Blub. Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

July 13, 2021   4 mins

Every morning during the 1966 World Cup campaign, Norbert Peter Patrick Paul “Nobby” Stiles would rise early and walk the short distance from the England team hotel in Hendon to St Edward the Confessor’s church in Golder’s Green to attend mass. It’s said that on the morning of the final itself he made his Confession and was therefore in a state of grace before locking horns with Wolfgang Overath and Franz Beckenbauer on the hallowed turf of Wembley.

Stiles was a product of the working-class Irish suburbs of Manchester, and became a fixture in the great United teams managed by Sir Matt Busby – another daily Massgoer and son of the Irish diaspora (who held a Papal Knighthood alongside the “K” he received from Queen Elizabeth). There were several more players of Irish extraction in England’s 1966 squad: Gerry Byrne, John Connelly and Ian Callaghan (not to mention Peter Bonetti, whose family were Swiss Italians) and the Irish immigrant backgrounds of many of the current England team are striking: Kalvin Phillips’ mum is Irish and Harry Kane’s dad is from Galway, Harry Maguire’s grandparents come from Northern Ireland, while Declan Rice’s come from Cork – and not only did Jack Grealish (like Rice) represent Ireland in his youth, but he was a talented childhood GAA player too.

If anything, Stiles’ religiosity was more unusual for a footballer then than it is now (although Jack Charlton seemed to offer up thanks at the final whistle, and his boss at Leeds, Don Revie, would surprise his roommates by kneeling in prayer at bedtime). For not only have football matches become increasingly liturgical – barely a week goes by without a minute’s silence, or a minute’s applause, black armbands, rainbow laces and compulsory poppies, and now the players actually genuflect before every game – but the faith of the players themselves is more obvious too.

Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford are all practising Christians – recalling a time when muscular Christianity sprouted football teams across the country, including Everton, Southampton, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers; and in Rashford’s case his effective campaign to provide free school meals had echoes of the Poor Children’s Dinner Table, a charity in Glasgow founded by an Irish Marist brother, which became Glasgow Celtic FC.

Both Rashford and Raheem Sterling have spoken movingly about the grinding childhood poverty that shaped them. Sterling’s experiences were almost Dickensian, for after his father was murdered in Jamaica, his mother brought the family to England to find a better life. This entailed working several jobs simultaneously to make extra money to pay for her degree, and the England midfielder has written that “I’ll never forget waking up at five in the morning before school and helping her clean the toilets at the hotel in Stonebridge. I’d be arguing with my sister, like, “No! No! You got the toilets this time. I got the bed sheets.”

But the boys of 1966 were no stranger to hardship: Martin Peters had been evacuated from the East End of London during the Blitz; Ray Wilson had “Egypt never again” tattooed on his arm after an unhappy spell in the army in the 1950s; and Gordon Banks’ brother was mugged and killed when he was a child, and Banks himself built his upper strength through the hard graft of coal-heaving and hod-carrying before he turned professional.

It’s noticeable that the geographical spread of English footballing talent is now more evenly spread than it was 55 years ago (eight of the starting 11 in 1966 had been born in the North; compared to six northerners in the 2021 final side), but I’ve been pleased to see that the Great Northern Coalfield is still represented, as it always is in great England teams: in 1966 it was via the Charlton brothers from Northumberland, and in 2021 we have two Jordans from Sunderland, Pickford and Henderson (with the ‘Gateshead Guardiola’, Graeme Jones, pulling the strings on the training ground).

Although the class profile of football supporters has changed a lot since the 1960s, the team itself seems as resolutely working-class as it ever was – there was no space in the squad for the genuinely posh Patrick Bamford of Leeds United (of the JCB digger dynasty), a public school footballer in the mould of Frank Lampard – whose A* in Latin GCSE probably made him the most accomplished Latinist to play for England since C. B. Fry.

Class still marks out the parameters of English sport in a way that doesn’t pertain in the rest of Europe. (Indeed, appearing in the Italian dugout on Sunday night was Gianluca Vialli, a man who grew up in the Castello di Belgioioso, a 60-room palace outside Cremona.) And this brings us to the England managers of 1966 and 2021.  Both Alf Ramsey and Gareth Southgate are the products of new towns in the suburban South East, growing up in the modest suburbia of Dagenham and Crawley respectively. Alf Ramsay was famously up-tight about class signifiers: taking elocution lessons, and digging out a bowler hat for the visit of the Queen to Ipswich Town when he was manager there.

Gareth Southgate seems more comfortable in his own skin, and has handled the task of managing England amid an all-consuming culture war with rare adroitness. It’s hard to imagine what Sir Alf would have thought about taking the knee, although Southgate was careful to cite his grandfather “a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II” – just like Quartermaster Sergeant Ramsey himself in fact – as the wellspring of his values.

As well as their obvious patriotism, both men share a talent for meticulous man-management that have moulded great loyalty and fondness among their players, even if Southgate’s side were unable to win their final. For Ramsey was far from the aloof and detached figure of caricature, in fact, many of his players spoke of the respect and even love they felt for Sir Alf. This generation of England players and fans have found a figurehead who inspires similar esteem and affection – a man who may yet become Sir Gareth, and who all England fans hope will go the final step at next year’s World Cup in Qatar, and bring it home again.

Dan Jackson is the author of the best-selling book The Northumbrians: The North East of England and its People. A New History, published by Hurst (2019)