1966 World Cup: how apathy turned to joy in England’s golden summer | Simon Burnton

On the 50th anniversary of the final, we speak to organisers, fans and players who recall that what is now looked upon as England’s finest hour was actually a poorly arranged and often sparsely attended tournament until the realisation that the hosts might actually win it

Drag the then button above the 1966 pictures to see the same locations today

On 15 April 1966, over a psychedelic collage of city landmarks, outlandish cars and even more outlandish clothing, the cover of Time magazine described London as “the swinging city”. “In this century, every decade has had its city,” the cover story explained. “Today, it is London, a city steeped in tradition, seized by change, liberated by affluence, graced by daffodils and anemones. In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene.”

But if London was swinging, much of the country was sinking. Harold Wilson, re-elected in March, was trying to get to grips with the economy; in July, the day the Guardian reported that “most economists seem to agree that a recession is inevitable”, he announced a six-month wage freeze, and the following year he deliberately devalued the pound, which at the time of the World Cup was worth around $2.80. In June 1966 there were 291,700 unemployed people in the UK; within six months the number had doubled. Outside the capital nobody was feeling particularly liberated by affluence or anything else, and the clouds hanging over the country were not merely economic: four days after Time hit the newsstands the child murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley went on trial in Chester. If London was on the up, Britain was on its uppers.

At least there were distractions, most of them musical. In May Paint it Black became the Rolling Stones’ sixth No1 in seven single releases (the other having peaked at No2). The previous week, during a concert at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, a member of the audience had called Bob Dylan ‘Judas’ for playing an electric set, the most famous heckle in musical history. Revolver, perhaps the Beatles’ greatest album, came out in August; on 29 July, the day before the World Cup final, the American magazine Datebook published John Lennon’s boast that his band were “more popular than Jesus”, prompting 22 radio stations to immediately ban their music. In September the former Animals bassist Chas Chandler arrived in London with a promising singer and guitarist he had just discovered in New York, by the name of Jimi Hendrix.

The residents decorated their houses in Claudia Street, Liverpool, near to Goodison Park which hosted World Cup matches
12 July 1966: The residents decorated their houses in Claudia Street, Liverpool, near to Goodison Park, which hosted World Cup matches. 20 July 2016: In 1967, the Liverpool council announced the plan to clear 33,000 homes within five years, including the housing on Claudia Street. Photographs by Ray Green/Popperfoto/Getty Images and Gary Calton/The Guardian

The World Cup gave the English another opportunity to escape from reality, but it is fair to say that they took their time before deciding whether to embrace it. What ended with an unprecedented celebration that spilled joyously from people’s living rooms and into the streets – mainly, it has to be said, in swinging London – started unconvincingly. Preparations, described by the Observer in 1965 as “a shabby story of dithering and neglect”, were saved by a last-minute £500,000 government grant, but many will remember the tournament for the tickets left unsold, the unhappy journalists, the eliminated South Americans alleging a conspiracy, and for football that vacillated between boredom and brutality.

But the potential was always there, and the first evidence of the kind of passions the England team would eventually unlock came moments before the competition began. The opening ceremony at Wembley involved little more than some marching bands and some marching children, dressed in the colours of the competing teams and walking in groups of 11 behind their nation’s flag, plans to involve the actual footballers having lasted only as long as it took the teams concerned to tell organisers they had better things to be doing.

As the teams went out, 15-year-old Eddie Murray waited with the George’s Cross and the other boys in England’s white, who were to be the last to emerge. “At Wembley in those days you walked up a slope to get out of the tunnel, and as I walked out, at the far end of the ground they saw me, and the roar started from there,” he recalls. “As we gradually came up the slope it just spread right round the ground, it made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I was a 15-year-old schoolboy and you can imagine a football-mad kid walking up the slope at Wembley and onto the pitch, that would generate enough excitement. And then this roar … it’s very hard to describe, especially now 50 years on, but it was just magnificent.”

Nineteen days later, a very different group of 11 people walked up the same tunnel wearing England shirts and experienced the same wall of sound. “The roar just exploded in your ears,” said Alan Ball, the team’s squeaky-voiced tyro who was about to play the game of his life, of the moments before the final. “And I took a deep breath and I said, ‘I love this. This is for me.’”

The opening game was not, however, for many people. An evening that started with cheers ended with boos at the conclusion of a dreary and profoundly goalless match between England and Uruguay, which left papers uncertain whether to concentrate on the disappointing attendance – 30,000 fewer than that for the 1966 FA Cup final a few months earlier – or the disappointing football. Around the country, however, pockets of enthusiasm were starting to erupt.

