The Boys of '66 may have made history, and 40 years later still be held up as a model team of impeccable discipline under the fierce but beloved leadership of Sir Alf Ramsey, but if The Sun had been anything more than a growing twinkle in the eye of Rupert Murdoch the heroes might not have been painted as quite such paragons of unswerving dedication.
Jack Charlton never ate a hamster, and even after the crushing anticlimax of an opening 0-0 draw with Uruguay it would probably have been too much of a stretch to superimpose Ramsey's head on a turnip, but certainly there were other opportunities for some diverting headlines.
How about, for example: "England star in cross-dressing shock..." as reported by a source "close to the team". The culprit was Ron Springett, reserve goalkeeper to the great Gordon Banks. The squad's leading practical joker, Springett discovered a present Nobby Stiles had bought for his wife Kay. It was lingerie and offered too much of an opportunity for high jinks. He slipped into the little number and came cavorting into the room Stiles shared with Alan Ball in the team's Hendon Hall hotel headquarters. The man who would later entrance the nation with his toothless grin and abandoned victory jig was on the phone to Mrs Stiles at the time.
Potentially more serious was an incident that came a few months earlier in the build-up to the tournament.
One early evening Stiles, Ball and winger John Connelly strolled out of the Lilleshall training complex in Shropshire and had pints of beer - literally a single pint each - at a local pub. From time to time Ramsey had permitted an occasional break from a regime of temperance but deep down all three players knew this was not one of them. Later - an hour later - they pleaded that they had strayed into a grey area when they received a stony welcome from Ramsey's assistant trainer Wilf McGuiness.
McGuiness wore a worried expression and said: "Alf knows you were in a pub. He wants to see you now. I'm afraid you're all in deep trouble." Stiles and Ball were deeply penitent, contemplating their ejection from the squad with horror, but Connelly was more rebellious. "What harm have we done?" he asked his team-mates and McGuiness.
Stiles, particularly, was aware of an earlier collision by a group of England players with Ramsey's intense belief that if the squad lacked personal discipline it had nothing. On the eve of a foreign trip, some leading players, including captain Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, had arrived back in the London hotel after the curfew. They were not seriously late, but that was not the point. Ramsey's rule, if not directly challenged had been ignored. He ordered that the players' passports be placed on their pillows to await their return. In the morning he told them that if the decision had been practical, they would all have been replaced before the morning flight. As it was, they suffered a sleepless night when great international careers hung in the balance. They had no doubt they had been given a suspended sentence.
In Shropshire Ramsey had difficulty in suppressing his rage. For a few moments there was a terrible pause after the players' filed into his room. Then, with typically curt delivery, he said: "I didn't say you couldn't go to the pub, I didn't say you shouldn't go, I just expected you wouldn't go. We are here on serious business and I thought you all understood that. We are going to win the World Cup." Ball and Stiles apologised, even grovelled. But Connelly remained defiant. "After all the training we have done, what is the problem? We just had a pint and came straight back."
Ramsey's eyes flashed as he said: "Get out of here, all of you. Get out of my sight." For days the trio awaited a tap on the shoulder and an order to leave, but they survived in a frenzy of application on the training field.
The young Ball would have one more hazardous joust with destiny before he emerged as a phenomenally intense factor in the final success, his vision and energy utterly overwhelming the much admired German full-back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, a star in the Italian league but, in the most important match of his life, left ragged and demoralised in the wake of the red-haired young Lancastrian with the squeaky voice.
Ball was the victim - along with Connelly - of the frustrations and profound national disillusionment which came against Uruguay, twice winners of the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, and still specialists in deep defence and poised, deadly counter attack. Jimmy Hill, taking his first steps in television punditry, led the critical assault, telling the nation: "England will not win the World Cup, but don't blame Alf. No one could win with this lot." Ramsey was stoically unrattled. Indeed, he welcomed the chance to build a winning siege mentality, rather as his successor Terry Venables did 30 years later when half his team were pictured downing vodka in the "dentist's chair" of a Hong Kong nightclub shortly before the start of the European Championship.
Ramsey gathered the players together and declared, all over again, that final victory was assured. In his version of Churchill's "We'll fight them on the beaches" speech, he said: "Gentlemen, we are building a team, a real team, and what matters now is how we progress in this tournament. Rest assured, we will win and have the satisfaction and pride of it for the rest of our lives."
But Ball would have to suffer on the sidelines for the rest of the group action, watching Bobby Charlton rally the team with his superb goal against Mexico and then seeing his friend Stiles survive the huge controversy which followed his horrendously timed tackle on Jacky Simon in the 2-0 win over France.
Stiles vividly recalls Ball's pain during his two-game exile. "One day Bally came up on a bet and after collecting his winnings laid the fivers out in a row on the floor of our room. He then did a little dance over the fivers and said: 'who cares about Alf?' But he wasn't kidding anyone. Bally was hurt deep inside - he was in tears when he talked to his father on the phone - and you could see that when he came back into the team, playing so far out of his skin to show that he was worth his place."
If public and media derision hardened the resolve of the Boys of '66, even more so did the convulsions of the Stiles episode. Stiles escaped a booking from the referee, but not a Fifa observer, whose outrage was conveyed to the English FA. As England trained on the eve of the quarter-final game with Argentina, the players were aware that Ramsey had been summoned to the old FA offices at Lancaster Gate and Stiles trained with a sense of doom. When he was called aside by Ramsey during training, he feared the worst. The conversation was another succinct classic by the coach.
