Wednesday, 5 November 2014


                                  Italy fans at Roker Park get some help from a local
In 2006 I wrote an extended essay for 1966 Uncovered, Peter Robinson and Doug Cheeseman's beautifully illustrated book about the 1966 World Cup. This is an edited version of the section covering the North East. The first part deals with the build up to the tournament. A couple of further pieces on the games will follow. 

If the World Cup of 1966 had bothered to have a slogan it might have been: “The Football World Cup – It’s Here If You Want It”. That at least is the impression you get looking back from our own hype-obsessed era.

England, it goes without saying, was a very different place in those days. This was the country featured in Don’t Look Back, D A Pennebaker’s documentary account of Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, a place where even the coolest pop music was presided over by men with handlebar moustaches and regimental ties, and the technical side of things was in the slightly bewildered hands of a couple of elderly blokes in brown overalls who would attempt to fix just about anything with garden twine and fish-scented glue. 

It should be noted that in Britain – the home nations having studiously avoided pre-War tournaments for fear of what might occur to our footballers if they came into prolonged contact with foreigners - the Mundial wasn’t quite the big deal it has since become. Indeed, when Dennis Howell, the newly appointed Minister with Special Responsibility for Sport, raised the topic with Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson he found himself having to explaini what the World Cup was.

The wartime generation were not much given to hyperbole and football was still a game. When Wilson eventually understood the importance of the tournament he allocated £500,000 to fund necessary ground improvements - a sum considered so outlandish by senior civil servants some suggested that when the public learned of it they would bring down the government in protest.
                             BAOC Air Hostesses model the kits of the competing nations


The draw for the World Cup finals took place at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington on January 6th 1966. It was televised across Western Europe and in all the participating nations with the exception of North Korea. Of the 800 people in attendance, 400 were reporters. The official FA report would later summarise event in characteristic Little Englanders terms: ‘the babble of foreign tongues from the radio commentators in the gallery caused some inconvenience’.

Fifa had implemented a complex system of seedings that effectively separated not only the two favourites - the holders, Brazil and the hosts – but also ensured that South American countries wouldn’t meet in the group stages and that ‘Latin European countries’ would likewise be kept apart. By such means, the organisers hoped to give each four-team group a whiff of the exotic and ‘all-round spectator appeal’.
For Sunderland and Middlesbrough, hosts of Group Four, this meant Italy, Chile, the Soviet Union and North Korea. An interesting mixture culturally for sure, but it seemed no more likely to set the pulses of local football fans racing than a mug of Camp coffee.

Things would turn out a little differently, of course, but initially there was a definite sense of anti-climax. This was a pity becasue in the north-east more than anywhere else in England, the local organisers had truly embraced the World Cup. In Sunderland - HQ of the North East liaison committee - they had been preparing for an influx of foreign visitors since February 1965. The committee had printed 21,450 copies of an information brochure on local amenities, 3000 of which were optimistically sent to the Italian FA.

Nobody in the North East knew quite what to expect. The committee was not sure if it was planning for ‘1,000 overseas fans, or 10,000’. In the end the numbers fell short of both estimates with official visitor numbers put at 400 Italians, 200 Russians and 50 Chileans. The only tourists from North Korea were the squad and officials.

Despite the low turnout, there was - bizarrely - still a shortage of accommodation. When a sudden influx of British-based Italians overran local hotels and boarding houses the committee appealed on BBC North news for people with spare bedrooms to come forward: 135 gallant citizens responded and the crisis was averted.

Further problems were caused by the need for visitors centres. Initially the committee had thought to use the double-decker bus polling stations that toured Durham pit villages during elections. However County Durham police – who clearly regarded the World Cup as a bloody nuisance – vetoed this idea unless a heavy licensing fee was paid. Considering the price prohibitive, the committee instead set up the visitors centres in temporary huts.


Interpreters staffed the visitor centres. On match days they were frequently called in by local shopkeepers to sort out problems. On one occasion a group of Italian visitors in Seaburn ‘grew agitated’ when their requests to see the Loch Ness Monster were met with blank looks, while on another a party of four entered a restaurant in Sunderland and, after a brief perusal of the menu, asked the owner to allow them into the kitchen, so they could cook their own dinner.

In Sunderland local shopkeepers were actively encouraged to give their window displays ‘a festive air’, and 300 sets of souvenir glasses engraved with ‘Sunderland scenes’ were purchased as gifts for the visiting teams and officials. At the end of the tournament, the committee reported sadly, they still had 99 sets left.

The official reception for the visiting squads held at Sunderland on 14th July was a disappointing affair. The managers of Italy, the Soviet Union and North Korea denied their players permission to attend. A couple of hundred offcials did arrive but ‘language difficulties limited the circulation of the guests amongst the townspeople’.

The sense of anti-climax was also felt at Seaham Hall where a special overseas visitors' club had been established. Sadly uptake of the free membership was limited. Organizers reported that things might have been different had it not been for the Cold War, many Soviet visitors arriving only to turn around and leave when they were asked to fill out a membership form. ‘We explained that it was merely a formality, but suspicions about our motives could not often be allayed,’ the committee recorded.

The authorities had actually gone out of their way to make the visitors from behind the Iron Curtain welcome. The Empire Theatre in Sunderland engaged the services of the Georgian State Dance Company for the duration of the tournament. The troupe proved a massive hit, drawing an aggregate audience of 22,000 people – more than watched many of the football matches.


Teesside too offered an international Eisteddfod. For visitors whose taste didn’t run to folk dancing and traditional songs, the Club Fiesta in Stockton boasted an ‘international cabaret’ consisting of Tommy Cooper and Bob Monkhouse. Military bands, greyhound racing, cricket matches, the occasional ‘Gypsy ensemble’ and an open-air sculpture park completed the programme of World Cup events along the Tees.
That Middlesbrough was hosting World Cup matches at all was something a coup for the town. Newcastle, the more obvious choice as a venue, had been passed over. Newcastle United were locked in an acrimonious dispute with the council over the lease of St James’ Park and were reluctant to carry out the remedial building work required.

It was a welcome boost for Middlesbrough who had just been relegated to Division Three for the first time in their history. The Ayresome Park pitch was a byword for grassy luxury and widely regarded as the best in England, but the ground itself was in poor condition. Indeed, one Boro director, Charles Amer, described it as being in ‘a state of total disrepair’. Luckily Mr Amer owned a building firm and they were more than happy to take on the task of bringing the dilapidated old ground up to the mark.  Barriers on the terraces were strengthened, new seating installed in several stands and a hospitality suite for Fifa dignitaries was shoehorned into an area under the North Stand despite ‘some trouble with the sewers’.

1 comment:

  1. Sepp Blatter would certainly approve of those BOAC Air Hostesses looking just how he thinks lady footballers should look.