It's entered English football folklore: the defeat that brought down a government. But was the country really influenced by a World Cup defeat?
Football and British politics may seem uneasy bedfellows with very little common ground. There’s the importance of having the correct person in the ‘Number 10’ role in both spheres of course, and whenever there’s a bit of on-the-field glory, the temptation for politicians to drape themselves around any popular adulation appears to be overwhelming. Can football shape or influence the political mood of the nation? It’s said that a rolling stone gathers no moss, but can a rolling ball shape the zeitgeist?
I’ve seen it promulgated a few times that England’s World Cup triumph in 1966 helped to sweep Harold Wilson’s Labour Party into power on a wave of optimism. The problem is however, that the Three Lions’ triumph didn’t happen until 30th July, by which time Wilson’s government had been already been in power for four months or so. After Bobby Moore had lifted the ‘still-gleaming’ Jules Rimet trophy, Wilson is said to have remarked that, “England only win the World Cup when Labour are in power.” So, a bit of post-event glory-hunting perhaps, but World Cup Willie certainly didn’t help the Wilson government into power. Four years later England were eliminated from the 1970 tournament a mere four days before Labour were turfed out of power in favour of Ted Heath’s Tories.
After the election defeat, Wilson, probably in somewhat chastened mood, was at pains to dispel any thought that the demise of England’s prospects of defending the World Cup had any bearing on the outcome of the General Election. “Governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures,” he is reported as remarking. There’s evidence to suggest however that others, and even Wilson himself may not have been so sure.
Back in June 1970, both Wilson and England were regarded as likely victors. When the date of the General election was announced, Labour held a 7.5 point lead in a Gallup poll, and as the days progressed, this had even grown at one point to a 12.4 point lead in an NOP survey. A successful local government election cycle and an apparently strong economic performance all pointed to a further term for the Labour Party. A mid-Summer heatwave was also warming the spirits of the electorate
This was a few years after Wilson’s famous “white hot heat of the technological revolution” speech, but the Gannex-donned prime minster had surely insulated himself against a rainy day event, and still had his ‘man-of-the-people’ charm in place. Conversely, for the Conservatives, Ted Heath appeared a starched shirt sort of upper class Tory, all hunched shoulders when laughing, and happiest on his ‘Morning Cloud’ yacht. It hardly seemed to chime with the working-class voters. In early June some bookmakers offered odds of 20-1 against a Tory victory. With his pipe already in place, it seemed that Wilson could merely don his slippers to complete the set and ease to victory. After all, what could go wrong?
Out in Mexico, the England squad seemed well set for a spirited defence of their trophy. Whilst some of the ’66 glory boys had departed, the likes of Banks, Moore, Ball, Hurst, Peters, and Bobby Charlton were still in attendance, and were now complemented by the polished talents of Leeds left-back Terry Cooper, the elegant promise of Colin Bell and the as yet untapped talent of Allan Clarke. It was this combination, plus the confidence of turning up as World Champions that stoked the belief that, if not the sole outstanding squad, England were among the favourites to win the tournament. On top of this of course, at the helm of the squad was the architect of the Wembley triumph four years previously, Sir Alf Ramsey.
Comfortable, if unspectacular 1-0 victories against the East European pair of Romania and Czechoslovakia, sandwiched a loss by a similar score to the Pelé-inspired Brazil. Even that defeat however did not dampen expectations. It was a game where England had been competitive with the South Americans, and but for a scuffed finish from Jeff Astle late on, may even have managed a draw. Defeat however put England into the quarter-finals as group runners-up, and pitted them against West Germany. This was the team they defeated four years previously and expectations remained high as they entered the pitch in Leon.
If ever a single encounter was to define the sporting relationship between two nations, it was the 1966 World Cup Final. Whatever the sport, clashes between England and Germany – be it West or unified – since, are invariably tense and well-contested occasions. The quarter-final in Leon was no different. It was a stifling hot day, even by the standards of the tournament as a whole, and the temperature was to take a toll on events. Back in Britain, Harold Wilson had hoped that the warm weather would work in his favour, Ramsey took a different view of the meteorological effects on his fortunes.
Although never dominant, England had enjoyed the better of the play in the first period and into the early parts of the game following the break. Goals from Alan Mullery after 30 minutes and a typical Martin Peters strike less than five minutes into the second period had put the World Champions 2-0 up and seemingly in control. The elegance of Beckenbauer had been sacrificed by manager Helmut Schön, with the Bayern Munich player detailed to negate the influence of Bobby Charlton. Although relatively successful in isolation as a tactic, the big picture still saw the West Germans two goals astray. At this stage however, the unrelenting heat of the Mexican sunshine played its hand.
