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Football: Obituary: Sir Alf Ramsey, 1922-1999 - England on top of the world - A legacy of expectation and pride

`1966 and all that' restored England's faith in its footballers' natural pre-eminence
KEVIN KEEGAN is as optimistic as they come but even he knew better than to make wild promises as he spoke, in the bowels of the Nep Stadium on Wednesday night, of his hopes and fears for his new career as England manager.

"I'm not saying we'll win the World Cup," said Keegan. No one dissented. Not at the time anyway. But, come 2002, assuming England qualify, that is what the media and the public will demand.

For World Cup victory is what Sir Alf Ramsey both promised and, more pertinently, achieved. England's 1966 success, fulfilling Ramsey's pledge of 1962-63, represents English football's gold standard. Not one of his successors - and Kevin Keegan, not including caretakers, is the seventh - has matched it. Bobby Robson, in 1990, reached the semi-final; Ron Greenwood made the quarter-finals eight years earlier. Glenn Hoddle, last year, managed the second round, while Don Revie and Graham Taylor did not even qualify. The other manager, Terry Venables, did not contest a World Cup but in 1996, in a European Championship hosted by England, guided the team to a semi-final. Expectations had declined enough by then for this to be regarded as relatively successful, but many people still felt that England should have won the competition.

This level of expectation stems partly from England's historical role in the development of the game but primarily from "1966 and all that". This success, which followed four World Cup failures under Walter Winterbottom, restored England's faith in its footballers' natural pre-eminence just as it was being dissipated. That peak, however, has steadily declined since with the failure of successive managers to repeat it but, as Hoddle found in the summer, is always bubbling beneath the surface.

Ramsey's critics will argue that it is because of 1966 that England have subsequently failed to win the World Cup. It is claimed that his reliance on 4-3-3 and later 4-4-2, a formation so English it gave birth to a magazine title, had hamstrung successive England teams.

Yet France won the World Cup last year playing 4-4-2; Brazil did the same in 1990. The formation has not been the problem so much as the availability of players to the manager of the time. In this respect, '66 may be responsible for having introduced a sense of complacency at the upper levels of the English game which delayed the reforms Winterbottom and, later, Allan Wade, a successor as head of coaching, wanted.

Ramsey's formation was perfectly logical at the time. He tried wingers, using John Connelly and Terry Paine early on in the World Cup campaign. When the team failed to function adequately with them he settled for a midfield in which Alan Ball and Martin Peters, midfielders rather than wingers, filled the flanks. It was, as the result suggested, the best use of the players available.

While many England managers have struggled to live up to his legacy all have benefited from his strength of character. When Ramsey took over he insisted that he, and he alone, would be responsible for team selection. Winterbottom originally simply coached a team selected by others and never quite shook off outside influence. Ramsey refused to countenance interference, even threatening to resign during the 1966 World Cup when it was hinted that he should drop Nobby Stiles following a bad foul by the player in a match against France.

National cricket managers still have to deal with a selection committee, while national rugby coaches only gained independence a decade ago.

While English football managers do have to deal with a number of factors outside their control, notably relating to the power of the clubs, they are essentially masters of their own destiny. This is Ramsey's legacy to Keegan but, unfortunately for the current England coach, so is the belief that he should deliver the World Cup just as Ramsey did 23 years ago.