Portrait of an icon: Bobby Moore

Daniel Storey

If English football is caught in a moment, Bobby Moore is literally central to that image. The afternoon of July 30, at shortly before 6.00pm, England’s captain is held aloft by his teammates, sat on the shoulders of a nation. A few minutes earlier, Moore famously wiped his muddy hand on the tablecloth before shaking hands with the Queen. He is the perfect sporting hero for England’s perfect sporting triumph.

Moore was not just England’s captain, but their natural leader. Three years earlier he had become the youngest ever player to wear the armband, and by the World Cup he had established himself as a fine central defender having converted from a wing-half. Along with West Ham teammates Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst, Moore would parade the Jules Rimet trophy at away grounds around England.

It therefore seems unthinkable that Moore could have been absent from that day. On the eve of the tournament, with England’s captain seeking a move away from West Ham, his club refused to budge. Had Moore stayed firm he could have been left without a contract and ineligible for the final, but national team manager Alf Ramsey intervened.

Then, three days before the final, Moore was struck down with tonsillitis, mercifully diagnosed early by a team doctor. “Dr Alan Bass got cracking right away but if we had left matters for a day, the tonsillitis would have got such a hold on Bobby it would have taken five days to clear up,” coach Harold Shepherdson remembers. “That is how close Bobby was to missing the final.”

“My captain, my leader, my right-hand man,” said Ramsey of his captain. “He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with.”

Many more agreed with Ramsey. When the world team of the 20th century was selected in 1998, Moore was selected at centre-back alongside Franz Beckenbauer, the only player from the British Isles to be picked. Beckenbauer himself was under no illusion of the natural order of that team’s defenders. “Bobby Moore was the best defender in the history of the game,” he said.

Most famously, Moore was an incredibly modern defender. In an age when a ‘cultured’ centre-half might be one who said ‘good morning’ before he scraped his studs down the back of your ankle, Moore was not a physical player. Nor too did he pride himself on aerial ability, another staple of that position.

Moore was not even particularly quick. Instead he relied on anticipation, a reading of the game that would become the backbone of future defensive greats. As Scotland manager Jock Stein once famously remarked: “There should be a law against him. He knows what’s happening 20 minutes before everyone else.”

“Speed is only a matter of taking yourself physically from A to B, then I’m not fast,” Moore said. “But isn’t it important to know earlier than the next man that it’s necessary to go from A to B? Isn’t speed of thought as vital as how fast you can move your legs? I like to think I compensate for my slowness by seeing situations quickly, by anticipating and reacting before others realise what is happening.” He became the master of that art.

If English football peaked in 1966, forever destined to fail in the pursuit of that summer, Moore did so four years later in Mexico. Amid accusations that he was past his best at the age of 29, his performance in defeat against Brazil is one of the greatest by an England player. His tackle on Jairzinho, who scored in every one of Brazil’s matches, is regarded as one of the best in the game’s history. Moore waits and tracks, waits and tracks, waits, tracks and then dives in to take the ball off the winger’s toes.

As the game ended in Brazilian victory, Moore did not collapse in frustration or anger, but embraced Pele in a sporting gesture that is still considered one of football’s most iconic moments. The greatest ever player against his toughest opponent, in Pele’s own words.

More so than 1966, this was Moore’s moment. He was a champion, of course, but more so a competitor and a gentleman. He would come second in the Ballon D’Or that year, behind Gerd Muller.

This should therefore be a celebratory piece, lauding a player cherished by his nation until his untimely passing. Pele became Brazil’s Minister for Sport; Diego Maradona managed Argentina; Beckenbauer managed West Germany; Ferenc Puskas managed Hungary; Dino Zoff managed Italy; Juan Alberto Schiaffino managed Uruguay.

Yet Moore’s life is tinged – overshadowed even – with sadness. When Moore retired at the age of 36, he was left unsure of his next steps in the game. He wrote to the Football Association, asking for their support: ‘I have gained considerable experience in assisting with coaching both with my clubs in England and abroad during the latter stages of my playing career. I know you are aware of how proud I was of my years with the England team.’

