Football: Sir Alf Ramsey - Stiffest of stiff upper lips

Alan Hubbard says the spirit of Sir Alf's age was lost long ago

WE CALLED him "Old Stone Face" even before Sonny Liston commandeered the sobriquet in the early Sixties. Sir Alf Ramsey's upper lip was ever stiffened. He was a man of few words and even fewer public emotions.

In his greatest hour - or rather two, when England won the World Cup in extra-time - he was the last to get to his feet though the first to embrace his cherished captain Bobby Moore. His features flickered momentarily as if to say "what's all the fuss?" and then he shook off the descending mob of back-slappers and encouraged his players to dance their jigs of joy.

Much later, in a rare moment when the mask slipped, he was to confide: "It is true I never showed any reaction. That's how it must have seemed on the outside but inside I was drunk and dancing. I know they say I am cold, that I do not have feelings, but I do. They are bottled up inside me. I suppose one day they will explode, and I shall die."

Well, dear old Alf has died, but the spirit of his age and the game he represented surely died long before him. Those of us fortunate enough to be roaming the sporting world in the Sixties will remember Alf with almost as much affection as we do the other greatest of that era, Muhammad Ali. We got everything from Ali but we got unsweet FA from Alf, so single- minded was his dedication to his players. But he always commanded our respect and, on occasions, even engendered our affection.

At least you were always sure of a straight answer even if more often than not it was "no". Yet when the fancy took him he could be engaging company. Years after the 1966 triumph I encountered him in Kuala Lumpur where, oddly rejected in his homeland, he was on a coaching stint. Never a happy traveller, Sir Alf, to my astonishment, greeted me like a long-lost brother. For three hours he relaxed and reminisced over lunch.

It was clear the years had not mellowed his football philosophy. He still preferred graft to guile and when we talked of Glenn Hoddle, he sniffed: "Would you want him on your side in the trenches?" Who would have thought that Hoddle would have been reincarnated as Ramsey's successor?

You always knew when Sir Alf was angry because he reverted to the dropped aitches of his pre-elocution lesson days as a player when, on occasions, he could be a bit of a lad himself. It is hard to imagine now that the precise, correct Ramsey once climbed on to a table at a Tottenham banquet, kicked off his shoes and did an impromptu knees-up as he belted out "Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner".

As one of the game's foremost foot soldiers he took no prisoners. Once he was asked whether he was playing when England were routed by the Hungarians. "Yes," he retorted tersely, "and I was the only one who was."

The stories about Alf's xenophobia are legion and invariably true. He was never one to tolerate foreigners, fools, or foolish footballers gladly - even less the old farts of the Football Association. He once ordered the FA chairman out of the players' lounge in the team hotel because he was smoking a cigar. "I will not have you puffing smoke into my players' faces."

Of course, the old farts got him in the end, sacking him a month before his contract expired in 1974. His salary was just pounds 7,500 and his ex-employers never attempted to use his talents in any other capacity; nor indeed did they ever call upon Moore's ambassadorial ability. For, unlike the commander and the captain, while they ran the game they never really knew how to play it.

One hopes that at least now they will have the decency to organise a suitable memorial at the new Wembley for the two giants they were so quick to forget.

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