ENGLAND won the World Cup in 1966 to fulfil the prophesy of their manager Alf Ramsey.
Finally, the nation that gave football to the world, was officially and proudly top of the international rankings.
But, according to Tommy Banks – the straight-talking Bolton Wanderers full-back – the England team of 1958 would have won the Jules Rimet Trophy eight years earlier but for the Munich air disaster.
Banks, who won four of his six international caps at the finals in Sweden, has no doubt in his mind the tragedy the previous February that cost the lives of eight of Manchester United’s legendary ‘Busby Babes’ also robbed the England team of three key players – Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor – who would have made all the difference in Sweden.
Indeed, Banks admits he would not have played a single game if Byrne’s absence had not left a vacancy at left-back.
“I was lucky to even get in the squad,” said the Farnworth pensioner – at 84 the oldest surviving member of the Bolton Wanderers team that won the FA Cup in 1958, when they beat the Munich-ravaged United 2-0 at Wembley.
“Roger Byrne was England’s left-back and he’d have been first choice, not me. I might have gone to Sweden but I probably wouldn’t have played.
“As well as that, we’d no centre-forward because we’d lost Tommy Taylor and that left us short up front.
“Walter Winterbottom (England’s head coach) played Derek Kevan, who was a wing half. He worked hard but it wasn’t the same, and not having big Duncan (Edwards) with us... we weren’t as strong as we should have been.
“I’ve no doubt in my mind that we’d have won the World Cup in Sweden but for the disaster. It robbed us of our key players and we couldn’t replace them.”
England, who drew all three of their qualifying group games – against the Soviet Union (2-2), Brazil (0-0) and Austria (2-2) – before losing to the Soviet Union (1-0) in a play-off for a place in the quarter-finals, were further handicapped by the loss of the talismanic Tom Finney through injury.
“The Russians kicked him out of the World Cup in that first game,” Banks recalled of the brutal treatment the England left-winger received.
“He’d shown them how to play football when we played them in a friendly in Moscow before the finals and they knew he was the danger man. So they set out to clobber him every time he got the ball.”
Finney still managed to set up England’s first goal for Kevan and scored the second from the penalty spot but he missed the rest of the tournament with a knee injury.
Losing another of their main men was hardly the best preparation for the second group game against Brazil – the pre-tournament favourites.
But with Banks and fellow full-back Don Howe outstanding in a disciplined defensive display, England managed to grind out a scoreless draw.
Sweden 1958 saw the emergence of Pele – a raw but supremely gifted 17-year-old who was the ‘baby’ of the Brazil team that beat the hosts in the final and would go on to become the player widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time.
But neither Pele nor Garrincha – the legendary winger nicknamed the “Little Bird” who could mesmerise full-backs with his ball-playing skills – played in that qualifying game. Pele was injured while Garrincha was a maverick, too much of a gamble for such a game.
“I always felt we should have beaten the Brazilians,” Banks said with genuine conviction.
“I thought I was going to be playing against Garrincha but they didn’t pick him because he’d been too selfish with the ball in a previous game and Pele didn’t play either, I remember Bill Slater (Wolves’ half-back) played their inside forward, Didi, out of the game.
“Their centre-forward who played against us was a light-haired lad – a fella called Mazzola. But he got injured and Pele came in. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
Having taken two points from their first two games in what was regarded as the “group of death”, England had high hopes of progressing to the quarter-finals as they headed into the third game against Austria – the weakest team in the group. But they failed to deliver and were fortunate to salvage a draw after trailing 2-0.
And despite their best efforts, the play-off against the Soviet Union proved a game too far for Winterbottom’s heavily-handicapped squad, who lost their only game of the tournament and were on their way home.
Banks – at that point a recognised international as well as an FA Cup winner – had enhanced his own reputation with a good World Cup. But, as he recounts in his recently published biography “Ah’m Telling Thee” written by another ex-Wanderer Ian Seddon, his homecoming brought him back down to earth.
Leaving Moses Gate on the last leg of his journey home, immaculately dressed in his England blazer and flannels and carrying his England suitcase – a local woman who knew him, stopped him and said in all seriousness: “Hello Tommy, you look very smart. Have you been to Blackpool for your holidays?”
Characteristically to the point, the returning ‘celebrity’ replied: “Nah, not this time Mrs Green, not this time.”
But then the World Cup was not considered ‘special’ in those days – not in England at any rate.
Banks had trained on his own on spare land at Doe Hey in the build up and it summed up how casually England were approaching the tournament that the players were ordered not to swap shirts after games – because they had only taken one set.
“It never really occurred to me that I was playing in something special, going to the World Cup,” Banks recalls.
“It wasn’t like winning the FA Cup. That was the big thing – even bigger than the league.
“I was living in Thorn Street in those days and, apart from David Hatton, who’d just started at Wanderers I don’t think anybody in our street knew I’d been to a World Cup.”