Review: Leo McKinstry, Sir Alf

Leo McKinstry’s other football book, Jack and Bobby, was my desert island volume. That’s the Charltons, not the Kennedys, and this time it’s Bobby who gets to be President and no one is shot unless you count Jack’s interest in game birds. Sir Alf is cut from the same quality of cloth. Painstakingly researched and beautifully written, I am able to disagree with McKinstry’s interpretation of Ramsey purely because the book gives me enough to do so.

We all know the Alf Ramsey story by now. Born in Dagenham, a keen footballer who didn’t get into the game until during the War, shining at Southampton and Spurs, an unusually regular player for England and sometime captain before his international career ended in the debacle at Wembley against the magic Magyars. He loses the race to boss Spurs to Bill Nicholson, then takes Ipswich from the Third Division (South) to the First Division title before succeeding Sir Walter Winterbottom as England manager. He scraps wingers and wins the World Cup, before losing it in agonising circumstances in 1970. Rapid decline follows, and England fail to qualify for the 1974 Finals after a brilliant display by “clown” goalkeeper.. and I don’t think I can bring myself to type the rest (unless the Daily Express is prepared to pay me).

McKinstry’s book is in many ways an old fashioned apology for Ramsey, a defense of the man against his critics. They’re nearly all dead now, of course, and I wasn’t aware that the deed needed to be done – but done it has been, now, and done well. I’ll take McKinstry’s points in turn.

4-3-3: Ramsey’s abandonment of wingers was not a result of excessive caution or disbelief in the quality of his players. No, it was a recognition that Thompson, Connelly and co. were not quite international standard – and that the likes of Peters and Ball were better suited to a more compact formation. That Ramsay doesn’t seem to have settled on the 4-3-3 formation until halfway through the actual 1966 tournament was not indecision but an attempt to hide his tactical intentions from the teams he saw as England’s real opponents, the likes of Portugal, Argentina, France and Germany.

I say: I believe that Ramsey was undecided, in fact, about his team until very late in the day – later than Erickson was allowed when his turn came. However, he did indeed find a formation that worked very well, in the end, and that’s all that can be asked. I think it’s significant that England line-ups vary hugely until the 1966 quarter final, and hold firm for almost a year after the Final. And Ramsey was right – the best winger England had in the 1960s was Bobby Charlton, and come ’66, he was playing in central midfield. None of the others really made much of an impact.

Jimmy Greaves: McKinstry explains the dropping of Greaves after the quarter final as a combination of two principal factors: Greaves wasn’t a team player, and he didn’t quite fit the team plan Ramsey had in mind. Greaves’s attitude whilst with England was lacking – he was one of the prime troublemakers, and never really respected Ramsey as a coach or as a man. (Interestingly, McKinstry hints similar things about Greaves’ great friend, Bobby Moore).

I say: Greaves’ omission was made possible by the very late emergence of Geoff Hurst. Hurst was an England debutante in 1966, which puts the emergence of Peter Crouch into some kind of perspective. He was better in the air than Greaves, an ability that was, it turned out, decisive in England’s progress. Greaves hadn’t scored in the early rounds, whereas Roger Hunt had put away three – indeed, Greaves had come into the World Cup on the back of a series of inconsistent displays, scoring four against hapless Norway but failing to feature against better teams. In short, dropping Greaves was the right decision on purely footballing terms, and one that benefitted England in the following years.

Ramsey’s Man-Management: McKinstrey’s Alf was a man uncomfortable in the world but utterly at home in football, and an incomparable communicator to footballers. McKinstrey has researched Alf’s football conversation in incredible depth – the book digs up long inquisitions on train journeys, in dressing rooms, on pitches surrounded by 100,000 baying fans – and the story is consistent. It’s backed up by players from all parts of Ramsey’s playing career – including the last, disappointing England years after 1970.

I say: McKinstrey’s case is very strong. It’s not bullet-proof. Ramsey seems to have had as much trouble as other coaches in telling certain players that they weren’t playing – and Greaves was left looking for the white or black smoke in 1966. But Ramsey’s strong tactical eye, combined with his ability to talk to players and make his ideas understood, were real and achieved results.

Luck, dearie, had nothing to do with it: McKinstrey has Alf running out of luck in 1970 when Gordon Banks fell ill on the eve of the quarter-final against Germany. Peter Bonetti, a talented but nervous keeper, let in goals Banks would have saved, and in the process exposed Ramsey’s substitution of Charlton as a mistake.

I say: England rode their luck in ’66 to a degree that must have had Erickson ruing his in retrospect. Rattin’s sending off in the match against Argentina, plus Nobby Stiles’ staying on the pitch against France, a linesman with an agenda in the Final.. luck plays a huge factor in football, and we in Britain seem reluctant to give it its due. In 1970, what happened to Banks was just gutting (sorry) and in the context of a 2-0 lead, taking Charlton off to rest him made perfect sense. Sometimes, the dice just roll. Think of Rooney’s injury in 2004 and Campbell’s disallowed goal; think of Rooney’s sending off in 2006, which a more alert referee might have been able to avoid – and remember John Terry’s terrible miss later on in the game. Think of injuries to Gerrard, Beckham, Neville (twice), Owen (effectively twice), against Ramsey’s loss of one key player across two tournaments.

Ramsey and negative football: McKinstrey defends Ramsey against charges that he ended the English tradition of attacking football and brought in a cowardly, negative approach to the game that it has never quite shaken off since. England’s 4-3-3 produced flowing, attractive games against opposition who were also interested in playing their game, as seen against France, Portugal and Germany. England’s game against Brazil in 1970 is thought by many (including me) to be the best ever played.

I say: There are deep similarities between the way Ramsey’s teams were reported upon and the way Erickson’s were. Too much caution, players not knowing how to play together, undemonstrative coach, lack of imagination… it’s all there. If lesser coaches than Ramsey adopted 4-3-3 without possessing the players to make it work (something similar’s happening now with 4-5-1) that’s hardly Ramsey’s fault. Somewhere out there in the ethereal imaginations of football writers and journalists are the teams who swashbuckle uninterrupted, led by men who… churchillian inspiration… motivating the players…

Ramsey was slow to rebuild England: McKinstrey has a certain amount of time for this view. His loyalty to his players was part of the strength of his teams. Loyalty to players is favoured by the press when it’s least in evidence – at other times, it means, not good man-management but lack of courage and failure to stand up to superstars. Perhaps Moore was kept on too long by England – perhaps Ramsey was too slow to allow in great young players and too impatient with them when he did.

I say: England were successfully rebuilt between 1966 and 1970. Only Moore survived from the defence, Hunt and Stiles were gone, and Hurst, Peters and Ball (all very young players in ’66) were coming into their prime. Only Peters survived to see the crucial game against Poland in 1973. But… in ’66, it could be argued that the England side did indeed represent the best players available. Between ’73 and ’78, England had available Bell, Lee, Currie, Marsh, Osgood, Worthington, Hudson, Latchford, George and Mackenzie.. and, by and large, failed to use them. Ramsey is perhaps less at fault for this than Don Revie, but wherever the blame lies, it remains the fact that the standard of English players probably rose in the early 1970s, at a time when the national team was at an all-time nadir.
It can’t have helped that Alf Ramsey was something of an all-out xenophobe, a fact McKinstrey would have been forgiven for keeping out of sight. But such a good biographer doesn’t decline to his subject to that degree. A great manager, perhaps less of a success in his dealings with the world outside football, is a fair assessment.