When we are growing up most of us have heroes. As a young boy, my walls were adorned with pictures of my first heroes. Photographs of West Ham footballers and pop stars filled my bedroom from the late 1950’s throughout the 1960’s. Last time I wrote of my first hero, John Dick, whose replica shirt I got for Christmas 1958. The following Christmas my autograph book was signed by the West Ham team, who were all heroes to a five year old fan. Fast forward one year. I am now six, approaching seven, and Christmas is a week or so away.
It’s a Friday night and my dad asks me if I want to go to Upton Park the following day. I’ve been to a few games by now, and of course the answer is yes. On Saturday morning he wakes me early. It’s still dark and very cold. He works on Saturday mornings and I go with him. At noon he finishes and we leave Chadwell Heath heading for Upton Park.
We arrive and go through the front gates as a number of the players are arriving. Young boys like myself surround the players holding out their autograph books for their signatures. My dad points out to me a tall blond teenager who has not been approached. I go up to him and ask him if he would please sign my book. Of course he replies, and asks me my name, where I live, where I go to school, who my favourite players are, and chats to me and my dad for a couple of minutes. The older players are more well-known and surrounded by young boys.
My dad asks him if he is confident of winning today. He replies that he expects a very difficult game. Our opponents, Wolves, have been one of the top teams in the country for the past few years. We thank him and he joins the others. He is the first real footballer I have ever spoken to. He became a hero to me that day and for years to come.
Within a couple of years he was an England player, he played in the 1962 World Cup tournament in Chile, and he captained England at 22. He collected the FA Cup when we beat Preston in 1964, the European Cup Winners Cup the following year, and the World Cup a year later. Three times he climbed the 39 Wembley steps at the head of his team. He was still only 25 years old.
His footballing career is well documented. He was immaculate in every respect. He was, and still is, the best defender I ever saw. A view shared by so many leading figures in the game. His performances in the 1966 World Cup tournament stood out, and remember, he provided two assists in the final. I watched on TV, perhaps his best ever game when England lost 1-0 to Brazil in a group game at the 1970 tournament. If you’ve never seen it try to see a recording of the game. He was superb.
I can recall so many games as I watched him hundreds of times. I have so many memories, including some unusual ones. I remember how he wiped his hands before shaking hands with the Queen when collecting the World Cup. I remember him accidentally knocking out a referee with the ball and picking up the whistle to stop the game. I remember him dancing a jig with Jimmy Greaves in a game against Tottenham. I remember him scoring a magnificent goal against QPR, running from inside our half and unleashing an unstoppable shot into the top corner, before turning on his heels and walking back barely celebrating. I remember his anticipation, the way he timed his tackles, his magnificent distribution. I remember watching a great defender. I haven’t seen anyone better since.
But most of all I remember how he took a couple of minutes to speak to an impressionable six year old boy, who never forgot those moments. I met him again a few years later and once again he gave me an autograph as we chatted. Oh, and the game in December 1960 against Wolves? We won 5-0 and unusually he scored one of the goals.
He died at too young an age, and never received the recognition that he deserved. He should have been Sir Bobby Moore for leading his country to World Cup victory and for services to football. His club and country should be ashamed for not using his talents when he stopped playing. Posthumously he now receives the recognition he should have had when he was still alive. He was simply the best defender that most people of my generation ever saw.