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Ramsey, Sir Alfred Ernest [Alf]free

(1920–1999)
  • Tony Mason

Sir Alfred Ernest Ramsey (1920–1999)

by unknown photographer, 1966

Ramsey, Sir Alfred Ernest [Alf] (1920–1999), footballer and football manager, was born at Five Elms Farm, Dagenham, on 22 January 1920, the fourth son of Herbert Henry Ramsey, a hay and straw dealer, and his wife, Florence Bixby. He attended Becontree Heath elementary school, and though small in size proved a tenacious centre-half, playing representative football for Essex schools. After leaving school in 1934 he failed to get a job at the Ford car factory and went instead to the local Co-operative Society to work in the grocery department, first as a delivery boy and later behind the counter. During the winter he played football for Five Elms United, a club formed by a local shopkeeper to cater for sixteen-year-olds who had been prominent in local football but who could find nowhere to play. Here he was spotted by a scout from Portsmouth and it was suggested that Ramsey should sign amateur forms for the club, but Portsmouth never replied to his letters.

In June 1940 Ramsey joined the army, where he served in the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry, before eventually becoming a quartermaster sergeant in an anti-aircraft unit in Britain. He was also soon playing for the battalion football team both with and against professionals. Ramsey played well enough against Southampton reserves to get himself noticed and to play a few games for the club. There is some suggestion that he told the club that he was younger than he was (twenty-two rather than twenty-four), doubtless anxious that they might have thought twenty-four too old to begin a professional career. In August 1944 Ramsey signed as a professional for Southampton at £2 a match. After demobilization in June 1946 he was retained for the 1946–7 season. Ramsey was still thinking he might return to his old job at the Co-op, especially when Southampton offered only £6 a week in the season, but when that was increased to £7 in winter, £6 in summer, and £8 if he made the first team, he signed.

By this time Ramsey had played in several positions but the Southampton manager, Bill Dodgin, converted him to full-back. He played his first league game in the second division against Plymouth Argyle in October 1946, three months short of his twenty-seventh birthday. He was determined to make a success of it. Inclined to be heavy and slow on the turn, he trained hard and practised harder, returning in the afternoons to improve his passing and his weaker left foot. He also worked to improve both his movement and positional play. A non-smoker and only an occasional drinker, Ramsey was a quiet man who was certainly not ‘one of the boys’ and was in bed most nights by ten o'clock. The hard work paid off: Ramsey became a stylish full-back when most were rough types who tackled anything that moved and asked questions afterwards. He won his first cap for England against Switzerland in 1948, but then lost form and his place for both club and country to Bill Ellerington and in 1949 was transferred to Tottenham Hotspur.

This move showed that Ramsey possessed either an extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time or prodigious good fortune. Arthur Rowe had assembled a Tottenham side whose push-and-run style was about to run away with the second division. Ramsey's thoughtful and constructive defence, his intelligent passing, and his willingness to begin attacks from deep in his own half, combined with an aura of calm authority that he appeared to exude, meant that he fitted into the team so perfectly that he almost became Rowe's representative on the pitch. Ramsey became known to the other players as the General. Not only was the second division won in 1949–50, but it was followed in the very next season by the first division title. Rowe admired Ramsey's calm and described him later as a perfectionist with a thirst for footballing knowledge. On 10 December 1951 Ramsey married Victoria Phyllis Answorth (Rita) Norris, née Welch (b. 1920/21), hairdresser, daughter of William Answorth Welch, lift attendant. They adopted a daughter, Tania.

The move to Tottenham revived Ramsey's England career and he made twenty-nine consecutive appearances for his country between November 1949 and October 1953. He was a member of the England team which lost to the USA in the world cup of 1950 in Belo Horizonte and also of the one demolished 6–3 by Hungary at Wembley in November 1953, his last appearance for the national team. Ramsey remained with Tottenham, becoming team captain before injury led to his retirement in 1955.

