They never got over it

4-2 by David Thomson Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
Like a compressed and bloodless Battle of Alamein, England's World Cup Final, whose scoreline is the evocative title of this book, was a transcendent moment, an emotional peak in the national psyche. That at least is David Thomson's thesis. He has accordingly composed a literal, kick-by-kick transcript of the whole event.

Perhaps 20 per cent of the book goes along like this: "Stiles takes the free kick and sends it across field to Banks, who throws out to Wilson. His pass finds Hurst playing deep and he tucks inside to Ball..." Personally I don't mind this stuff. It achieves something like the rhythm of the game itself - flowing for a while, stopping, stuttering, then flowing again. It is also linguistically austere and unfussy, without recourse to mixed metaphors or Colemanballs.

Yet on their own these pages have little more long-term significance than a trainspotter's notebook. It is in taking advantage of natural breaks in play that Thomson seeks to boost his theme up to the level of epic. The 1966 Final took place amid the pullulations of "swinging" London, the city of Blow Up and Jimi Hendrix, in which the whole fashionable world hung out and was hip - an unimaginable thing in the stuffy 1950s. This is the Sixties myth, but Thomson "was there" and, for him, Eng-a-land really did swing. Yet he moves swiftly to deny the relevance of all this to the subject at hand. Our ecstatic reaction to the Wembley result may have had much to do with the spirit of the age; the reason for the victory is unrelated.

Thomson critically traces the path of English football since the war, its complacency and squandered resources (especially in the case of Stanley Matthews who, Thomson believes, had somehow "learned to be ashamed" of his creative fire). This is a sorry tale of pride leading to a fall - at Wembley in 1953: Hungary 6, England 3. Then, Thomson movingly reminds us how sports writers, always so glib with the word "tragedy", had to deal with something of almost Sophoclean dimensions after the Busby Babes' plane crashed in the snow at Munich in 1958, leaving eight famous young players (as well as eight journalists) dead. It was a day, says Thomson, on which "English football found its heart".

But another five years were to pass before it found an effective national manager in Alf Ramsay. After the vapid amateurishness of Walter "Officer- Material" Winterbottom, Ramsay embodied NCO professionalism. As it happened, it was 1963 when his new broom first began to sweep through the FA and this, as readers of Philip Larkin will recall, was the year of the Beatles' first LP along with other innovations. But that was just a coincidence. Ramsay's ethic was gritty, puritanical, and utterly out of step with the march of the Mods.

Ramsay had available for his Final team one of the greatest goal-scorers in the history of the game, and, as if to symbolise his rejection of Sixties' individualism, he left Chelsea's Jimmy Greaves out. Chelsea-fan Thomson's anger and hurt at the decision lingers to this day, and it is hard to escape the sense that it is Ramsay (not the Bobbies, Charlton and Moore) who is at the emotional centre of this book. Real pathos enters into the portrait of that repressed, lonely, long-suffering father-figure.

Moving up to another level, 4-2 presents us with a second example of a cold and enigmatic father. The book subscribes to the fashionable doctrine that sport correlates with life and so must give, in parallel with the football history, a detailed memoir of Thomson's own childhood, and it tells of the buttoned-up, unknowable, part-time parent with whom young Thomson had nothing in common except sport. I initially thought these autobiographical passages had been spliced in to comply with the Fever Pitch imperative that has seized all sports-writers. But I was won over by the unusual interest of Thomson Senior's double menage - his wife and son David in South London at the weekend, "another woman" in St Albans from Monday to Friday, the two centres of his life never spoken of and never speaking to each other. The author doesn't shrink from analysing his complex feelings about this unusual arrangement.

Retrospective resentment - even bitterness - is the prevailing tone, but it is touchingly displaced by the parallel portrait of Alf Ramsay. Thomson realises he could never see the world through his father's eyes, but he believes he knows Ramsay. Unable to sympathise with, let alone share, the youthful insubordination of his pill-popping, boozing, disco- dancing players, he was "a haunted father, yet his sons owed him so much". In memory, then, Ramsay evolves into an emblem not merely of Thomson's own ungiving and unsatisfactory father, but of victory won cussedly in the teeth of an entire zeitgeist.