Getting teary-eyed over 1966

Some are mourning the death of Alan Ball, a member of England's World Cup-winning team, because it reminds us we haven't won the cup in 40 years.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The death of Alan Ball this week at the age of 61 has brought handsome tributes from his fellow professionals. Ball was the youngest member of England’s World Cup-winning team in 1966. He was a tender 21.

‘He was the youngest member of the team and man of the match in the 1966 World Cup final’, said hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst. ‘Socially he was always a good laugh and the 1966 team mixed a lot after then.’ Midfield maestro Bobby Charlton said: ‘He was probably the best player that day and if it had not been for his impact the result could have been totally different. He did not appear to have a nerve in his body, and he was an inspiration to us all.’

As many have noted, the diminutive Ball had the misfortune of experiencing his finest hour right at the start of his career. Apart from a single league championship with Everton in 1970, his trophy cupboard was pretty bare (which is what happens when you play for a ‘smaller’ club, as Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez described his Merseyside rivals earlier this season). Admittedly, he might have won more had he lived in an era like the present one, where almost all the best English talent is concentrated in two or three clubs and surrounded by excellent foreigners. Later on, he seemed to arrive at clubs (Arsenal, Southampton) when their moments of glory had just passed.

He did win another championship – the North American Soccer League (NASL) with Vancouver Whitecaps. But the NASL was a retirement home for elderly players rather than a serious competition. His managerial career wasn’t much to write home about either, and he spent more time as a squeaky-voiced pundit in later years. In other words, while Everton fans may wax lyrical about what a great player Alan Ball was, you wouldn’t put him up there with the all-time greats as a player, as a manager – or, for that matter, as a commentator.

There will be tributes at all the games this weekend – a minute’s applause rather than the usual minute’s silence. There will undoubtedly be a close-up of Bobby Charlton’s face when this happens because apart from being the finest English player of his generation, Charlton’s other claim to fame is being the Mr Blubby of football. He’s a sensitive bloke, Bobby.

But at least Ball had actually done something which might warrant such recognition: being part of the most famous group of players in the history of the English game. It’s a refreshing change from the usual conspicuous compassion for nobodies – though even the mourning for a proper legend in his own right, George Best, was an over-the-top reflection of our modern mourning sickness (see Offside, 1 December 2005 by Duleep Allirajah).

The real problem is this: I’m nearly 40 years old and I’m conscious of having watched football from the age of six. Yet Alan Ball is, for me, mainly remembered as the squeaky-voiced pundit, not the midfield dynamo. And that’s the thing people should really be getting concerned about. We’re celebrating the life of a man whose claim to fame is being a member of England’s one and only World Cup-winning team. When we remember Ball, deep down we’ll be mourning England’s persistent failure to knock Hurst, Moore, Charlton and Banks off their pedestal.

Let’s face it. Ball was the youngest member of the team. With the exception of Bobby Moore, who died in 1993 from cancer, the rest of them have all got their bus passes. Soon they’ll be like the Chelsea Pensioners of English football, wheeled out periodically to recall a long-distant moment of heroism, but with fewer and fewer making it to each anniversary. Then there’ll be that horrible moment when there are no longer any surviving members of that team left.

Which means that the self-satisfied idea that has lingered with just about every English fan – that we’ll win another World Cup sooner or later – is starting to look more like hope than expectation. Even when we go into tournaments with optimism, it is usually due to the paucity of the opposition than the brilliance of our team. After all, if Italy can win it in 2006 with a team whose outstanding player was a central defender and with very little else to commend it, England must have a chance, right?

We look at the individuals involved – Gerrard, Rooney, Terry et al – and think that they’re as good, man-for-man, as anybody else. Yet we seem destined to fail to get the best out of good players. As it happens, with Steve McClaren in charge, we’ll be lucky to take part in any more major tournaments. The truth is, when we look at that black-and-white footage of Bobby Moore on the shoulders of his teammates, the phrase ‘Never again’ is increasingly coming to mind.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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