England’s exploits in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups have been exhaustively documented, but what happened in the four years in between? When England Ruled The World tells the story of all aspects of English football, on and off the pitch, from the moment Kenneth Wolstenholme thought it was all over until Gerd Muller’s volley broke the hearts of the folks back home. Set against a backdrop of the social climate and popular culture of the time, Steve Mingle’s book is also embellished by quotes from the best football writers of the time. Here the great Geoffrey Green takes centre stage as the 1967-68 season reaches its climax…
So, who would take the title? City led United on goal average, with Liverpool a point further back. All three were in with a chance of winning the big prize, but most eyes were focused firmly on St James’ Park. This is more than could be said for the Match Of The Day cameras, which had been dispatched to Old Trafford. The decision was entirely defensible, having been made a few weeks earlier, when the table suggested that this day would almost certainly mark United’s coronation, but it deprived viewers of witnessing the season’s most dramatic game.
Seven spectacular goals illuminated a grey Tyneside afternoon, the upshot being that City squeezed home 4-3 to take the title. The game epitomised the way in which they had played all season, always on the offensive, and their refreshing style of play, contrasting markedly with the more cautious, functional approaches adopted by Leeds and Liverpool, made them popular champions. Few were more fulsome in their praise than Geoffrey Green. ‘It was worth every yard for a southerner to make this long haul to the north-east on Saturday. In the event, it would have been worth it even on a bicycle, facing rain and a headwind, to see a title won in this style and in the grand manner.’
There was widespread delight for manager Joe Mercer, one of the game’s most loved figures, and an appreciation for the part that coach Malcolm Allison had played. Almost exploding with ideas, Allison had got more out of his players individually and collectively than anyone could have imagined, and wasn’t slow to let everyone know that this was just the start. ‘We’ll terrify the cowards of Europe’ was the quote draped across the tabloids’ back pages on Monday morning after a still-intoxicated Allison had regaled the press with boasts of his young team’s potential.
For City, European adventures were something to look forward to, but their neighbours had more immediate priorities. The one consolation from their shock home defeat to Sunderland was that it wouldn’t have mattered even if they had won, and they quickly turned their attention to their next engagement, the return match against Real Madrid.
To a man, critics feared that the 1-0 first-leg lead wouldn’t be enough – a contrast with the modern mentality, where a win without conceding an away goal is all that home sides crave – and by half-time it seemed they would be proved right. Fluid attacking play saw Madrid take a 3-1 advantage and most in the ground expected the second half to be a formality. Geoffrey Green described the half-time scene. ‘The vast crowd was in a symphony of sound. They resembled a man who has two bottles of wine inside him, pleasantly intoxicated and feeling that there is nothing wrong with life.’ Although perhaps an unwitting reflection on the alcohol tolerance of sports journalists as much as the state of the spectators, the words convey beautifully a sense of complacency, of a job already done.
When they returned for the second half, Real Madrid’s own players were no exception to the self-satisfied mood, visibly easing off even though United needed just one goal to be back in command of the tie. For good measure they scored two, one of them coming from Munich survivor Bill Foulkes, a man for whom winning the European Cup would have extra meaning. While the stunned crowd struggled to absorb the shock of what they had witnessed, United, after three previous semi-final failures, had at last reached the final.
United’s date with Benfica meant that, uniquely, the FA Cup Final wouldn’t be Wembley’s most prestigious May date. The domestic occasion duly played down to its diminished billing, with Everton and West Brom, two teams capable of the most attractive football, both paralysed by fear of failure, as a dour spectacle numbed all but the most committed supporters. Things only got lively when fatigue allowed space to become more freely available, and Everton’s Jimmy Husband missed a simple headed chance close to the end of normal time.
Everton had finished the stronger, but extra time saw Albion start with renewed energy. Astle had a shooting chance from just outside the box, but miscued his effort horribly. The ball rebounded back off an Everton defender straight into Astle’s path, and without breaking stride he connected perfectly with a left-footer which flew high past Gordon West’s left hand into the top corner of the net. Despite the prodigious efforts of the tireless Ball, Everton seldom looked like recovering, and West Brom’s composure in possession saw them reap tangible and well-deserved reward for a season in which they had produced some memorable performances in both league and cup.
But now Wembley braced itself for a night of nights. It could only ever be an emotional highly-charged occasion, and at its epicentre were Bobby Charlton and Matt Busby, the Munich tragedy’s two highest profile and most revered survivors. Charlton duly headed United into the lead, only for Graca to equalise for Benfica.
The game’s pivotal moment came as full time approached, with Eusebio clean through on Stepney. As the nation held its collective breath, the normally deadly striker fired straight at the keeper and United were reprieved. In extra time, they ran away with it, Best flamboyantly rounding Henrique to put them ahead, before nineteen-year-old Brian Kidd put the outcome beyond doubt. Charlton put further gloss on the scoreline by clipping in a fourth and at the final whistle fell into the arms of his manager in a scene which would have melted the hardest of hearts.
It was also a scene witnessed by a few who wouldn’t have expected to be there: rumours about there being scores of forged tickets in circulation meant that touts outside the ground struggled to offload their wares. In the end, with the game having kicked off, they ended up giving dozens away. A mounted policeman received about thirty, which he passed on to young children, who were thereby able to witness English club football’s greatest triumph to date. The story of United’s victory dominated the front pages of the following morning’s papers, with so many of the words conveying a sense of emotion not commonly found in football reports. Many journalists hadn’t just lived through the Munich tragedy, they had also lost colleagues and friends in it.
But Wembley’s season wasn’t quite over yet. To warm up for their forthcoming Nations Cup commitments in Italy, the FA had arranged a friendly against Sweden. England performed impressively, with Colin Bell making a highly promising debut, but the game’s highlight was a superb goal from Bobby Charlton. Not only did it seal England’s 3-1 win, it also saw him pass Jimmy Greaves to become England’s all-time leading goalscorer, albeit having played some twenty-eight games more than his erstwhile team-mate.
There was much praise for England’s performance, it being noted that the new players had slotted easily into the ‘system’ so condemned just two years earlier. Now, having a well-defined pattern of play was starting to be seen as a strength, at least by some. The Guardian referred to ‘the now high standard of methodical play which has brought admiration and envy from so many foreign observers and officials’, it also being noted that similar continental envy would be directed at ‘the depth of England’s talent, which in no way impairs by the introduction of fresh blood the overall impressive performance of the side as a whole’. The concept of a system of play into which different personnel could slot seamlessly was starting to be understood.
This is an extract from ‘When England Ruled The World’, Steve Mingle’s new book about English football following the 1966 World Cup triumph. It is available here and through Pitch Publishing.