George Cohen, who has died aged 83, won just one major honour during a career as one of England’s best-ever defenders – but it was a 1966 World Cup winners’ medal, and he was more than satisfied with his return. That he came away with nothing more than that can be attributed to the fact that he spent his 14 playing years at Fulham, where winning trophies was hardly a habit, and because a serious knee injury put an end to his playing days at the age of only 29, when he was at the peak of his game.
While it lasted, however, Cohen’s footballing career deserved admiration. At right-back for England he was, with Ray Wilson, part of the greatest full-back pairing his country had ever produced, winning 37 caps before injury cut him adrift. A sound tackler who was exceptionally quick and had great stamina, he was just what England’s “wingless wonders” under Alf Ramsey needed most – a defender who could break with speed upfield and create openings for the forwards with crosses from the flanks.
This he did to great effect throughout the 1966 World Cup finals, where he was an ever-present for England, playing in every minute of every game in the tournament and performing immaculately throughout, with unwavering concentration.
Cohen was born in Kensington, west London, and brought up in Fulham, where his Irish-born mother, Catherine (nee Gibbs), was a stores manager at the local Lots Road power station and his father, Louis (known as Harry) Cohen, was a gas fitter. Though of Jewish heritage on his father’s side, with some of his family originally from Ukraine, Cohen never regarded himself as a member of the faith.
George’s mother, a strong woman, was the greatest influence on his life, and it was she who backed his desire to become a professional footballer straight from school – while his father argued that he should learn a trade before even entertaining the idea. From an early age George had stood out as being quicker and stronger than many other children – something he partly put down to his ability to drink boiled cabbage water – often the only fare his hard-up parents could afford – “without gagging”. A good boxer, he maintained a strong interest in the fight game throughout his life, but his footballing talent was spotted at Fulham Central school by the former Fulham player Ernie Shepherd. With his mother’s backing, George took up an offer to join the club’s ground staff.
Cohen made his first team debut in 1957 as a 17-year-old in a characterful Second Division side that also included Johnny Haynes and Jimmy Hill. Cohen’s pace, admirable physique and attacking intent made a mark from the very start, and he quickly became one of the most popular footballers of his era, helping his side, in 1959, gain promotion to the First Division, where they remained for all but the very end of his career. Full-backs in those days were expected to be hard-tackling and robust rather than swift and tricky, so he was helping to break the mould. “My game depended on great fitness more than most,” he once said. “It was so much part of my technique that it was the most valuable tool of my trade.”
In due course Cohen’s adventurous outlook at Fulham caught the eye of Ramsey, and he was given his England debut against Uruguay in 1964, ousting Jimmy Armfield from his long-held right-back spot. Ramsey, who was a right-back too in his playing days, saw eye-to-eye with Cohen from the off, and their relationship even survived an unfortunate incident early on in his England career when, unaware that Ramsey had taken an impromptu decision to join in a training ground five-a-side match, Cohen turned blind into a tackle and sent his manager up into the air, watching in horror as he fell to the frosty ground and landed on his head. Ramsey eventually creaked back to an upright position and, fixing a withering glare at Cohen, said: “George, if I had another fucking full-back you wouldn’t be playing tomorrow.”
Fortunately Ramsey was more focused on Cohen’s fitness and speed than his tackling, especially because neither of his two centre-halves, Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore, were blessed with great pace. Wilson, Cohen’s fellow full-back, was also quick, and the pair would push up the field to provide an element of width whenever they could. They were both low-key, undemonstrative players – Cohen was especially quiet both on and off the pitch – but their contribution throughout the 1966 finals was especially appreciated by their fellow players and the English public.
Cohen was cheerful and friendly, but a quiet man who had his own way of doing things. “Nobody was more willing or dedicated than George,” said Moore, his England captain. “Any job he was given he would do without complication or complaint.” But while he was an admirable team man he was never “one of the lads” and largely liked to entertain himself. On one England trip to Canada he was seen so little by the other players outside matches that speculation about his whereabouts became a running joke.
It turned out that he was merely spending most of his time in his hotel room reading books and keeping out of the hot sun. He was an avid reader, always with a paperback in his hand, especially when travelling.
What came after the World Cup win was sorely disappointing. In December 1967, playing for Fulham against Liverpool, Cohen twisted his knee badly and was taken from the field in agony. A year of remedial work followed the removal of his cartilage, but after struggling through a few comeback games he was told his knee was wrecked and that he could never play again. “I was particularly angry because I was moving into my prime as a footballer,” he said. “The World Cup had given me great confidence … and I was at the top of my business.” In all he had played 408 league matches during 14 years for his club.
For a year Cohen took charge of Fulham’s youth team, but then made a decisive break with football by joining a firm of London architects, where he learned technical drawing and planning law. He formed his own property development company, George R Cohen Properties, and for a time the business went well.
However, a speculative deal to develop a plot of land in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, failed, and he lost all his capital. The business later made a partial recovery, but things were never so good again, and in 1998 he put his World Cup winners’ medal up for sale. When the reserve price at auction was not reached, the then Fulham chairman, Mohamed Al Fayed, bought the medal off Cohen for an undisclosed sum and kept it at the club. Fulham also employed him as a host for a number of years at home games.
Cohen’s difficulties in business were not his only misfortunes. In 1971 his 62-year-old mother died after being run over by a juggernaut. Five years later he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and his treatment lasted for 14 years. In 2000, the year he was made MBE, his younger brother, Peter, died after being attacked in the foyer of a Northampton nightclub, leaving Cohen in “a permanent state of rage” for a long time afterwards.
In 1962 he married Daphne Church. She and their sons, Andrew and Anthony, survive him.
• George Reginald Cohen, footballer, born 22 October 1939; died 23 December 2022