There was only one Alf Ramsey

R.W. Johnson · Wenger for England manager

England's ignominious exit from the World Cup has launched the usual storm, including here on this blog. Perhaps the most surprising suggestion so far is that Maradona is a good manager and that England could do with the likes of him. The Sun, inevitably, demands that the next manager be English. Given England's pivotal position in the game, it's worth pondering. One statistic unearthed by the debacle is that fewer than 3000 Englishmen have qualified for the top UEFA coaching certificate, a fraction of the number in most rival countries, and already an indicator that the FA may need to look abroad.

The two key attributes an England manager needs are that he is a proven winner and that he is able to make bricks out of straw. Too often the FA has given the post to men who have never managed to steer a club to the League championship, men used to coming second or lower. Having the ambition, drive and confidence that winning requires is a different kettle of fish. Second, England are unlikely ever to have the most talented team, so a successful manager will have to rely on superior fitness, discipline, organisation and tactics; that is to say, on getting the very best out of what he's got.

The key exemplar was, of course, Alf Ramsey. At Ipswich Town he was never likely to have the top players but he guided them first to promotion from the Third Division (South), then from the Second Division and in 1961-62, when Ipswich were universally marked down as relegation fodder, he won the League Championship at the first attempt. Moreover, he did this with a largely unchanged team – the key pairing of Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips did just as well in the First Division as they had in the Third. So a proven winner and a man who got the maximum out of slender resources. He was also quiet but a strong disciplinarian. He didn't shout or throw boots about but when several senior members of the England team, including Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, missed a team talk they immediately found their passports placed on their beds. The message, even to the star striker and the captain, was that if you don't behave, you go home. And finally, Ramsey was a forward thinking tactician, a pioneer of running off the ball and a man willing to drop even Jimmy Greaves because the unsung Martin Peters fitted his tactical plan better.

Ramsey won the World Cup in 1966 but the full measure of his achievement came in 1970 when he built an even stronger team, keeping six of the 1966 squad but bringing in Francis Lee, Colin Bell, Brian Labone, Alan Mullery, Terry Cooper, Allan Clarke and Peter Osgood. In the group stage England narrowly lost 1-0 to Brazil, the best team the world has ever seen. In the quarter final England led 2-0 with only 20 minutes to go and only a freak goal-keeping error from Bonetti allowed the Germans back into the game. As it was Germany came third and lost only 4-3 to the losing finalists, Italy. That is, although no one could have hoped to stop Brazil in 1970, but for Bonetti's error England might again have made the final – away from home. No wonder the surviving members of those England squads unanimously regard Ramsey as the best they ever saw.

It's true that Ramsey's quiet but passionate Englishness allowed him to connect with his team at a deep, personal level so that they were willing to run their guts out for him. But, looking around, no English manager today has all these virtues. The nearest approximation would be Arsène Wenger, a proven winner but a man who never has the resources of Chelsea or Man U to play with. He too is a magnificent spotter of talent, a disciplinarian, a fine tactician and a man who earns the players' respect. Note that Rafa Benitez, undoubtedly a fine manager, facing a similar lack of resources at Liverpool, tried his best and failed but Wenger's Arsenal stayed in contention for the Premiership title to the very end. You can't expect World Cup-winners to come along more than once in a generation but Wenger is our best bet.


  • 29 June 2010 at 3:10pm
    Locus says:
    An intriguing suggestion: a graceful exit from a glorious but stagnating reign at Highbury, a chance to become a truly national figure in the adopted country. But he'd be a deeply unpopular choice with fans of other clubs, and in any case he'd be out of his mind to pick up that poison chalice. No chance.

    Two plausible candidates in the mould outlined: Hodgson and Hiddink. Neither available. Tant pis.

  • 29 June 2010 at 4:43pm
    davdevalle says:
    Peters played in the second and third games with Greaves. Hurst started in quarter final. If it was squad numbers, Hurst at 10 didn't play in first three games. But Hunt 21 did play all games. At the time Hunt and Greaves were seen as rivals for role. Although they both played in first game. Greaves should have played he would have kicked that ball over the line in the third goal and history would have been different! Bild would not have to welcome the 'curse of generations lifted' by Lampard's disallowed goal!

    • 30 June 2010 at 8:05am
      davdevalle says: @ davdevalle
      ps Greaves was injured in game against France so he was not dropped.

