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Push and Run!

Push and Run!

Victorious as England manager in 1966, Alf Ramsey played in one of the most exciting — and under-appreciated — teams in English football history. Tim Vickery traces the origins of English success on the world stage.

June 2018


In ¡Golazo!, Andreas Campomar’s highly entertaining history of Latin American football, the author spends page one talking about watching football with his Uruguayan father, who “especially approves of the audacity of dribbling in one’s own penalty area, an approach much frowned upon by the ever-cautious Anglo-Saxons.”

Hold everything! Do they mean us? They surely do! But, I claim, there is no better example of such audacity, no more high-stakes example of coolness and constructive grace under pressure in one’s own penalty area than a moment provided by a man in an England shirt.

It is the last minute of extra time in the 1966 World Cup final. England lead 3-2, but the West Germans are never beaten until the final whistle. Captain Bobby Moore is on the ball. True, his centre back partner Jack Charlton is yelling at him to blast it into the stands. But that is not the Moore way. He feints and looks up, and bides his time sufficiently to play a long ball perfectly weighted for Geoff Hurst to steam forward and blast in the final goal.

Some of those people on the pitch might have settled for a stereotypical view of the English game being all blood and thunder. But we are a complex and contradictory breed, and the ghosts of other steam trains echo round our tracks.

“By retaining possession of the ball, you are always poised for an attack. If you haven’t got the ball, you must be on the defensive. If you retain possession, how can the other side attack and get goals? . . . I favour a pass back to the goalkeeper if in difficulties. He is always in a position to send the ball to an unmarked colleague and so keep his side on the offensive . . . There is no such thing as a defender or attacker.  We are all footballers and members of a team. The aim of everyone should be to play good football and contribute something towards scoring goals.”

These are not, though they could well be, the words of Pep Guardiola, or a Catalan schooled in the Total Football of Johan Cruyff. They come from Alf Ramsey. And not the Ramsey who was manager of that England side of 1966. This was Ramsey the player, writing in 1952, putting across the experience he gained in one of the most revolutionary — and forgotten — teams in the history of the English game, the Tottenham Hotspur “push-and-run” side of 1950-51.

“I spread the sugar cubes around, trying to map out the moves leading up to our goal. It was one to savour because there were about seven passes starting out from our own penalty area.”
— Arthur Rowe

The architect of the team was Arthur Rowe. A former centre half, he had spent time coaching in Hungary before being forced home by the outbreak of the Second World War. He took charge of Tottenham in 1949, with the team in the second division. And, in typically pragmatic English terms, he introduced his players to a new idea.

“We were returning home from a match at Bradford Park Avenue,” he later recalled, “and were all dead pleased with our £2 win bonus, talking over the game and our last minute goal which had done the trick for us. I spread the sugar cubes around, trying to map out the moves leading up to our goal. It was one to savour because there were about seven passes starting out from our own penalty area. I argued that if we could plan moves like that instead of just hoping for it to happen we would score more often”.

“I asked [winger] Sonny Walters if he was prepared to work harder by coming back into our half, not something wingers reckoned to do in those days. I told him he would have to defend more, but that he would also get more of the ball. I put it to [right-back] Alf Ramsey that while I knew he was brought up on using long, measured passes, these tended to leave him out of the action once he had played them. But had he ever thought how much more accuracy was guaranteed, how much more progress could be made, if he pumped 15- or 20-yard passes to a withdrawn Walters?

“The opposing left-back would hesitate to follow Walters back into the Spurs half, which was definitely no man’s land for the full-back then, giving Walters the vital gift of space. And Sonny could also make an inside pass if Alf followed up and made himself available. We had one more option; with Ramsey’s precision, once advanced he could drive the ball down the right for Les Bennett, coming to the near post, to turn the ball inside with his head.  And Bennett created numerous passes doing just that.”

Rowe’s mantra was as follows: “keep it quick, keep it simple, keep it accurate.” Move the ball into space and then move into position to take a return pass. A contemporary report from the Daily Telegraph dissected the results: “Tottenham’s method is simple. Briefly, the Spurs principle is to hold the ball a minimum amount of time, keep it on the ground and put it ahead into an open space where a colleague will be a second or two later. The result is their attacks are carried on right through the side with each man taking the ball in his stride at top pace, for all the world like a wave gathering momentum as it races to the far distant shore. It is all worked out in triangles and squares and when the mechanism of it clicks at speed, as it did on Saturday, with every pass placed to the last refined inch on a drenched surface, there is simply no defence against it.”

“Much of the best of English football can be seen in the 1950-51 side. There was some of it in the team that Ramsey built to become world champions in 1966 — perhaps best seen against Brazil at Mexico 1970.”

The talk on the train with the sugar cubes led to an express of a team which not only gained promotion to the first division, but then went on to win the title. There was considerable debate in the game on the team’s methods. Some defiantly saw Rowe’s “push-and-run” team as un-English. National team boss Walter Winterbottom recalled receiving letters from fans “complaining that they wanted to see the high ball and action in the middle. They didn’t want this namby-pamby inter-passing stuff!”

Much of the best of English football can be seen in the 1950-51 side. There was some of it in the team that Ramsey built to become world champions in 1966 — perhaps best seen in the extraordinary way that England retained possession against Brazil in the midday heat of Guadalajara at Mexico 1970. And it is certainly there in the great Liverpool sides of the 1970s and 80s.

Alf Ramsey, player at Tottenham Hotspur 1949-55; England manager 1963-74

Alf Ramsey, player at Tottenham Hotspur 1949-55; England manager 1963-74

Why, then, has the ”push-and-run” side been so forgotten?

One reason, perhaps, is that it burned out quickly. This was a style of play that demanded physical intensity, and sustaining the level of 1950-51 proved impossible given the level of fitness of the time. Another explanation perhaps lies in one of Rowe’s favourite, and wisest, sayings: “the team makes the stars, not the stars the team.”

The star of push-and-run was the team. Rowe had some fine players at his disposition: from goalkeeper Ted Ditchburn to centre forward Len Duquemin, passing through the midfield talents of Ron Burgess and Eddie Baily.  But there were no superstars — Ramsey had the longest international career. And so, even for Tottenham fans, the push-and-run side have tended to be eclipsed by the double-winning team of a decade later — coached by Bill Nicholson, the dogged defensive midfielder who balanced out Rowe’s team. 1960-61 counted on a magical midfield — the glorious talent of Danny Blanchflower, the all-round fire of Dave Mackay and the constant movement of John White. And then came the ultimate idol figure — artful dodger goal machine Jimmy Greaves. These are the legends that Tottenham fans grow up hearing about. The 1950-51 side suffer by comparison. They lack star appeal. But the push-and-run boys were so far ahead of their time that they might have given Guardiola’s Manchester City a run for their money in this season’s Premier League.


Words: Tim Vickery ǀ Imagery: Offside

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