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Alfred Ernest Ramsey was born at Five Elms Farm, Dagenham, on 22 January 1920. After leaving school in 1934 he failed to get a job at the Ford car factory and went instead to the local Co-operative Society to work in the grocery department, first as a delivery boy and later behind the counter. During the winter he played football for Five Elms United, a club formed by a local shopkeeper.
In June 1940 Ramsey joined the army, where he served in the Duke of Cornwall's light infantry, before eventually becoming a quartermaster sergeant in an anti-aircraft unit in Britain. He was also soon playing for the battalion football team both with and against professionals. Ramsey played well enough against Southampton reserves to get himself noticed and to play a few games for the club. He signed as a professional for Southampton in August 1944 and was retained by the club after demobilization in June 1946. He played his first league game in the second division against Plymouth Argyle in October 1946, a few months short of his twenty-seventh birthday.
Ramsey became a stylish full-back when most were rough types who tackled anything that moved and asked questions afterwards. He won his first cap for England against Switzerland in 1948, but then lost form and his place for both club and country before signing for Tottenham in 1949.
Ramsey remained with Tottenham, becoming team captain, before injury led to his retirement in 1955. He made a quick return to football by being appointed manager of the third division south club Ipswich Town just before the start of the 1955–6 season. In his second season Ipswich were champions of division three south. Four seasons later the second division title followed. Then in 1960–61 Ipswich emulated the Tottenham team of ten years earlier by winning the championship.
After England's defeat in 1962 in the world cup in Chile, the Football Association (FA) began to look for a manager to replace Walter Winterbottom. Although not first choice he was offered the job in October 1962 but only accepted on the condition that only he was responsible for team selection and tactics.
Ramsey's career as England manager got off to an inauspicious start, when the team lost 5–2 to France. However, by 1966 he believed that England were in a position to win the world cup. The opening group matches were not encouraging: performances were mediocre, star goal-scorer Jimmy Greaves was injured, and Ramsey was under pressure from the English football authorities to drop Nobby Stiles from the team because of his rough play. In the event performances improved, and the team reached the final after victories over Argentina and Portugal; Geoff Hurst proved to be a more than successful replacement for Greaves, and Ramsey's loyalty to Stiles further strengthened team spirit. Ramsey's strength of mind enabled him to ignore criticism of his ‘wingless wonders’ and to reject calls for Greaves to be reinstated to the team after he had recovered from his injury.
Ramsey's decisions were vindicated. England's 4–2 victory, including a hat-trick from Hurst, over a talented West German team in the final at Wembley on 30 July 1966. After West Germany had scored a last-minute equalizer to take the match into extra time Ramsey told his team, ‘You've won it once. Now you must win it again.’
Third place in the European championships of 1968 was seen as an underachievement and the 3–2 defeat by West Germany in the quarter-final of the 1970 world cup in Mexico after being two goals up was a major disappointment. England lost again to West Germany in the quarter-final of the 1972 European championship. Worse was to follow when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup Final. Ramsey was sacked on May 1974.