He said he had just one question for a player whose passion, and brilliant technical gifts as a defender and reader of the play, he adored. What had been his intentions when he clattered Simon so comprehensively as the Frenchman attempted to control a throw-in? "I wasn't trying to hurt him," Stiles told his boss. "I was playing the ball but I got my timing all wrong." "Good," said Ramsey. "You're playing against Argentina." At that moment Ramsey, perhaps like no other coach in the history of football, had a key player and all his team-mates in the palm of his hand.
The result was a ferociously executed campaign which had one high point in Stiles' magnificent containment of the great Eusebio in the semi-final against Portugal, a stifling performance so perfect that the phenomenally gifted star player was reduced to taking corners... and left Stiles' team-mate George Cohen half a life of advocating that it should have been put in the film archives as an endless resource in the matter of teaching the art of man-for-man marking.
One of Ramsey's secrets was that he knew when to apply the hard hand of discipline... and when not. When pressure built so quickly around the Uruguayan anti-climax he swiftly applied a lighter touch, arranging for a visit to the film studios in Pinewood where Yul Brynner - a particular favourite of Stiles' wife - was filming, and Nobby claimed the triumph of an autograph and personal greeting.
Moore, unlike his successor David Beckham, had not felt any need to throw a pre-World Cup party, which left Hendon's local councillors to fill the void. They invited the team not to some tented playground but Hendon Town Hall. Maybe some of the players were left restive by the low celebrity count. Whatever the reason, several of them amused themselves by slipping prawn cocktails and potato salad into the pockets of several of the more pompous civic leaders. Ramsey, no doubt, would have been unamused but fortunately it was another case of a Sun headline going missing.
What is most difficult to comprehend today is the relative lack of hype and attention that attracted itself to a team fighting to win the greatest prize in football in its homeland. On the day of the final Stiles walked, unmolested, to morning mass in Golders Green and recalls just one collision with a fan, who shouted cheerily: "Good luck, today, Nobby mate, I've got a feeling you're going to win."
Most of the players phoned home, briefly, and were then given a time-killing chore by Ramsey. He set them to replying to the encouraging mail that had come into the FA offices. It was basic psychology by the man who had explained his team-building philosophy quite candidly when the subject was raised by Jack Charlton.
"I have to ask you," said Charlton, "why is that you have picked me alongside great players like Bobby Moore and Our Kid?" "You must understand, Jack," said Ramsey, "I'm not necessarily picking the best players - but the best team." In fact Charlton's Leeds team-mate John Giles, whose failure to be born an Englishman was a publicly stated source of Ramsey regret, recalls: "Jack was being hard on himself. In the build-up to that World Cup I played with and against all the players who made the final team, and I have to say that in the end Ramsey had without a shadow of a doubt gone for the 11 best candidates. Jack was unquestionably the best and most powerful centre-half in England at the time."
History is comprehensive enough on the matter of the final drama, but maybe it has not dwelt too much on the terrible tension that overcame some of the players before the game. George Cohen recalls it as though from another lifetime.
"I look at the old film and it doesn't really convey the tension so many of us felt as we went out on the field. The minutes before the kick-off, the rituals, seemed eternal. I ached to make my first run, because then I knew I would be all right, part of the game. As it was, you felt terribly alone."
That was certainly the feeling of Stiles late in the game. "The darkness came when, with the score at 3-2 for us in the second half of extra-time, I ran ahead of the ball and took a pass from Bally in the outside right position. The roar of the crowd swelled as I raced on the overlap. I looked up and said to myself, 'Yes, near post, I'll go for that.' But when I came to make contact with the ball something shocking and terrifying happened. I felt everything go. The sensation was of 'whoosh,' and everything had left me. The ball trickled off the toe of my boot and over the line. The crowd sighed and fell silent. I just stood there, empty, and one concern was that my bowels had emptied, which would have been a terrible embarrassment because unlike by team-mates I did not wear a jock-strap or a slip beneath my shorts. But if my worst fear proved to be unfounded, I still had a dreadful problem.
"In the last desperate minutes of a World Cup final, and at a time when the fresh legs of substitutes were not available, it took a tremendous effort just to move. Bally had run to take a return pass and he came past me, rooted to the spot where the breakdown had come, my socks around my ankles, his eyes were blazing. 'Move, you bastard, move,' he screamed. Bally was on fire and prepared to run forever. Before the mist came, I knew the best I could do was drag one foot in front of the other. Later, I asked my team-mates if they had noticed anything happening to me, and they said no. I had played on. I had got through it."
When it was all over, when the celebrations continued at the Kensington Palace Hotel without the attendance of the players' wives, when the bonus had been agreed - at the suggestion of Moore the FA's idea that the £22,000 on the table should be paid on a sliding scale according to appearances was contemptuously rejected, each member of the squad receiving the same amount of £1,000 - the players and their wives gathered in a cinema for a re-run of the game. One of the wives noticed that Ramsey got up from his seat and gave it to an usherette.
He watched the rest of the show standing against the theatre wall. Some swore they could see his eyes shining in the dark.
The feel-good factor of 1966
Tomorrow in The Independent:
'I have never seen England look as unashamedly delighted by life as it did during the World Cup;' Arthur Hopcraft brilliantly evokes a timeless triumph