When we were kings: No Beckham-style party, Alf took us to see his favourite Western

World Cup 1966-2006: Ramsey's ever-present full-back suffered an injury scare of his own before the glories of '66 - but there was no commotion, and England had a manager with a masterplan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

So, plans for a victory parade and tea with the Queen on 11 July - two days after the World Cup final - are already apparently well advanced. Just in case England's footballers defydecades of history, you understand.

But probably best not to mention it to a particular veteran of 1966. George Cohen can still scarcely believe that a celebratory tour of the capital by David Beckham and his team was mooted in certain quarters following the events of 2002 in Japan and South Korea. "I couldn't believe that some people were saying after the last World Cup, 'Why didn't the boys come home to an open-topped bus ride through London?'," he exclaims, his tone incredulous. "Because England came eighth, that's why. Eighth!"

Cohen, an ever-present among Alf Ramsey's boys of '66, could be forgiven more than a touch of chagrin. The former Fulham full-back was, remember, one of the so-called "forgotten five" who had actually laid hands on a World Cup winner's medal yet shamefully were not honoured for their contribution until 34 years after the event. No wonder the Queen remarked to Cohen as he collected his MBE: "It's been a long time...."

Yet if any resentment ever existed within the former England defender it has long since been allowed to drain away into a philosophical cesspit. As he declares: "Much as I enjoyed that day in '66, and was proud of what I helped achieve, there's other things in life more important."

He utters those words with considerable feeling, unsurprisingly so for a character who, since that momentous day, has had to identify his mother, Catherine, after she died under the wheels of a juggernaut, and to come to terms with his kid brother, Peter, being killed by thugs in his own nightclub. He himself was diagnosed with colon cancer and later underwent a colostomy. In all, as he reveals in his poignant memoirs*, written in collaboration with my Independent colleague James Lawton, he has defeated cancer three times.

You could not meet a more engaging character than Cohen. Endowed with an almost military bearing, he is precise and analytical in his views, yet he readily displays a wicked sense of humour. One thing that amuses him, as we talk in a hotel near his home in Tunbridge Wells, is the fact that it is not just England's players but their girlfriends and fiancées who can transform themselves into celebrities and millionaires virtually overnight.

"They've become more impor-tant to some people than the players themselves," Cohen says. "It's crazy." Not like 40 years ago. He recalls how, as he and his team-mates were being fêted by officials at Kensington's Royal Garden Hotel after that final defeat of West Germany, the England wives - including his own, Daphne - whom the players had barely seen for six weeks, were ushered to an anteroom. Cohen adds, laughing: "We had been away from our wives for so long by then, even Jack Charlton had begun to look attractive..."

Much else has changed in the intervening period. Should England attain that summit and contest the final again, Sven Goran Eriksson's players will no doubt relax beforehand with headphones pounding and computer games assaulting their consciousness. The eve of the '66 final was somewhat different. Ramsey dispatched the trainer, Harold Shepherdson, to buy 25 cinema tickets for the squad.

"Alf was, of course, cowboy film-mad," says Cohen. "It was the same every time. There may have been a number [of films] to choose from, and he'd say, 'Which one are we going to see this evening, gentlemen?' He'd reel off loads of films, but making it clear that he wanted to see a Western. We'd all opt for something else. He'd listen, and then say, 'High Noon it is, then'."

Though Cohen was brought up within half a mile of Stamford Bridge and Chelsea's 1955 championship captain, Roy Bentley, was his boyhood idol, he ended up devoting his entire career to Fulham's cause. His international career began late, at 26, once he had wrested the right-back position from Jimmy Armfield, and finished prematurely because of injury, three years later. He remarks with pride that he was only on a losing England side three times in 37 matches.

Ramsey had formulated the resourceful rearguard he wanted a year before the finals: Cohen and Ray Wilson, Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore. The commotion which would have been caused today by Cohen's pre-tournament injury can only be imagined. "I had my knee sliced to the bone a couple of matches before the end of the season," he says insouciantly. The wound was cleaned out and sewn up and he went on holiday to Majorca for 10 days. "When I came back, I went straight off to our training camp at Lilleshall. Then we had a tour of Scandinavia, and finally Poland. It was all pretty tough. Then the World Cup."

