Ken Jones: To paraphrase Sir Alf, England will win next World Cup

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The Independent Football

That wasn't our theme. We were talking mainly about Alf Ramsey's reign as England manager, specifically a statement he made two months before the 1966 World Cup finals, one so out of character that football writers were required to check its accuracy.

When Ramsey said: "England will win the World Cup," it caused a stir, not least at the Football Association, whose mandarins were never fully supportive of the manager. Some, irritated by his aloofness, even conspiring against him. Two things inspired Ramsey's unguarded optimism; the huge advantage of playing at home and the knowledge that he could call on a nucleus of gifted players, including such notables as Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks and Ray Wilson.

In the confident assumption that England are about to secure automatic qualification for next year's tournament in Germany it will be interesting to find out how far Sven Goran Eriksson will then be prepared to go in assessment of England's potential. Before recent lapses (especially the shambolic loss to Northern Ireland in Belfast) cast fresh doubts on his tactical nous and ability to fire up the troops, it was merely to say that if England make it through to the finals they will be among the leading contenders.

A personal view, one nobody is obliged to share, is that England will win the World Cup next year. I have a betting slip at odds of 10-1 at a fairly substantial stake to prove my faith. It is a faith based on the belief that Eriksson has at his disposal a stronger squad than in 2002, and in last year's European Championships, stronger too than any of his predecessors could draw from. What he does with it is a different matter.

For example, Bobby Robson went to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with a team and a system clear in his mind. "We can do well out here," he said. When a poor start threatened England with elimination at the group stage, and aware of unrest in the dressing-room, Robson made changes in personnel and formation. Something similar happened in Italia '90 when England had to improve quickly from a poor start to justify Robson's publicly declared contention that they were good enough to go all the way, his belief ultimately thwarted by a penalty shoot-out loss to Germany in the semi-finals.

England have never found qualifying for World Cups easy. Ramsey's only attempt - England, first as hosts, then as holders, were not required to fight for a place in 1966 and 1970 - ended when Poland gained a 1-1 draw at Wembley that led to Ramsey's dismissal. Ramsey's successor, Don Revie, began his career as England manager with bold statements of intent but soon realised that it had been a big mistake to leave Leeds United. By the summer of 1977 he was plotting his exit to the Middle East.

The late Helmut Schoen, who won the 1974 World Cup with West Germany, felt that qualifying for major tournaments made even naturally confident players nervous. "Even if you are in a fairly comfortable group there is always pressure," he once told me.

"England are always among the strongest teams and their failure to qualify when playing Poland at Wembley in 1973 is a good example of what can happen. England had most of the game, getting many shots on target but struggled to beat an unorthodox goalkeeper [Jan Tomaszewski] having the game of his life. That can happen, so it is better not to make predictions.

"Before the 1974 finals I was repeatedly asked whether we would win the World Cup in our homeland. I was pretty sure we could but I knew it would be difficult to meet expectations so I kept my thoughts to myself.

"When Ramsey said that England would win in 1966 I was surprised, although he must have been encouraged by the fact that Fifa had arranged the schedules to ensure that all England's matches would take place at Wembley. When I shook Ramsey's hand after the 1966 final he gave me a thin smile of satisfaction. He knew he had taken a big risk."

So with regard to tomorrow's encounter I think we are entitled to ask what all the fuss is about. Austria cannot qualify and have recently parted company with their coach. True, England cannot call upon their regular full-backs, Gary Neville and Ashley Cole. True, Wayne Rooney is lost to suspension. The truth is Eriksson could field his second string and still be confident of victory.