Asif Burhan's Blog

On what would have been legendary Town and England boss Sir Alf Ramsey's 100th birthday, Asif Burhan looks at the life of the only English manager to win the World Cup and the man who took the Blues to the old Second and First Division titles in successive years, and reveals his Suffolk ancestry.

The only man to lead a senior England team to a major international trophy is buried in Ipswich's Old Cemetery, his passing marked by a simple grey headstone dwarfed by grander black tombstones around it. In front, there is a fresh holly wreath left by relatives with a Christmas message for "Auntie Victoria and Uncle Alf". There is no mention anywhere of his role in the greatest achievement in English football history. 

One hundred years ago today, Alfred Ernest Ramsey was born in Dagenham, then a small village in rural Essex. Not until 47 years later, when Alfred became Sir Alf, the manager who led England to World Cup victory, was his date of birth revealed to those in the game.

During the war, Ramsey, already in his 20s, had started to claim that he was actually born in 1922, a lie that was only discovered in 1967 when he had to declare his real birth date to Debrett's Peerage & Baronetage upon receiving his knighthood.

Ramsey was appointed England's first full-time manager in 1963 after leading Ipswich Town to the Second and First Division titles in successive seasons. Without any coaching qualifications, it was his early life and playing career that shaped his management style.

The third of five children born to a manual labourer, Herbert, and his wife Florence, Ramsey, speaking in his 1952 autobiography Talking Football, claimed he "lived for the open air from the moment I could toddle". The young Alfred had no dreams of making a living out of football, "when I left school my ambition was become a successful grocer".

It was on his daily four-mile “plod" to Beacontree Heath School, that Ramsey honed the passing skills for which he was later famed. Walking along a country lane with his two elder brothers, bordered on each side by a deep ditch, the young Alf never forgot how he was confined to bed with a severe cold after wading into the water to retrieve an errant kick.

"It impressed upon me the need for accurate passing, and I am certain that those daily kick-abouts with my brothers played a more important part than I appreciated in helping me secure accuracy in the pass,” he recalled.

After his application to work at the newly-opened Ford plant was rejected, Ramsey resolved to become an apprentice at a local Co-operative store, "the grocery trade for some unknown reason had always appealed to me”.

Delivering orders on his bicycle improved his stamina and fitness but working on Saturday afternoons left him with no opportunity to play football until a local sweet shop owner in Five Elms set up a schoolboy team to play on Sundays, a practice officially banned by the FA at the time.

When he later became a professional player, Ramsey was never asked to pay the seven shillings six pence fine. "Technically I suppose, never having paid the reinstatement fee, I should have never been allowed to play for England,” he admitted later.

Now, by his own admission, "quite a hefty lad", Ramsey caught the attention of a Portsmouth scout in 1938 and was offered amateur forms to sign for the club. Having signed and posted the contract, Ramsey's dreams were crushed when no reply arrived. "No one, it seemed, was interested in young Ramsey of Dagenham" and with war looming, Ramsey was called up for the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. 

For the sheltered lad from the country, "The Army, in short, proved a wonderful education". His first cross-country train rides, staying in hotels, mixing with older, more experienced men and an opportunity to play regular organised football with other soldiers, many of whom were professional players before the war.

Appointed captain of his battalion side, Ramsey impressed in a game against Southampton and was offered professional terms to play in the regional Wartime League. So proud was he to appear in his first game for the Saints at Luton, that he took a match programme back to his family in Dagenham to prove he had played.

With the Football League not officially restarting until 1946 and unable to sign a contract until be had been demobilised from the army, Ramsey was still not committed to a life in the game. "As my firm had offered me back my old job behind the counter in the local Co-operative stores, I was not so sure I wanted to become a footballer”.

He initially rejected Southampton's offer of £4 a week in the summer, £6 in the season and £7 for playing in the first team. Ramsey's life, and English football history, changed when Southampton came back with an improved deal which he accepted.

In 1948, Ramsey was part of Southampton's post-season tour in Brazil which exposed him to a different style of football. "Their method of always trying to use the ball coincided with my own ideas of how the game should be played”.

He also learnt the importance of acclimatisation. Returning with the England squad two years later for the 1950 World Cup, he lamented the FA's decision to arrive in Brazil only three days before the start of the tournament.

"The thought of hanging about at the end of a season waiting for cup time to come around was in my view rather a waste of time. I would have preferred to have gone to Brazil, get accustomed to the conditions.” As manager, 20 years later, he insisted England arrived in Mexico almost a month before the world champions’ first match.

The 1958 tour also engendered in Ramsey a lifelong mistrust of the media after a Brazilian reporter pestered him over dinner and turned a brief talk into a front-page story.

