“The best British football manager ever” – Alf Ramsey

Photograph copyright David Kindred www.kindredspirit.comAlf Ramsey celebrating winning the Championship in 1962. Photograph copyright David Kindred kindred-spirit.co.uk

The World Cup finals are always accompanied by a glut of retrospectives, and it seems inevitable that there will be references to the only man who ever guided England to win that trophy, Sir Alf Ramsey. Unfortunately it’s equally certain that those references will for the most part be clichéd and predictable: Ramsey’s accent, the elocution lessons, his reputation as a private, uncommunicative man with little sense of fun and no ability to relate to others. Worse still, though, it appears that many writers consider his achievements on the football field to be insignificant or that they’ve been overrated in some way. Somehow, it seems, golden boy Bobby Moore won the World Cup all by himself or England won the World Cup despite Alf Ramsey rather than because of him. His achievements in club football  are often overlooked too but I suspect that, for many reasons, he will forever remain the only manager of Ipswich Town ever to achieve the highest award in English football.

Sadly the first two mentions of Sir Alf that I’ve seen in the run-up to Brazil 2014, both by writers I admire very much – Barney Ronay of The Guardian and the incomparable Danny Baker, in Brushing Up on the World Cup, a comedy clips show – resorted to this lazy stereotype. Ronay even failed to mention that Ramsey had won the trophy in 1966, as if it’s some minor detail, while praising Alf’s predecessor as England manager, Walter Winterbottom, who – not to put too fine a point on it – won, appropriately enough, sweet FA.

Researching for a chapter on Sir Alf Ramsey for my book about the history of Ipswich Town FC, I read everything that I could find about the man and also spoke to a number of people who had met or knew him: someone who as a small boy knocked on the door of Alf’s house in Ipswich to ask for his autograph, the woman who was his secretary for his entire time at Ipswich Town, ex-footballers who played for him. Every one spoke of his kindness, courtesy and love of the game.

The contrast between the Alf that they spoke of and the cold, detached and rather unknowable figure depicted in the books and newspaper articles that were written during his lifetime is remarkable. Yet frequently, as well as invariably talking about Ramsey’s shyness, his detachment, the regret that they could never quite get to know him, people also spoke warmly of the respect and love they felt for him – and in several cases they actually used the word love. These were (mostly) men of my father’s generation, men who would rarely, if ever, speak openly about their feelings especially towards other men. One example – and it’s quite typical – is Alan Ball, who was in Ramsey’s England squad for many years, and said: “I loved him to death. He was very, very special in my life.”

Most biographies and articles about Ramsey, however, portray a quite different individual. One in particular, by Max Marquis, is a clear and obvious attempt to destroy the man’s reputation and it was published while Ramsey was still alive. I enjoy a good hatchet job as much as the next woman (see Taylor Parkes on Tim Lovejoy in When Saturday Comes for one of the best) but Marquis seemed to have an agenda to bring Ramsey down. Perhaps it’s just that thing foreigners notice about the British, that we have a need to destroy anyone who is successful, to point out that they have feet of clay. Perhaps it was more personal than that. Whatever, his motivation, it makes painful reading.

Alf Ramsey was born in Dagenham, then a small village, in 1920. When interviewed he said that his family “were not exactly wealthy.” This was a characteristic understatement on Ramsey’s part, and like his much-quoted reply to a question about where his parents lived (“I believe they live in Dagenham.”) is often used as evidence of an almost eccentric desire to hide his origins. I don’t believe that this was an attempt on his part to cover up the poverty of his background or some kind of snobbish dismissal of his folks by a self-made man. Ramsey was a diffident person who disliked speaking to the press, and some of the things that he said may simply have resulted from a desire to protect his family from unwanted intrusion.

There may be more to it, however. Ramsey’s grandparents came from Suffolk and Essex and were agricultural labourers. His father had a smallholding and sold straw and hay. Like many farmworkers, they moved around quite frequently. People had to go where the work was. This may be the reason that as a young man, including when he was a professional footballer, Alf had been given the nickname of Darkie, which apparently referred to the fact that many people thought that he was from a Romani (or gypsy) family. There is no evidence that the Ramseys, or his mother’s family, the Bixbys, were Romani, but nevertheless this may have caused him to be a little more reticent about his background than he might have been. Let’s not pretend that attitudes towards travellers were particularly liberal in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is another reason, however, why Alf Ramsey may have wanted to be a little bit discreet about his family background. He had three brothers, Len, Cyril and Albert. Alf learned to play football with his brothers as a schoolboy in Dagenham. Albert, was a little older than Alf, according to the Leo McKinstry in his biography, was usually known by his nickname “Bruno,” and was a heavy drinker and gambler, who kept greyhounds. “Bruno’s disreputable life would cause Alf some embarrassment,” according to McKinstry.

