It may be the Fiftieth Anniversary of England’s World Cup victory, but that means it’s also the Fiftieth Anniversary of one of the greatest sporting controversies of all time: England’s third goal. Geoff Hurst’s second goal. The one that won it. We all know the question, don’t we? Did it really cross the line, or not?
Well, like everybody under the sun who has ever given the matter thought, I have my opinion, and that is Never In A Million Years. Yes, I am an Englishman who believes that his country’s Greatest Sporting Moment was achieved by cheating, by the award of a goal that never was, and I am also one of those who, this far removed, can take great delight in that fact and say that the win is all the better for having done it by the back door.
Let us, for the benefit of those who have somehow never seen this incident, or just for the hell of it, recount the known facts. It is the first period of extra-time. Nobby Stiles has the ball in midfield. He sees masses of space down the England right flank, with Alan Ball positioned wide to exploit it. He floats the ball into this area. Ball, playing with his socks rolled down to mitigate the effects of cramp, forces himself to chase the ball, defender in attendance, slightly behind and slightly infield of it.
Ball catches up to the ball about six yards from the line, wastes no time, and hooks it into the penalty area first time. It’s a low, flat cross, starting straight but curling back away from goal. It’s aimed into the space in front of the German goal, unoccupied by any defender. In the centre, Geoff Hurst is running diagonally into that space, also ahead of his marker, who is behind him, without any chance of intercepting the ball.
But the late swing on Ball’s cross is sending the ball behind Hurst. He can’t check himself, or turn towards it, so he sticks out his right leg, away from his body, intercepts the ball, knocking it forward. The ball bounces a pace clear, but Hurst still has the momentum of his run, the ball has bounced to the right height and he sweeps his right boot round in a great wheel, aiming for power, not accuracy (all his attention is focussed on tracking the ball: the goal does not come into his sight until he is committed to the shot.) The marker has shifted course slightly, is leaping with outstretched leg, hoping to block the shot. Tilkowski, the German keeper is crouched a yard off his goalline, in the direct path of Hurst’s shot.
Hurst is stretching. His body pivots around his left boot, anchored on the turf. He’s all but in a seated position as he makes contact, this lack of complete balance sending the ball upwards, off his instep. Hurst goes over backwards, Tilkowski goes up with the ball, throwing his hands as high as he can over his head, rearing back, but gets nothing, not even a fingertip to the ball, which is moving far too fast.
The ball hits the underside of the bar and flashes down. It bounces, somewhere on or about the line. From the main television angle, Tilkowski’s body, already twisting in the air as his head screws round, pulling his torso anti-clockwise in the effort to see what is happening, obscures the instant at which the ball impacts on the ground.
Behind Hurst, following up, is Roger Hunt. The moment that the ball hits the ground, Hunt stops in his tracks and wheels round, his fist raised in celebration, stalking back towards the centre circle. The ball rebounds to a point at least four feet above the crossbar: Hunt’s marker, who was ahead of him by a pace, kept his eye on the ball and jumped to head it out for a corner.
There was immediate pandemonium, with England claiming the goal, West Germany protesting that it hadn’t crossed the line. Referee Gottfried Dienst, a Swiss, ran across to the nearside to consult with his linesman, Tofiq Bahramov, of Afghanistan. On the BBC, commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme tried to decipher the communication between two officials without a common language, at first saying that ‘the referee says no’, then almost immediately shouting a delighted ‘the referee says yes!’ as Dienst signalled a return to the centre circle, with the Germans continuing to protest.
I remember almost nothing of the actual game, despite watching every minute of it, and I don’t think I took from it much awareness of the controversy over the next four years. But the first time I truly understood the issue removed the scales from my eyes over what had happened. If ever I had any innocence over this infamous moment, it only lasted four years.
As holders, England qualified for the 1970 World Cup automatically. It was held in Mexico, a completely alien environment, and the Football League did everything in its power to make England’s task as beneficial as possible. Yes, they did. I am not lying, they did. This included starting and finishing the 1969/70 season early, to the utter detriment of the FA Cup Final (it was not a coincidence that, for the first time ever, a Wembley Final needed a replay that took seventeen days to bring about). England were given a month of acclimatisation in Mexico: to the sun, the heat, the atmosphere, the heat, the crowds, the heat.
Inbetween times, I had become a fervent football fan, devoted to Granada’s Sunday afternoon highlights programme and, from 1968 onwards, permitted to sit up for Match of the Day. There was a four week gap between the end of the season and the start of the Mexico World Cup: perfect for the MOTD slot to be filled by a four-part resume of the 1966 tournament. Week 1 for the group matches, Week 2 for the Quarters, Week 3 for the Semis – and Week 4 for the Final.
My Dad had been seriously ill for a very long time by now, and he would survive its marvelous Final by less than two months, having watched as many of England’s games as he could, having perhaps been infected by my emerging enthusiasm, or at least his enforced idleness. Yet throughout his illness, whether he was in or out of hospital, we lived our lives as normally as ever, and that meant Droylsden on Saturday afternoons.
Whilst waiting to go home, to Burnage in South Manchester, to where we’d moved in the year of the great Win, I was watching the TV, BBC, maybe Doctor Who, who knows? There was a trailer for the programme on the Final. And I was suddenly intent on the screen, as a piece of film started to unfold. It was that goal, the Third Goal, but this time the shot was from the crowd, practically level with the goalline.
Ball gallops into sight, hooks the ball in from under our noses, it loops behind Hurst, who hangs out his leg, spins and smashes it, it clears Tilkowski, hits the bar, flashes down… and the clip stopped, the ball’s journey incomplete, still another third of its path to run. The voiceover explains that that clip will be played in full in the programme at 10.00pm, that the controversy will be settled.
I watched every second of that programme, avid for that clip, to see the final moments, the proof that would answer everything. But it never appeared. It wasn’t played, it wasn’t even referred to, and it was never even hinted at again. So many years went by without my ever seeing that piece of film, without ever meeting anyone who had ever seen it, or that trailer, until I began to query if it had ever existed, if I’d seen it, if I hadn’t had a hallucination and imagined it all.
Less than a month ago, I found it on YouTube. You can watch it here. It did exist, it wasn’t a dream or a hallucination or something my fourteen year old mind made up to torment me. And it shows me what I saw in that trailer in May 1970: the ball was coming out. No way on Earth, under the Laws of Physics that I studied to the extent of a Grade 5 O-Level the following summer, could a ball on that trajectory have bounced behind the line: it just wasn’t possible.
No wonder they didn’t show it on that MOTD-substitute. No wonder they never showed it on British TV, then or all the years after. It proved that it wasn’t a goal. It blew it all up in our faces, it exploded our national self-image as the good guys. At the age of 14, and not even 14 in head or heart, I began to learn about cynicism.
Of course it was denied, over and over again. Of course it crossed the line, look at Roger Hunt. Do you think there was any chance that, if that ball hadn’t crossed the line, he wouldn’t have hurled himself bodily at the ball to put it in? He’s the most honest player that ever lived (Hunt was joint second top-scorer alongside Bobby Charlton in that World Cup, with three goals, two of them short-range tap-ins into an empty net, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have the practice).
Oh, wouldn’t he? With his marker a step ahead of him, the ball bouncing so high it passed the crossbar and the German red hot favourite to get under the ball and clear it, before Hunt could get at it? Pull the other one: either Hunt genuinely but completely mistakenly believed it had bounced behind the line or he pulled off one of the greatest sporting cons in history. Even Tofik Bahramov admitted he’d never seen where the ball bounced, he just thought the ball had hit the net behind the goalline (which it very clearly never did and if it had, the Laws of Physics would have set it upon a totally different trajectory).
Even now, the majority opinion within England is still that the goal was good. Modern day computer simulations have confirmed that the ball landed on the line, but these have been dismissed because the limited number of inputs from camera feeds make the result less authoritative.
Some people have clung so desperately to the myth of the goal being good that they’ve come up with some pathetically bizarre explanations. One prominent football figure – I think, but am not 1000% sure, it was the late Jimmy Hill – even proposed an explanation that depended upon the idea that, when Hurst’s shot cannoned off the bar, it did not come down in a straight line but rather executed a parabola, which saw the whole of the ball cross the line in the air before swinging back on itself to land on, not behind the line.
Now, I admit I have seen balls do some amazing things through the air, though usually they have bee cricket balls being delivered by world class swing bowlers, and I once saw a football spinning so wierdly that it executed a leg-break bounce past the keeper, but even if I found that argument remotely plausible, and I don’t, the next part of the story would have me hooting it out of curt.
You see, our desperately writer then went on to claim that one day, absolutely fed up with arguments over the validity of his goal, Geoff Hurst dragged a bunch of pressmen down the park and started volleying footballs against the underside of a crossbar, replicating this astounding parabola over and over and over and over.
My oh my. You’d think that, if he was that good at producing the amazing swinging ball at will, he might have, you know, offered to do it on television. Where it could be measured. On film. in slow motion. Prove his point, sort of thing. No more arguments.
Nah, me too.
It was fifty years ago today and it’s still remembered as almost the first thing you think about from that game. The Germans certainly haven’t forgotten it. They won’t let it go. You should look here for a completely jaundiced but not totally unjustified examination of the Final that even tries to cast in doubt Hurst’s third goal, to see how much it still affects them. Thank God beating us in Mexico, and winning it three times since, got it out of their system, eh?
As I said, we won the World Cup on a con, against an enemy that the majority of the crowds of England who celebrated that unrepeatable victory had fought as real opponents, had faced at War. Somehow, to me, that makes it even more enjoyable.