Brazil’s Rildo and Brito are accompanied by two-year-old Louise Kilbride and her five-year-old brother Ian at the Lymm Hotel
15 July 1966: Brazil’s Rildo and Brito are accompanied by two-year-old Louise Kilbride and her five-year-old brother Ian at the Lymm Hotel where the squad stayed during the World Cup. 20 July 2016: Olive Grayson and Bob Graves from Scotland enjoy a drink at the Lymm Hotel, Warrington. Photographs by Press Association and Gary Calton/The Guardian

Brazil were often at their heart. It was to prove a miserable tournament for the two-time reigning champions, whose ageing squad was knocked out in the group stage after Pelé was essentially kicked until he could no longer play by opponents who went unpunished, but they were without doubt the big draw, attracting thousands of spectators not only to their games in Liverpool, but to their hotel in Lymm and their training sessions both there and in Bolton. When a shop in Liverpool with a football-themed window display was burgled in the week before the tournament began, the thief ignored the Northern Counties Amateur Football Association trophy, a hefty cup fashioned from solid silver, and made off with a Brazil shirt worth £5.

Dave Spikey, the comedian and co-creator of the BBC sitcom Phoenix Nights, was a 14-year-old in Bolton at the time. “I was at that age where I used to go down collecting autographs of the team, so I knew my way around the training ground,” he says. “We heard that Brazil were coming, and I didn’t believe it at first. Coming to Bolton? Brazil? So I went down to Burnden Park, but they had gone to the training ground in Bromwich Street. All of us in the know, we knew there was a little tunnel that went behind Burnden Park and through onto Bromwich Street, which was quite a long way round if you’re driving. I remember trooping through there on the day and there were just thousands and thousands of people. I mean, thousands of us. And I remember seeing Pelé, I remember what he was wearing – a black tracksuit top and black shorts. But what I really remember is that there were just so many people there to see Brazil in Bromwich Street, just a little street in Bolton.”

Sam Allardyce remembers England’s 1966 World Cup triumph

Steve Harley was an 11-year-old from Thelwall who went to school in Lymm, where Brazil were staying. “Can you imagine, the best footballer in the world coming to our little village?” he says. “I’d go and see them outside the Lymm Hotel every night. They’d come out and they’d sign everybody’s book that they could. And what you could also do is hand your book in to the hotel, with your address and everything, and leave it there and they’d sign them all, and you got your book back with all the autographs. They were brilliant with us, even when there were so many of us we were blocking the road.”

These were the alternative hosts of the 1966 World Cup; scattered across the country were places whose connection with it is often forgotten, but where lives were touched and even transformed by the tournament. Only a few teams stayed in cities, with Argentina in the Albany Hotel in Birmingham, Switzerland at Sheffield’s Hallam Tower Hotel and Mexico on a main road opposite Finsbury Park in London. Others, such as France, chose to settle in smaller towns – “Living in the pleasant surroundings of Welwyn Garden City should help the French team do well,” trilled Jacques George, president of the French FA (it didn’t) – or picked more rural locations. The West Germany coach, Helmut Schön, had visited England earlier that year, armed with a list of possible bases provided by the FA, only to stumble upon a nice-looking place near Ashbourne in the Peak District and decide to stay there.

German players Max Lorenz and Helmut Haller walk through the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire near to where the Germany squad were staying during the World Cup
July 1966: The West Germany players Max Lorenz and Helmut Haller walk through the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire near to where the squad were staying during the World Cup. 15 July 2016: People walk through Victoria Square, Ashbourne. Photographs by Billy Webster and Jim Powell/The Guardian

“They’d come into town on a little bus and change at the pavilion on the recreation ground. Facilities were very basic, and it’s never changed in 50 years since,” says Billy Webster, then a 17-year-old apprentice painter and decorator, who took two weeks off work to watch them train. “They’ve still got the same chairs and tables and the changing rooms are absolutely disgusting. There’d be anything from 50 to 100 people watching them, a mixture of German supporters and local people, but really you wouldn’t know that they were in town and they could walk around with freedom.” They did more than just walk around: the squad became regular visitors to the Dog & Partridge pub, especially enjoying their Sunday night disco. “It was there we encountered members of the team,” one local resident, then 16, recalled. “We danced with them and then had quick snogs outside.”

