The privileged few inside Wembley tonight for the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy are the envy of the nation. For most supporters getting a seat for the biggest international match that the stadium has hosted for 55 years is an impossible dream.
Back in 1966, it seemed preposterously easy to get a ticket for the World Cup final. You could pick one up at the local shop along with your morning newspapers.
“My mother Ethel used to drive me to school,” said Albert Boniface, who attended all the England games in that glorious mid-sixties summer. “We passed a newsagent on Western Avenue with a sign in the window that said ‘World Cup tickets for sale.’
“It was just an ordinary newsagent and had books of 10 tickets. She just went in and bought them. There wasn’t that much interest. That grew as the tournament went on.”
The book allowed entry for all the London-based fixtures, nine at Wembley and one at the White City stadium, which was demolished in 1985. That meant Boniface was able to attend all Group 1 games, a quarter-final, a semi, the third-placed match and, most importantly, the final. He observed England’s progress first-hand.
He was able to get even closer to the action for the opening game against Uruguay. “On my 13th birthday I found out that my school was going to provide mascots before the first game,” he said. “The 16 teams were each represented by 20 boys. My school sent two sets to represent England and France. Unfortunately I was allocated to France. We wore the French kit and our own boots.”
Taking part in the opening ceremony was a serious business. “We were drilled like the military,” Boniface said. “A week before the first game we were taken to Wembley to practise. We changed in the Arena and then walked down the tunnel.”
In modern times the fixture would be a sellout. In 1966 it was very different.
“It was so easy to get tickets for England-Uruguay that my mother managed to buy one in the front row so she could photograph me,” Boniface said. “We lined up, the Queen gave a speech and then we watched the game from a bay by the tunnel. It was a fantastic experience.
“When Goal, the official film of the World Cup, was released, I was excited looking for myself but the cameras never picked me up. Then Bobby, the documentary about Bobby Moore, came out five years ago and they used different shots from the day. I could see myself at last.”
Recalling the tournament brings back a kaleidoscope of teenage memories for Boniface. “The best atmosphere was against Argentina in the quarter finals, when Antonio Rattin was sent off,” he said. The game was tight and England squeaked through with a Geoff Hurst goal 11 minutes from the end despite the South Americans being down to 10 men since before half time. “That’s the game that stands out,” Boniface said.
Other recollections remain strong. “I remember the crack of Bobby Charlton hitting the ball.” The Manchester United midfielder’s goals from distance against Mexico in the group stage and Portugal in the semi-finals were perfect examples of Charlton’s shooting power. The rasper against Mexico was hit from more than 25-yards out and was exceptional at a time when the heavier ball meant there were less long-range efforts.
“For the final we were in the upper terrace, which was great because I had a good view,” Boniface said. The steps in the upper sections at the old Wembley were considerably higher and steeper than those in the lower.
In the light of England fans’ hostility towards Germany and the frequency of songs about German bombers over recent decades, it might be expected that the atmosphere for the final was antagonistic. This was just 21 years after the second world war ended and there were still plenty of signs of bomb damage across Britain. Boniface does not recall any nastiness. “The mood was respectful,” he said. “No one booed the West Germany anthem.”
Victory was joyous. “I actually don’t remember much about the final,” he said. “When the players came around on the lap of honour Nobby Stiles did his famous jig right in front of me.
“I don’t remember people going mad when England won. Everyone was very happy but there were no wild scenes. There was lots of flagwaving and everyone was really happy. I can’t recall seeing anyone drunk. There was certainly no beer throwing going on. People were far more restrained.”
Yet the nation was no less excited than it will be if England win tonight. “The euphoria lasted at least a week,” Boniface said. “All us kids were on the streets and in the parks with balls, trying to replicate the exploits of our heroes.”
Boniface, a Fulham season-ticket holder since the age of six, has seen many changes in the game. The excitement and expectation that preceded the Euros – and any tournament – is a recent phenomenon. The obsession with football is more universal than it was five and a half decades ago. “Interest in the tournament built and built as it went on,” he said. “It grew more in ’66 than now. The game did not have the widespread appeal it has today. Players weren’t celebrities. It was only five years since the maximum wage was abolished and Johnny Haynes became the first player to earn £100 per week. Players were ordinary people. You’d see them on public transport.”
Tonight he is rooting for England from his armchair. “If we win, it will be a great day but nothing will compare with ’66.”
Like so many England supporters, Boniface references the second world war but in a different context. Two decades after the conflict ended, the knock-on effects could still be felt. They were real and contributed to the national joy but not in a jingoistic way. “You have to remember how poor Britain had been after the war,” he said. “Rationing continued into the 1950s. It took a long time for things to recover. It was only in the ’60s that people had money and were enjoying themselves a bit more. The World Cup win felt like part of the Swinging Sixties.”
England was on a high and looking forwards, not backwards, in 1966. That might be the greatest difference between then and now.
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