Following in the footsteps of Sir Alf...

George Cohen is the latest World Cup winner to draw flattering parallels between Fabio Capello and Sir Alf Ramsey. James Lawton, a cub reporter in 1966, assesses their management styles and notes how much can change with six months to go
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The Independent Online

One by one the old guard of England's only World Cup triumph are breaking cover. They are insisting that in Fabio Capello the nation has finally a true successor to Sir Alf Ramsey, the man who convinced them they could beat the world.

This week it was George Cohen re-stating the belief of his team-mates Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst that comparisons between the style and the technique of Ramsey and Capello have become irresistible.

Yet as England prepare today for the formality of their penultimate chore against the Ukraine in a flawless and already successful qualifying campaign for next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa, there is an astounding difference in the approval ratings of the man from Dagenham who won and the one from San Canzian d'Isonzo who so freely acknowledges that in teams like Brazil and Spain his team face daunting hurdles.

Capello appears to have disarmed the vast majority of critics and fans, at precisely the same point of World Cup preparation Ramsey was still being widely scorned as an eccentric loner operating with a siege mentality that was bound to crumble.

One thing is absolutely certain. However England perform today, Capello is surely insulated from the disdain that poured over his predecessor when England were beaten 3-2 by Austria in the October before the World Cup of 1966.

Jimmy Hill, the Alan Hansen of his day, declared, "We'll never win the World Cup with this lot" and one English football writer, the late Eric Cooper of the Daily Express – billed as the Voice of the North – was so heavy in his criticism the England manager invited him, as they say, "outside".

Nothing was more withering, though, than the assessment of the nation's pre-eminent football observer, the enduring Brian Glanville.

In his England Managers: The Toughest Job in Football – published at the dawn of Capello's reign – Glanville could not be accused of allowing distance to lend enchantment to his reading of Ramsey's approach. This was Glanville after England imploded against the lightly fancied Austrians at Wembley, "It was John Wilkes who said the peace of Paris was like the Peace of God: it passed all understanding. He might just as well have been talking about Mr Alf Ramsey's England teams.

"Next Wednesday, against Northern Ireland, he fields the bulk of the team which drew laboriously at Cardiff and lost so shabbily at home to Austria. When one has made due allowance for consistency, generosity and the abysmal lack of talent in the league, his choice is still remarkable. Above all, in continuing to choose [Nobby] Stiles of Manchester United as the linking right half he is pursuing a course which is as obstinate as it is inexplicable, a course which leads one seriously to doubt if the team is being picked on any rational basis."

A month later Ramsey lurched into outright heresy, picking a team without wingers on a bitingly cold night in Madrid. But it was also a side containing eight members of the team which would beat West Germany in the World Cup final and which persuaded the Spanish coach, Jose Villalonga, to say "England would have beaten any team in the world tonight. We couldn't counter them in any way. They were just phenomenal."

Desmond Hackett of the Express wrote, "England were a rhapsody of glorious football." On the field, Bobby Charlton felt "tremendous excitement" when he noted that the Spanish full-backs, with no obvious marking assignments, gestured to each other in obvious states of panic.

The Spanish trip had looked somewhat ill-omened for the English full-back Cohen, who was picked by Ramsey over the more adventurous former captain Jimmy Armfield for his strength, speed and greater defensive soundness. On the rock-hard training pitch Cohen had tackled Ramsey and sent him crashing to the ground. When the coach was helped to his feet, he glared at his assailant and declared, "George, if I had another fuckin' full-back you wouldn't be playin'."

But play he did – and with the exuberant belief that Ramsey had devised a system capable of landing the game's greatest prize.

For Ramsey and his men it was a crucial watershed.

Cohen recalls, "What was so good about the performance was the discipline and understanding of what we had to achieve while working from Ramsey's blueprint. We didn't have specialist wingers but that didn't mean we couldn't have width and speed along the flanks. We had all of that we needed as [Alan] Ball and [Bobby] Charlton covered the ground quite relentlessly and Stiles was careful to cover the forays of [Ray] Wilson and my own. [Roger] Hunt played with extraordinary commitment, putting his head in places which would made some brave men flinch."

Hunt was Ramsey's Emile Heskey, albeit one with a much greater facility in front of goal. However, Ramsey's decision to stay with the Liverpool man (the issue was never Hurst or Jimmy Greaves, but Hunt or Greaves) brought arguably the greatest risk to the coach's reputation, just as Capello's unswerving attachment to Heskey rather than Jermain Defoe has invited the few wisps of criticism felt by the Italian.

Ramsey had many doubters, not least the brilliant finisher Greaves, who when he finally realised he would not win the battle on the build-up to the final took to humming, "What's it all about Alfie?"

