What has followed since has been a lesson in measured decline, but for one brief period fifty years ago, England were the undisputed kings of football.
It could be argued that the two are related, the downfall of English football correlating with the pervasive fear that they could not possibly match up to the heroes of 1966. The fact that the Three Lions have been nowhere near replicating that feat leads to a certain level of frustration as the year of that success moves further into the past.
However, that is a theory for another day. The discussion on the cause and effect of England’s decline should probably not come on the anniversary of their greatest ever success.
— Sky Sports News HQ (@SkySportsNewsHQ) July 30, 2016
At Wembley Stadium on July 30th 1966, England met West Germany to decide the eighth World Cup final. The hosts’ record at the competition had been a mark of underachievement – two quarter final appearances had been the highlight since their first entry in 1950.
Their opponents, meanwhile, had a much better record in the competition. Champions eight years previously, they were among the strongest teams in Europe at the time. And in an era where South American teams tended not to travel well (save for Brazil’s triumph in Sweden in 1958), that arguably made them favourites to win their second World Cup.
The Road to Wembley
England’s road to the final was built on tactics and organisation. In many ways it was reminiscent of the way Portugal reached the final of this year’s European Championships, insofar as defensive resilience was key.
However, the World Cup campaign did not start on the best note. By drawing 0-0 with Uruguay in their opening match, England had failed to score in a match for the first time in over twenty years. They won their next four matches on the way to the final, but the manager’s rotation never really allowed for a settled team.
Upon replacing Walter Winterbottom in the job three years earlier, Ramsey had promised that England would win the World Cup on home soil. It was a lofty claim, and one that was met with raised eyebrows in the media, but he was always a manager supremely confident in his own abilities. The peak of this came when FIFA demanded that he drop Nobby Stiles in the wake of a horror tackle in the final group stage match against France – his response was to threaten his resignation if the governing body did not back down.
Mexico, France, Portugal and Argentina were all vanquished on England’s road to the final.
West Germany’s route to the final exemplified just how strong they were. They put five past Switzerland, four past Uruguay and beat reigning European champions Spain on the way to a final that they fully expected to win.
England were not the biggest story in the early rounds of the World Cup, however – far from it in fact. Brazil, champions in the two previous tournaments, were eliminated in the group stage in what was their worst performance in any World Cup to date. Meanwhile, North Korea shocked the world by reaching the quarter final, and but for a massive capitulation against a Eusébio-inspired Portugal when 3-0 up, it could have been an even bigger fairytale for the side.
More than 96,000 people packed into Wembley to watch England contest their first ever World Cup final. Home advantage, plus the evident tactical maneuverability of Ramsey, had meant that the pendulum had swung in the hosts’ favour, but West Germany were still to be underestimated at England’s peril.
One of the major talking points ahead of the final was Ramsey’s decision not to recall Jimmy Greaves. The Tottenham forward had sustained an injury against France that had ruled him out of the earlier knockout ties, but when he was passed fit for the West Germany tie the general assumption was that he would play.
However, Ramsey was suitably impressed by Geoff Hurst, who only had a handful of caps at the time, to lead the line in England’s attack next to Liverpool’s Roger Hunt, with Bobby Charlton operating behind them in midfield.
For all of Ramsey’s confidence, his game plan was rocked after just eleven minutes. Bologna playmaker Helmut Haller put West Germany 1-0 ahead following a poor headed clearance from left-back Ray Wilson.
However, the hosts regained composure and levelled proceedings less than ten minutes later. Hurst justified the faith placed in him by Ramsey by equalising after a Bobby Moore free kick found him unmarked in the penalty area – absolutely horrific defending from a West German point of view.
What followed was a tense hour or so as both sides pressed for another goal. Moore was authoritative, Alan Ball was the engine, Charlton the magicican, but the West German rearguard was holding strong.
That all changed in the 78th minute when Martin Peters put the home side in front. Hurst struck a shot from outside the area which was blocked by a West German defender – fortunately it fell kindly for Peters to drive the rebound past goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski to send Wembley into raptures.
Unfortunately for England, this match was far from over. The West Germans threw everything they had at England in search of an equaliser, and finally got their reward with just one minute remaining. A shot from Sigfired Held across the box struck Karl-Heinz Schnellinger before England keeper Gordon Banks could claim it, allowing centre back Wolfgang Weber to slot home and send the tie into extra time.
Banks could be seen claiming that the ball struck Held’s arm – an opinion he still holds to this day – but the goal was given.
England’s players were (understandably) dejected, but Ramsey refused to allow them to wallow in grief.
In his autobiography, Hurst recalls what Ramsey said to the players, pointing to the West Germans the entire time:
“Look at them, they’re finished. They’re flat out on their backs.
“You’ve won it once. Now you’ll have to go out there and bloody win it again.”
England had the better of the opening few minutes of the first half as they looked to bounce back from that massive setback.
Then, on 101 minutes, came one of the most controversial moments in football history.
Collecting a cross from Ball in the West German penalty area, Hurst turned and shot only to see his effort bounce down off the crossbar, onto the goal line, and out. It was at that point that Azerbaijani linesman Tomiq Bahramov made himself an English hero by claiming that the ball had in fact crossed the line before bouncing out.
While referee Gottfried Dienst could not be certain, he trusted his assistant and England had regained the lead. Debate has raged ever since as to whether or not the ball did in fact cross the line, and there will probably never be a definitive answer that satisfies everyone.
This time, there was to be no West German comeback. As they surged forward for another equaliser late into extra time, England were able to pick them off on the counter attack.
From inside his own half, Moore launched a long ball to Hurst. With the German defence largely absent, he was able to strike past Tilkowski, completing his hat-trick and England’s victory. Some fans had begun a pitch invasion early as Hurst was scoring, leading to the famous line from commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme:
“Here comes Hurst. He’s got… some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over! It is now! It’s four!”
And that was it. England had just recorded the most famous victory in their history.
The cultural impact that the win had on England was massive. For better or worse, it has become the barometer of every England side since.
“Thirty years of hurt” sang the Lightning Seeds and Baddiel & Skinner in their hit song “Three Lions” before Euro 96 (which was also held in England). The point being, that every year since that immortal afternoon at Wembley is still being counted, and continues to do so two decades after that even.
While the current side do not look like emulating the boys of ’66 any time soon, that July day will still go down in history.
50th anniversary tomorrow. Where did that time go!! Celebrating @ Wembley with family & friends & ex team Mayes. See some of you there #1966
— Sir Geoff Hurst (@TheGeoffHurst) July 29, 2016
It’s fifty years today since I helped @England win the World Cup, but it seems like just yesterday. Thank you to my friends and supporters.
— Sir Bobby Charlton (@SirBobby) July 30, 2016
England: (4-1-3-2) Gordon Banks, George Cohen, Jack Charlton, Bobby Moore, Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Martin Peters, Geoff Hurst, Roger Hunt
Manager: Alf Ramsey
West Germany: (4-2-4): Hans Tilkowski, Horst-Dieter Höttges, Willi Shulz, Wolfgang Weber, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Franz Beckenbauer, Wolfgang Overath, Helmut Haller, Uwe Seeler, Sigfried Held, Lothar Emmerich
Manager: Helmut Schön
Read More About: 1966 World Cup, alan ball, alf ramsey, Bobby Charlton, England, england 1966, geoff hurst, jack charlton. nobby stiles, jimmy greaves, kenneth wolstenholme, martin peters, nobby stiles, peter shilton, Top Story, west germany