Top critical review
One person found this helpful
Illuminating but subjective
on 7 September 2012
My earliest football memory is of watching England and Uruguay on TV in the first game of the 1966 World Cup. It was also the dullest of the tournament. I was six years old and watched all of England's games; it's been all downhill since then. Probably because it was my first football experience, I have read and watched more about the World Cup in general than any other aspect of the sport.
Much of what is in this book therefore I already knew, but there is nevertheless a lot more that I didn't know, in particular details about England's development from when Alf Ramsey took over until the tournament itself. This, I feel, is the book's biggest asset. Unfortunately, the author's coverage of the 1966 World Cup and its aftermath left a sour taste. For some reason he has bought into the increasingly fashionable view that the England team's victory was, in the first place, handed to them on a plate and, in the second place, irreversibly detrimental to the game thereafter. His evidence for this, however, is extremely selective.
I agree that Ramsey's teams were often dull, but the notion that they somehow brought to an end football's 'Age of Innocence' is ludicrous. The 1962 World Cup in Chile was worse than the one that followed: little in the way of free-flowing football and the notorious Chile v Italy game, for instance. Moreover, the Italians had perfected the art of the one-nil long before 1966 with their lamentable catenaccio system.
There is also the demonisation of Nobby Stiles who was indeed a hatchet man. Why, however, pick on one man when there were so many? The Portuguese are feted here despite finishing off the job on Pele that the Bulgarians had started. Then there are the hard-done to South Americans. They had to put up with British referees who gave them no protection against North European cloggers. No footballer, however, is more streetwise than the average South American. It is clear from accounts of the 1930 tournament that as far back as that competition, more protection was needed in another direction and the two Uruguayans and sole Argentine who were sent off in 1966 only had themselves to blame. The Brazilians alone had cause for complaint.
Tellingly, the author chooses Denis Law's opinion to sum up football's 'blackest day'. Law, great player though he was, was always Scotland's most vociferous England-hater. Not all Scots have a chip on their shoulder about England, but he makes up for it. The 'blackest day' of his life can be explained by nothing simpler than that England won a World Cup. He is right that it had a detrimental effect on the domestic game, but globally it had no impact. The worst elements of modern football were already manifest and this conclusion fails to explain, for example, the glorious football of the 1970 Brazil side or the emergence of Holland's 'total football' shortly after.
Perhaps predictably, much is made of Geoff Hurst's second goal in the final. We all know it shouldn't have been awarded. Germans everywhere apparently couldn't wait for their revenge. Hutchinson, like most commentators, however, conveniently glosses over the late German equaliser that took the game into extra time, commenting only that it came from a free kick given for a robust challenge by Jack Charlton on Uwe Seeler. It was as clear then as it is now that Charlton jumped up for the ball with his hands at his sides while Seeler backed into him. Hutchinson would do well to read Uli Hesse's 'Tor!', a wonderful book about German football by a German for the English reader. He comments that the German players candidly remarked that England deserved the win and made little of England's luck.
To be pedantic, I can point out one howler, Helmut Haller being labelled 'Horst Haller', but pedantic it is. What irks me more is that in criticising Ramsey's approach, Hutchinson misses the most glaring truth about English, indeed British football, which is that what Ramsey did was find a way around our failure to produce players with an adequate level of flair and technique, a problem as acute now as it was then. Ramsey, seen in that context, therefore achieved a great deal more than he is given credit for.