Ramsey made a quick return to football by being appointed manager of the third division south club Ipswich Town just before the start of the 1955–6 season. Ipswich were an unsung club with no long tradition in the game, having turned professional only in the late 1930s. The club was not rich, but by making the best of a not very promising job Ramsey blended a few local youngsters, some more experienced players cast aside by other clubs, and a few others who were thought to be past their best, into a side whose tactics puzzled most opponents. In his second season Ipswich were champions of division three south, as their superior goal average pushed Torquay United into the runners-up position. Three mid-table seasons in the second division followed. Then in 1960–61 the championship was won and 100 goals scored. Critics believed that first division teams would quickly identify the weakest links of these unfashionable upstarts. But they did not and Ramsey's side emulated the Tottenham team for whom he had played by winning the first division in their first season with the élite. Ramsey became one of only nine men to win the championship as both player and manager. By playing Jimmy Leadbetter, a 33-year-old who could easily pass for fifty, wide and deep on the left, and two big forwards, Ray Crawford and Ted Phillips, Ramsey found tactics to confound the best of English football. His talent for getting the maximum out of players with limited ability, together with tactical shrewdness, made Ramsey's reputation as a manager.

After England's defeat in 1962 in the world cup in Chile, the Football Association (FA) began to look for a manager to replace Walter Winterbottom. This was far from being a vacancy which attracted many applicants. For one thing the international selection committee of the FA, made up of men with little experience of professional football, was still influential in selecting the team, in spite of Winterbottom's reforms. Moreover, it was clear how far behind world playing standards England was. In addition, the skills needed to manage a club side were not the same as those required for the national team. In the league, loss of an individual match could be made up over a forty-two-game season. In international competitions defeat often meant immediate elimination. The national manager also missed out on the day-to-day contact with players which club managers so prized. Jimmy Adamson was the FA's favourite for the post but Burnley were reluctant to release him. Ramsey, then, was not the first choice, but neither was he the last resort. He was qualified enough and in September 1962, when he was interviewed by the Daily Mail, he intriguingly laid out what should be done by whoever was appointed. First, the new man must be allowed to pick his team alone and to decide how the players would play.

I think an England manager must make up his mind what players he has and then find a rigid method for them to play to. If any player, no matter how clever an individual is not prepared to accept the discipline of the team's method then I can see no advantage in selecting him.

As for the idea that great players did not need a plan, Ramsey said 'Well, I played with many of these [great] players and I would say England's team was good then, but it would have been many times better if we had also had a rigid plan.' He also pointed out that this England team had failed to score against Spain and the USA in the 1950 world cup. However, Ramsey emphasized the value of home advantage in the world cup of 1966 and suggested that if the Football League and FA would co-operate and allow proper time for preparation, 'I think we could win'. Ramsey was offered the job in October 1962 but asked for time to think about it. He accepted on the condition that only he was responsible for team selection and tactics. This marked the end of selection by amateur committee and was an important moment in the development of the post of England team manager. Ramsey eventually accepted the job on 25 October 1962 and began work full-time on 1 May 1963.

Ramsey's career as England manager got off to an inauspicious start, when the team lost 5–2 to France. However, by 1966 he believed that England were in a position to win the world cup. The opening group matches were not encouraging: performances were mediocre, star goal-scorer Jimmy Greaves was injured, and Ramsey was under pressure from the English football authorities to drop Nobby Stiles from the team because of his rough play. In the event performances improved, and the team reached the final after victories over Argentina and Portugal; Geoff Hurst proved to be a more than successful replacement for Greaves, and Ramsey's loyalty to Stiles further strengthened team spirit. Ramsey's strength of mind enabled him to ignore criticism of his ‘wingless wonders’ and to reject calls for Greaves to be reinstated to the team after he had recovered from his injury. He also had to overcome the furore surrounding his comments after the tempestuous quarter-final against Argentina, when he likened the South Americans' behaviour to that of 'animals'.

