Football: Private man, reluctant hero

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the many distinguished journalists who wrote about Sir Alf Ramsey on this, the weekend after the man's death, commented how sad it seemed that there was no monument in his honour, such as the stand named after Tom Finney at Preston, Billy Wright at Wolverhampton and Bobby Moore at West Ham or the statue at Anfield of Bill Shankly.

It was not strictly accurate. When a man lives on in so many memories, that in its way is an even more abiding monument.

I saw all except one of his more than 100 matches as manager of England, shared many hours in his company. I still will not dare to claim that I knew him very well though I did know him better than most and can without any qualification claim to have liked him very much.

When sitting down to such a sad task as writing an obituary it is slightly disturbing that so many of the recollections seem inconsequential. I was, for instance, standing in the campus of a Montreal university with him as people applauded an astonishing display of ball juggling by Johnny Byrne of Crystal Palace during Expo in that city. Byrne was catching on his chest balls hit at him from 60 yards across a playground, dropping them on to his thigh then volleying them away first time.

"Brilliant," agreed Alf. "But what nobody seemed to be applauding was the more significant skill of Norman Hunter who was hitting Byrne on the chest with a ball from so far away." It was one of the myriad examples of his attention to detail.

He was notorious for the way he could put down a would-be interviewer and this Montreal trip provided the prime example. A preening Canadian TV host wrapped an arm around Ramsey's shoulders - his first mistake - and said: "Sir Alf, I am going to give you 10 whole minutes of TV time on my show."

"Oh no, you facking ain't", and the misspelling of the word is not a mistake. It is an example of the slightly strange pronunciation some snide detrac- tors attributed to elocution lessons, something incidentally he denied ever taking. "I wish I had," he added. "They might have been useful to me." That somehow made him briefly seem more vulnerable.

Although he always appeared composed, controlled, dignified, he seemed totally relaxed in just two circumstances - when he was with his players and when he was at home with his wife Victoria - Vic he always called her. I spent several hours with them one Sunday. Roast beef, cooked by Vic, carved by Alf, all as traditionally English as he strived to be.

Most of the talk was inevitably about football - I was tape-recording and then editing one of those "my own story" series for the Sunday Mirror. His total recall of matches, men and moves was barely credible. But real life did intrude when I commented on it. "It is only with football matters," said Vic dryly. "If I don't give him a list when he does the shopping he comes back with only half the order." I still find it difficult to picture Sir Alf Ramsey wheeling a shopping trolley around Tesco.

We talked about the mother he adored though typically he preferred to say admired. The only one in the household at that time permitted any unseemly behaviour was his Dachshund dog Rusty. He was not allowed to be fed from the table but when mother arrived on her fortnightly visits "she sat with her hands under the table and slipped him tit-bits. She thought we didn't notice".

Alf wanted her to leave the little wooden bungalow where he was born to come and live with them after his father died in January 1966 on the day the World Cup draw was held in London, but found there was another person as set in her ways as he always was.

His father's death was not publicised at the time because it was a private matter to a private man who never wanted what he had to accept - the spotlight of public attention on everything he said and did.

The prime example, of course, is the "England will win the World Cup" statement when he was appointed manager. He once told me: "I don't think I really meant it when I said it. I said the first thing that came into my head, something I don't normally do." That is an understatement. Normally, under questioning, his dark eyes would be about as warm and welcoming as brown broken glass topping a 14-foot wall. He tended to treat any questions, not just pointed ones, as if they were daggers aimed at his back.

He began to endear himself to me at the end of his first overseas tour in 1962 when for the first time in my experience England produced three consecutive victories away from home. After thanking all his players he said: "And now to the England selectors I would like to thank them in particular for keeping out of our way."

It planted seeds of bitterness, jealously and rancour that were to become a major factor in his dismissal and to the mean-minded reactions subsequently from inside Lancaster Gate - no World Cup medal, a meagre pension and no invitation to the 1996 Wembley occasion marking the triumph 30 years earlier.

His relationships with his players were a complete opposite, born of admiration, confidence, trust and a respect that was sometimes not very far from a tinge of fear. A small group of players who broke curfew after a match and returned late found their passports on their pillows. No other word was ever spoken or needed.

He once decreed that England uniforms were to be worn at a post-match banquet. Bobby Charlton, his brightest star, said he couldn't find his tie, then, when Alf offered to help find it, admitted it was at the bottom of his suitcase and asked to be excused. "Sorry, no," said Alf "but I'll come and empty your bag for you."

And there was a time when I shared with my great friend and colleague Peter Lorenzo an enormous suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York - three bedrooms with bars, servants' quarters, grand piano, 60-foot sitting room, previous occupant Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. It seemed the perfect setting for a party to celebrate a 10-0 win over the USA. Inevitably, Alf got wind of it, persuaded the medical officer Dr "Alfie" Bass to visit the celebrations, warn that the manager would arrive in 15 minutes and that there would be "repercussions" if he found any players there. They were due to fly off to play the world champions Brazil next day. He didn't in fact even bother to check.

I recall sharing a lift with Geoff Hurst and Alf after one match and when Geoff, then at his peak of fame and form, departed with an airy "see you next match", Alf responded: "If selected Geoff, if selected."

Most people are sure the significant year in his life was 1966. It may in fact have been 20 years earlier, the year of his demobilisation from the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. In 1946 he turned down an offer of pounds 4 a week from Southampton and planned on returning to his pre-war job in the Dagenham Co-Op. They increased the offer. He accepted. The rest is history but not just Alf Ramsey's history. England's history.

Frank McGhee was chief sports writer with the Mirror for whom he worked for 34 years