The West German reserve keeper Sepp Maier trains with the squad in Ashbourne
11 July 1966: West Germany’s reserve keeper Sepp Maier trains with the squad in Ashbourne. 15 July 2016: A man walks his dog at the Ashbourne recreation ground and memorial gardens. Photographs by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Jim Powell/The Guardian

Meanwhile Italy and the USSR settled into university accommodation on either side of the B1320 near Durham. Far from being disappointed with their unpretentious surroundings, the Italians slept so soundly that they made arrangements to take their mattresses with them when they had to leave Houghall Agricultural College for the knock-out rounds (though after losing to both the USSR and North Korea in the group stage there turned out to be no need for that). From their training pitches they could easily see Russia’s, little more than a lofted pass away at Grey College. “We have nothing to hide,” said the Russian vice-minister of sport, Leonid Nikomov. “We would not be bothered by the Italians watching us even.” What they were bothered by, however, was the fact that the flag flying at Italy’s base was nearly twice the size of their own, forcing them to send for a more impressive replacement (which was then stolen).

John Bevan, then 13, was living in Durham at the time. “I went to see them train maybe 10 times, on an almost daily basis. I mean, what else are you going to do?” he says. “My memory is that there was almost no one else there, and there was certainly nothing approaching security. You just walked in. They were absolutely charming. We’d stay for a while – an hour, two hours, whatever. We knew who they were, particularly Lev Yashin, who by common consent was the best goalkeeper in the world ever. They had this training routine where they’d have a couple of people on the wing and then half a dozen on the edge of the box, and they’d put over crosses and just volley them at Yashin. I have this memory of Yashin stepping to his right to punch this ball away which was going into the top corner, and punching it all the way into the other half. I remember telling my parents about the different atmosphere on the two sides of the road: the Russians were perfectly friendly but it was a very serious business – they were there to train and get results. Italy were much more relaxed. I’ve got pictures of Giacinto Facchetti and Gianni Rivera walking around town in their Italy tracksuits. You just had as much access to them as you wanted, because there was no security or other people.”

What if England hadn’t won the 1966 World Cup?

One of the other teams that was left more or less alone, surprisingly, was England. “We used to stay at Hendon Hall and if there were more than two or three kids outside looking for autographs, even while the World Cup was on, it was unusual,” said Ray Wilson. “It only seemed to be the last day that one or two of the locals came. Even when we set off there would have been only a handful.” During the World Cup the home team went on a variety of outings: to Lord’s to watch Essex play Middlesex, to Muhammad Ali’s gym to see him prepare for his fight against Brian London, which took place at Earl’s Court the week after the final (when they turned up he was out), to Pinewood Studios where they met Sean Connery, Yul Brynner and Lulu, and on several occasions, including on the eve of the final itself, to watch films at the Hendon Odeon.

“You might get the odd one or two people at training, but it was pretty quiet,” says the defender Jimmy Armfield, who ended up as a non-playing member of the squad. “And the same at the hotel, you’d get one or two people, but nothing like today. There was one occasion when I remember Alf [Ramsey] was sat in the lounge and he said, ‘There’s a cowboy film on at the Odeon, we’re going.’ And he got his coat and just set off, him and [his assistant] Harold Shepherdson. We all got our things and just chased after him down the hill. This is the England World Cup squad remember, running down a hill in Hendon to watch this cowboy film.”

On the morning of the World Cup final Wilson and his room-mate Bobby Charlton went clothes shopping. “We went down the main street near Hendon,” Charlton recalled. “We walked down and not a lot of people knew us at all.”

West Germany also watched several films, though they had to fly in German-language versions – while they were at it, they also brought over their own sausages and bread. Portugal brought supplies including 600 bottles of wine to their hotel in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and the Koreans had a large quantity of Ginseng that one unimpressed Middlesbrough director recalled having “what resembled a diseased carrot suspended in the fluid”. Hungary brought a dietician who had the team eating plenty of veal and pork, only freshwater fish and no beef at all, a spokesman insisting “we consider beef a second-grade meat”. What they did not bring, however, was all their players, with four of their 22-man squad left at home. “We find the men who do not get a place in the side begin to nag,” said Gyorgi Honti from the Hungarian FA. “So we cut down on the nagging by making the party as small as possible.”

Members of the Argentinian squad including captain Antonio Rattin (fourth right) pose for a photograph outisde the Albany Hotel in Birmingham
July 1966: Members of the Argentina squad, including the captain Antonio Rattin, in light shoes, pose for a photograph outside the Albany Hotel in Birmingham. 25 July 2016: Two children walk past the Holiday Inn on Hill Street, Birmingham. Photographs by Gerry Armes/Mirrorpix and Jim Powell/The Guardian

Not every team settled in without complaint. Several Argentina players had to change rooms to escape the Birmingham traffic noise – “The Argentinians have been very nice about it, but they are having difficulty getting to sleep,” said an Albany Hotel spokesman. North Korea were the first ever guests at the St George Hotel, next to what is now Durham Tees Valley Airport, but complained that “the noise from the aeroplanes is tremendous”. A pitch was prepared for them in the airport grounds, but they found it too bumpy and after trying three different alternatives ended up training at a chemical factory in Billingham.