  • 29 June 2010 at 6:05pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Which puts him right out of the running. What about Klinsmann?

    • 29 June 2010 at 7:36pm
      Locus says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Klinsmann would be a disaster. He is associated with the relatively successful German campaign of 2006, but there is a strong argument for thinking that Loew was the real brains of that operation. A well known fly-on-the-wall documentary from that summer showed how German team meetings worked: a lot of waffly Klinsmann pseudo-motivational nonsense, then Loew taking over at the whiteboard or video wall, getting down to tactical detail. Then JK went and failed utterly at Bayern; leave him in pundit land where he belongs.

      Maybe the FA should step in and poach Loew - he still is in dispute with the German FA regarding his contract...

    • 29 June 2010 at 7:59pm
      pinhut says: @ Locus
      Like the clamour to grab Bilic after a defeat to Croatia? Or the Tories, constantly changing their leader, etc, while in opposition.

      This fixation on 'the boss', who arrives and waves a magic wandwell, it's a part of the problem afflicting the national side. It provides both a ready means for addressing failure (new broom, please) while masking the need for painful fundamental change. This is why the FA loves negotiating these mega salaries, it's still less expensive than addressing the problem, and it also defers them from ever accepting any responsibility for continued failure.

      The bottom line is the players. They are the problem. They are not very good footballers.

      To compete against the best, Argentina, Spain, Brasil, it is fairly obvious that it requires players with a similar amount of technique, creativity, positional sense, discipline and skill.

    • 29 June 2010 at 9:44pm
      Locus says: @ pinhut
      I don't think the Tories ever thought of grabbing Blair... Looks like they brought in Clegg in some kind of ill-defined director of football role though.

    • 30 June 2010 at 12:09am
      pinhut says: @ Locus
      "I don’t think the Tories ever thought of grabbing Blair…"

      Considering that Blair continually referred to himself as Thatcher's heir, that's not the best example you could have chosen.

  • 29 June 2010 at 6:21pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    An intriguing suggestion indeed. My reservations would be that although Wenger is undoubtedly a great spotter of talent it is perhaps worth thinking about the men who have nurtured and produced the talent he spots in the first place. England's problem at this World Cup (and many of their last tournament campaigns) is that the players aren't technically good enough to beat the best teams in the world. If this tournament has shown nothing else it's that no matter if you are ranked 6th or 106th all the teams are organised, efficient, physically fit and have decent enough defences. The difference is that Spain, Brazil, Netherlands and Germany etc have the ability to unlock these defences through measured passing, quick counter attacking and good technical skill. This suggests to me that it is the people who teach the young generation of players abroad that England should seek out before deciding on a new manager - otherwise we will continue to come unstuck as we have done before. I don't believe an overhaul of football in this country is needed, just a recognition of where we want to be in 15 years time followed by finding the right people to teach our future players not only how to develop their technical ability, but also how to enjoy playing the game again. Seeing England lose is always a disappointment, seeing them play without enjoyment is perhaps worse.

  • 3 July 2010 at 1:16am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    What was it you called him, Bill? A fat, foul-mouthed former drug addict? Something like that. You ought not to be so prejudiced; he sounds pretty good here. From the Guardian:
    On the pitch at the University of Pretoria's High Performance Centre this week a couple of hundred journalists watched Maradona leading his players through a high-spirited practice match, 11-a-side on a half-sized pitch, with the head coach not only refereeing but delivering a constant running commentary. He spotted the ball for Messi when a penalty was awarded, and after Carlos Tevez missed one at the other end the Manchester City striker was forced to join the coaches in the goalmouth for the daily ritual in which the squad are invited to unleash a simultaneous volley of shots at them from the edge of the area, hitting the ball as hard as they like. Maradona himself took a particularly ferocious strike from Mascherano on the back of the head, without evident damage to the relationship between head coach and captain. On this particular evening, however, Maradona denied himself the large Havana cigar which he sometimes lights up as he leaves the training ground.

    What the reporters were not allowed to see was the real work going on, including the meticulous preparation of the set-piece routines that delivered the team's first three goals of the tournament. A group of assistants including Héctor Enrique, who likes to remind people that it was he who passed Maradona the ball to start the run for that second goal against England 24 years ago, are earning their money while the head coach astutely absorbs the attention and deflects the pressure.

    The contrast with other coaches at this World Cup is almost hilariously vivid.

Read more