‘Hey Dad,” said my son with the blissful innocence of youth, unaware that I knew this fact already … unaware that I carried the detail around with me almost like a vital-organs donor card, so in the event of my untimely demise it could be used by someone else … unaware that if I’d gouged it into my arm with a school compass the way I’d gouged “Roxy Music” into my desk it couldn’t, (a), have pained me more and, (b), been more indelible. “England got to play all their games at Wembley.”
We were watching a documentary about Bobby Moore & Co’s World Cup triumph. My son is eight but well understands why this would be a tremendous advantage. A year older in 1966, I wasn’t so perceptive. Kids these days are just so much more sussed. I mean, in ’66 I’d never heard my own father swear. And then, right on the final whistle, he did.
I wondered if my boy knew even more than I thought and was egging me on: that by mentioning the Twin Towers block-booking he might provoke a grumble about the third goal not actually being a goal, one more time for his amusement. But then I remembered I’d never told him this. He knew nothing about the controversy – Geoff Hurst, the Russian linesman and Scotland’s deep-fried rage ever since.
Now, you might call that bad parenting. On the other hand, if you want to nominate me for Dad of the Year I’d be delighted. The laddie is half-English so I have to tread lightly around such issues, rather than steam right in, studs showing. But you know what? Even if he was 100 per cent Scots I don’t think I’d be inculcating him in the 50-year-old saga. Even if I was still seething, I don’t think I would do it. Because here’s the thing: I’m not seething any more.
I’ve wallowed in anger and despair about this perceived wrong with the best of them. When I worked at a more excitable Scottish newspaper, which would have liked nothing more than a retrospective judgment declaring the triumph invalid owing to England exceeding the permitted number of times they were allowed to mention the bloody thing, I was forever writing stories about advances in slow-motion or newly discovered cine footage which seemed – seemed was good enough – to confirm that Hurst’s shot didn’t cross the line. I’ve even written a whole book on the fall-out from the incident. But, while I’ve loved getting upset about 1966 and a’ that, it’s time to move on. They think the rumpus about the dubious goal is all over. It is now.
Watching the programme reminded you that it wasn’t the players’ fault. They haven’t gloried in the achievement non-stop; it’s everyone else who’s done that. They came across as they always do: a decent, modest, humble bunch who still seem to be taking it all in. If anything, they’ve got more decent, modest and humble, although this has probably got a lot to do with the contrast offered by the increasingly ludicrous self-absorption of their successors in football.
They’re old men now, so their memories become more poignant and more treasured with every passing anniversary. “Winning the World Cup was one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to this country,” said George Cohen, “but it’s so long ago now.” Moore died in 1993, manager Sir Alf Ramsey in 1999 and Alan Ball the year after the 40th anniversary. In November, Nobby Stiles’ family revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Last month, Gordon Banks spoke of his battle with kidney cancer.
Because the story of ’66 has been over-told there was no big reveal this time although the recollections of former Daily Mail journalist Brian James were a reminder of how, ever so briefly, it was under-told. This was the period just before the tournament began, when hardly anyone was putting out flags. James, however, thought England could win it. His editor warned him that if he committed his views to print he risked making a fool of the paper. If the team failed it seemed his job would have been under threat.
Again, the contrast is positively juddering. It might be an exaggeration to say that some papers insisted that hacks covering England at recent World Cups should change their names by deed poll to honour such fine, upstanding men as John Terry and Ashley Cole as well as having the Three Lions tattooed on their foreheads – but, really, not much of an exaggeration.
The whole affair 50 years ago was incredibly low-key. To unwind between games, Ramsey took his players to Pinewood Studios where they met Sean Connery, ex-Bonnyrigg Rose right-half, who was filming You Only Live Twice. Every night at 10.30 Ramsey would pop his head into the bar at the team hotel: “Gentlemen, time for bed.” On the morning of the final, Bobby Charlton and Ray Wilson went shopping in London’s Golders Green. At the final whistle Stiles danced a daft little jig of joy – but, his son stressed, this was completely unscripted. Jack Charlton left the celebration banquet via a window with a journo mate to hit the East End. Hurst and others headed for Danny La Rue’s nightclub.
Imagine, though, if England had somehow managed in their last few dismal attempts to reclaim the World Cup. Everything about a triumph in the modern age would have been magnified, mythologised and written up on the sacred slabs of Stonehenge. I think we Scots have to be hugely grateful that it was Moore and his men who lifted the trophy and not David Beckham and the Golden Generation.
Yes, all England’s games in ’66 were at Wembley. Yes, we could say to Hurst – you only scored twice. And en route to the final weren’t there three empty-net tap-ins and didn’t the France goalie chuck one into the net? But if there’s a shot which has sailed on a sweeter trajectory than Bobby Charlton’s for his goal against Mexico then I’ve yet to see it. After psychotic Argentina, England defeated Portugal who lost beautifully. The rest is history which my son can read about, if he’s interested.
Of course our friends in the south have banged on about ’66 rather too much. Wouldn’t we if it had been us? We’ve been world champs for taking offence ever since, labelling every mention of the victory as an arrogant boast. And sometimes we’ve hidden behind this sense of being overwhelmed by ’66, to deflect attention from our team’s shortcomings.
Not for the first time, Bill Shankly called it right. When Roger Hunt reported back at Liverpool, he told the player: “Well done, son. Now go and get changed, we’ve more important things to do.”