Ramsey's decisions were vindicated in glorious fashion. England's 4–2 victory, including a hat-trick from Hurst, over a talented West German team in the final at Wembley on 30 July 1966 proved to be a pinnacle which, with the possible exception of the 1970 side, no other English team has since seemed remotely capable of reaching. The nation basked in glory. Only the French, Scots, and South Americans were disappointed. Ramsey had remained extraordinarily calm throughout the final. After West Germany had scored a last-minute equalizer to take the match into extra time Ramsey told his team, 'You've won it once. Now you must win it again.' They did, and at the final whistle Ramsey alone stayed seated as the rest of the players and staff leapt for joy. Nobby Stiles was probably correct when he said: 'You did it Alf! We'd have been nothing without you' (The Guardian, 1 May 1999). Ramsey was knighted in 1967.

If Ramsey's on-field management was excellent, he was not so assured off it. The England football team had a higher profile than any club side, and in the 1960s media appetites were expanding. No manager would have found it easy to cope with the demands of press, radio, and television, and Ramsey found it particularly difficult. He had come from a working-class family, had left school at fourteen and, although he was determined to make himself a better life through football, he was aware of his lack of formal educational qualifications. The course of self-improvement he began as a player continued as a manager. Before taking the manager's job at Ipswich, Ramsey took elocution lessons in an attempt to remove the sharper edges of his Essex accent. The lessons changed the way he spoke but he remained self-conscious of vowels and aitches. His speaking voice became curiously strangulated. Ramsey mistrusted his own spontaneity and was particularly suspicious of journalists, and indeed all outsiders. He was sensitive to criticism and in public he often appeared aloof and graceless, even downright rude. What Ramsey did possess was something no successful football manager can do without: the loyalty of his players.

Ramsey's sometimes curt way with the English football authorities and media was not helpful when results began to go against him. Third place in the European championships of 1968 was seen as an underachievement and the 3–2 defeat by West Germany in the quarter-final of the 1970 world cup in Mexico after being two goals up was a major disappointment when a BrazilEngland final had been widely predicted. Ramsey's use of substitutes that day came in for particular criticism. England lost again to West Germany in the quarter-final of the 1972 European championship. Worse was to follow during qualification for the 1974 world cup. A mistake by Bobby Moore and Alan Ball's sending-off led to defeat in Poland, and in the return at Wembley, England could only draw after dominating the match. The campaign to remove him was as tumultuous as the cheers of 1966 and on 1 May 1974 he was sacked.

Football managers usually do not enjoy much public affection; Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, and Jock Stein are probably exceptions. Few had a good word to say about Sir Alf. His apparent hauteur, his disregard for the opinions of others, and his failure ever to be diplomatic had upset many during his eleven years in charge of the England team. It is hard to believe that he was not hurt by his dismissal but he refused to give his side of the story and was not tempted to produce an autobiography. But what a record England had under him: played 113, won 69, drawn 27, lost 17; goals for 224, against 99. Ramsey's initial salary had been £4500, about the same as he had been getting at Ipswich, but rose later to £7000 and then £9500. His world cup-winning bonus was only £5000. He left the England job with a pay-off of £8000 and a pension of £1200 a year.

After eighteen months out of football Ramsey joined the board of Birmingham City, and did well as caretaker manager between September 1977 and March 1978. Poor health precipitated early retirement. Thereafter he lived quietly in Ipswich. He died at 248 Sidegate Lane, Ipswich, on 28 April 1999. He was survived by his wife. A statue of Ramsey was later erected in Ipswich. According to one obituarist, Ramsey was 'a flawed hero if ever there was one. But a hero nevertheless' (The Independent, 1 May 1999).

The events at Wembley on that Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1966 are now deeply embedded in the national consciousness, and as long as those events continue to be recalled the memory of Sir Alf Ramsey, the man to whom English football owes its finest achievement, will live on.

Sources

  • D. Bowler, Winning isn't everything: a biography of Sir Alf Ramsey (1998)
  • H. McIlvanney, World cup '66 (1966)
  • D. Miller, The boys of '66 (1996)
  • A. Hopcraft, The football man (1968)
  • D. Thomson, 4–2 (1996)
  • The Guardian (1 May 1999)
  • The Independent (1 May 1999)
  • The Times (1 May 1999)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 May 1999)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

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Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recordings

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1966, Hult. Arch. [see illus.]
  • Wesley, photograph, 1971, Hult. Arch.

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