Sports books: Stiff upper lip of a man ahead of his time

Book of the Week: Winning Isn't Everything: A Biography of Sir Alf Ramsey (Victor Gollancz; pounds 16.99) By Dave Bowler
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Winning Isn't Everything: A Biography of Sir Alf Ramsey (Victor Gollancz; pounds 16.99)

By Dave Bowler

THOSE WERE the days. If you liked your England managers to be the buttoned- up, silent type, those were definitely the days.

You would no more expect Sir h'Alf to go public on how Jimmy Greaves reacted to being dropped from the World Cup than you would expect him to drop an aitch in the right place. It was Ramsey's stiff public persona that, in Bowler's view, is largely responsible for his achievements being so badly underestimated in the decades since that afternoon at Wembley in 1966.

Part of the problem was the delivery. Although the author is as indulgent of them as he is of Ramsey knocking two years off his age to give himself a better chance of a contract with a Football League club, those elocution lessons were surely as big a mistake as substituting Bobby Charlton in Leon.

The strangulated android voice that left him somewhere between Dagenham and the FA not only rendered him a target for ridicule. It also meant that communicating outside the tight circle of his England regulars - and sometimes inside it - was an even greater struggle. The description of him trying to tell the squad that they were going to watch a western called Hang 'Em High (or 'Ang Hem 'Igh) is the comic highpoint of the book.

Bowler is not blind to Ramsey's flaws, as a man or a manager, but he is an eloquent advocate. He was, after all, a man of his times; the post- war mix of deference and upward mobility - even his xenophobia was far from untypical of men of his generation and background.

The book's argument is that Ramsey, even in his hour of glory and certainly since, has been unfairly rubbished by a country that refuses to see itself as it is. We won the World Cup through Ramsey's marshalling of the English strengths of his squad, but he stands condemned for not having won it like Brazilians.

Much of the glister of 1966 was dimmed by events in 1970 and thereafter, but Bowler argues against the conventional wisdom that Ramsey became outdated and inflexible. His problem was the one that eventually assails all managers; he didn't have the players to work with.

In many ways, Ramsey was, like Martin Peters, ahead of his time, particularly in the way he sidelined the FA committeemen, a breed for whom he had even less time thanjournalists. He would, in fact, fit these pragmatic times more snugly than he did an era when British football still thought it had a divine right to a Matthews and a Finney.

At his most beleaguered - and as a photograph in this absorbing book bears testimony - Ramsey took to recording interviews on a big reel-to- reel machine. He should have worried less about holding them to account and should have sued his elocution teacher instead. Maybe then we would have a more rounded view of the most important manager England has produced.

Dave Hadfield