Ray Wilson: 'What you had to do for Alf was graft. He wasn't there to entertain'

Cohen's old team-mate Ray Wilson tells Steve Tongue how grateful he'd be for a repeat of 1966
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Most of the 10 surviving players seem to relish being "wheeled out", as Gary Neville rather ungraciously put it, to tell us the old, old stories once more; others have always been more reticent, and Ray Wilson is firmly in the latter camp.

Never one for the celebrity circuit, George Cohen's cultured full-back partner retired 10 years ago from work as an undertaker and prefers a quiet life with his wife high up in the hills above Huddersfield, increasingly reluctant to venture far from home for anything except a good walk. In a rare interview last Wednesday he was splendid company but appeared quite genuine in insisting he would be "absolutely grateful" if England could produce a new team of World Cup winners to deflect some of the attention.

Perhaps it is a generational thing. As the oldest member of the team, Wilson was an established international long before the Sixties began swinging, who had joined Huddersfield Town as early as 1952 and gone through two years of short-back-and-sides national service in Egypt. Indeed, he even rebelled against the touch of glamour introduced into his life from day one, when his mother insisted on choosing the name Ramon, after her favourite Spanish film star.

"There I was growing up in a Derbyshire village full of hairy-arsed miners with a name like that," he recalled with a laugh. "The registrar refused to accept it, so my mother went to Mansfield instead. I changed very quickly to Ray. But sometimes I think calling me that name made me a bit fiercer."

As an 11-year-old outside-left he was fierce enough to hold his own in the Under-15s, and quick enough later to attract a scout from Huddersfield Town, then in the top division. Glamour? Training consisted of lapping the pitch ("run one, walk one") and footballs were put away from Wednesday onwards, on the basis that players would be hungrier for the ball on Saturday.

Whether they would know what to do with it was clearly a different matter. A reserve-team trainer called Bill Shankly had other ideas, summoning players back in the afternoon for six-a-sides between England and Scotland in which he insisted, like Brian Glover's schoolteacher in Kes, on both playing and supplying the commentary ("and here come the teams at Hampden Park").

The twin iniquities of the maximum wage and the retain-and-transfer system were still operative. As Wilson explains: "Players would marry young, your family were there and the wages were exactly the same for each team, so what was the point in moving clubs? If you said you weren't going to sign a new contract, the club would say, 'OK, but you're not signing for anyone else' and they could keep you for ever."

Shankly, having been promoted to manager of Huddersfield and rejected numerous offers for Wilson, moved on to Liverpool and was soon on the phone demanding to sign him, but the club held firm until Everton's Harry Catterick came in, offering £40,000 in 1964. By then, he already had 30 caps, as a Second Division player. He arrived at Goodison the year after they won the championship and left the year before the next one, but had the satisfaction of a thrilling FA Cup victory as Everton came back from 2-0 down to beat Sheffield Wednesday, in the first of two momentous 1966 finals at Wembley.

The national team, meanwhile, were developing under Alf Ramsey, about whose footballing philosophy Wilson is refreshingly unromantic. "Alf built his teams on stopping other sides playing and hitting them on the break, which is what Ipswich did when he was manager there. You'd go to Ipswich and have the ball for 80 minutes and come off beaten four-nil. He wasn't there to entertain. He was there to win matches. Don't get me wrong, we [England] were a good side, but only because he picked the players and moulded them to play exactly like he wanted. What you had to do for Alf was graft and work hard.

"When he took over [in 1963] I thought I'd struggle to get back into the team. He said to me years later, 'I'd like to apologise, I read you the wrong way at Huddersfield. I thought you were a mouthy little bugger'. I remember sitting at home and Alf being interviewed and asked if we would win the World Cup. And Alf says [mimics Ramsey's accent], 'Oh yes, no doubt at all', and I'm thinking, what's he doing putting pressure on us like that? But that's how he was."

The conviction grew among the players, especially after a fine 2-0 win away to Spain, and was not diminished by the anti-climax of the dreary opening goalless game against Uruguay. "They never came over the halfway line and we couldn't play against teams like that. A lot of people said we won the World Cup because we were playing at home, but in fact we were one of the worst home teams in the world. But teams like Portugal in the semi-final came out and made a game of it, which suited us better. I always said it was a pretty ordinary final, nowhere near as entertaining as the Portugal game. Germany were pretty similar to us and would always run their balls off."

Wilson was more relieved than anyone by the eventual outcome, having given away the first goal with what Ramsey called the only mistake of his 63 internationals. His other regret on the day was agreeing to swap shirts in the dressing room afterwards and getting a German reserve's in exchange. The winner's medal was sold some time ago to help fund a retirement made harder by Huddersfield's disinclination to grant him a testimonial after 10 years' service. He remembers being on £60 a week as a World Cup winner yet bears no grudges towards the game's young millionaires: "You can only live in your own time."

After a last international hurrah at the 1968 European Championship finals, he played in Everton's reserves, wound down with Oldham and even had a spell as caretaker-manager of Bradford City, but decided to go into business with his father-in-law as an undertaker, a sobering occupation for such a jolly man. He still goes occasionally to Everton - "a smashing club that really looks after its old players" - and will watch this summer's finals on television, as worried as everyone else about how much England will miss Wayne Rooney: "Such a natural I don't think he really knows how he does it."

Possibly with his most recent occupation in mind, he jokes about not being around for the 50th anniversary in 2016. But as a fit 71-year-old striding out on those hill-walks, there is every chance that Ramon Wilson will be there; and that, like it or not, his class of '66 will still stand alone in the annals of English football.