But though criticism would flare from time to time, not least when England could not break down the tank trap defence of Uruguay in the opening game of the World Cup and left the Wembley pitch with sustained booing in their ears, there was a growing sense of destiny in both the coach and his players.

Greaves, who had been suffering from jaundice the previous year, made one extraordinary statement of his striking genius in Oslo during the victorious six-match build-up to the finals, scoring four goals in a 6-1 win, and that carried him into the starting line-up at the dawn of the great tournament. However, after going goalless in the pool games, when Hunt scored three times, a passing injury in the third of those matches, against France, was the seal on Greaves' failed campaign.

It was perhaps also significant that when Charlton scored the superb goal against Mexico in the second match which lifted the tension settling on both the team and the nation, he was quick to pay tribute to the selfless running of Hunt that had facilitated the way. Said Charlton, "Hunt was a player who could only perhaps be fully appreciated by his team-mates, who saw how selflessly he worked, and how much easier he made the jobs of those around him. For that goal against Mexico, he simply opened up the way, carving holes in the defenders as they fell back. Much as I admired the genius of Jimmy Greaves, I could always see what Ramsey saw in both Hunt and Geoff Hurst."

Charlton, like Cohen, also understood fully the coach's attitude to the great issue of wingers, whether to have or have not. He said, "No-one appreciated the value of wingers more than Alf, as a full-back he had suffered at the hands of great ones in his own career, but he was also asking whether those available could do more for the team than alternatives like Ball and Martin Peters. He started the tournament with wingers but at the back of his mind he always had the game-plan to which Ball and Peters were so well suited."

It is in this pragmatism that we see in Capello one of the closest links with the approach of the man whom he seeks to emulate. In the perfectly orchestrated, climactic qualifying victory over Croatia, a rare low point was Heskey's eschewing of scoring chances. But Capello remained as comfortable as ever with his selection priorities. Just as Charlton had pointed out Hunt's contribution to his tournament-lifting goal, Capello was quick to underline Heskey's same value as a man whose strength and running created vital space for the likes of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.

There is also the same implicit authority of the coaches who are separated by so many years and so many changing attitudes.

Capello, like Ramsey, has left his players in no doubt about what he expects in the way of discipline. When early in Ramsey's regime seven England players, including such luminaries as captain Bobby Moore, Greaves and Charlton, missed curfew on the eve of the squad's departure on a long foreign tour, they returned to find their passports on the pillows of their hotel beds. It was the subtlest of lectures. One more lapse and their travelling days would be over.

Capello's first statement to his players concerned the requirements of their behaviour, their levels of discipline and commitment.

Where Capello separates himself from Ramsey is in his refusal to tell the players and the nation that England will win the World Cup. If he had any disposition to do so, it probably dissolved the night when European champions, and joint World Cup favourites, Spain outplayed England in the friendly in Seville. Instead, he stressed the technical and tactical levels that had to be achieved if the ultimate ambition was to come near to reality.

Here though we may have the key to why Capello's confidence rating runs so high. He has been fiercely reluctant to overstate the team's chances, perhaps because deep down he is not prepared to create expectations that may not be sustained and which, indeed, may have been a direct contribution to past failures.

Maybe it was that Ramsey felt a greater need to make his players believe in themselves after years of fierce criticism, and that when he looked at Moore and Charlton, Ball and Peters and Gordon Banks he truly believed he had the means to win it all.

Capello may at some point be persuaded to repeat the keynote words of Ramsey, who declared, "Gentlemen, you will win the World Cup." Alternatively, he might look at those approval ratings and see little value in putting them at risk of ridicule – or any challenge to his rationality. Meanwhile, we can only hope that only in this small difference Sir Alf Ramsey will next summer remain unique.

Who's who? Comparing 1966 to now

Jimmy Greaves & Jermain Defoe

Greaves was the finest goalscorer of his and most other generations and while no one would suggest Defoe is in his class there are similarities beyond the obvious fact that both approached the World Cup as Tottenham players. In each a single-minded devotion to scoring goals affected their contribution to the all-round team-play, to the extent they could be overlooked for more selfless strikers.

Roger Hunt & Emile Heskey

With 18 goals in 34 games for England, Hunt was a pretty useful goalscorer in his own right, far more so than Heskey, but both forwards put the greater good ahead of personal glory. In each case team-mates, especially their striking partners, and managers, appreciated them more than the wider public – looking past the statistics to appreciate their value.

Ray Wilson & Ashley Cole

It would be hard to find more contrasting personalities, or ones more emblematic of the age. Wilson began his working life as an apprentice railwayman and ended it as an undertaker, fitting National Service and 63 England caps in between. Cole joined Arsenal from school and has since achieved tabloid notoriety. It is as a quick, smart defender, who can be dangerous going forward, that Cole resembles Wilson.

By Glenn Moore

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