Moore was not expecting to be given the manager’s job, but a coaching role, mentoring or advisory job, or even ambassadorial work would have done. Struggling to establish himself in the game post-playing career, English football’s governing body might have looked after their greatest leader. Moore never even received a reply. He ended up doing radio shifts for a relative pittance, his career earnings limited by the maximum wage.

That treatment should be deeply embarrassing to the FA. Perhaps they were fearful of becoming haunted by the spectre of 1966, forever tied to a bygone year and desperate to move on. If that was the intention, it fell flat on its face. Moore retired from England duty in 1973; they would have to wait another 13 years before another knock-out victory in a major tournament. By then, an entire generation had missed out on Moore’s expertise. By then the FA could argue that he was old hat.

Perhaps too the men in suits thought that Moore was too rough and ready, too non-establishment Essex boy wheeler-dealer. Yet the FA themselves were not squeaky clean. Moore’s personality was not some affectation, a schtick to cover up vacuity. He had insight, experience and intelligence that was foolishly wasted. It is difficult to imagine any other country treating one of its greatest sporting heroes in such a way.

There is no escaping the fact that Moore’s retirement was not always a happy one. Having been shunned by the FA he received the same treatment from West Ham, with whom he had argued after they repeatedly refused his requests to let him leave. Moore had numerous failed business ventures, including losing a large percentage of his career earnings in a collapsed investment scheme.

It was these setbacks that ex-wife Tina blames partly for the break-up of their marriage. “I could see that the man was being torn apart,” she says. “He was wondering what the hell was going on. Self-doubt started to creep in. Mentally it was a very dreadful thing.” The worst was still to come.

Moore had first battled cancer in 1963, the year he was made England captain. He had an operation to remove a cancerous testicle, and returned to professional football after an astonishingly brief period of three months. That illness was only revealed after his death, Moore preferring to keep it secret in order to avoid stigma.

By April 1991, Moore had another operation, this time to remove a tumour from his colon. On February 14, 1993, he publicly announced that he was suffering from bowel and liver cancer, which had spread. Three days later, he commentated on England vs San Marino, now a frail, weak man ravaged by devastating illness. Seven days after that final public appearance, Moore passed away.

The reaction to Moore’s death, coming so soon after his revelation of serious ill-health, shocked the football nation. The first member of England’s World Cup-winning team (or staff) to pass away, the personification of our national team’s success had been taken away at the age of 51. A symbol of that glorious summer had been lost.

There is a great deal of misplaced nostalgia and sentimentality in sport, an unhelpful ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’. Yet Moore’s death truly did mark the passing of a golden era of sporting decorum, a time for which he was the flagbearer. A nation still did “see that tackle by Moore”, and was not ready to let it go.

People also felt a communal guilt at Moore’s treatment by the game. He was only the second sportsman to be honoured with a Westminster Abbey funeral, but by then it was too late. His grave can be tended, but too many people allowed weeds to grow on his reputation. As Harry Redknapp candidly said of West Ham: “Now he’s dead you can’t move for pictures of him around the place. It disgusts me.”

All that remains in tribute to England’s greatest defender is a fund set up by his family, a stand at a stadium in which he never played and a statue looking away from a stadium now redeveloped beyond all recognition. Everything else was left to blow away on the wind.

‘Immaculate footballer. Imperial defender. Immortal hero of 1966. First Englishman to raise the World Cup aloft. Favourite son of London’s East End. Finest legend of West Ham United. National Treasure. Master of Wembley. Lord of the game. Captain extraordinary. Gentleman of all time,’ reads the inscription on the pedestal of that Wembley statue. Every word of it is true; it’s just a shame England didn’t realise it until it was too late.

Daniel Storey

Portrait of an Icon will be released as a book later this year, with proceeds going to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.