Even without the baking temperature, Charlton, prematurely balding, always appeared to be older than his 32 years, and with the less than fashionable comb-over providing little protection from the effects of the sun, he seemed to grow increasingly weary. Ramsey was always considered to be a calculating sort of manager, not prone to ‘seat of the pants’ judgments. It must be at least likely therefore that if the situation of the game allowed such a ploy, resting Charlton for the closing phases of the encounter was always in Ramsey’s mind. At 2-0 up, and with just over 20 minutes to play therefore, plus with a potential semi-final in mind against European rivals Italy, Ramsey made the fateful decision to withdraw the Manchester United midfielder. In his place came the talented, but unproven at this level, Colin Bell. At just 24 years old, and only two years into his international career, the Manchester City player certainly did not appear to carry the same threat as Charlton, and Schoen decided to let Beckenbauer off his defensive leash, to try and influence the game. It didn’t take long.
Gordon Banks, at this time still widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, was the normal custodian between the sticks for England. His performance against Brazil, and in particular the seemingly impossible right-handed save to flick a Pelé header over the bar as he plunged low to his right, had only enhanced such reputation. Sadly, however, the Stoke City stopper had been taken ill with an upset stomach shortly before the game, and this particular bout of ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ had propelled Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti into the goalkeeper’s jersey.
By anybody’s standards the 28 year-old was an exceptional goalkeeper and, but for the presence of Banks, would surely have won many more than his scandalously low total of seven international caps. This however was the price he paid for being present in the era of probably England’s greatest-ever goalkeeper. The inevitable consequence was an almost total absence of experience at the highest levels of the game, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of international competition when the pressure was at its most intense. Although anyone replacing Banks would be second choice, Bonetti had only conceded a single goal for his country in his previous half-dozen internationals, and had come to the tournament on the back of one of the best goalkeeping displays in FA Cup Final history when he helped Chelsea to lift the trophy against a rampant Leeds United. The game in Leon was however to effectively destroy Bonetti’s reputation as an international player, and he never represented his country again.
Freed from his shadowing duties, Beckenbauer turned the game on its head inside a few minutes. Slaloming through the England midfield he reached the edge of the penalty area before firing right-footed across Bonetti and into the right-hand corner of the net. Bonetti seemed transfixed by the moment, and a shot that many would have normally expected him to ‘throw his cap on’ eluded him. It was a seminal moment. There’s no record that I can find stating whether or not Harold Wilson was watching at the time, but if he was – as is perhaps suggested below – his heart may have sank.
Ten minutes or so before Charlton took his leave of the arena, Schön had made a substitution of his own. Removing Reinhard Libuda, the coach deployed another wide man in his place. Jurgen Grabowski was an energetic 25 year-old winger with Eintracht Frankfurt, and with the English defence now visibly tiring, Schoen unleashed Grabowski with instructions to attack the tiring legs of England’s full-backs, Terry Cooper and Keith Newton. With Beckenbauer now roaming free and taking control of the centre of the pitch, and Grabowski displaying his dancing-shoes on the flanks, West Germany wrested any dominance that England had enjoyed. The game was slipping away from the champions.
With what some may describe as a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ however, England denied the attacks and inside the last ten minutes, there was a growing belief that they could hang on. Ramsey took off Peters, less to save his legs perhaps, than to replace them with the fresh ones of the robust Norman Hunter, with all the defensive fortitude that the Leeds United man would bring. As with his first change however, it had the opposite effect. West Germany skipper and iconic striker Uwe Seeler netted the equaliser with just eight minutes remaining, and with his opponents now clearly in the ascendancy, Ramsey may well have suspected that the game was up. Being an impressionable young teenager at the time, that’s certainly how it felt to me.
Extra-time dawned and England hung on gamely throughout the first period, it was to be ultimately forlorn however. With 108 minutes on the clock, a cross came in from Grabowski, Seeler rising at the far post, headed the ball back across goal and ‘Der Bomber’ Gerd Muller hooked the balled past Bonetti with his right foot. For all Bonetti’s perceived earlier frailty, it’s difficult to see what he could have done, with his defence allowing Seeler and Muller unrestricted access to the ball inside England’s penalty area. England were done, and the brief opportunity to call ourselves World Champions was gone.
As was the fashion at the time, the squad had recorded a World Cup song; even then the FA recognised the value of a pound or two. Although never really carrying much musical merit, there was always a ready market for such things. In the 1970 vintage the squad’s World Cup sing was called ‘Back Home’ and it spent 17 weeks in the charts becoming the country’s best selling song for three weeks. Needless to say, after 14th June, its popularity declined rapidly. Given the title of the ditty, it may be a little ironic that after the defeat repercussions were apparently being felt ‘back home’. The first line of the song goes: “Back home, they’ll be thinking about us when we are far away.” Perhaps they were, in more ways than one.
