Sir Alf Ramsey

Football's Pioneers: Sir Alf Ramsey

Professor Matt Taylor continues our series, in partnership with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture, by looking at the playing career of England’s World Cup winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey.
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Most people know Ramsey as the manager of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side. But he also enjoyed an accomplished career as a full-back for Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and England in the decade after the Second World War.

Born in Dagenham, Essex, in 1920, Ramsey initially had no great ambitions to be a professional sportsman. After school, he worked as an apprentice at a local Co-Op store. He played local football for Five Elms and briefly signed amateur forms with Portsmouth during the 1937/38 season.

But it was not until the war that he moved into a higher standard of football, playing for his battalion team and, from 1943, turning out for Southampton, close to where he was based. After the conflict, Ramsey signed professional forms with Southampton, then a Second Division side.

He played as centre-back and centre-forward before settling into a position as the Saints’ regular right-back. He soon emerged as a calm and assured presence in the defence. England team-mate Billy Wright described him as ‘cool as ice-cream soda’.

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Sir Alf Ramsey
Sir Alf Ramsey

Alf Ramsey built his reputation at Southampton, mainly in defensive positions.

He added: "Nothing could disturb this footballer with the perfect balance and poise, no situation, however desperate, could force him into abandoning his immaculate style."

His passing was ‘radar-like’, his tackling strong and he read the game well. He lacked speed and was slow on the turn but his ‘razor-sharp brain’ frequently got him out of trouble.       

Ramsey played 90 games for Southampton, but in early 1949, he injured his left knee, lost his first team place and was transferred to Second Division rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Ramsey flourished at White Hart Lane.

He became a key component in manager Arthur Rowe’s revolutionary ‘push and run’ style based on quick passing movements, and forged important partnerships with wing-half Bill Nicholson and goalkeeper Ted Ditchburn.  

Spurs stormed to the Second Division title in 1949/50 and then topped the First Division for the first time the following season. Ramsey played a pivotal role, his authority on the pitch and interest in the tactics and ‘science’ of football leading team-mates to nickname him ‘The General’.

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Sir Alf Ramsey
Sir Alf Ramsey

Without doubt, Alf Ramsey is best remembered for his heroic management of England, winning the World Cup in 1966.

His appropriately titled 1952 autobiography Talking Football outlined the various tactical plans, methods and theories that Ramsey and his Spurs team-mates helped to develop alongside Rowe. Between 1949 and 1953, Ramsey was also a mainstay of the England team.

He won 32 caps in total, scored three goals (all penalties) and captained his country, in the absence of regular skipper Wright, on three occasions.

Yet Ramsey also played in two of England’s most humiliating defeats. He was part of the 1950 World Cup team that lost 1-0 to the United States in Belo Horizonte. He was also one of the England defenders torn apart by Hungary at Wembley in November 1953, although Ramsey always claimed that, with a different goalkeeper, the score might have been closer.

By this time, however, Ramsey was 33 and nearing retirement. He was never selected again for England. Yet 10 years later, he was given the chance to mend England’s damaged football reputation – this time as manager.

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