Mexico, sent to train at Finchley FC, also thought the pitch “too hard and bumpy” and left to find “another with a surface more like Wembley”, which turned out to be Tottenham’s training ground in Cheshunt. Brazil turned up at Burnden Park only to find there were no goalposts and the grass hadn’t been cut, forcing their move to Bromwich Street. Bulgaria were allocated the pitches normally used by Chester’s youth teams. “When the ball went out of play, the players had to chase it a long way,” sniffed a spokesman. “I am afraid some of them have got the impression we are being treated as second-class citizens.” In Sheffield the Swiss players Kobi Kuhn, Leo Eichmann and Werner Leimgruber were dropped off at their hotel by two local girls after curfew, leading to their wives making an emergency dash to England.

(The “Nacht von Sheffield”, as it rather unimaginatively came to be known, remains the greatest scandal in Swiss football history, even if the players insisted the girls had done nothing more than “show them around Sheffield in a car”. “We had fun, but not in the way people imagine,” Kuhn later said. “The five of us were squeezed into this Mini, the two women in the front and the three of us crammed into the back. We could barely move.” The president of the Swiss FA, Victor de Werra, said reporting of the incident had been massively overblown: “The trouble is that wives read something in the papers about their husbands and they tend to believe it.” Strange, then, that his own organisation later found the players guilty of “irresponsible, uncomradely, unsporting and indisciplined” behaviour and banned them for life; they sued for defamation and a variety of legal squabbles continued for two years until the FA backed down. Kuhn returned to the team in 1968 and went on to manage Switzerland at the World Cup in 2006).

Arrangements for the public were even more haphazard. The man in charge of Middlesbrough’s World Cup preparations was a 67-year-old retired bank manager and former Football League linesman called Joseph Legge. “It’s all new to me, of course, but I can only do my best,” he told the press. “If the strain gets too much I can always remind myself I’ll be back weeding my rosebeds again after July.”

In 1966 Middlesbrough had 20 restaurants while Sunderland, the other host city in the north east, boasted just 13, and four hotels; Roland Vidal, the retired army colonel in charge there, declared himself “frankly terrified at the thought of 10,000 people arriving in the town”. In Sheffield arrangements were overseen by 72-year-old former mayor Grace Tebbutt and 79-year-old Harold Shentall, who had been chairman of Chesterfield since 1928. Sheffield had 25 restaurants (now 1,164) and planned to open a nightclub in the town hall for the duration of the tournament, which would be the city’s first. “There has never been a call for night life here,” said one official. Birmingham had more than a dozen nightclubs but their World Cup organiser, Walter Goodman – seconded from the council’s supplies department – admitted that “there is only one I would care to take my wife to”. “To tell the truth, we are rather hoping the visitors we get will not want to stay up half the night,” he said. “We are by nature rather conservative in Birmingham.”

West German supporters drive through Kensington the day before the World Cup final.
29 July 1966: West Germany supporters drive through Kensington the day before the World Cup final. 5 July 2016: People walk past a branch of Snappy Snaps in Kensington, London. Photographs by Ray Weaver/Trinity Mirror/Alamy and Jim Powell/The Guardian

The British Travel Association predicted the World Cup would bring an extra 35,000 visitors to the country, and Thomas Cook were engaged to provide their accommodation, booking up enough hotel rooms for 20,000 visitors in Liverpool, 15,000 in Manchester, 3,000 in Middlesbrough and 2,500 in Sunderland. But then they decided to offer space in London only to those who were staying for extended periods, which essentially stopped them spending much time anywhere else. “Our plans for the anticipated influx of overseas visitors for the World Cup games was almost completely thwarted by the absence of such spectators,” sniffed Liverpool’s World Cup organiser, Leslie Hughes. On the eve of the tournament just 850 of those rooms in Liverpool had actually been booked, and 700 in Manchester. In Sunderland and Middlesbrough hotels were in such short supply that organisers begged locals to offer up their spare rooms, yielding 350 additional beds. By the time the tournament began, just four of them had been filled. Final records showed that rather than the thousands Vidal had so feared Sunderland ended up hosting 400 Italians, 200 Russians, 50 Chileans and 12 North Koreans.