Four days later, Wilson’s government fell. Labour lost 60 seats, whilst Heath’s Tories gained 65 giving the Conservatives a healthy overall majority of 31. Was England’s defeat a deciding, or even contributory factor to the demise of Labour? Certainly other events had occurred around the same time. Wilson had long trumpeted the economic stability that the country had enjoyed under his premiership. A couple of days before the election however the Balance of Payments account slipped into deficit. Labour had also employed a fairly vigorous campaign launching personal attacks on the leading members of the Tory party, labeling them as ‘yesterday’s men.’ It was pretty tame stuff by modern standards, but in those days such behaviour may well have alienated as many voters as it impressed. Roy Hattersley, later Lord Hattersley, was also later to remark that his party had been “very, very complacent.”
It’s highly likely that there was no single reason why what had seemed an assured victory was to slip through Labour’s fingers. The unexpected jolt to economic prosperity may well have been a factor, as may have been the aggressive campaigning. Despite Wilson’s protestations about there be no link between “football fixtures” and “governance.” his early protestations in the final days before the election that Ted Heath “took pleasure” in England’s defeat seemed an ill-thought, knee-jerk lashing out. They were contemptuously rejected. As an attempt to wrap himself in the flag, it was probably counter-productive.
Former football league referee, and then minister of sport, Denis Howell had little doubt of the significance of England’s loss to outcome of the upcoming election. Writing his memoirs some twenty years later he recorded that “The moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday.” Somewhat harsh on Bonetti perhaps, but in politics especially, there’s always a need to find a scapegoat. Howell of course was a football man, so perhaps his judgement may have been coloured by his penchant for the game. His memoirs however offer further insight. On the Monday following the match, together with the articulate but football-ignorant Roy Jenkins, Howell held a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham. It went more as Howell feared than Jenkins expected: “Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures nor immigration, but solely the football and whether Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit. I tried to be good-humoured about my answers, but for the first time I had real doubts and knew the mood was changing fast – and afterwards my wife Brenda came back from canvassing and said: ‘I don’t like the smell of it at all; it’s just like 1959 all over again.” The result in 1970 was not as bad as the landslide defeat of 1959, but it appears that the scent of defeat was in the air.
Further evidence is added by the then defence minister, Denis Healey. In his memoirs, he recalls that in April 1970, Wilson had called his cabinet members to a strategy meeting at Chequers, during which, “Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day?” It’s an occasion also recalled by another cabinet minister present at the meeting, Richard Crossman. He has related that Wilson was unsure of the best date to go to the country: “Harold said one of the problems was the World Cup. If it wasn’t for that, he would favour the end of June.” The prime minster clearly thought it was a matter for serious consideration.
Other politicians of the time have also added weight to the theory that such consideration may have been valid. Tony Crosland, local government minister of the time, has related that Wilson put the responsibility for his defeat squarely on the shoulders of “the disgruntled Match of the Day millions.” Although he also added that a measure of “party complacency” hadn’t helped.
Was football, and particularly England’s world Cup fortunes Harold Wilson’s ‘third rail’ of politics? Did he touch it and die? It’s difficult to believe that there’s no credence in Wilson’s statement that the fate of a football match can influence the governance of a country. It’s equally difficult to accept however, that there was no fall-out from England’s defeat in Mexico. The complex interwoven threads that together make up the social fabric of a country are not easy to disentangle.
Neither Beckenbauer, Seeler or Muller – or even the much-maligned Peter Bonetti – can be blamed for Wilson’s eviction from Downing Street. Fears of inflation, the impending decimalisation – due for the following April – immigration issues and standards of living affected by the Budget announced earlier in the year would all have also played a part to a greater or lesser extent across the country. If Harold Wilson had gambled on a successful England performance giving impetus to his campaign, it was surely ill-conceived. As with ’66, the final of the tournament would come after the date of the election. Perhaps he’d consulted the calendar however and assessed that getting through the quarter-final would be enough impetus, without having to gamble on the increasingly high stakes of semi-final and final. More likely however, is that the events in Mexico may have a contributory, but hardly deciding, influence on the election; and even in a nation enamoured so with football as Britain.
It may well be that rather than influencing the political fortunes of the country, the success – or otherwise – of the England team may have reflected it instead. In 1966, the country had a feel-good factor that may have even helped to propel England to glory at Wembley on that June afternoon. This was the time of Wilson’s ‘technological revolution’ and the country’s fortunes seemed on the up. By 1970 however, realisation of a long term decline had clearly set in wherein the nation was no longer one of the world’s major powers. Defeat in Leon reflected this, and perhaps gave a glimpse of what was to follow with the ‘Winter of Discontent’ and the oil-fueled recessions of the seventies.
Football may be able to influence the emotions of a nation for a short period of time, be it provoking joy or despair. Such reactions can only be ephemeral however; there’s always another game to come. Perhaps in the defeat to West Germany in 1970, the game was merely a mirror, that when lifted up to the electorate, reflected a picture it would rather not have seen. That may be the real significance of the part played by the game in the outcome of the election.
By All Blue Daze
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona