'Capello is starting to remind me of Sir Alf'

Sir Bobby Charlton tells James Lawton why England's current manager brings back memories of 1966, and why he may even measure up to the man who masterminded World Cup triumph
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The Independent Football

Sir Bobby Charlton has added weight to the football nation's celebrations over a perfect World Cup qualifying campaign with an extraordinary tribute to the England coach Fabio Capello.

"Ever since Wednesday night I've had a spring in my stride," Charlton told The Independent yesterday, "because I believe England have got something back that I feared was lost for ever.

"They have a great leader in Capello who has given them something that is both rare and precious in this age of football when the players have such huge rewards and so many distractions.

"He has given them focus. When I look at the team in their competitive games now – and it was especially true when they confirmed their qualification with that great 5-1 win over Croatia this week – I cannot help but remember how it was when I played under Sir Alf Ramsey and we won the World Cup in 1966.

"Bobby Moore, my brother Jack, Alan Ball, Nobby Stiles, all of us, believed in Alf and that was the most vital part of our success. It was the absolute foundation. Now I look at the current England players when Capello is talking and I see that level of respect. When he speaks it is so clear they are listening.

"There is tremendous talent in the game today but if you ask any manager about the toughest part of his job he will tell you it is guaranteeing performance. Talent is so important but it can be reduced to nothing if there isn't determination and, most important of all, concentration on the job in hand, and I really believe that this is harder to get in football today than it has ever been before."

For Charlton, England's 100 per cent record in qualifying, the maturing of the previously problematic midfield combination of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, the growing confidence of Wayne Rooney and the emergence of young players like Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson, is a confirmation of his instincts when Capello was appointed in the wake of England's failure to qualify for last year's European Championship finals.

"I had a terrible feeling we would lose the last qualifier against Croatia in 2007 because in all the preamble to the game I never heard anyone talk about the threat of the opposing team. It was all England, and that worried me deeply. Too much had been taken for granted. It was the kind of complacency that was unthinkable under Ramsey, and obviously is now with Capello."

In his first week in the England job Capello met Charlton at Aston Villa, where Manchester United were playing an FA Cup tie and Rooney came on as a late and match-winning substitute. This week Charlton, who with his former Manchester United team-mate Stiles is one of only two English players to have won both the World and European Cups, remembered the Villa Park collision with some warmth and much satisfaction.

He explains, "When he spoke to me on that occasion I was very heartened. I had known him and his work for some time but it struck me more forcibly than ever that some of his qualities reminded me of Ramsey. He spoke in short, blunt sentences and he was quite immaculately dressed. He said to me, "Charlton, I wish to take England to the World Cup final in South Africa."

Despite his jubilation at the quality of the qualifying campaign, Charlton is quick to say, "What has happened has been great but no one should forget the fact that the really hard part starts now. The burden of expectation has been created and the players are going to feel ever-increasing pressure as they approach the finals.

"This is where a strong manager is so crucial. Ramsey took the pressure off us. He dealt with all the questions about whether we could win or not, he took them on his own shoulders. He said, 'Yes, England, could win the World Cup,' but it was his responsibility. He had to pick the right players, the right tactics and create the right atmosphere in the team – if he did these things, he could make it possible for England to win. But in the end it was the players who had to perform, and he had to do everything to protect them.

"I see exactly the same approach in Capello. He is not easily pleased. You can see how angry he gets when the work on the training field is forgotten, when the play becomes casual and unfocused, but he never slaughters his players in public. However hard a time he gives the players when they are together, he doesn't offer them up in public.

"He said something marvellous just before this last game. He said he wasn't angered by individual mistakes. The greatest players are capable of them. But he is angry when not enough commitment or thought goes into a performance, when he sees the work of the training field squandered. An international manager has limited time with his players, so every minute is precious – and cannot be wasted when it comes to the match."

The more Charlton examines Capello's style the more parallels with Ramsey he sees. Ramsey once staggered the dedicated Charlton by chastising him for admitting he missed his wife and daughters at the end of a long tour of South America. "I wouldn't have picked you if I'd known that was your attitude," Ramsey sniffed. But if times and mores changed, there was a hint of such iron in Capello this week when he dismissed any possibility of the smallest revival of the Wags circus which brought so much embarrassment to the England camp in the last World Cup in Germany.

"Capello comes from the Italian football culture," says Charlton, "and maybe in this respect it is one that has something to teach us. Capello knows how the world works – but he also knows the importance of a football team at various times concentrating entirely on what has to be done on the field. You only have to look at the current team to know how they are responding to this leadership.

"Money can be a very seductive thing, it can distract a player but you get the feeling that Capello has taken his players beyond that. You can see how important it is to them to put in a good performance right through to the finals in South Africa. Of course there are no guarantees in the World Cup finals and it would be stupid for anyone to think England can go to South Africa and sweep everything before them.

"The important thing at this point is that everything has been done right. The discipline, the tactics, the way players are emerging with confidence when they pull on the England shirt has made us competitive at the highest level of the game. There will be some fine teams in South Africa for sure, teams like Spain and the Netherlands and Brazil, and it would be foolish to think that Capello's team is going to march easily through such opposition. But the important thing is that we know England will be well prepared and that they have undergone the kind of examination which makes you believe that the team is as strong as it could be."

Charlton, inevitably, stresses the word team – that was the foundation stone of Ramsey's campaign in 1966, a fact he memorably underlined to Jack Charlton when the defender confessed to being a little in awe of the great players who surrounded him in the dressing room. "Jack," said Ramsey, "you must remember that my job is not to pick the best players but the best team."

There was a resounding echo of that declaration in the build-up to this week's game when Capello strode deftly through the controversy over his decision to play Emile Heskey rather than the free-scoring Jermain Defoe. Like Ramsey when he preferred the hard-running Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt to the scoring genius Jimmy Greaves, Capello said the chemistry of his team would always be more important than the claims of individual players, however talented.

For many, Charlton's admiration for the work of Capello will powerfully, and poignantly, evoke his tribute to England's only World Cup-winning manager, of whom he said, "He knew football and he knew men. What he did for me and my team-mates was enable us to beat all our doubts and our fears – and the world."

Yesterday, Charlton added, "I just hope that 44 years on, another England team will be able to say the same of Fabio Capello. The wonderful thing is that they have been given a chance."