Sir Alf Ramsey made his name by winning the First Division with Ipswich in 1962 and earned a knighthood by winning the World Cup in 1966. Whilst these successes have made him a legend in the eyes of many they are the only major trophies he won in a managerial career spanning 23 years. He failed to qualify in three of his four campaigns as England manager and by the 1970s he was increasingly out of touch with modern football leaving behind a team and mentality that was ill equipped to deal with a rapidly changing game. He may have been the man that lifted the World Cup but he was also the man – according to Glenn Hoddle amongst others – that ‘ruined our game’ and ‘stopped us from winning anything else.’
Ramsey’s greatest achievement was arguably taking Ipswich Town from the Third Division to First Division Champions in just seven seasons. However, in analysing this rise we shall see that it is not impressive as it appears at first glance. Ipswich’s first promotion was relatively easy as Ramsey inherited a side that had just been relegated and had more quality than the rest of the league. As he entered the Second Division, he still had an advantage on the competition due to the club being owned by the aristocratic Cobbold brewing family. Despite the resources at his disposal it took Ramsey four seasons to get Ipswich promoted to the First Division. In their debut season at the highest level, Ipswich Town were crowned champions of England. Remarkable as this was, it must be noted that this was not one of the great title wins. Ipswich were far from dominating in a campaign where they lost a startling 10 league games. Their away record was especially poor – losing more games (8) than they won (7) on the road – as they shipped four or more goals in six games during the season. This was a time where financial equality made for a more competitive title race – the First Division was won by seven different teams from 1958-1965 – and an era that lacked a dominant side like Liverpool in the 1970s-80s. Additionally, Ramsey’s achievement of winning the title straight after promotion was far from unparalleled. Tottenham (1950-51) and Nottingham Forrest (1977-78) did likewise – and while Spurs won a historic double a decade later and Forrest won consecutive European Cups under the management of Brian Clough – Ipswich’s victory did not lead to a prolonged period of success. Under Ramsey’s management they finished 17th the following season and his team – managed by Jackie Milburn – were relegated two years later. Whilst Sir Alf Ramsey managed to win a title in the era where it was perhaps easier than at any other point in English footballing history, he did not build a great team or leave Ipswich with a great legacy; his glory was a fleeting one.
it is impossible to ignore the extreme fortune that led our World Cup win
When appointed by the FA in 1963, Ramsey promised to win the 1966 World Cup and whilst he achieved this promise it was the only thing the man with a lower win percentage than Fabio Capello achieved in eleven years as England manager. After being thrashed 5-2 by France and failing to qualify for Euro 1964, England qualified for their home World Cup automatically. Whilst it pains me to say this as an Englishman, it is impossible to ignore the extreme fortune that led our World Cup win. Firstly, the advantage of hosting the tournament was significant especially with England playing every game at Wembley. Secondly, it is doubtful that England could have beaten Brazil had Pele not been kicked out of the tournament in a violent loss against Portugal. Thirdly, in the quarter-final Argentina were down to ten men for two-thirds of the game, whilst in the final England benefited from the most extraordinary luck in the history of the World Cup – being awarded the go-ahead goal in extra time when Geoff Hurst’s shot did not cross the line. Lucky or not, the 1966 World Cup should have been a platform for England to dominate world football but instead Ramsey’s errors took the team backwards. In the 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia in the semi-finals of Euro 1968 England lacked a top-class striker and discipline. The lack of discipline shown by Allan Mullery when he kicked a Soviet player in the groin was bizarrely supported by his manager who paid the fine and said he was ‘glad somebody retaliated.’ However, Ramsey’s biggest mistake that day was leaving Jimmy Greaves on the bench – the final straw for the man considered the best finisher in the history of English football. Ramsey’s poor man management led to Greaves’ international retirement at the age of 27 – a great loss given his international record of 44 goals in 57 caps. Despite this, England still had one of the strongest teams going into the 1970 World Cup. After performing poorly in the group England faced Germany in the quarter-final. Leading 2-1, Ramsey’s decision to substitute Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters backfired spectacularly as Germany turned the game around and won 3-2. After the game Ramsey committed the cardinal sin of criticising his own players by blaming stand-in goalkeeper Peter Bonetti rather than acknowledging the part his cautious tactics and substitutions played in England’s loss. It was all downhill from there. Failure to qualify for Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup led to Ramsey’s sacking. In his final competitive game, England needed to score in the last 30 minutes to beat an unheralded Polish side and qualify for the World Cup. Ramsey waited until the 85th minute to bring on forward Kevin Hector who had been in prolific goal scoring form for Derby. In his brief time on the field Hector came within inches of scoring, suggesting that if Ramsey had made the decision earlier it could have led to a very different result. Instead the final whistle blew – signalling not just the end of the match, but the end of an era.
The long-term effects of Sir Alf Ramsey’s methods continue to plague the national team today. He stuck with his rigid 4-4-2 throughout the 1970s – including during his final job in management, a brief and unsuccessful spell at Birmingham City – and this has had a long-lasting influence on the national game. From his successors – such as Don Revie and Ron Greenwood who led England through unsuccessful qualifying campaigns in 1976 and 1978 – to youth coaches, the emphasis of our game has been placed on long balls and physical strength. This has led to extremely talented technical players like Glenn Hoddle and Paul Scholes being mistreated by England and explains why it took a player like Adam Lallana so long to break into the national set up. Whilst this isn’t all Sir Alf Ramsey’s fault, his inability to adapt to the changing nature of international game post-1966 as shown by his dependence of a single formation and his poor use of substitutions put English football in decline. A man who had no positive legacy and won just two major trophies – both unusually influenced by circumstance and luck – Sir Alf Ramsey was a myth and not a legend.