Football: Sir Alf: a life of honour, trust and loyalty

SIR ALF RAMSEY, 1920-1999:
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The Independent Online
SIR ALF RAMSEY'S death, which was announced yesterday, brings memories, some rather personal. Not merely of the campaign leading up to a vindication of his policies when England defeated West Germany in 1966 to win the World Cup, but of the man himself: unswerving in his conviction, intensely loyal once trust had been established, Ramsey's greatest triumph came not with the achievements of his players but in facing up to and surviving the efforts of all who opposed and in some cases conspired against him.

Few could call Ramsey a friend because friendship didn't come easily to him. But no player who turned out for England under Ramsey's management ever uttered a bad word about him or had cause to question his loyalty.

When Ramsey, the feted hero of 1966, was fired six months after failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals, in West Germany, his dignity prevailed over the bitterness he felt towards those officials of the Football Association whose resentment he sensed from the beginning of his reign.

Having taken over from Walter Winterbottom after England had been allocated the 1966 finals, Ramsey was again spared the pressures of qualifying when England went to Mexico in 1970 as champions. When Ramsey's only attempt at qualifying ended with a disastrous draw against Poland at Wembley in 1973, subsequent recriminations were brutally consistent with the antagonism he aroused at Lancaster Gate after dismantling long established procedures.

Where his predecessor had accepted an autocratic selection committee, often conceding to ludicrous regional bias, Ramsey demanded absolute independence. His policy, his team.

"I suppose I'd better inform those people," he said one day in the West of Scotland, making off towards a group of powerless senior officials with belated word of the team he had selected.

If Ramsey mistrusted unorthodox brilliance, he had the utmost respect for gifted footballers. He is credited with, sometimes blamed for, the introduction of a wingless strategy, the 4-3-3 (soon becoming 4-4-2) he launched against Spain seven months before the 1966 finals.

"I was never opposed to the idea of wingers," he once said. "It was simply a case of getting the best out of the team." Would George Best have got a game? "Unquestionably," he added, "probably at centre-forward."

Probably his biggest mistake was to substitute Bobby Charlton in a World Cup quarter-final against West Germany in 1970 that saw England lose in extra time after holding a two-goal lead. On the flight home Ramsey apologised to Charlton. "I was wrong," he told the great Manchester United forward. "Now I want to thank you for everything you've done for me and England."

Charlton's international career was over.

An hour or so after that defeat in Leon, Mexico, I came across Ramsey in the chalet of the motel England had commandeered. He was still in his track suit and sipping champagne. "Of all the players to lose it had to be him," Ramsey muttered, about the illness that struck down England's goalkeeper Gordon Banks shortly before the kick-off.

It wasn't Ramsey's worse experience as England manager. That came with Bobby Moore's arrest in Bogota shortly before the 1970 finals on a trumped- up theft charge. With Moore under house arrest in the Colombian capital, Ramsey didn't utter a word until the England party arrived back in Mexico City to be met by hundreds of reporters and cameramen."I have known nothing in football as bad as this. But not for a moment do I believe that Bobby is guilty," he said.

Ramsey's relationship with his captain had begun shakily but anyone who saw the warmth of his greeting when Moore was released to rejoin the England team couldn't fail to identify it as one of the great partnerships in football.

Cool in most of his dealings with the press and broadcasting corps, he was intelligent often deadpan and at times down right awkward. The day after England's 1966 victory I approached him as he climbed from a car outside a television studio in north London. We got on rather well but he was in no mood for conversation. "Congratulations again Alf," I said. "Can you spare five minutes."

Ramsey looked at me and said, "No, this is my day off."

It was one of the few times we fell out and there are many warmer memories. He could be funny, too, even if the humour was sometimes unintentional.

Asked in Sweden for the weight of Nobby Stiles, he replied: "I would think about 10 and a half stone but 40 tons when he tackles." "Can you tell us what role Martin Peters will perform," he was asked following the West Ham player's surprise selection for a match against Poland just before the '66 finals. "No," Ramsey replied, rising to leave the room.

To any who had the good fortune to know him, the public published facts about Ramsey are comparatively unimportant. The essential thing about him was the simple fact that he was one of the straightest men you ever met.

Obituary, Review, page 8