults barking dark threats to take us “down the station.” My personal list of approved recreational options included perhaps the greatest playground of all — Wembley Stadium. The old place stood right across the road from my primary school, St Joseph’s. Those famous twin towers were a fine backdrop to our 30-a-side break-time football matches, contested with a balding tennis ball on the sloping asphalt playground.
At weekends and through the school holidays, a smaller gang of us would often head over to the stadium. It was often totally deserted. In those more innocent days, there wasn’t even a security guard posted at the entrance. We simply walked in, usually through the players’ tunnel if it was open. If this entrance was shut, one of us would climb over a turnstile, slip the catch on the inner door with a school ruler and open a side gate to let the rest in.
Some days I’d wander up there on my own. A silent, empty Wembley was eerie, especially at an age when ghouls and fiends were just as real as the trembling hand in front of my face. Luckily, Wembley’s ghosts were benign. On airless summer days sometimes, when sunlight scorched the pitch, I’d head for the comfort of the royal box. Stretched along the padded seats, too hot to move, I’d doze and see those ancient Pathe Sports Reports re-run. The White Horse Final; Alex James and Stanley Matthews darting down the wing; here’s Puskas and his Mighty Magyars; Trautmann and his broken neck. Time and again, they all performed their greatest hits — just for me.
But mostly I was with my mates. We’d always take a ball, in case we had the chance to have a kickabout on the pitch. When there were workmen or VIP visitors around, the games wouldn’t last long. It would be a minute or two before the echoing, shouted threats from somewhere high up in the blue seats became the sound of angry feet on the cinder track this side of the dog track. Then we’d be away, haring off down the pitch and out through the tunnel again. At other times, we’d have the place to ourselves, and played for hours undisturbed. Believe me, you’ve never truly played three-and-in unless you’ve done so on the great green velvety baize of Wembley. Best time of all was in the run-up to a match, when the goalposts would be up. To volley a ball from the edge of the area, catching the sweet spot I only ever managed in practice games, and watching it fly into the corner, billowing the net with glory, is right up there with orgasms and Chateau Palmer ’61. To do so as a child was some sort of heaven on earth.
There were never enough of us for a proper match, except on one memorable occasion when a minibus full of plump, middle-aged Argentinian businessmen arrived to pay homage to the old place, and were astonished, thrilled and scared when we invited them in for a game. They must have lunched well. Combined with their smooth-soled, glossy brogues, the game was ours for the taking — and we took it. I gave up counting once we were into double figures, but I’m proud to report, somewhat belatedly, a handsome England victory.
In 1966, the World Cup came to town. We were overwhelmed by this psychedelic circus and its uncontainable clamour. The last week of the summer term coincided with the first week of the tournament. On its first day, right after school, I crossed to the stadium on my own and spent two or three hours mesmerised by the transformation of the stadium concourse. The drab grey oval of blank tarmac had become an international bazaar of food and football merchandise. It was the year that the world cup mascot was invented. World Cup Willy, the English talisman, was unavoidable, but most of all, I remember the people. Mexican guys with sombreros and ponchos. Germans in Lederhosen, the French with jaunty berets. For years, I was convinced this must be their everyday garb.
On this opening evening, England were to play Uruguay. I saw people walk up to the stadium walls and just touch them, like devotees reaching the end of a long and painful pilgrimage. I felt compelled to do the same, even though I’d been there so many times before. As kick-off approached, the commotion inside increased. The noise was unbelievable. It wasn’t just the volume. Something more. Chaos. I’d never heard anything so tumultuous and so frenzied. Some huge celebration was going on, a party, all happening on the other side of that wall. One that I wasn’t invited to. Everyone else was there, but I was locked out. The moment has never truly left me. The immense roar of one hundred thousand people, enjoying something I couldn’t see. So near, yet so far. That sense of missing out on something available to others has kept returning, throughout my life. If I ever feel the need to see a psychotherapist, she will silently cheer when I describe this moment, and jot “Eureka” in her Moleskine.
Touching the vibrating Wembley walls, wondering if it was me or the stadium that was trembling, as Bobby Moore led the lads out against Uruguay, was the closest I got to England and the 1966 World Cup. A few days later, school finished for the summer and I was hauled off to Ireland by my mother to watch my grandfather — her father — diminish and die. During that awful fortnight, stuck in a small cottage in County Mayo, on the far west coast of Ireland, without television or radio, I took no comfort from being in one of the most beautiful corners of these islands. While my poor mother wept and murmured her prayers and dabbed Grandad’s forehead, all I could fret about was how Wembley and England were getting on without me.
