137. Alf Ramsey
Although he came to football relatively late, Alf Ramsey’s intelligent understanding of the game helped him to go on to an extremely successful managerial career. A championship-winning right-back with Tottenham in his playing days, he took Ipswich Town from the Third Division South to the Football League title before being appointed England manager and leading his country to their only international title to date at the 1966 World Cup.
Born in Dagenham in east London on 22 January 1920, Ramsey did not initially pursue football as seriously as many other future stars of the game. When he left school he worked as a grocer’s boy, playing amateur football in his spare time. In all likelihood he would have remained in the grocery business but for the outbreak of the Second World War, when he joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1940.
Playing as a right-back for his regiment team, Ramsey impressed Portsmouth in a friendly match and signed for them in 1942, moving on to Second Division Southampton a year later. It was with Southampton that he finally made his professional debut in October 1946 but Ramsey’s time at the club was frustrating, narrowly missing out on promotion in two consecutive seasons. He did however win international recognition in December 1948, in a 6-0 win over Switzerland.
In 1949 he moved on to Second Division rivals Tottenham Hotspur, helping the team to win promotion as champions in his first season. Becoming an England regular, Ramsey captained his country three times when regular skipper Billy Wright was unavailable. In 1950 he was selected for the World Cup in Brazil, playing all three group games as England crashed out after an embarrassing defeat to the USA.
A dependable full-back whose passing ability enabled him to begin attacks from deep in his own half, Ramsey helped Tottenham win the league title in their first season after promotion before finishing second the following season. That league title was his only major honour as a player and after a total of 316 league appearances he retired from playing in 1955, aged 35. His final England cap had come in the infamous 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1953, a match in which he he scored one of England’s goals.
On his retirement Ramsey was appointed manager of Division Three South side Ipswich Town. He had always taken a keen interest in tactics during his playing career and that served him well as a manager. After narrowly missing promotion in his first season he led Ipswich into Division Two in 1957, claiming the title on goal average ahead of Torquay United. After three season hovering around mid-table, Ramsey’s team stormed to another promotion in 1961, reaching the First Division for the first time in their history.
In their first season, Ipswich sensationally mounted a successful challenge for the title. They took top spot for the first time at the end of March and finished three points clear of Burnley at the top of the table. It was there that Ramsey first experimented with his revolutionary 4-4-2 system, whereby he dropped conventional wingers in favour of a more recognisable ‘midfield’, encouraging his team to attack more through the middle of the pitch than on the wings – much to the confusion of opposing teams.
When Walter Winterbottom left the England job in the aftermath of the 1962 World Cup, Ramsey was a leading contender to replace him. First choice for the job was Burnley’s Jimmy Adamson, but when he turned it down the post was offered to Ramsey, who accepted. The first manager to take total control of team affairs, he would remain in the job for more than a decade, often being seen as an aloof figure by the media but nevertheless earning great respect from his players, who knew him as firm but fair.
Although Ramsey’s first competitive outing with England was a qualifying game for the 1964 European Nations’ Cup, which the team lost to France, his main objective was to prepare for the 1966 World Cup on home soil. As early as 1963 Ramsey confidently predicted that his team would win that tournament, although few in the media shared his belief. As part of his preparations for the tournament, he introduced his wingless formation with England to great effect.
When the tournament came round, Ramsey’s team were in fine form having won their last seven games, but opened with a frustrating 0-0 draw with Uruguay. He had begun the tournament playing 4-3-3, with one recognisable winger, but despite back-to-back 2-0 wins over Mexico and France which took the team through to the quarter-finals Ramsey was not happy with his formation. For the next match he reverted to 4-4-2 and stuck with that system for the rest of the tournament.
England beat Argentina 1-0 in a bad tempered quarter-final, after which Ramsey famously prevented his players from swapping shirts with their opponents, before edging past Portugal 2-1 to reach the World Cup final for the first time. For the final Ramsey made the brave decision to continue leaving out prolific strilker Jimmy Greaves, who had been injured earlier in the tournament, preferring to continue with Geoff Hurst up front.
After England had come from 1-0 down against West Germany to lead late on, the Germans found a last-gasp equaliser leading to Ramsey’s famous pre-extra-time team talk where he told his players “You’ve won it once. Now you must win it again.” Helped by a controversial goal which appeared not to have crossed the line, Hurst completed a hat-trick in extra-time to give England a 4-2 win and their first world title. In honour of his achievement, Ramsey was knighted the following year.
England followed up their World Cup win by reaching the European Championship semi-final in 1968, but lost 1-0 to Yugoslavia and eventually finished third. They would however defend their world title in Mexico in 1970 with a team that many felt was better than the one which had won in 1966. Ramsey’s preparation for the tournament was meticulous and although defeat to Brazil left England only second in their group, they were well fancied to win a rematch against West Germany in the quarter-final.
Despite the late withdrawal of goalkeeper Gordon Banks from the team with illness, England surged into a 2-0 lead in that match but things went dramatically wrong late on. West Germany pulled a goal back and Ramsey changed his team by taking off Bobby Charlton, a move which backfired. The Germans equalised and with England faltering in the heat, went on to win after extra-time and end England’s reign as World Champions.
In the early 1970s Ramsey’s team was in decline. Another defeat to West Germany ended hopes of reaching the last four of the European Championship in 1972 and a disappointing home draw against Poland in the last qualifying game ended England’s hopes of reaching the 1974 World Cup. After that match Ramsey, who had often had a tense relationship with his bosses at the FA, was sacked. In all he managed England 113 times, winning 69 of those games.
Although he had a brief spell as caretaker-manager of Birmingham City and as an advisor at Greek club Panathinaikos, the England job was his last high profile involvement in football. In his later years he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and in 1998 suffered a massive stroke. Living in a nursing home, Ramsey died of a heart attack on 28 April 1999, aged 79. Always inclined to stay out of the limelight, his achievements with Ipswich and England nevertheless make him one of his country’s most famous footballing figures.