As well as the fact that he faces a task remarkably similar to the one Sir Alf confronted 31 years ago, Venables the coach ought to have a lot in common with the only truly successful England manager. They both played for Spurs and England and were brought up on the tough east side of London. But Venables is gregarious, witty, and a bit flash, Ramsey the epitomy of unsophisticated post-war Essex man when the only four-wheel-drive vehicles were tractors.
When Sir Alf officially became England's manager in May 1963 they were in a situation not dissimilar to the one Venables inherits. They had been eliminated from a major competition, the European Championship, and with the next World Cup (in 1966) being held in England, there would be no competitive games for more than three years. Like Graham Taylor, the scholarly Walter Winterbottom, who preceded Ramsey without much power, had presided over a humiliating defeat by the United States.
Neither had Wing Commander Winterbottom escaped the wrath of the press (Jimmy Hill recalls that 'criticism came from all directions') except that in those days 'old turnip head' was almost a term of endearment. Yet Ron Greenwood said: 'The appointment of Walter was probably the most important the FA ever made; his influence is still difficult to comprehend.' As for his first match, it was a home fixture against Ireland in the autumn of 1946 and no England manager has made a better debut: a 7-2 win and a goal in the first minute.
But the FA Committee had given its 'manager' a cast including Finney, Matthews, Mannion and a newcomer called Billy Wright, an embarrassment of riches. Eventually the world caught up and Winterbottom's legacy was less a team than a situation in which the FA was almost ready to hand over full power of selection. A 'good and honourable man,' Jimmy Hill called Winterbottom. Familiar?
When Ramsey took over he made it clear that he was not going to put up with old buffers blocking his path but he was hardly talking from a position of strength. The Ipswich Town manager had done well at club level but Winterbottom had already sounded out Greenwood for the job. Greenwood now says he would have been too young but he might have got it if Winterbottom had become FA secretary.
When Ramsey made his famous remark that England would win the 1966 World Cup the media of the day loved him - it was unrequited and Ramsey now says that the only thing in his mind was to inspire confidence in his players. It clearly failed in his first game which, although he was not yet under contract, was the 5-2 defeat by France in the European Nations' Cup in February 1963. Bobby Moore recalled that on the coach afterwards 'Alf asked a million questions on the ways things had been done under Walter'. What Ramsey was probably unaware of was that the FA had also been asking a lot of questions. Ironically while then and now they refuse to consider non-English applicants, they had sought the advice of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly who said Ramsey should not have to take the dual role of manager and director of coaching and should be in sole charge of England at full, under-23 and youth levels.
The naturally solitary Ramsey spent the first few months at Lancaster Gate feeling isolated and out of touch with players. All of the past managers except Winterbottom (who had never experienced club management) have admitted that the long periods between games bring on a sense of being out of control. 'It was the loneliness that was one of the reasons why I wanted to create a club spirit with England; I thought it would fill the gaps,' Don Revie, Ramsey's controversial successor, later admitted.
Said to be ruthlessly ambitious, Revie worried about whether or not he could do the job (not, as rumour had it, whether the FA could afford him), then called up Ted Croker to express his interest. Once appointed, he worried all the way to a Dubai bank. In spite of the fact that England had been lifted briefly and refreshingly under the paternal caretaking of Joe Mercer, Revie had plenty to worry about. Again like Venables and Ramsey, he started with a team recently eliminated from a top competition, the 1976 World Cup. His first match was against Czechoslovakia in a European Championship qualifier. He suffered terribly for fear of losing but gained a 3-0 win. 'In the end perhaps Don tried too hard,' Trevor Brooking recalled.
As with Taylor, Revie had counselled other managers for advice and had an early get-
together of 80 potential internationals. He tried to buy popularity by promising the players pounds 200 for a win, and inspire patriotism by getting the crowd to sing 'Land of Hope and Glory'. There was plenty of early hope but no lasting glory. The criticisms of Taylor applied to Revie. In 29 matches he only once chose an unchanged side. His final comment? 'It's just not worth the aggravation.' Familiar?
In 1977 that kindly uncle Ron Greenwood was brought in to stop the FA taking more flak. Invited to stay for three games, he remained for more than four years and reached the finals of the European Championship and the World Cup. Before his first match, there was nothing many managers could tell him about football, especially of a smooth flowing West Ham variety, but he did call on Bob Paisley to talk about winning things. Memorably, he included six Liverpool players plus Kevin Keegan (then with SV Hamburg) for a friendly against Switzerland which ended goalless.
No doubt Venables will remember that in effect Greenwood played for time and went for experience before embarking on his own squad based on Brooking, Ray Wilkins, Keegan and wingers. Venables could do worse than think along similar lines and begin by calling up the experienced Peter Beardsley to help encourage the talents of Matthew Le Tissier, Nick Barmby and the previously unforgivably overlooked Ruel Fox.
When Bobby Robson inherited Greenwood's team after the World Cup of 1982 he was highly experienced but not prepared for the pressure which he inflicted on himself by dropping Keegan from the first team he chose, for the match curiously enough against Venables' first opponents Denmark, in a European Championship qualifier. Keegan rocked the boat by saying he was finished with England. Thanks largely to Peter Shilton, England got a 2-2 draw but Robson later recalled: 'That night I realised the frightening responsibility of the task I had assumed and what it meant to the country.'
Graham Taylor had not experienced international football as a player and though, like Venables, he says that had he not made a career out of the game he might have considered journalism, thought he understood the pressure and could build on England's comparatively successful 1990 World Cup, he was proved painfully wrong. Yet like every other England manager bar one, he avoided defeat in his opening game. The one, of course, was Ramsey.
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