Goodness me,” says Pat Godbold with a chuckle when I tell her the name of my newspaper, “have I been picked to play football for Scotland?” Godbold is 80 years old, a woman, and sounds as English as they come – but in her life she’s seen the fantastically improbable happen.
She was secretary to Alf Ramsey, who was as English as they come, once responding to the greeting “Welcome to Scotland, Alf” with a thin-lipped “You must be f*****g joking!” Together they worked at Ipswich Town, also as English as they come, nestling deep in the Suffolk countryside, and half a century ago the setting for a miracle – but one achieved with huge help from the Scot they called “Sticks”.
Praise Leicester City if they win the English Premier League today, their feat as unfashionable, off-the-beaten-track champs will be stunning. Don’t, though, let Sky Sports or anyone else tell you it’s “the greatest story ever told” as that would do a disservice to Ipswich and Edinburgh-born Jimmy Leadbetter’s claiming of the title in 1961-62.
And, come the summer, remember Leadbetter again. That is when the anniversary of England’s World Cup triumph will be marked; nothing is more certain than an orgy of reminiscence. Sticks, you see, won the Jules Rimet trophy for them. He was the prototype for Ramsey’s “wingless wonders”.
“What a lovely man Jimmy was,” says Godbold. “On and off the park he was a gentleman. Every morning, immaculate in appearance, he’d address me the same way: ‘Hullo hen.’ His ashes are scattered at Portman Road – along with those of his wife Janet – which tells you what he thought of the club. And the feeling was mutual.”
But Leadbetter didn’t really look like a footballer. In that pre-Beatles age, few gave off a youthful air, but Sticks – balding, crinkly eyes, spindly legs – seemed positively ancient. “Jimmy was very slim with terribly skinny legs,” adds Godbold. “Some people wondered how he got into the team and they used to joke that he was related to Alf. I guess one or two might have wondered if Jimmy was Alf’s dad.”
“When I first met this knock-kneed fella I thought he was my granddad!” laughs the old centre-forward Ray Crawford, beneficiary of Leadbetter’s skulking craftiness. “I never asked his age – I respected him too much. I think it was our fans who first called him Sticks and I know he didn’t like the name. But while Ipswich winning the league was a real team effort, Jimmy pulled the strings. He couldn’t run but he had this lovely drag-back which always left the opposition on their bottoms. And in 1966 at Wembley Alan Ball was Jimmy. If Jimmy hadn’t made such a success of Alf’s system maybe England would never have won the World Cup.”
All football scholars, especially Scottish ones, should know Leadbetter’s tale. I confess to only learning it last year from Dougie Moran, Falkirk’s 1957 Scottish Cup-winning hero and another team-mate at Ipswich. But I looked up old photographs of Leadbetter and thought: “I know this guy.” He drove a delivery van for Edinburgh’s Evening News when I worked on the paper, an unassuming role in retirement for a true revolutionary.
This year – 50 years on from 1966 and all that – was always going to be a good one to investigate the Leadbetter legend, but extra piquancy comes from Leicester’s unlikely title charge. No-one fancied Leicester just as no-one thought Ipswich had a hope in hell. The latter had just been promoted and were embarking on their debut season in the old First Division. Four years before that they’d been in Division Three (South) and 15 previous to that they were non-league. And who was the old fella in the No.11 shirt? Future World Cup-winner Ray Wilson reasoned: “He had to be 60 at least.” Jimmy Greaves thought Leadbetter resembled “the man from the Pru”. Greaves’ Tottenham Hotspur, stylish title-holders, drastically underrated Sticks along with everyone else. Leadbetter was in fact 33 when Ipswich stunned the football world, having earlier made the quantum leap from Armadale Thistle to Chelsea, then moving on to Brighton & Hove Albion. It was a Scot who signed him for Ipswich, Scott Duncan, although he would soon be replaced by Ramsey.
Godbold always called him “Mr Ramsey”. She remembers an intensely private man in complete control of his emotions and expresses astonishment that, as legend has it, he ran round the pitch in a silent lap of honour long after Portman Road had emptied following the title-clinching win. She recalls thinking he was on fire at his roll-top desk, unaware until this moment that he smoked. And she thinks back to how in 1974 he bumped into another of Ipswich’s men, Ted Phillips, on a train returning from London and bought him a drink, but during their jovial conversation didn’t mention that earlier in the day he’d been sacked by the Football Association.
Leadbetter would be the slow-turning cog for all Ramsey’s successes, but early on at Ipswich the manager couldn’t find a place for him. Cash-strapped, Ramsey simply worked with what he had, adapting it. He told Leadbetter, then an inside-forward, to play left wing, nominally at least, and to drift inside and use his crafty passing skills from a playmaker’s position to spring Crawford and Phillips. As Ray Wilson, then of Huddersfield Town, conceded at the time, opposition defences were left well and truly discombobulated.
“Ipswich looked like a team of has-beens and journeymen and then there was Jimmy. But he was magnificent. We had the right-back follow him everywhere and our man would end up in their box, leaving 50 yards of space. They got away with that system for years.”
That wouldn’t happen now, would it? Not with every game filmed from multiple angles. Except that a few months ago Manchester City were castigated for appearing to be mugged by Leicester. Hadn’t the reigning champs being paying attention? Ian Hunneybell, Ipswich’s historian, agrees the fairytales are similar, but is understandably keen to emphasise that his club were first to pull off the seemingly impossible.
“Throughout this season I’ve been struck by the similarities between Leicester and ourselves,” he says. “Both teams are fantastic examples of how the sum is greater than the parts. Could you name everyone in Leicester’s team? Ipswich, in a more innocent age, were even more of a mystery. In both cases the opposition struggled to get the better of their style: containing and containing, then when the ball is won, knocking it up to Jamie Vardy or in our case Ted and Ray.”
This innocent age meant hardly any football shown on television and no fast roads into Suffolk and a railway line which had yet to be electrified, which would have made spying missions arduous, and rivals didn’t think they needed to bother. It wasn’t until the following season that they would work Ipswich out, but by then the Tractor Boys had pulled off an incredible feat. “I’m biased but I’d say that ours was greater than what Leicester might achieve,” adds Hunneybell. “Good luck to them, but those who say their title will be the biggest shock of all time seem to think that football didn’t exist before Sky Sports.”
Hunneybell could reasonably claim that Leicester’s story, a stirring one for sure, lacks the comedy and romance provided by Jimmy Leadbetter: a winger with no pace, who ignored shouts of “Pensioner!” from opposition fans to make their favourites look the disorientated ones in need of a lie down, and to elicit this tribute from Ramsey: “Yes, he was Scottish, but I owed him so much.”
Leadbetter, who died ten years ago aged 78, felt at home in Ipswich – just like in Edinburgh, the best-known thoroughfare is Princes Street. Pat Godbold remembers him leading his team-mates on their bicycles to Fred’s Cafe, their regular spot after training for tea and wod, the local cake. Success brought cars and Ray Crawford, now 79, who would go on to be the hero of Colchester United’s 1971 giant-killing defeat of Leeds United in the FA Cup, laughs at the memory of his old pal who was the last to learn how to drive. “One day he rounded us all up, saying he needed a push. There were all these blankets tangled up in the engine. Jimmy had forgotten he’d put them there to keep out the cold and had started the car.”
Just like the motor that day, Leadbetter wasn’t a great mover – but who says he wasn’t the real hero of ’66?