There’s a further possible reason for Alf’s growing detachment, and this is speculation on my part, but like many professional footballers in the days when they played with those leaden old footballs, he would eventually suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. His mother, Florence had the same illness. Although Alf was only formally diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s, who knows what effect it might have had upon his personality and behaviour?

How the Alf Ramsey of the media stereotype managed to get along with the notoriously bibulous Cobbold family when he went to manage Ipswich Town at Portman Road is uncertain. He was never an unsociable man during his time in football though, and was often photographed at parties. One of Alf’s former players at Ipswich told me that Ramsey always wanted his players to have fun, even though he didn’t want to join them himself. He felt that encouraging his players to go out and have a good time was an important part of building team spirit. Latterly, Ramsey has been criticised for coming down hard on his England players for over-indulging, but it has since transpired that some of them had serious problems with alcohol. It would have been odd if he had turned a blind eye to that as the manager of a national football team.

What’s clear is that Ramsey always wished to ensure that his players were protected from the attentions of the media but also given all the credit for any success that they might have. When Ipswich Town won the Championship in 1962, the football correspondent of The Times wrote: “The players, called from their humble dressing room, did a lap of honour almost embarrassed by all the attention; and an incessant chant rose for the man who had quietly planned this remarkable feat in the background.”

One of Ramsey’s best players at Ipswich Town, Jimmy Leadbetter, said: “He did not want any praise. When people congratulated him, he gave all the credit to the players.”

A story that has often been told but is still endearing is that when all the celebrations of that great Championship victory for Ipswich were over and everyone had gone home, Alf’s chairman John Cobbold found him sitting alone in a completely deserted, dark Portman Road, staring out over the pitch. Without a word, Ramsey handed Cobbold his jacket, walked down onto the pitch and ran a silent lap of honour, alone.

When researching my book almost all the photographs that I could find of Alf showed him smiling. He seems to have been particularly happy when coaching, or with his players. He mistrusted the media and this may not have helped him, particularly after he fell foul of the Football Association and the ridiculous Harold Thompson who appeared to have had a vendetta against him following an incident when Ramsey – once again trying to protect his players – asked him not to smoke a cigar in front of the England team.

To this day, the media continue to use a stereotypical – and I think innacurate – portrayal of Alf Ramsey and that makes it difficult for many people to see beyond the suit and the clipped, artificial accent. He should be judged as a man of his time, the era of National Service, of post-war austerity, of overt and often cruel class distinction. It’s unhelpful to impose the attitudes of our own time. A quiet man from a working-class background, in a society where there was a great deal of snobbery and deference, might be forgiven for taking elocution lessons, or for being a little bit reticent about his origins. The men in blazers at the FA were very powerful people and, indeed, they never quite accepted Alf Ramsey – partly because of his background but also because he did something that someone from his class was not supposed to do. He stood up to them.

In the end, Thompson had his revenge. Ramsey was treated so shabbily by the Football Association that when he died there was no FA representation at his private funeral at St. Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich. According to The Guardian, his widow had “in effect told the Football Association… to go jump in the Thames.” It did not add that Lady Vicki’s  instruction – had it actually been uttered – would have been accompanied by the loud cheers of every Ipswich Town fan in the country. Typically, the BBC – part of the same Establishment as those officials at Lancaster Gate – reported this as Sir Alf’s “last snub” to the FA.

The prevailing view in the 21st century appears to be that Ramsey’s achievements were not so remarkable, that perhaps after all he was only building on the work of his predecessors at Ipswich (Scott Duncan) and England (Walter Winterbottom) but as any Ipswich Town fan will tell any Norwich City supporter: it’s what’s in the trophy cabinet that counts in the end. Bobby Robson who also achieved great things for both Ipswich Town and England, declared that Sir Alf Ramsey was the “greatest British football manager ever.” Who are we to demur?

 

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