As a new decade first blinked in the daylight, there was an air of resignation about the national side. The 1960s promised much but the preceding decade was distinctly underwhelming. There was little sign of what was to come for the English game.
The 1958 World Cup had seen England dispatched by the Soviet Union in a group play-offs, angst that only deepened by Wales and Northern Ireland progressing to the quarter-finals. England’s failures were masked by a dazzling Brazil and the prodigious talent of Pele. But it was the manner of England’s exit that really grated on the senses.
Three draws and a 2-0 defeat against the Soviets also rans was a crushing disappointment. In November of the same year, England trounced the Soviet Union 5-0. Winning the games that didn’t matter seemed to be a specialism. Turning it on in a meaningless friendly was symptomatic of the malaise in which the national side found themselves.
The decade was rounded off by an uninspiring series of results including a 3-2 home defeat to Sweden in 1959. The lowlight of a disastrous South American tour was a 4-1 defeat to Peru. Football League Secretary Alan Hardacre was typically blunt in his reaction: “What do you expect half way up a mountain in the jungle?”. Hardacre overlooked a poorly prepared side comfortably beaten by moderate opposition.
But after 14 years, Walter Winterbottom had finally convinced the FA that a settled team might pay dividends. Unbelievably, Winterbottom sat on a seven-man International Selection Committee (FAISC) and while recognised as England’s first manager, his role was poles apart from the ones we’re most familiar with today.
The FAISC held sway with nominations for players in each position, with committee members invariably club chairmen who pushed for their own players’ selection. The FAISC’s days were numbered as Winterbottom slowly gained more control of team selection.
The simple logic of playing Ronnie Clayton and Bryan Douglas on the right was beginning to stick. Team-mates that played regularly at Blackburn Rovers would surely make a better combination than players thrown together every couple of months. Winterbottom had an exciting pool of players with a perfect blend of youth and experience. Playmaker Johnny Haynes was at his peak while Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves and Ray Wilson were just beginning to make their mark.
Qualification for the World Cup in 1962 appeared to be a simple task, with England drawn in the same group as Portugal and Luxembourg. The prelude to the tournament in Chile would represent a purple patch for the national team. It featured an amazing run that yielded seven wins in eight games with 44 goals scored and only 12 conceded.
England began 1960 with two draws and two defeats, however the backbone of the squad was beginning to take shape. Ron Springett was a solid choice in goal; Jimmy Armfield a natural leader at right back; and Ron Flowers, a versatile half back and expert penalty taker. There was also a plethora of centre forwards cast in the finest tradition of British grit and graft. Joe Baker of Hibernian briefly auditioned but five caps had not yielded any goals.
The wagons really began to roll when England played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals. It was a game they were expected to win, although the Irish would be no pushover with Danny Blanchflower and Derek Dougan in their ranks. Spurs’ Bobby Smith made his debut at centre forward and ran the Irish defence ragged. Johnny Haynes set Smith up with the first of three assists – a delicately flicked free kick cued a 20 yard thunderbolt.
Smith had opened his account after 15 minutes but the Ulstermen were soon back on terms. Billy McAdams equalised and the Irish could easily have taken the lead. However, Jimmy Greaves was at his clinical best and scored either side of half time. McAdams hit back with Northern Ireland’s second and could have been very different as they hit the woodwork twice. But England’s class was abundantly clear as Brian Douglas and Bobby Charlton capped a 5-2 victory.
England’s definitive line-up during this period featured for the first time as they adopted a 4-2-4 formation. The system devised by Brazil was unconcerned with man-to-man marking and favoured a more flexible zonal approach. Johnny Haynes, ostensibly an inside right dropped into midfield, was one of the first modern number 10s. He linked up with Bobby Robson while Peter Swan and Flowers shored up the defence. Armfield and Mick McNeil were quick and mobile full backs in front of Springett in goal. Wingers Bryan Douglas and Charlton pulled in tighter to support Greaves and Smith – the combination was devastatingly effective.
