The guts of England’s glory: Duncan Hamilton’s ‘Answered Prayers’ re-examines 1966 World Cup

An insightful new book about the build-up to England’s 1966 World Cup triumph and the horrors that haunted the players afterwards is reviewed by Eric Brown…


Author Duncan Hamilton and his publisher must have thought long and hard before producing yet another book on the 1966 World Cup.

With a surfeit of literature on the subject already available, would there be demand for a fresh look at England’s greatest sporting achievement, decades after that showery day at Wembley when Bobby Moore wiped his hands before receiving the Jules Rimet Trophy from HM Queen Elizabeth II?

More than 20 books about the 1966 World Cup already sit on my shelves, including autobiographies of nine of the players who appeared in the final (I’m still looking for those of Ray Wilson and Roger Hunt).

There are six about the competition itself, including David Miller’s England’s Last Glory published in 1986 with a title still apt today.

Somehow, in Answered Prayers, award-winning author Hamilton has produced a book that adds knowledge and insight to rival all these worthy efforts.

There’s not much on the tournament itself which doesn’t kick off in earnest until around halfway through Hamilton’s 400-page epic. No, his genius is concentrating on the run-up to 1966 and the unfortunate aftermath.

So his tale begins with World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey still playing for Spurs and England.

Nearing the end of his playing career, Ramsey suffers twin setbacks in a World Cup tie with the USA and a friendly against Hungary. He’s in an England team mainly chosen by the blazered ancients of the FA International Committee, who compete to cap players from their own clubs.

Walter Winterbottom, nominally in charge of the team, has only a minor input in selection as complacent England fall behind world rivals without even noticing.

Ramsey finds a route to his desired role in the Spurs managerial seat blocked and is forced to start at third-tier Ipswich Town. He arrives to discover a ramshackle, rat-infested dressing room and players of modest ability.

Yet Ramsey drags them up by the bootstraps, steers them to the top flight and then an unlikely title in 1962, replacing his old club Spurs as champions. Now he is on his way and the FA, after a couple of knockbacks from others, come calling.

That’s how the roots of England’s 1966 triumph were planted. What happened much later transforms the tale into a horror story.

Just hours after Wembley glory, the players’ wives were insulted by the FA who refused them admission to an official celebratory banquet for their husbands.

The players received desultory rewards for earning the FA a small fortune. With the squad insisting on sharing their bonus equally, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and the rest received little more than £1,000 for achieving sporting history.

The beaten West Germans pocketed a sum at least five times that and each received a new Volkswagen car just for reaching the final.

A street trader made £1,500 from selling T-shirts near Wembley Stadium on World Cup final day alone.

England’s heroes quickly tumbled from their pedestals and began scratching around for a living. Hat-trick hero Hurst could later be found painting the stand at non-league Telford where he was player-manager.

Ray Wilson became an undertaker. Martin Peters ended up playing in a minor Norfolk league. Majestic Moore became sports editor of a national newspaper which ran front-page stories like “Hitler discovered on moon.”

Luck deserted them in other ways. Gordon Banks lost an eye. Alan Ball lost his wife, then his own life far too soon. George Cohen was diagnosed with cancer twice, and Moore died of the same disease.

Then there is the player who contemplated suicide because he thought he was no use to anyone.

Peters, Ball, Moore, Nobby Stiles, Hurst and Bobby Charlton all dabbled in football management with little success.

Meanwhile, a plot orchestrated by ambitious individuals within the FA brought Ramsey down soon after England exited the 1970 World Cup finals and then lost a dramatic qualifying tie to Poland.

Ramsey’s brief flirtation with Birmingham City didn’t work out either and he returned to his Ipswich home. He didn’t even receive an invite to a match in the Euro 1996 tournament staged in England.

Ramsey died aged 79 in 1999. Hamilton’s long and arduous search for his tomb finally ended in a half-hidden corner of an Ipswich graveyard. The man who orchestrated England’s greatest sporting triumph lies in a simple grave marked by a flat stone and overshadowed by surrounding giant, ornate memorials.

The inscription carries no mention of his place in football history.

Ramsey had been headline news for months in the 17 national newspaper titles of the day as the tournament approached. From Monday to Saturday, they sold a combined 21 million copies daily with the Daily Mirror and Daily Express responsible for nearly 10 million sales between them.

Most of the papers labelled England “no-hopers.”

Hamilton, a former reporter with a Nottingham News Agency, has won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award three times.

Two British Sports Book Awards and his status as the first writer to win the Wisden Cricket Book of the Year on three occasions confirm his reputation as one of the greatest contemporary sports authors.

Books on Harold Larwood, Brian Clough, Johnny Bairstow and Neville Cardus helped put him on a pedestal.

Who would have thought a new book about a sporting event of the distant past would be as enlightening and relevant as Hamilton’s Answered Prayers.

Answered Prayers: England and the 1966 World Cup by Duncan Hamilton is out now, published by Riverrun, price £25.

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