At the quarter-final stage most supporters were still apprehensive, but better prepared for disappointment than today's generation

COMMENTARY
Click to follow
The Independent Online
At a time when the idea of England becoming football champions of Europe is being fed out eagerly by newspapers and across the airways - in some cases to quite stupefying excess - sportswriters of my generation are inevitably called upon for comparison with the events of 30 years ago.

To be able to remember how things stood for England at this stage of proceedings in the 1966 World Cup emphasises life's relentless passage and confronts some of us older guys with a renewed awareness of mortality.

But enough of morbid thoughts. A big difference between the situation England find themselves in today against Spain at Wembley and the World Cup quarter-final Alf Ramsey's team undertook against Argentina is the euphoria that surrounds them.

Ramsey's uncharacteristic pronouncement that England would win the World Cup in their homeland raised a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement but not even the most fervent patriots considered them a certainty.

A problem for Terry Venables is then the hysteria that has grown up since England thrashed the Netherlands last Tuesday at Wembley. England's coach has sensibly attempted to calm things down but he can do nothing about jingoistic reporting in popular prints and on television.

As I remember it the mood in 1966 was somewhat calmer until England reached the final against West Germany. At the quarter-final stage most supporters were still apprehensive. They were solidly behind Ramsey and his players but were better prepared for disappointment than today's generation appear to be.

A big difference now is the concentration of media interest. A veteran of this trade recalled the other day that prior to England reaching the 1966 final Ramsey's press conferences were attended by fewer than 20 reporters. Now there are at least five times as many.

In today's circumstances for example it cannot be imagined that Ramsey would have been able to conceal the drama that developed around England's talismanic half-back, Nobby Stiles, on the day before they met Argentina. Against France in the third of England's group games, a foul on Jacques Simon by Stiles, who had already been booked, raised a great deal of consternation in official circles.

England were training at Highbury when Ramsey was summoned to a meeting in the Arsenal boardroom by senior representatives of the Football Association. Under pressure from the game's governing body, Fifa, they asked Ramsey to remove Stiles from the team. "The player assures me that he did not intend to commit a foul and I believe him," Ramsey said. "Either he stays or I go."

That anecdote raises an important similarity between then and now; the bond Venables has established with his squad, an element that was central to England's success under Ramsey. "It is obvious that the England players have absolute faith in Terry and will do anything he asks of them," the former Tottenham and Wales winger, Cliff Jones, who turned out with Venables, said this week. "Especially when you read about trouble in some of the other camps that could be a critical factor and makes me think England are capable of winning the championship."

However, another thought about 1966 is that England found it exceedingly difficult to get past Argentina, whose captain, Antonio Rattin, was sent off for what might not have brought him a caution in earlier matches. But for the collapse of discipline that followed, Argentina could possibly have defeated England. It was desperately close even with 10 men for an hour. As somebody wrote at the time, with Rattin what?

It is ironic I think that Rattin's expulsion in an era when the laws were less vigorously applied should have proved so important to the only major success in England's football history. From the way things have shaped up in Euro 96, and to address an issue I find irritating personally, it is probable that many players from that time would not have remained long on the field in the present climate. No case is being made for brutality here but as Pat Nevin argued on these pages earlier this week it is quite ridiculous to suppose that the game can be played without tackling, which appears to be Uefa's policy.

Having studied closely television replays of incidents that led to cautions in the group matches, a friend points out that 31 of 35 players thought to have been fouled were actually cheating. So much for the ideal of fair play that was put in place as a totem for this championship.

A poignant sight was that of a pretty girl with her hands held in supplication as Italy strove desperately for a goal against Germany that would have gained a place in the quarter-finals. In their euphoric anticipation England's supporters will not give a hoot, but Euro 96 is less for the blunders of selection that prevented Italy from bringing their technical superiority to bear on the latter stages.

Comments