An unchanged XI travelled to Luxembourg for England’s first World Cup qualifier. A woefully one-sided encounter was assured as Greaves and Charlton both scored hat-tricks in a 9-0 romp.
The margin of victory against inferior opposition is negligible but offered a significant confidence booster. A stiffer test arrived a week later against a Spanish side that included the incomparable Alfredo Di Stefano. A six-goal thriller ebbed and flowed as England took the lead twice, but were pegged back by two equalisers. A rain-lashed Wembley would not deny England as Smith scored two goals to secure a handsome 4-2 victory. The purple patch grew deeper and richer as Wales were dismantled 5-1 in November 1960. Greaves bagged a brace to set up the Home Internationals decider against Scotland.
In April 1961, a reported 50,000 Scotland fans travelled south for the biennial jolly against the old enemy at Wembley. A win for the Scots could have denied England the Championship outright, not that they needed any incentive in football’s oldest rivalry. It became a blistering lesson in pace and movement as England raced into a 3-0 lead at half time.
But within 10 minutes of the restart, Scotland had pulled back to 3-2. The final scoreline belies how well Scotland played in phases. But they had no answer for England’s fire power and the sublime skill of Haynes. Greaves scored another hat-trick in a 9-3 victory as a well-oiled machine purred with perfection. It was an achievement made all the more remarkable by the 11 players selected for England – they came from ten different clubs and represented every part of the country.
The hits kept on coming as England thrashed Mexico 8-0 in the following game. Although widely viewed as cannon fodder, their opponents had performed well on tour, narrowly losing 2-1 to the Czechs and defeating the Netherlands.
Greaves and Smith were dropped despite scoring 19 goals in the past five games. The reason for their omission is mystifying and has never been satisfactorily explained. England carried on regardless with another Charlton hat-trick and a debut goal for Gerry Hitchens. England subsequently drew with Portugal and beat Italy 3-2 away. However, the gold run finally ended with a 3-1 defeat to Austria.
Despite the defeat, England had many reasons to be cheerful. They had a talented squad of players who could adapt to a continental style of play. Prior to the World Cup they lost only four of 21 games and scored 65 goals. Qualification was sealed after a 2-0 win over Portugal. All seemed to bode well.
A series of devastating earthquakes had cast doubt over Chile’s status as hosts. However, an impassioned plea from Chilean FA president Carlos Dittborn was compelling as he said, “we have nothing – that is why we must have the World Cup”. How could FIFA say no?
The tournament was played out before a poverty-stricken nation, who showed little interest in games. Conditions were far from ideal as players felt confined to accommodation likened at the time to prisoner-of-war camps, with England based in the guest quarters of the Braden Copper Company in the mountains of Coya. Players had to take a miniature railway to games at Rancagua and found a muted reception.
Barely 8,000 fans watched a lukewarm England lose their first group game to Hungary 2-1. A much brighter performance followed as England beat Argentina 3-1 with Jimmy Greaves’ only goal in the World Cup finals. They needed a draw in the final game against Bulgaria, a goaless non-event was eked out in front of a sick attendance of 5,700.
The quarter final against Brazil produced England’s finest tournament performance up to that point. They were all square at half-time and more than holding their own, but the Selecao took control in the second half with Garrincha in majestic form. England had the consolation of going out to the eventual winners, but it was a bitterly disappointing end to two years of preparation.
England did however lay down a marker as they looked to the future. Walter Winterbottom had finally broken the rigidity of the traditional English game, laying the groundwork for his success Alf Ramsey to pick up. Upon his appointment in 1963, Ramsey was adamant he must have full control of the team and must be given the chance to select his own players if he was to take the job.
The FA abated and gave Ramsey what he wanted, meaning he could build on Winterbottom’s foundation to deliver what remains England’s only World Cup success. The mould had finally been broken.