Do you remember the last time?
The last time England hosted a major football tournament, Harold Wilson ruled, the Beatles rolled and Roger Hunt was everywhere. So, in a way, was Phil Shaw, who takes a trip down Route 66
Saturday 01 June 1996
No, not "they think it's all over", but a remark which unwittingly revealed something of the functionalism of Alf Ramsey's champions. "Whatever you say about Roger Hunt," the voice of television football said in mitigation of the Liverpool workhorse, "he's always there."
Years later, a commentator of the social variety decreed that if you could remember the 60s then you could not have been there. True as that may have been of Swinging London and its psychedelic successor, this piece of acid wisdom does not apply to football.
Like some prototype Nick Hornby, my hormones seemed to be mysteriously hooked up to the exploits of my team, Leeds United, whose deeds I logged obsessively from the Staffordshire exile into which my dad's work had taken us. And my recollections of the last great tournament staged in England remain as vivid as David Seaman's "tube of Refreshers" strip.
Strange business, memory. For when I cast my mind back, the images flashing up are not those of the Swiss referee and "Russian" linesman (no one had heard of Azerbaijan then) conferring over whether Geoff Hurst's second goal had crossed the line. Nor do I picture the supposed communist automatons of North Korea letting their severely cut hair down after going 3-0 up on Portugal.
Instead I see the "sensible" grey coat that my mother bought against my wishes (I was 15 the week the tournament kicked off, an aspiring mod full of the "My Generation" mindset). Maybe it was no accident that I left it on the bus taking the dozen or so of us who had booked to travel by bus from Newcastle-under-Lyme to Villa Park for Spain v Argentina.
Alternatively I hear the brusque exchange between my mate Garry and his father, Paddy, when we met up outside Wembley for the semi-final between England and Portugal. Biggest game in the history of English football and Garry, with a nonchalance that probably stemmed from following Fulham, had left the tickets in Putney.
While he dashed home, I talked to Paddy's American colleague, Jim, who knew little about "soccer" but was caught up in the enthusiasm. More than likely I expounded my theory, which I realise now was equivalent to the flat earth argument, that southern bias kept Bobby Moore in the team ahead of Norman Hunter (the respective merits of Greaves and Hurst was a secondary issue to me).
We eventually squeezed in at the back of one of the ends. The repertoire of chants was limited by today's standards, but everyone joined in, which was something novel at England games. The League president, Joe Richards, had felt obliged to appeal for support before the finals, complaining that Wembley was "as cold as any away ground for our national team".
The fervour reached boiling point that night. But it wasn't the ugly, intolerant nationalism that became associated with England in the 70s, more a good humoured partisanship.
There had also been a trip to Goodison Park with a school friend and his brother (who actually had a car), to see Brazil relinquish their title by losing to Portugal. Pele was hacked out of the game, yet the main flashbacks I have are those of men urinating on the packed terraces (a severe case of the World Cup willies) and the explosive red blur that was Eusebio (TV's Alan Weekes insisted on pronouncing it Esoobio).
The sights and smells apart, it is impossible to view the World Cup in England outside the context of the extraordinary era of which it was part. And that, to paraphrase the poet Philip Larkin, was between the start of the pirate-radio ban and the Beatles' best LP. (Revolver hit the shops and the senses six days after the final. I had lavished my meagre funds on a soul compilation to impress the youth club goddess, Judy Waller.)
One of the myths about '66 is that Labour owed their victory in the general election to a feel-good factor generated by Ramsey's wingless wonders. In fact, the poll pre-dated the final by two months, although Harold Wilson would later say, removing pipe from cheek to accommodate his tongue: "You'll notice we only win the World Cup when we wear red shirts."
The link was not as fanciful as hindsight makes it appear. It was a time of great optimism and idealism. Post-war austerity was finally over. Anything was possible in the "modern" world, a feeling Wilson tapped in to by invoking the image of "white heat" of the technological revolution.
Red shirts, white heat; it was a paint-by-numbers brave new world. Wilson seized upon youth as a metaphor for progress. Hence the MBEs awarded to John, Paul, George and Ringo, the OBE for Mary Quant and the Downing Street dinner parties to which actors and sportsmen, rather than captains of industry and the grouse-shooting set, were invited.
Wilson created the illusion of class barriers coming down. The World Cup was like the war: there was a sense that we were all in it together, intensified by the fact that West Germany, of all teams, faced us in the final. The middle-class now embraced the game, as they are doing again in the Fever Pitch era, making it fashionable beyond its traditional male, working-class constituency.
I never made it to the final, watching it instead on the BBC with Garry and his old man, a Scot who for years insisted (not entirely frivolously) that Hungary would have won the Jules Rimet Trophy but for abysmal goalkeeping. After it was all over we drove to Eastbourne for a break to recover from the stress of three weeks' indulgence in wall-to-wall football.
On the morning after the night before, the names of the England players were inscribed on a sea front pavement. The nation basked in a euphoric, disbelieving unity, but England's victory, like Wilson's in the class war, turned out to be an illusion.
In 1970, he called an election for 18 June. Everything pointed to a third successive Labour win. Then, with four days to go to polling, Gordon Banks' food was nobbled by the forces of reaction, England blew a 2-0 lead to the Germans and the World Cup was lost.
The feel-bad factor was considerable. The blue meanies, led by Ted Heath, routed Wilson and I failed two out of three A-levels. My Peter Bonetti- like ineptitude may have been not unconnected with a habit of sitting up until 3am the night before an exam for the unmissable pleasures of Italy v Israel by satellite from Mexico.
Now Europe is returning to England for another orgy of football. When it comes to big occasions at Wembley, John Major is as omnipresent as Roger Hunt, a love of sport being one of his few saving graces. In his straw-clutching moments he may believe that a repeat of '66 could help turn the political tide, so no one should be surprised if a glorious swan-song for Terry Venables becomes the prelude to an autumn election.
England's strip may not, it's true, be in Conservative colours. But those who see omens in such details will have noted that they could well be kitted out in Spitting Image Major grey.
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