James Lawton: Honours uneven for Forgotten Five as Beckham OBE 'merits' a higher award

Ball had to wait 34 years for his MBE. Beckham's honour comes less than a year after England's miserable World Cup exit
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The Independent Football

Three years ago Alan Ball, George Cohen, Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson went to Buckingham Palace to receive the MBE - the most modest gift of the honours system.

It was 34 years after they had helped to win the World Cup on the greatest single day in the history of English sport. Many people, including the players themselves, were not so much gratified as relieved. However belatedly, a scandal of neglect had been put to bed.

When Cohen was notified by Downing Street he detected almost a tone of embarrassment. How would he react to the award? Cohen said, "I would say thank you very much." He was also told there had been some difficulty in contacting him. "We got your number from Nobby Stiles," said the official. Cohen thought it did not say a lot for the Secret Service.

After handing out the MBEs the Queen said, somewhat reflectively: "It's been a long-time".

The reaction of the "Forgotten Five" was muted, though that evening they had a fine dinner in a five-star hotel near the Palace and Cohen said to his team-mates and friends: "Let's celebrate that day we will never forget - and the fact that unlike Bobby [captain Moore] we are still around to share this honour with our families." Cohen had by now fought off cancer three times.

All of this put into a certain perspective the weekend news leak that David Beckham, whose own World Cup efforts have met with conspicuous, and, some would say, rather inglorious failure, had been awarded the Order of the British Empire for his "services to football". The OBE is a notch up from the MBE, which was recently described by a leading civil servant as something which tends to be awarded "for something achieved locally".

Beckham's award caused little surprise - and still less consternation - in the Ball, Cohen, Hunt, Stiles and the Wilson households. Wilson, who works as an undertaker in West Yorkshire, said: "It's hardly a shock is it? The lad is the papers every day. He doesn't seem a bad lad, but personally I couldn't do with all that publicity. It was something that I avoided when I was a player. It made me uneasy.

"People often ask me how I feel about the rewards of the players today, and how they compare to when I was playing. I tell them it doesn't cause me to bat an eyelid. I know what I got from my career and I don't blame David Beckham for the fact that the world has changed so much.

"I still consider myself the luckiest man alive to have played in that World Cup final and shared it with the other lads. We were a real team and that feeling has carried on down the years. What you have to remember is that I grew up in a mining village and that there wasn't a day when I didn't want to wake up early and do what I loved so much. If young Beckham gets that satisfaction from his life, I'm just happy for him."

Roger Hunt, who in the opinion of many of his team-mates was the unsung hero of the World Cup win, a prodigious worker whose ceaseless running helped unlock the door for the hat-trick scorer in the final against West Germany, Sir Geoff Hurst, echoed Wilson's feelings.

"There is no doubt, " he said yesterday, "that sometimes you wonder about the attention somebody like David Beckham gets. But I've no complaints if he behaves himself well, as he seems to, and gets on with his game. As for him getting his OBE now, while we had to wait 34 years for our MBEs, well, it's not his fault that things are so different. Not one of us can re-make the world, and failing that, there doesn't seem much point in complaining too much. What do you do? You live your life and are grateful for what you get. Anything else is a waste of time."

None of the Forgotten Five are inclined to make a point which for some others may have been hard to suppress with the first news that Beckham had skipped over them in the honours' pecking order.

It is that while Ball, Cohen, Hunt, Stiles and Wilson were vital elements in a team performance which created - it was said at the time - national celebrations unrivalled since the night of Victory in Europe in 1945, Beckham's own World Cup experiences are marked by spectacular failure.

In 1998 he was sent off in the vital quarter-final match against Argentina for a petulant, schoolboyish offence. He was 23 at the time - two years older than Ball when he was by wide agreement the outstanding player of the 1966 final as he ran the celebrated German full-back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger to the point of breakdown. In his recently published autobiography, Cohen, while writing of Hurst's final goal, said: "Schulz, the last line of German defence, was terribly compromised by Bally's last killing run in a game he had filled with his passion and unbreakable stamina."

Still Ball had to wait 34 years for his MBE. Beckham's superior OBE comes less than a year after England's miserable exit from the last World Cup in Japan, when the equalising goal which turned the quarter-final in favour of Brazil came directly from Beckham's decision to leap out of a tackle and grant his opponents free possession. They promptly translated their gift into a shattering goal by Rivaldo.

George Cohen was in his Kent garden when his wife Daphne heard the news of Beckham's honour on the radio. She went to the kitchen door and said: "George, you'll never guess, David Beckham's been given the OBE."

Yesterday Mrs Cohen confessed to a degree of irony. "I also said," she reported, "the only surprise is that he hasn't been given a knighthood, I suppose that will come next year. Really, he seems a nice enough lad, but you have to feel a little sorry for the boys who had to wait so long for a little recognition. They, after all, did win the World Cup."

George Cohen concluded his autobiography like this: "When the civil servant called to offer the MBE and I told Daphne, she smiled and said: 'Are you kidding?' The prize, such as it was, had come to us down through all the years that separated us from the gilded day at Wembley when our lives stood still. The phone call had come from Downing Street but as we embraced we did not need to say that really it might have been from another world."

Rather like the latest news of David Beckham.