Speaking in 1969, he said: ”I feel that they want something from me that I am not prepared to give them. I can live without them because I am judged by the results the England team get, I doubt very much they can live without me as the England team manager”.

In his retirement he admitted, "I probably did not do too well with the media. If I had my life over again I think I might do better in that department.”

Often accused of xenophobia, Ramsey was certainly not a man to experiment with anything outside of football. Before an international in Italy in 1952, he was pleased that pre-match training was arranged in Eastbourne, "We were able to prepare for our difficult assignment without having to worry about strange food”.

When England went to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, Ramsey imported 25,000 bottles of Malvern water and all of the squad's food for the tournament in a deal with frozen food company Findus.

In December 1948, Ramsey won his first England cap but a knee injury the following month cost him his place in the Southampton team and fearing for his international future, he put in a transfer request. After turning down an offer from Sheffield Wednesday, Ramsey joined Tottenham Hotspur, a move which allowed him to live once more with his parents in Dagenham.

At Spurs, he was initially given a locker sitting between Bill Nicholson, who later managed Spurs' greatest-ever side to the league and FA Cup double in 1961, and Vic Buckingham, who as a manager was responsible for discovering Johan Cruyff at Ajax and coached Barcelona. Yet on the field, it was Ramsey who would become known as ‘The General’.

Spurs manager Arthur Rowe gave his then-Second Division side these instructions, "Play football all the time. Make it quick. Make it easy.” The then-unusual tactic of passing the ball quickly before running off the ball to make yourself available for the return became known as ‘push and run’, and it propelled Spurs to the Second Division title in 1950.

The style suited Ramsey perfectly as he remarked in 1952, "His aim was to develop a game to suit the footballers at his disposal, not trying to fit the players into a set game which might have meant upsetting their whole approach to a game.”

Twenty-four years later when explaining how the idea of the ‘Wingless Wonders’ brought the best out of one-time winger Bobby Charlton, Ramsey explained his philosophy - “Instead of using wingers or players because they played in a certain position, (to) utilise the best players that I had available.”

In 1951, Spurs won their first-ever league title, Ramsey would later captain the side but with age catching up with him and the arrival in 1954 of Danny Blanchflower, another strong-minded attacking defender, Ramsey’s influence began to wane. He had hoped to start coaching at Spurs, but Nicholson was favoured over him. "I really didn't know what was going to happen to me. I knew my days as a player were numbered."

Third Division Ipswich offered him the coaching opportunity he was searching for. "Why Ipswich?" said Ramsey, "well, I think it probably could have been any club. I liked the people that I was dealing with. This was not a bad way to start if one had ambitions towards becoming a successful manager.”

Whether or not he knew it, Ramsey's decision to move to Ipswich, where he would live for the rest of his life, brought him back to his East Anglian roots.

From childhood, the black-haired boy faced rumours that his dark looks were a sign of a gypsy heritage, a factor responsible for his sensitivity to criticism and reluctance to talk about his private life. ”Everyone used to refer to him as ‘Darkie Ramsey’, explained childhood friend Fred Tibble, “it was years after that it cropped up that his name was Alf”.

Nigel Clarke, the ghost-writer of Ramsey's newspaper column, said: “His family was always a closed book, I used to ask him what his father did for a living and he changed the subject”.

However, new research conducted by Wikitree, shows Ramsey's ancestors were labourers like his father, his grandfather a hay and straw dealer born in Levington, Suffolk, his great-grandfather an agricultural labourer from nearby Martlesham.

When questioned about his ‘working class’ upbringing in 1969, Alf was keen to impress he came from “good stock, I’m not ashamed of that, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of”.

Shortly after his death in April 1999, Ipswich Town re-named the street behind the North Stand of Portman Road, Sir Alf Ramsey Way. Local artist Sean Hedges-Quinn wrote to the club suggesting he sculpt a life-size statue of Ramsey.

At its unveiling in August 2000, Lady Victoria, who supplied Hedges-Quinn with private photos of Ramsey, told him she now had a reason to make the 20-minute walk to Portman Road, to say hello to Alf. She continued to visit and rub his feet every week until her own poor health made it impossible.

On his headstone, she left this message, “My dearly loved husband Sir Alfred Ramsey 1920-1999. Although you have gone before me the memories and love we shared will always be with me until we are together again where parting is no more”.

Lady Victoria herself passed away in March 2018 and now shares the headstone with him. After five semi-final defeats, the wait for the England men's team to reach another international final has now entered its 54th year.

This feature first appeared in the Morning Star, for which Asif is a regular contributor...

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