Patience, difficult decisions, organisation, planning: Sir Alf Ramsey

Written by: Rob Moore
Published on: 11 May 2015

It’s very unlikely that you’ll have all the skills you’d need to excel in your chosen career. There’ll be some deficiencies that require overcoming, and it’s important to work out what your weaknesses are, and how to compensate for them. If you can’t react quickly, you’ll need to be able to predict – or, indeed, cause – future events.  To a large extent, this applies to the most successful England football manager of all time.

Most famous for being the manager of England when they won the football World Cup in 1966, Sir Alf’s nickname of ‘The General’ came from his playing days. A penalty kick specialist, patiently allowing the goalkeepers to make the first move, all three of his goals for England came from the spot. He was a slow player, but his reading of the game made up for his lack of pace.

In 1955, Ramsey became manager of Ipswich Town F.C. They were playing in the Third Division South. In 1962, they had won the Football League First Division in their debut season in that league. This was largely due to Ramsey’s tactical prowess and teamwork rather than great individuals, with players bought to fit a system. However unlikely this success may seem, it can’t be denied that it raised Ipswich Town to previously unheard of and unexpected heights, and by due process it led England to their only World Cup (and, indeed, only major international tournament final to date).

Ramsey’s planning worked, largely by exploiting gaps in the opposition’s tactics. His prediction of an English World Cup win in ’66 seemed as unlikely then would Roy Hodgson stating it now. England’s previous record in international tournaments had not been good, and Ramsey had been involved as a player. Now, he insisted on complete control over player selection and imposed a strict regime on those he did select, making everyone uncertain of their standing, thereby causing them to up their game. Recognising and promoting talent is a key skill for any leader, so Ramsey appointed a young Bobby Moore as captain…

A sign of a great leader is not just picking an able deputy, but also instilling a unity and desire to improve.  His approach levelled the playing field for all who aspired to play for their country and rewarded hard work rather than reputation. Ramsey’s England were a group working towards the same goal, and he encouraged them to be patient. Results didn’t improve instantly, but began picking up in the 1966 World Cup Group stages. Making difficult decisions – another prerequisite of a great leader – was part and parcel of this, as when he left out the fans’ favourite Jimmy Greaves and replaced him with Geoff Hurst, who would go on to be the only man to date to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final.  When the final whistle went against West Germany, Ramsey let the players soak up the celebrations. He was not a demonstrative man, but his self-awareness, patience and confidence in his own ability, and of making people buy into his ideas, means that Sir Alf Ramsey’s management career is full of lessons for aspiring leaders.

Rob Moore, MD, The Career Management Organisation