If you have any interest in football at all, you will already know the event to which I am referring. Fifty years ago today, England faced the then-West Germany in the World Cup Final, at Wembley Stadium, and in the most-watched sporting event ever in television history, won the World Cup for the first, and probably only time.
I work in a five storey building alongside several hundred people. Many of these are football fans, covering a profusion of teams, and not just the obvious ones of Manchester United, Manchester City and Stockport County. Of all those people, I doubt if there more than a handful, myself included, who actually watched the most famous match in English Football History.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, in an era when summers were sunny, in obedience to the Laws of Nature and the Laws of Childish Expectation. It would not have been Summer for it to have been anything else.
There were seven of us in that living room in Droylsden, 53 Chappell Road, the home since it was built of my paternal grandparents and my Dad’s elder brother. We, that is, my parents and I and, more recently, my younger sister, had gone there for dinner and the afternoon every Saturday of my life so far. So we were gathered there because we always gathered there.
Nobody, not even my ten year old self, was a football fan. My Dad did the Littlewoods Pools, which was about as close as any of us got: I mean, we didn’t even watch the FA Cup Final, which was something given that, up to and including 1966, there were only two television channels and on Cup Final Day, they both broadcast the game.
But this was the World Cup Final, and this was England. There was an atmosphere of inevitability about it, a sense of national community that made watching the game next to compulsory. It would have been like the Coronation, thirteen years previously, something that you could not not watch.
Of the seven of us, I was probably the one most interested in football for itself, at least to the extent of kicking a ball around in the playground, or the street. But I had no real interest in professional football, to the extent that I believe that the first match I ever watched was the World Cup opener, the disappointing goalless draw between England and Uruguay.
I think it was on a Friday evening, because I clearly remember it being on in our house in Openshaw, and it must have been a Friday if I was allowed to watch it all. Not that you could really call my divided attention ‘watching’: it was a dull game, after all.
And I have no recollection whatsoever of England’s other two group games, to the point where I can’t remember how the goals were scored, except that is for Bobby Charlton’s blockbuster against Mexico which has been replayed over and over, and rightly so.
The retrospectives on the tournament that are now appearing paint a picture of the 1966 World Cup that belie 1966’s Golden Legend. In a way, my own limited memories fit in with that revealed picture. I only watched the England games, not any of those featuring the other countries. It was another world, another time, the details of which would seem impossible beyond belief to the fan who only knows football from the last twenty years. It was a smaller competition, sixteen countries, four groups, six games to play for the winners. There was no saturation coverage, no game-every-day, no elephantiasis.
So, twelve days after that opening game (which obviously can’t have been a Friday night after all), the seven of us sat around the TV on Saturday afternoon to watch England in the quarter-final against Argentina. This was the one where the Argentinan captain, Rattin, was sent off, which I can’t remember, and the one in which Geoff Hurst scored his first goal of the tournament.
I don’t remember if I asked for the game to be on. I was older than I was when I watched the first episode of Doctor Who, but I have much less reliable memory to call upon. I must have had some enthusiasm about the World Cup: after all, one of my comics, as far back as something like February, had given away a free World Cup booklet, including a page for you to make your predictions about all manner of things, especially who would win, and I still had it in July.
(In my pure ignorance, and I stress that I could not have told you a single fact about Football, I had predicted a win for England, whereas our class’s acknowledged football expert had, as foresight would have dictated, chosen Brazil. That I, who knew nothing, was right when he was wrong, was a thing of wonder to me that I couldn’t refrain from pointing out).
But I can’t remember displaying any actual, to the point of bothering the adults, interest. It was just on. Maybe I do my Dad a disservice, given that by the 1970 World Cup he was interested in watching all the England games (we saw the Final, we saw Gordon Banks’ save), though my own highly-developed enthusiasm for football might have rubbed off a bit on him by then.
But nevertheless we watched the game. And in midweek, we watched the semi-final against Portugal.
Here is my first, unassailably genuine memory of that tournament. Bobby Charlton scored twice, to win the game, to take us into the Final, but what I remember is that Portugal scored against us, from a penalty. It was the first goal England had conceded in the World Cup: imagine that. It came as a shock to me in my naivete.
And so to the Final. Granny, Grandad, uncle Arthur, Mam, Dad, me and my sister. Of all of us, only she and I are here to remember that day so very long ago, and her interest in the World Cup Final is no whit more developed than on that day so long ago, when she was just turned four.
The problem with the Final, as it is with the World Cup in general, is in discerning what memories of watching that game are real, and which belong to the decades since, to the endless replaying of the goals, to the still-extant arguments over Hurst’s second goal, to Wolstenholme’s imperishable moment: “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over! It is now!” Bobby Moore wiping his sweary habds on the plush of the Royal Box so as not to soil the Queen’s gloves. Nobby Stiles dancing with his socks around his ankles.
Dammit, I watched all this. I watched that game from beginning to end and I have all these images in my head, burned in so deep that I no longer need YouTube to watch them, I don’t even need to close my eyes, but which of them are real memories from 30 July 1966 and which of them are impressions from those hundreds and thousands of replays in all the years since? The only memory that I can truly be sure of is, ironically, none of the above: it is of the German equaliser, of Wolfgang Weber sliding in to sidefoot the ball past the desperate Banks in the final minute, when England had won, had had one hand and four fingers on the Jules Rimet Trophy, and were stopped dead in their tracks.
We went on to win. It was the inevitable outcome. The World Cup is here, and England will win it. That’s what really remains, the ignorance and unquenchable optimism of a small boy yet to see that optimism isn’t always enough, that bad things happen, that the story doesn’t always work out like stories do when you come to it in real time. I never for one moment thought that it wouldn’t happen, and I was cherished by fate so that I did not have to be disappointed so young. And I never understood, on that visceral level that only knowledge of who and what England were, of who and what the World Cup, and the other nations participating, just what an achievement it all was.
Should it happen again, and I don’t expect to see it if ever it does, no-one who watches it now will ever be in the slightest doubt as to what it means.
I have lasted fifty years since that amazing afternoon that I watched but didn’t understand. Amazing, no less than nine of those Boys of ’66 have survived with me. Gordon Banks. George Cohen. Ray Wilson. Nobby Stiles. Jack Charlton. Bobby Moore. Alan Ball. Roger Hunt. Bobby Charlton. Geoff Hurst. Martin Peters. Only Moore, the Captain, the Golden One, and Ball, the youngster, have gone ahead, proving that this world turns upon the application of irony.
Overhead, clouds are gathering in a dark mass. Blue sky, blue as the skies of memory, of fifty year old days, fringes them. Another irony is that when England won the World Cup, the number one single was Chris Farlowe, singing Jagger and Richard’s “Out of Time”. Outside of time, the Boys of ’66 give it their all still, and we watch shadows flickering on a black and white tv screen, each of us sharing our own tiny piece of immortality, their backcloth, their audience, their public, their worshippers.
Fifty years. I was there.