Middlesbrough’s enthusiastic adoption of North Korea, who played their three group-stage games at Ayresome Park, has become legendary over the last half-century. “We have made many friends. I have made many trips to many countries but nowhere have the people shown us their hearts as you have here,” said their sport minister, Kim Ki Su, before they left the city. But just 13,792 people bought tickets to their game against Chile, and John Bevan, who in addition to the daily visits to training camps went to every game played in the north east, remembers being able to run around deserted terraces so he could see Ruben Marcos convert his penalty from behind the goal. In the final analysis Middlesbrough sold just 50% of available tickets for their four games, Old Trafford 55%, Sunderland 64% and Sheffield 65%. Even at Wembley nearly 125,000 tickets went unsold, and after the final whistle blew at the end of the quarter-finals tickets were still available – simply by walking into a ticket office and asking for them – for both semis.

Members of the West German squad relax in London a few days before the final
27 July 1966: Members of the West Germany squad relax in London a few days before the final. The players are Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Sepp Maier, Horst-Dieter Höttges, Werner Krämer, Uwe Seeler, Hans Tilkowski, Wolfgang Overath and Helmut Haller. 5 July 2016: People walk down Kensington Road, London. Photographs by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Jim Powell/The Guardian

It was not until the hosts reached the final that the last sceptics were converted into enthusiasts. There were no empty seats for this one, and 32.3 million Britons, still a record, watched at home. After England beat West Germany the victorious team was cheered all the way to Kensington, where they were to have their celebration dinner, later emerged onto a balcony to wave the trophy at the hordes below, went back inside to complete their meal and were astonished, upon leaving at midnight, to find the street outside still packed with people desperate for a glimpse of their heroes. “You have to remember, Sir Alf had made sure that we had been cosseted well away from the public gaze and from the newspapers throughout the finals so we had no idea how the whole of England had become gripped with World Cup fever,” said Bobby Charlton. “It was only after we won and we were driving back from Wembley through Notting Hill that it began to dawn on us what it meant to everyone.”

“One thing I remember was the drive from Wembley to the Royal Garden Hotel,” says Armfield. “The route was marked by people four and five deep all the way. And I wondered, how did they know which route we’d take? But that’s absolutely true. Then when we got to Kensington it took us, to get the bus about 100 yards towards the hotel, it must have taken half an hour. It was just a mass of people. I can remember us coming out onto the balcony and they were still there. I just couldn’t believe it.”

The Scottish poet Alastair Reid, who wrote an essay on the tournament for the New Yorker, joined the celebrations, before stopping to speak to a policeman on his way home. “Never seen the likes of it in me life, sir,” he was told. “The end of the war, they say, but I were no more than a nipper then. Course, Christmas, New Year, well, you expect it then. But if you’d have said to me three weeks ago when the Cup began that we’d be watching a night like this here, I’d have said you was plain barmy, begging your pardon, sir.”

England’s hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst and his wife Judith walk in central London on the day after the World Cup fina
31 July 1966: England’s hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst and his wife Judith walk in central London the day after the World Cup final. Judith Hurst is carrying the News of The World player of the final trophy. 22 July 2016: People walk down Wardour Street, London. Photographs by Monte Fresco/Trinity Mirror/Alamy and Jim Powell/The Guardian

The following morning Jack Charlton, who had taken the precaution of putting a note in his breast pocket the previous evening that read, “This body is to be returned to Room 508, Royal Garden Hotel”, woke up on the floor of a stranger’s house in Walthamstow. Geoff Hurst went home, mowed his lawn and washed his car. Alf Ramsey, with the world clamouring for his attention, sat in his front room with the curtains closed and the phone unplugged. Martin Peters went shopping for furniture. Bobby Charlton arrived home, stayed for a few hours and left again, taking his family with him. “I don’t know where we are going,” he told reporters camped outside his door. “We just want to be by ourselves for a few hours.” Alan Ball drove north in his Ford Zephyr with John Connelly and their wives, stopping off at Knutsford services to eat egg and chips with his medal in his pocket. Within weeks he had moved from Blackpool to Everton and traded in the Zephyr for a Lotus Elan.

By the time the final whistle blew at Wembley workmen had already returned to the other host cities, to rip out the seats that had temporarily been installed on their stands and prepare for a domestic season that was less than three weeks away. In Ashbourne and Durham, Welwyn and Wilmslow, residents were getting used to no longer bumping into famous international footballers. In Lymm, a prosperous town in Manchester’s stockbroker belt, it was still an occasional hazard: Pelé might have gone, but Bobby Charlton was about to move in. “As soon as the final whistle went,” Charlton said of the final, “I said to my brother: ‘You know, Jack, life for us will never be the same again.’ And I was right.”


Simon Burnton and Jim Powell

The GuardianTramp

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