Each morning I hurried along the cliffs into Newport, the local town. At Chambers the Newsagents, I’d buy an ice cream and scan the papers. It’s how I learnt about England’s 2–0s against Mexico and France, and the notorious Argentina quarter-final. The victory in the semi against Portugal finally created a wave big enough to reach up the hill to our isolated cottage. It hit me before breakfast, as I sat outside. The news came from a neighbouring farmer, driving his cattle down our lane to the milking shed. I was perched on a farm gate, and nearly fell off.
Just as real time events seemed certain to pass me by, step forward Uncle Francie. I’d had suspicions that godfathers must be good for something, and in 1966 I learnt what this was. On the day of the final he appeared at the door and asked if I could help him with “a few errands”. An hour later we were in a Westport pub, in a heaving upstairs room, part of a raucous crowd peering up at a small, flickering TV balanced on a shelf. I can’t pretend to remember too much about the match except that like all Englishmen the world over, I distinctly saw Geoff Hurst’s shot cross the goal line for England’s third. The celebration this detonated was so great that the shelf shook, and the TV slid off and crashed to the ground, where it fizzed and crackled and died. We thought it was all over, and for us, it was then. It wasn’t until the next day that I learnt that we’d added a fourth.
Winning the trophy was brilliant, yet I never quite got over the idea that I’d missed out on England’s triumph. Worse was the knowledge that all these other strangers had somehow gatecrashed my special private playground. It was like not being invited to your own birthday party. I must have half-sulked for more than a year, but eventually hit on the idea of writing to Alf Ramsey, the England manager, to make my feelings known.
Earlier this year, while sifting through an old suitcase filled with juvenile debris, I came across Ramsey’s handwritten reply, on FA notepaper. It’s dated 20th June 1968.
Many thanks for your letter. It was very kind of you to write, and greatly appreciated.
I am rather flattered that you chose to write to me, at the same time I am pleased that you have seen the England team play and will pass on your congratulations to them on their success.
When the final whistle went in the World Cup, I was both relieved and delighted, the players had played marvellously and fully deserved the title of World Champions. For myself I was happy that everyone seemed to share in England’s victory.
Bobby Charlton now holds the goal scoring record for England and has 46 goals to his credit.
I have enclosed an autograph sheet of England players which I hope you will find useful.
Much has been written about Ramsey and his remoteness; his public image is that of a stiff and rather pompous man who wouldn’t suffer fools. He was as far from a knee-sliding Mourinho type, or a touchline-raging, tomato-faced Big Sam, as a man could be. And yet his thoughtful letter, to an invisible and unknown ten-year-old suburban kid, reveals a compassionate and decent streak that should be recognised.
Ramsey’s warmth wasn’t a total secret. In his admirable 2006 biography, Sir Alf, Leo McKinstry describes his ascetic office at the FA as a “small, bare-walled room without a single cup, souvenir or photograph.” This may fit the usual chilly Ramsey image, but McKinstry then quotes Margaret Fulljames, Ramsey’s personal secretary at the FA:
“He was brilliant to work for, absolutely brilliant. He was lovely. I cannot tell you how nice he was…. He answered every single piece of correspondence, unlike dear old Joe Mercer, who came in afterwards and would just glance at some of them and say, ‘Oh, bin those.’”
Ramsey would often dictate his letters, so I was fortunate to have had such a personal and kind response. Here we had the boss of the world champions, confiding in a young child to describe his emotions as the final whistle went in the world cup final. In the blink of an eye, everything changed. Suddenly, I was Alf Ramsey’s personal mate, and the pain of all those missed matches vanished.
With my Wembley credentials, and the fact that I saw nearly every game at the stadium from 1965 to the end of the seventies (without paying a penny) it remains a mild regret that I missed out on its greatest moment. What I do have is Alf’s letter and that lingering sense of mild paranoia. They will have to do.
Last time I was in London I drove along the North Circular, and spotted the new Wembley off to my left. It’s doubtless a more comfortable, more efficient venue, offering a richer ‘customer experience’ than its earlier version. But as I glanced over, forgive me my shamelessly melancholic pang, as I wondered what the hell the local kids do for entertainment these days. I’m sure their smart phones and Nintendos offer plenty of fun, but no thanks. I’ll stick with the joy of thumping a football into the corner of an empty Wembley net, while a hundred thousand invisible faces scream their appreciation.