Betrayed by his life

The pathos of it all was that Sir ALF RAMSEY should die in virtual poverty, trying to make ends meet on a meagre GBP 25-a-week pension from the Football Association; an exercise in petty revenge. For when Alf became the England manager in 1962, he insisted on the abolition of the so-called Selection Committee, which consisted of a hotch-potch of club directors.

There is a terrible pathos about Leo McKinstry's characteristically long and diligent biography of the late Alf Ramsey; the only England manager ever to win the World Cup. That was in 1966 at Wembley and four years later, in Mexico, only ill fortune — the stomach bug which afflicted that fine goalkeeper Gordon Banks — arguably prevented England from going beyond the quarterfinal. In passing, I would like to qualify McKinstry's bow to conventional wisdom — that Ramsey considered the 1970 team superior to that of 1966 — for when I once questioned him about it, he told me with a smile that he had said so only to encourage the 1970 side.

The pathos of it all was that Alf should die in virtual poverty, trying to make ends meet on the mean and niggardly pension of �25 a week from the Football Association; an exercise in petty revenge. For when Alf became the England manager in 1962, after his astonishing success with little Ipswich Town, he immediately insisted on the abolition of the so-called Selection Committee. Consisting of a hotch-potch of club directors, doomed to eternal compromise, it was essentially an amateur survival in a professional game.

But when Ramsey got rid of it the wounds went deep, and he hardly ameliorated the situation with his dismissively sarcastic behaviour towards the members of what came to be known as the International Committee; a euphemism you might say for a bunch of free loaders who travelled the world to no great purpose, and to whom I ascribed the motto: They also serve who only eat and drink.

Most vindictive of all was the late Oxford scientist Professor Sir Harold Thompson, notorious, as McKinstry does not hesitate to point out, for his lecherous behaviour on aeroplanes. So much so that I once suggested FRS should stand not, as it did, for Fellow of the Royal Society but for Feeler for Reluctant Stewardesses. It was Thompson who was eventually the prime mover in Ramsey's sacking in 1974 though the sad truth is that for the couple of preceding years, Alf had palpably lost his way.

The man whose huge authority and inspiration that made a silk purse out of a sow's ear at Ipswich — winning 2nd and 1st division titles in successive years — and welded the England team into so powerful a force, with players adoring him, had suddenly and sadly become a spent force.

You would hardly have suspected it when England won that dramatic World Cup Final against West Germany. "You did it, Alf," cried a tearful Nobby Stiles, the abrasive little right half. "We'd be nothing without you!"

True, that sophisticated Viennese critic Hans Keller, devotee of the pre-war Austrian Wunderteam, had written the day before the Final: "Next week I shall describe how England won the World Cup, and what we can do about it."

True, Alf's team of so-called wingless wonders, with its emphasis on work rate, would arguably have a negative effect on the future of English football, but the achievement was enormous. Just, in a lesser way, it had been at Ipswich when he had transformed the little country club, turning the slow veteran inside-forward Jimmy Leadbeater into a devastatingly effective deep-lying left winger, unleashing the locally-born Ted Phillips as a striker with a shot as devastating as the catapult he used for hunting.

McKinstry is particularly good on Ramsey's obscurely humble origins, which, since he was born well before the social revolution that made English heroes of hairdressers and photographers, haunted him throughout his life. Though the book seems to refute the long-held notion that Alf took elocution lessons, there is no doubt that his accent was a parody of educated speech: what used to be called, with reference to the Army, Sergeant Major Posh. He had no social graces, least of all when he was working abroad, where his latent xenophobia was all too often in evidence. McKinstry gives an example of his tactlessness, which he's culled from my own autobiography and doesn't quite get right. In the Autumn of 1962, I was in Turin writing a BBC2 TV documentary, European Centre Forward, which later, surprisingly, won the Silver Bear prize at the Berlin Festival.

Its protagonist was Gerry Hitchens, a blond, robust former miner who'd been England's striker in the 1962 World Cup. As it happened, Ipswich, with Alf still in charge, were to play Milan at San Siro in a return European Cup match, and Gerry drove me and our sound recorder from Turin to Milan. "Must say hello to Alf!" he cried. "Must wish good luck to the lads!"

We arrived at San Siro, walked down the dressing room corridor where Gerry hailed Alf. Ramsey looked at him coolly. "Oh, yes," he said. "You're playin' in these parts!" Throughout the subsequent match, Gerry was fulminating about it.

But, of course, the most famous or infamous example of Alf's tactlessness, and xenophobia, came after England had won that 1966 quarterfinal against an abrasive, cynical Argentina team, which in the dressing room tunnel had urinated on the walls after the match and banged on the England team's door. Alf, interviewed, said he hoped that England in their next match would meet a team, which wanted to play football, "and not act as animals." Latin America never forgave him, and when England were due to play Brazil in Guadalajara in the 1970 World Cup, their Hilton Hotel (I was there myself) was besieged by cacophonous Mexican fans, disturbing the players' sleep.

By the time England, in early 1972, met West Germany in the quarterfinal of the European Nations Cup at Wembley, Ramsey was adrift, making no provision to curb the galloping German inside left Gunter Netzer.

Germany won 3-1 and in Berlin in the return Alf lost his nerve, fielding a team of hard nuts with no hope of turning the tables, settling for a 0-0 draw. Alas, he would in time succumb to Alzheimers. Football had been his life and it had betrayed him.