Well, that didn’t go to plan, did it? Last month I wrote about how England could be cautiously optimistic about their chances at Euro 2016. After an underwhelming group stage which saw them draw against a desperately poor Russia side, win against eventual semi-finalists Wales, and then draw again with a Slovakia side whose squad photo now appears in the Pictorial Dictionary under “cagey”, England found themselves playing Iceland in the next round. Charming, gutsy, tactically bulletproof Iceland, who had already impressed against Hungary, Portugal and Austria, their fans winning friends wherever they went and generally having a blast (unlike the England fans, whose penchant for tear gas and plastic furniture reached a lamentable apex in Marseille).
We all know what happened next. After some astoundingly glib TV build-up courtesy of Mark Pougatch and the rest of the ITV “boys” – who made a big thing about Iceland’s population size, as if that meant they somehow had fewer players on the pitch – England did the thing that comes naturally to them in knockout football, and lost. But not in that wrenching, heart-pounding, this-is-the-best-England-performance-in-a-decade, v. Argentina in 1998, v. Portugal in 2004 kind of a way. No, this was a different, more insipid England. Scratch that, they were terrified: terrified of losing to a “smaller” team, terrified of what might get said about them back home. It turns out they were right to be scared on both counts. Iceland were well-drilled and clinical, and deserved to win; the tabloids have been merciless in their haranguing of just about anyone associated with the squad, the Daily Mail’s bizarre demolition job being among the main offenders. Roy Hodgson held a post-match press conference, resigned, and was then, oddly, ordered to have another press conference in the morning – just so people could insult his methods. In a spooky parallel with, you know, actual life, England were out of Europe, without a leader, and about to enter a period of serious soul-searching. Again.
Hodgson’s England, like so many past incarnations, were – whether consciously or not – playing in the shadow of that World Cup win in 1966. It’s now been 50 years since England won a major tournament, a length of time which actually paints that victory as increasingly anomalous. However, it should never be forgotten just what a remarkable time this was for English football*. Just last week I watched Sir Geoff Hurst being interviewed at Wimbledon, patiently and eloquently answering questions about the match that has come to define his entire life. He was still ready to recall, still eager to relate. His eyes even lit up with some old fire as the interviewer questioned whether his second “goal” had crossed the line – a question he has been answering for half a century. 50 years ago, these men were in their early twenties – a frighteningly young squad in an era that often preferred experience over youth at international level. Most of them were barely five years into their professional careers, immature but made desperate for victory – a quality instilled in them by Alf Ramsey, who, Hurst remembers, gave them discipline “like we never experienced before or since.”
Vision Sports Press’s superb 1966: The 50th Anniversary (£30, 9781909534599) captures, in greater detail than ever before, those young men’s finest hours. There probably isn’t a better time to remind yourself what an England player holding a trophy looks like; it might be a while before we see one again. The class of 1966 does, and should, intimidate the current crop; they have yet to work out how to transform fear into motivation.
*Just one of the legion of amazing statistics from the time: 32.3 million people watched the final on television – 69% of the UK’s population in 1966.
1966: The 50th Anniversary is published 11 July by Vision Sports Publising
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