At the end of the 1962-63 season George Cohen was selected for a short England Under-23 tour of eastern Europe. When it ended he had played eight out of 21 Under-23 fixtures over nearly four years, never quite establishing his place in the side, and was about to turn 24. It was, he concluded, the end of his international career. “That’s me, finished,” he announced. Within a year he was in the senior side.
“How wrong he was,” Alf Ramsey later said of the defender, who has died aged 83. “He had all the qualities required of an international player, particularly in defence. He was a serious-minded young man, dedicated to his task. Playing against him must have been a very frustrating experience.”
Ramsey first called on Cohen to replace the injured captain, Jimmy Armfield, in a game against Uruguay in 1964. The Guardian reported that he “recovered from a somewhat shaky start to give a creditable performance” but Ramsey liked what he saw, and Armfield was to play only twice more. “Frankly, if Ramsey had not been manager, I don’t think I’d have got a smell,” said Cohen of international football. “I wasn’t a natural footballer. I had to work at a lot of things, but I knew my asset was my strength and speed.
“Although I used to get forward a lot, defending was my forte. I could tackle, and read the game reasonably well. Alf only asked you to do what you were capable of doing. I liked to get forward, and the lads used to tease me about my crosses being more dangerous to the crowd than our opponents, but primarily I thought I was a good defender in a back four where we all knew our jobs.”
Cohen had been a teenage winger, before his first Fulham manager, Dugald Livingstone, himself a former full-back, relocated him to the right side of defence. “Football is a game of movement, it’s about width and depth and it was with Dugald that I learned about positional play as a defender,” he said. “He taught me about things like overlaps and how to run on to balls, keeping the game fluid, rather than waiting to receive the ball. They were lessons that stayed with me.”
Cohen’s club career lasted approximately a decade, all of it spent at Fulham, and was bookended by meetings with Liverpool – he made his debut against them in March 1957, aged 17, and it was against the same side in December 1967, in a tackle with his occasional England teammate Peter Thompson, that he sustained the knee cartilage injury that would force his retirement, 15 months and several failed comebacks later. He was unique in the 1966 England team in never winning a club honour: with him in the side Fulham won promotion to the top flight and reached two FA Cup semi-finals, but there was no trophy, and no league finish higher than 10th (tellingly within two years of Cohen’s injury they had been relegated twice, and they did not return to the top flight until 2001).
If he was perhaps the least illustrious member of England’s most glorious team, his value was nevertheless clear. “There were so many examples of superb professionalism in the team but none of them surpassed the one presented by George Cohen,” his great friend Bobby Charlton wrote. “Just seeing him on the bus, always amiable, always willing to lend a helping hand on or off the field, was enough to create a wave of wellbeing.”
His teammates delighted in his idiosyncrasies: the way he almost always had a book in his hands, normally open; his habit of showering before matches, and then launching into a solo warmup drill of push-ups and some enthusiastic running on the spot. “I thought I was a keen trainer,” said Geoff Hurst, “but George left us all cold. He was a fanatic for fitness.” His commitment to both the team and his own individuality made Charlton consider him “the very essence of what Alf was trying to achieve”.
Alan Ball, who operated ahead of Cohen on the right side of midfield, wrote in his autobiography: “I loved and adored him and still do. He was as strong as a bull and … Alf knew that, together, we would bottle up that entire side of the pitch. George was not the greatest passer of the ball, but he was a powerhouse. Nobody ever went past him, nobody could beat him for pace, but when he went off on his runs we never quite knew where the ball was going to end up.”
If Cohen’s playing style was characterised by power and indefatigable spirit, he needed those qualities away from the game. His parents died when he was a young man, his father of lung cancer, his mother after being run over by a truck, and his younger brother Peter, father of the rugby union World Cup winner Ben – it was not until the 2019 cricket competition that England won a World Cup in a major men’s team sport without a member of the Cohen family in the side – was killed in 2000 after he was set upon by three men he was attempting to eject from a nightclub he owned in Northampton.
He himself retired at 29, and in 1976, aged 36, was diagnosed with bowel cancer – the disease that was to strike his older brother Len, and to kill his World Cup-winning captain, Bobby Moore. Despite apparently successful treatment the cancer returned in 1978, and again in 1980. Aged only 41, the radiotherapy he received was so intense that he was left unable to walk without a stick.
He was eventually declared cancer-free in 1990, and returned to the property development to which he had dedicated himself after football. In 1998 he sold his World Cup medal to help fund his retirement – it was bought by Fulham for £80,000 – and soon after came another significant taste of misfortune when a failed property deal brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing him to sell his family home. He then wrote an autobiography, which describes with equal equanimity events ranging from glory to calamity and colostomy, only for his publisher to go bust, taking much of his money with them. Through it all he remained, at least in public, permanently cheerful; his wife, Daphne, whom he met aged 19 and married at 23, was his life’s other great constant.
Among the things he always kept hold of was a photograph of him challenging George Best, signed by the former Manchester United winger and dedicated to “the best full-back I ever played against”. But the words that perhaps summed him up best are inscribed at the foot of his statue, unveiled outside Craven Cottage in 2016: “Fulham player. World Cup winner. Gentleman.”