The Greatest England Games 1920-1966

January 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

1966 was, of course, the finest achievement of English football; a win so feted and mythologised that it has hung over the England team for the following forty-four years (and counting). Generation after generation of footballers are asked to live up to Geoff Hurst, to Nobby Stiles, to the Bobbys, Moore and Charlton, only to be discarded, oft-derided, having wilted in the shadow of greatness.

The idea that an England team could take to the field without this pressure is an alien and entertaining one, and is captured wonderfully on this DVD (available from the excellent Tikabooson, and narrated by the incomparable Barry Davies). Forty-six years of Pathé news footage traces the England team from the resumption of international football following World War One, to the 1966 final, taking in the opening of Wembley, the astonishing 22-year international career of Stanley Matthews, the humbling at the hands of the Hungarian Aranycsapat, and any number of Home Nation tonkings.

It was an odd period for England. On the one hand, they ended it as champions of the world; on the other, they were — more abstractly — caught and then surpassed by their international rivals. The 3-6 humbling at the feet of the Magic Magyars, in November 1953, was famously England’s first non-Home Nations home defeat. But it had been presaged by an increasing vulnerability abroad and fragility at home; ominously, England had needed a dubious penalty to beat a scratch FIFA World XI the previous month, included here. On the whole, however, action outside these isles is largely absent, presumably due to the restrictions on British Pathé’s archives. As a result, England win. A lot. And score. A lot.

Not that you see all the goals. 1920s and early 1930s Pathé footage appears to consist of wonderfully plummy men outlining the events of the game while unrelated moments from the match play out, interspersed with reaction shots of men in hats waving rattles with what probably passed, at the time, for gay abandon. But it is fascinating to watch the art of football highlights develop alongside the team: angles widen; footage steadies; the blessed addition of sound means the loop of Land of Hope and Glory can finally be put to rest. Then, just in time for the final: colour. Red shirts, green grass, and a golden trophy.

With so much to cram in, and with Pathé clips running, on the whole, shorter than is ideal for highlights, it is difficult to draw any particular footballing conclusions. Alf Ramsey’s tactical innovations are hard to pick out from the footage here, though a pre-World Cup friendly against West Germany does offer a tantalising glimpse of full-back George Cohen providing width on the right. Instead, the joy — and it is a joy — comes from watching great players making their debuts, scoring their first goals and their last: Tom Finney, Jackie Milburn, Dixie Dean, Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey, Bobby Robson, Johnny Haynes; the flowers of English football bud, blossom, and fade away over two frenetic hours.

So, tragically, do Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, finest of the Busby Babes, cut down in their prime by slush on the runway. Pleasingly, Edwards scores the finest goal of the collection, beating two before lashing home against West Germany. And there are tantalising glimpses of the wider world in England’s opponents. Alf Sherwood and Trevor Ford for Wales, Nilton Santos and Didi for Brazil, Alfredo di Stéfano for Spain; all are entertained, and defeated, at Wembley. Then there’s those Hungarians — that drag-back — and Eusebio’s tears.

But perhaps most striking is the air of innocence that pervades the footage, an innocence at once sweet and sinister. On the one hand, a missed chance that would draw opprobrium today is praised as “a good try”, and there is genuine (if occasionally patronising) respect for the efforts of opponents. On the other, it is frankly bizarre to hear a clipped, English voice build-up to a friendly against pre-war Germany by remarking, approvingly, “you can always tell a good Nazi by his cap”, before emphasising the importance of the heil. And gone, hopefully, are the days when a summariser can duck attempting foreign names by chuckling “I’d need to keep my tongue in a sling for the next week”. Perhaps modern football isn’t all bad.

In such a compressed effort, some omissions are inevitable, the most of which jarring is the 1966 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. By glossing over the curious Rattin dismissal, England’s passage through the tournament is presented as a touch more straightforward and uncontroversial than is probably fair; the DVD also misses out on a fascinating story. But perhaps a certain amount of rose-tinting can be forgiven: this was, after all, the last time English football, and England’s footballers, would be free from the weight of history, of the shadows of those that came before. This is when men became myths.

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