Saturday, June 12, 2010

2010 World Cup: Learning from Sir Alf?

"The wait is almost over for England fans young and old."

Kate Silverton's just told me that so it must be true.

How many of those fans, readying themselves for England v USA, know much about the man that Fabio Capello seeks to emulate at this World Cup?

Most will know about Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton. There's a chance that even Tim Lovejoy knows something about Bobby Moore.

But what of the complex, private manager who brought those players together and delivered the title that, even now forty-four years later, defines England's approach to international competition.

As football in England has exploded into a grotesque orgy of debts and wages, as the game's assumed importance to the English national life has become so exaggerated that David Cameron's choice of flag can be the subject of intense debate, the one man who has actually delivered the title that they crave stands a marginalised, almost forgotten figure.

As Leo McKinstry's exhaustive, and probably long overdue biography shows Sir Alf Ramsey's complex personality and distrust of the media contributed to his disappearance into football's shadows.

Yet for a football nation so hung up on heritage - especially when that heritage can be marketed - it seems strange that his subsequent treatment never seemed to do justice to his achievements. Unsurprisingly the Football Association were the chief offenders.

What McKinstry shows is that Ramsey was never comfortable in his own skin, a personality trait that made him difficult to warm to even as you admired his achievements.

Determined from an early age to make something of his life, he pursued his football career with a single minded zeal that made getting to know him difficult. The much maligned elocution lessons were taken to make him more attractive to the public school directors who then controlled many clubs rather than a calculated effort to distance himself from his background.

Sad that it's taken McKinstry, years after Ramsey's death, to provide a more sympathetic
understanding of a personality that has been all too often swamped by memories of 1966 and Ramsey's typically stern countenance.

Not that this is not a completely revisionist account. Ramsey could be cold and cruel, as his treatment of Bobby Robson, a successor at both Ipswich and England proved, while his lack of confidence and shyness manifested itself quite often as a thin-skinned hostility. Grudges were quickly formed, less hastily forgotten.

And what of that day in 1966? Nothing was going to stop Ramsey from his goal. In the end nothing did. You might hear something about that in the hours and days ahead.

There is a tendency to sentimentalise these things, to see Ramsey as a father figure to the eleven players who won the World Cup. That's untrue. Each of them ran the risk of being dropped as suddenly and as finally as Jimmy Greaves. England, not the players, mattered.

There was no father and son like bond between Ramsey and those eleven players. Perhaps he felt closest to Bobby Charlton but neither man was likely to express that bond with any emotion, just an unspoken respect.

With his captain there was certainly respect but also a distrust, at least at a personal level. Bobby Moore moved in circles that Ramsey neither understood nor wanted anything to do with. The relationship could, at times, unleash an arrogant and cruel side to Moore, a side to the sainted centre half that the English media was unlikely to expose even as they sneered at Ramsey.

None of that matters of course. Ramsey - the refreshing antithesis to the modern cult of the manager - no more cared if his players liked him than he did if the Argentinian players liked him. He was their boss and they were all there to do a job. If they all accepted that everything else would follow on.

Strangely that does put you mind of Capello. Unlike, say Eriksson and his celebrity fetish, Capello only developed any trust in David Beckham when he had fought his way back into the Real Madrid side.

Leave your reputation at the door, the team and winning is everything.

The Ramsey way, the Capello way. Well, it's only taken them thirty odd years to realise that the prickly little man from Dagenham might have been on to something in his approach to international football.

Undoubtedly Ramsey had some fortune in 1966. It's fashionable in Scotland to belittle his achievements. But he won the World Cup. Home games and Russian officials or not that is a massive achievement.

One that Capello is unlikely to repeat. Sir Alf Ramsey is likely to stand apart from all those who have followed him for at least 48 years. If he's done nothing else Leo McKinstry has at least given him some of the recognition that he deserves.

Want to read it? Get Sir Alf at the Scottish Football Blog Bookshop.

The Anybody But England thing has been getting a lot of coverage. I've stated my neutrality on the issue already. I've got enough to get annoyed about. But it's fashionable to say the English are more sympathetic to Scotland than we are to them. Definitely not the case with Sir Alf. He hated us.