Alf Ramsey orchestrated England’s greatest-ever achievement, beating West Germany at Wembley in 1966 to be crowned champions of the world; but just three years earlier his side had been thrashed 5-2 by France in his first game as Three Lions boss.
The defeat meant England were out of the European Nations Cup while it was the first time they had conceded five in a game since 1958 but, though nobody thought it at the time, it was to be the dawn of one of English football’s most glorious moments.
Ramsey, a right-back and deep thinker about the game, had been capped 32 times for England and managed Ipswich Town to the top-flight title in 1962 having only been promoted in the previous season, so he was the natural choice as successor when Walter Winterbottom left the role he’d occupied since 1946.
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Without any coaching qualifications, his early life shaped his playing style and ultimately his approach to management – honing the passing skills for which he would be famed on his daily four-mile walk to school.
He later revealed that he was once confined to bed with a severe cold after wading into the water to retrieve an errant kick — resolving to “secure accuracy in the pass” from then on before embarking on a playing career that took him to Southampton and Tottenham.
But it was in management that he excelled and the prospect of taking charge of the national side gave Ramsey the sense of purpose that had deserted him as a youngster working as an apprentice at a local branch of the Co-op, delivering groceries on his bicycle, having failed to get a job at the local Ford factory.
Prior to his appointment, The FA’s International Committee had helped to select England teams, but Ramsey was keen to enforce his authority and quickly established that he, and only he, would now be picking who played for their country.
He wasted no time in ringing the changes and after appointing 22-year-old Bobby Moore as captain boldly declared that England would win the next World Cup on home soil having crashed out to Brazil in Chile 12 months previously.
Referred to as “The General” due to his astute football intelligence and flexibility with his tactics, Ramsey was well ahead of his time, a strict disciplinarian whose reputation had been built around an ability to get the best performance from even moderately talented players.
By the time of the World Cup in 1966, Ramsey had a squad who were fluent in switching styles to confound the opposition and became known as the ‘wingless wonders’ thanks to a narrow 4-4-2 with a packed, direct midfield.
This was in stark contrast to previous games in the tournament where he adopted a narrower 4-3-3 formation with John Connelly, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan all appearing in wide positions.
Effective as it was revolutionary; the approach saw England overcome Uruguay, Mexico and France to progress to the quarter-finals where they faced Argentina - having gone out at the last-eight stage in the last three World Cups.
After a bad-tempered 1-0 win which saw Argentine player Antonio Rattin refuse to leave the pitch having been sent off, Alf refused to let his players swap shirts with their opponents due to their unsportsmanlike behaviour during the game.
Victory over Portugal in the semi-final followed before Ramsey secured his place in English football folklore as the first man ever to win a tournament with the national team after his side defeated West Germany 4-2 in the final after extra time.
After the high of 1966, Ramsey led England to third place in the 1968 European Championships while in the 1970 World Cup, West Germany avenged the ’66 final with a 3-2 victory in the searing Mexican heat despite England leading 2-0 with 20 minutes left with Ramsey being blamed for a number of cautious substitutions.
With the squad that became World Champions beginning to age, Ramsey’s England lost again to eventual European Champions West Germany in 1972, before failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup led to Ramsey’s dismissal.
But well over half a century on from England’s greatest day the quietly spoken individual from Dagenham remains the only man to lead the Three Lions to the pinnacle of World football – a remarkable achievement made all the more special seeing that his career in international management got off to the worst start imaginable.