Ramsey's men lacked for nothing in physical fitness and preparation. "Nobody could have been more thorough than Alf," Cohen says. "He tried everything: 4-4-2, 4-2-4, 4-3-3. There wasn't any situation that could happen Alf couldn't put right. But then you've got to remember he grew up in the same environment as Arthur Rowe, who advised the Hungary team after the war before taking over at Tottenham and winning the 1951 championship. He had a fine footballing brain."

He needed one, once England had progressed from the group stage, to plot the downfall of Argentina (quarter-finals), Portugal (semi-finals) and West Germany. "We didn't actually play any bad teams in those finals," Cohen reflects. Certainly not Argentina. "They were good enough to win the World Cup, but because of their lack of discipline, they lost it." Their imperiously gifted captain, Antonio Rattin, was dismissed for "violence of the tongue". Cohen says: "I'm not sure how we escaped serious injury in that game. They committed some of the worst excesses I've seen."

After the final whistle, Cohen prepared to exchange shirts with Argentina's Alberto Gonzalez, only for Ramsey to intervene. "Alf was livid with the way the Argentinians had played. He said, 'You're not changing your shirt with that animal'. So I pulled it back. Consequently, I had a shirt with a sleeve four feet long."

The late Sir Alf operated what you could describe as a benevolent dictatorship. He ruled not by fear, but through respect. "Alf was a down-to-earth Englishman. I mean, he went to bed in a cross of St George and pyjamas, I would imagine," Cohen recalls. "He was very correct. His manners were impeccable. But he could have a caustic side to him."

On the eve of Cohen's first tour, there was an example of that. "Alf had allowed the lads out for a drink, but had set a curfew of 10.30. Five players came in at 11.15. They came back to find their passports on the bed. When you play for England, you hand in your passports at the beginning and you don't see them until the end. Alf gathered us together. 'Gentlemen', he said. 'My curfew last night was half-past 10. Some players came in at quarter- past 11. I can tell you now that if I could find five senior players to take their place, they would not be going on this tour.' Of course, that went round football like a bushfire."

On the pitch, Ramsey was obdurate when it came to team selection and deployment, notably when he maintained faith in Geoff Hurst, whom he had initially summoned purely as cover for the injured Jimmy Greaves. The debate which followed that decision was as vehement as that involving Ramsey's decision to operate without conventional wingers. Cohen contrasts Ramsey's willingness to contemplate the hitherto unthinkable to Eriksson's insistence on David Beckham's presence in the 2002 World Cup, despite the England captain's manifest unfitness.

And there was something else, too, about Ramsey; something which differentiates him from what we have observed in the Swede. During that hiatus between normal time and extra time in the final, he was, according to Cohen, "angry and magnificent". Though Ramsey was infuriated because Germany had sec-ured that equaliser in the dying seconds, he knew it was merely delaying the inevitable. "They're finished," Cohen recalls Ramsey reminding his players after 90 minutes on that stamina-sapping Wembley turf. He was proved correct, albeit in contentious circumstances, as the completion of Geoff Hurst's hat-trick secured the trophy for England.

This time, Cohen did swap his shirt. The recipient was Lothar Emmerich. It will be auctioned next month, when the German winger's family will be the beneficiaries. Cohen is content with his memories and his photo-graphs. Most prized is one of him pictured with his nephew Ben, the England rugby winger, both holding their respective World Cup winner's medals.

There's another, of Cohen with George Best. "I'm proud of that," he says. "Funnily enough, I think he's tackling me. He's signed it to "the best full-back I ever played against". He adds: "I do hope he wasn't pissed at the time."

Next week: George Cohen joins the IoS

George Cohen, one of the England old boys of 1966, will be joining Sportsweek for World Cup 2006. His lively, discerning yet out-spoken column will kick off next week, when he will be assessing the chances of Sven Goran Eriksson's side and those of their main rivals. Cohen, who played at right-back in Alf Ramsey's history-making team, will be following England's fortunes closely while giving his opinions on the other big talking points in Germany this summer. Don't miss his opening column next Sunday.

George Cohen: My Autobiography (Headline paperback, £7.99)

Comments