Like all his predecessors over the past 40 years, England manager Fabio Capello, above, has to look to Sir Alf Ramsey for the World Cup standard that England expects. Here, NORMAN GILLER wonders if there is anybody at the FA able to warn Capello of the minefield he is walking with the media over the whittling down of his World Cup squad for the 2010 finals
It will take somebody who was around for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico to have knowledge of the biggest bust up Sir Alf Ramsey, England’s only World Cup-winning manager, ever had with the Press. At the peak of the row, he vowed never to speak “off the record” again.
Come with me to Ecuador for England’s final warm-up match almost exactly 40 years ago, when they played just a week ahead of their first World Cup group game against Romania in Guadalajara. England had literally gone up into the clouds for this acclimatising match in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, more than 9,000 feet above sea level and where the air is so thin that any exertion takes your breath away.
England won 2-0 with goals from Francis Lee and Brian Kidd, but more important than the result for the Sunday newspapermen was the fact that Ramsey was about to decide which six players of his 28-man squad would be axed.
Reg Drury, the well-informed News of the World reporter, was the closest to Alf, from the days when he used to write about him as a Totteham player. Alf, quite reasonably, wanted to tell the players who were out of the squad before announcing it to the media.
With a pressing deadline and allowing for the five-hour time difference, Reg persuaded Alf that no player would see the papers. You have to remember that Alf was the sort of cautious, tight-lipped manager who would not even reveal what he had for breakfast without making sure it was in total confidence.
Convinced that nobody would utter a word to the players, Alf reluctantly told Reg just for the ears of his Sunday colleagues that the players who would not make the final squad were Peter Thompson, David Sadler, Ralph Coates, Peter Shilton, Bob McNab and Brian Kidd.
The delighted reporters filed their stories and then joined the squad for the flight to Mexico via a stop over in Bogota.
It was while they were in the air that the plans of mice and men went askew. A conscientious reporter in the London office of the News of the World â€” unaware of the confidentiality clause â€” telephoned one of the wives of the axed players and asked how she felt about her husband missing the finals.
The drama then became a crisis when by coincidence the player â€” waiting for the flight from Bogota to Mexico â€” rang his wife minutes after her call from the newspaper.
He was, to say the least, rather surprised to find his wife giving him the news that he was out of the squad. She also reeled off the names of the players joining him.
Alf was incandescent with rage when he called the players together to tell them his decision, only to find some were already into big sulks because they had discovered their fate.
This, of course, was all overshadowed by what happened next. I make no excuses for repeating one of the all-time great football reporting stories that revolves around the late, much-mourned Vic Railton, who was making one of his rare trips abroad for the London Evening News.
Even Harry Harris would have to bow the knee to West Hammer Vic as being the best contacts man in the business. He did it all by telephone, and the likes of Ron Greenwood, Bill Nicholson, Tommy Docherty and Billy Wright would call him back if ever he left a message. He won their trust by never breaking confidences and would always keep them informed with the latest hot football gossip.
Vicâ€™s empire was his office in the days when the News was based at Carmelite House, just off Fleet Street. While he had his bank of telephones and giant contacts book, he was safe and in control. But once outside, he was often like a barracuda out of water. And as for going abroad, he hated it.
Very reluctantly, he joined the England team on their build-up tour leading to the 1970 finals in Mexico. He showed he had lost all news reporting sense when he boarded the plane with the England team for the final lap to Mexico, a flight already heavy with the despair of the six players who were out of the squad. The pilot was just bringing up the wheels when Vic shared a secret with the rest of the press party.
â€śHere,â€ť said Vic. â€śThree guesses as to whoâ€™s not on the plane â€¦â€ť
It was the day Bobby Moore had been arrested at the airport on a trumped-up jewel-theft charge. Fifteen reporters were trying to decide whether to strangle Vic or hijack the plane and make the pilot head back to Colombia. The Daily Mailâ€™s enterprising Ron Crowther (a brilliant reporter beautifully nicknamed Ron Von Ruintrip because of his constant moaning) got the last seat on a plane from Mexico back to Bogota and so was first to track down where Bobby was under house arrest.
Excited Mail editors gathered around the Telex machine for his exclusive story. This was the first copy they received: â€śRon Crowther here in Bogota. What is the Spanish equivalent for shirt neck size fifteen and a half â€¦?â€ť
There is only a couple of hours time difference between Britain and South Africa, but I wonder what challenges await Capello – and our colleagues – in this age of instant, 24/7 media scrutiny and reporting.
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.
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