Two England managers born half a century apart, the thread that connects the late Sir Alf Ramsey and Gareth Southgate through the generations is fine indeed but come Sunday night the latter may join his predecessor in that most exclusive group of managerial trophy winners with the national team.
Ramsey, the architect of England’s great – and still solitary – triumph in 1966, was shaped by the simplicity of life in rural Essex before the urbanisation of his native Dagenham and then his military service over the war years – most of which involved playing football.
He seldom smiled. He had no interest in conversation beyond the game, and when the cameras recorded English football’s greatest moment on that summer day at Wembley, its key figure seemed unable to express emotion of any kind.
Southgate, born 50 years and seven months after Ramsey, raised in Crawley, one of many new towns built after the war, came of age amid the physicality and the alpha males of the 1980s English game. A mentality that had not changed much since Ramsey’s days.
In contrast, the current England manager is a fierce competitor who is also comfortable in his own skin and has rejected the conformity football often demands. His great talent has been to use that honesty and openness to cut through the tangle of problems, phobias and bad practice that has tripped up so many England teams chasing the sequel to Ramsey’s golden summer.
Southgate, a man of considerable empathy, understands English footballers partly because he has played such a key role in shaping the generation of players whom he now leads. Ramsey struck a much more authoritarian tone.
But his England were less hierarchical than the times might suggest. His was a constant battle for authority over the likes of Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves, and the lost talent of Johnny Byrne. These were some of Ramsey’s stars, and his malcontents too – with their cutting retorts and illicit drinking.
Both Ramsey and Southgate have managed according to the times in which they lived. But there are similarities between the pair. Neither accepted the Football Association as they found it but strived to reshape it. In Ramsey’s time, the FA was a conceited, outdated old boys’ club in the process of being left behind by the world game.
Bobby Moore and his England team-mates celebrate winning the 1966 World Cup
Having also experienced the FA as a player, Southgate joined it in 2011 to discover an organisation broken in different ways. It had dwindling influence within the English game, falling numbers of English players in the Premier League, and an element on the FA board that kept rejecting the proposal to build the national centre, St George’s Park.
Southgate helped solve the paucity of English talent, playing a key role in remodelling development programmes through the Premier League and FA.
Ramsey attacked the international selection committee that picked the team for his predecessor, Walter Winterbottom, who finished 17 years in the job overruled and undermined. Ramsey insisted that he alone select the team and resisted all attempts to interfere, most notably when told to drop Nobby Stiles at the 1966 finals.
Neither man was the FA’s first choice for the job. Neither accepted the FA’s calling immediately when it came. The FA’s first pick in 1962 had been the former Burnley star Jimmy Adamson. Ramsey, a league title winner that year with Ipswich Town, whom he had brought up from the Third Division, took a week to make up his mind when offered the job. He would complete the next season with Ipswich before taking up the role.
Southgate initially left the FA in 2012 after 18 months, turning down the technical director job. When he came back to take over the under-21s he first ruled himself out as a successor to Roy Hodgson.
Both men grasped in their own way, and in their own era, that to have any chance with England, one must first try to make the FA an organisation which will permit its managers to flourish.
Both managers have been fortunate to inherit a great generation of talent, and could afford to be ruthless. Ramsey disposed of the England captain of the era, Johnny Haynes, who would have been just 32 in the summer of 1966. Ramsey could see that he had never recovered from injuries in a serious car accident in the summer of 1962. Southgate dropped Wayne Rooney, the team’s captain, in his second game in charge.
Ramsey always had to fight the rebellious streaks in Moore and Greaves, two of his most celebrated names, and their drinking habits that would draw them out of team hotels in search of licensed premises. It was a battle Ramsey had to fight constantly – leaving Moore out before the 1966 finals and deciding against restoring Greaves to the World Cup team when Geoff Hurst hit form against Argentina.
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Southgate has moved players on with little fuss and there have been suggestions that others who have taken longer to establish themselves have been passing a private character test. Confrontation has been at a minimum.
Ramsey certainly had a sense of humour. The hard morning sessions at their Lilleshall base in the 1966 pre-tournament camp were followed in the afternoons by the team playing a range of other sports including basketball, which has been a feature of the 2021 squad’s time at St George’s Park. Ramsey would referee the basketball games – the running joke being that he had no idea what the rules were.
Ramsey was fierce with his players, but he loved them too. In their respect for the non-playing members of their squad, Southgate and Ramsey are identical.
Southgate has fostered a fantastic spirit among the England squad
Tactically, there are echoes of Ramsey in Southgate’s switch to the 3-4-3 system ahead of the 2018 World Cup finals and then the bravery to keep making changes. At this Euros he switched systems for the Germany last-16 tie, returning to three at the back. He has now changed the team every time for the past 36 games.
Ramsey belonged in an era before substitutes when squads were smaller. Yet his abandonment in early 1965 of the conventional 4-2-4 of the era in favour of 4-3-3 – “the wingless wonders” – was groundbreaking. It played to England’s strengths.
One suspects that Southgate will be much more capable of finding a place in the game after England – something that Ramsey was denied. He was a difficult man to define. So in thrall to the rigid English class system that he once bought a bowler hat for a visit by the Queen to Ipswich.
His attempt to speak with what he saw as a more educated accent than the one bequeathed him by his Essex childhood was legendary, and fatally undermined by his struggles with certain words – in particular the names of foreign players.
Southgate would doubtless have encouraged a man such as Ramsey to talk openly about his past – about his fears and his regrets. And Ramsey would have declined, politely at first and then more forcefully. In the end, at the age of 54 and having failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup finals, Ramsey was spat out by the FA – still then a notably pompous organisation which had never truly accepted the boy from Dagenham.
He had spent much of his time between games in a tiny office at the FA, filling lonely days with research and phone calls. When Southgate finally leaves the FA he will drive out of St George’s Park knowing he has left behind him a legacy across junior and senior teams, for coaches and players, that will endure for many years to come.
His privilege has been to have lived in an era when the FA was a great deal more malleable – a process begun by Ramsey who insisted in 1962 on the basic right for a manager to select his team. For now at least, in these last few hours before today’s kick-off, Ramsey is still the only man to have won with England, and he will always be the first.