By Ed Barrett
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Public opinion is fickle at the best of times, and never more so that where the national football team is concerned. So now that England’s “golden generation” has been recast as a bunch of no-hopers, it’s worth reconsidering the golden past – what little there is of it.
The class of 1990 – written off after their dreadful first game against Ireland, lest we forget – are usually cited as the best of recent times. They even paraded in an open-top bus when they arrived home. Since then, history has been rewritten to the extent that their spirited but slightly fortunate stumble to a semi-final is now portrayed as an imperious march to football Valhalla. For evidence, look no further than the recent feature film, ‘One Night in Turin’. At Italia ’90, losing became the new winning.
Connoisseurs will point to the 1970 World Cup. While most England squads are lucky to have any truly world-class players, this one had no fewer than three: Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. Some might add Alan Ball, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters to that list. The 1970 side contained key players from the 1966 triumph (Banks, Moore, Charlton, Hurst, Peters) with the addition of classy defenders like Terry Cooper and Brian Labone. They lost narrowly to the great Brazil of Pele, Jairzinho, Rivelino and the rest, and then imploded against West Germany in the quarter-finals. In mitigation, they should have won both games. But they didn’t. And in 1970, when reigning world champions lost, they lost. No bus parade for them.
The truth is that there was only one golden year: 1966. And the irony is that although we harp on about it endlessly, that team’s achievement is nevertheless associated with home advantage, pragmatic tactics, and the mother of all lucky refereeing decisions. All of which is slightly unfair on the boys of ’66.
Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders weren’t pretty, and they have been blamed for introducing a negative philosophy and an obsession with work rate that dogged English football for decades. But whatever their faults, they were the only England team in history to win a major tournament. What’s more, they won it with two of their best players suited and booted on the touchline.
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Today we bemoan injuries to Beckham and Ferdinand, and fret about keeping Rooney fit and card-free. Yet the boys of ’66 overcame obstacles every bit as serious. And when people bang on about destiny, it’s worth remembering the players who seemed destined for international immortality only to be denied their historic opportunity.
The fact is that on 30 July 1966, four of the best English players of their generation were rendered unavailable for selection by a combination of injury, prison and death.
Peter Swan is remembered for the betting scandal that earned him a small amount of cash and a four-month jail sentence. Before his downfall, however, he played 19 consecutive games in central defence for England and was told by Ramsay that he was “top of the list”. By 1966 he was out of prison, but out of football too thanks to a lifetime ban that wasn’t lifted until 1972. (Had Swan been crocked, Brian Labone could have stepped in – if he hadn’t already withdrawn from the squad in order to get married.)
Jimmy Armfield is familiar today as an eloquent broadcaster and journalist. But in 1962, he was declared to be the best right-back in the world, and then voted the best in Europe for three consecutive seasons until injury struck. Armfield was included in the ’66 squad, but wasn’t fit to play.
Jimmy Greaves has many things to commend him, not least the fact that he was England’s best ever striker by a country mile. (During his supposedly disastrous spell with Milan, he scored nine goals in 12 games against the most defensive teams in the world.) Injured during the third group game in 1966, he was nevertheless fit to return for the final. Ramsay decided to stick with his replacement, Geoff Hurst, and the gamble paid off for everyone except Greavsie. He scored an average of more than 30 goals a season for the rest of the decade, but made just three more appearances for England. His final tally of 44 goals in 57 internationals says everything about him. Last year he was finally awarded a World Cup winners’ medal, along with Armfield and the rest of the squad.
Those lucky enough to see Duncan Edwards play consider him to be England’s best ever player. In 1958, at the age of 21, he was already a regular international, and had won league championships while doing his national service. Manchester United and England team mate Bobby Charlton was following a similar path – including the army – and went on to become one of the England greats. Both men were on the plane that crashed in Munich, but only Charlton survived. He never got over the death of “the only player who ever made him feel inferior”. Big Duncan was two-footed, powerful, good in the air, a brilliant passer and tackler, able to beat man after man, and possessed of a deadly shot. He was being watched by top Italian clubs, and would certainly have become one of the biggest superstars of world football. (Tommy Docherty believes he would have been better than Pele, Maradona and Best.) By the time of the 1966 World Cup he would have been 29 years old and the well-established captain of his country.
With this quartet in tow, England would have boasted six indisputably world-class players: Banks, Armfield, Moore, Edwards, Charlton and Greaves. The defence would have been solid as a rock, with two cultured centre-backs and Stiles breaking things up in front of them. Armfield would have overlapped on the right, backed up by the energetic Alan Ball. Bobby Charlton would have matched Ball’s work-rate and provide a constant goal-threat from midfield, while Edwards would have wreaked havoc on the left. With this midfield behind them, Hunt and Greaves would have scored for fun.
Of course, the best team doesn’t always prevail in the World Cup. Just ask Holland, Brazil, France, and all the other sides who have dazzled the crowds only to be laid low by functional teams who raised their game or got lucky on the day. But no team with Stiles and Ball would be pushovers, and Edwards was a tough and uncompromising tackler as well as a creative genius. Bobby Charlton would run opponents ragged all over the pitch, as he did with Franz Beckenbauer in the final. And that solid back four was backed up with Gordon Banks, who ranked alongside Yashin, Jennings, and the other great goalkeepers of the day.
Couple this with the attacking options on offer and it’s fair to assume that they would have won the Jules Rimet trophy with style as well as guts. And Jimmy Greaves would never have hit the bar. (At least, not until after the match.)
The line-up (4-1-3-2): Banks, Armfield, Moore, Swan, Wilson, Stiles, Ball, Charlton, Edwards (captain), Greaves, Hunt. (No subs, it was a man’s game in them days.)