How football and our nation have changed for the better since 1966

GB News: Hosts discuss footballers taking the knee

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Truthfully, I didn’t expect to linger long in front of the television. For one thing, I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen the final, either completely or in glittering parts, since the afternoon on which it was played; I stopped counting decades ago. For another, I’d become very weary with all things 1966. Whenever it was mentioned, I yawned in a “No, not this again” sort of way. Disillusion and disinterest with the whole shebang had set firm in me, like concrete.

I’d stopped caring about that World Cup because I found the constant harping back to it – and the perpetual repetition of those tired images – intensely boring: Wembley dressed for the occasion, the flags aflutter from the Twin Towers… Geoff Hurst’s “perfect” hat-trick (header, right foot, left foot)… Bobby Moore wiping his sweaty palms on the red-brown velvet of the Royal Box… Nobby Stiles, without his front teeth, on that skipping, spring-heeled lap of honour.

I can’t logically explain what happened. Nor can I rationalise how I felt about it afterwards. Perhaps melancholy, induced by the pandemic, made me so much more sensitive to the past. Perhaps I just wanted to escape the gloom of the present. Or perhaps, most likely, I looked at the game analytically, rather than superficially, for the first time in an absolute age.

Whatever the reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

As ridiculous and as implausible as this seems, I began to fret in extra time about whether or not we’d win the match. Those two, beautiful hours of black and white television gave me renewed respect for – and an awestruck fascination with – Alf Ramsey and his 11 ordinary immortals, who are bound together in our imagination like climbers tied to the same rope.

More importantly, for me the brief treat that was England’s glory reinforced what football truly means and how much it dearly matters in life’s great scheme. I thought back to my own experience of 1966.

While England were parading the trophy, which wasn’t much bigger than a milk bottle, I saw 50 or so of our near neighbours at my grandfather’s home in Whitley Bay rush into the road. They were yelling all at once, like a discordant choir. Some banged wooden spoons against pans and pots.

Others waved rattles. Above even that commotion, I heard the blare of a horn from the only car anyone possessed in two rows of 150 houses. That outpouring of euphoria was something I’d never witnessed before. In fact, I can’t remember witnessing it since – until, of course, last Wednesday’s Euros semi-final when Kane, Sterling, Shaw et al had all of us dancing on the ceiling.

Make a prediction – especially about the future – and you may as well brace yourself for a hail of rotten apples. I don’t know whether England will beat Italy tomorrow night (though I believe we can).

But, whatever happens at Wembley, I sense English football is about to rush fabulously into an entirely new era.

Those of us who were around 55 years ago have already lived through two seminal moments of reinvention that led eventually to a renaissance in our game. Firstly, post-66. Secondly, the post-Italia World cup of 1990. I think the third – which is already underway – has the potential to be greater and longer lasting.

The players of 1966 were working class boys who washed their own cars, cut their own lawns and lived in suburbia. But they, like the decade that belonged to them, were suddenly fashionable, made so by more than a million new fans, a lot of whom before the World Cup didn’t know the difference between Jack and Bobby Charlton.

Then we had Gazza’s tears in Italy.

Soon, with spit and polish and brash new clothes, the scraggy old First Division was rebranded as the Premier League, which ranks as one the finest and most lucrative marketing make-overs in sports history.

You know the rest. Sky broadcast more matches in a week than the ’66 generation saw in a whole season.

The game became a form of “must buy” designer-wear. You had to find a club to support and a scarf to proclaim your allegiance was de rigueur.

Those nascent ’90s, almost prelapsarian, appear about as slow-moving to us now as the last Edwardian summer must have seemed to the first rock and rollers.

Now another whiz-bang revolution is coming. English football is about to prodigiously expand its appeal and its market here and abroad. If you disagree, I suggest you prepare yourself to be astonished. The European Championships have guaranteed that our most popular game is about to become more popular still.

There’s been a noticeable shift in the zeitgeist in the last four weeks. Those who possessed a scant or tangential interest in our football before the tournament began are showing the wild fervour of the freshly converted. No wonder. Football nowadays is for everybody.

England was a vastly different country in 1966: more conscious of class and also of race; less conscious about equality and women’s rights; content to burn coal in homes that most thought would never be theirs; travelling on the few, near empty-motorways that existed; watching TV stations that didn’t begin their programming until late afternoon or early evening; handling pre-decimal coins heavy enough to make your trouser pockets sag; shut up at home during interminably desolate Sundays in which shops were closed, pubs opened for only a few hours and absolutely nothing happened until Monday morning.

And that’s not the half of it. Abortion and homosexuality were illegal. The average wage was £23 per week. The average house price was £2,006. Only 4.2million households could afford a telephone, for which the waiting list was a minimum of eight months. More than 60 per cent of adults smoked cigarettes that contained enough tar to resurface a Roman Road.

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