RARELY has a day passed by during the past 50 years when Sir Geoff Hurst has not been asked at least once about the hat-trick that won the World Cup for England.
He can be in the bank, down the shops or just walking along the street and the only topic the public wants to talk about is the day Hurst, now 74, wrote himself into footballing folklore.
No other footballer has managed what Hurst did at Wembley on July 30, 1966. Not Pele, not Maradona, not Lionel Messi and not Ronaldo.
Hurst stands alone as the only man to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final so it is perhaps no wonder that football fans want to share in his unique achievement.
“I very rarely go a day without talking about it,” said Hurst ahead of today’s 50th anniversary of Sir Alf Ramsey’s side beating West Germany 4-2 to be crowned champions of the world.
“The great joy about winning a World Cup is it lasts forever. People still talk to you about it, people who were at the game or who watched the game all around the world. So, the memories last forever, it is fantastic.”
Amid the sepia-tinged memories and nostalgia for a time when English football was not the laughing stock of the world, it is perhaps easy to overlook just what a slow-burner the 1966 World Cup proved.
Crowds were disappointing in the early stages, with even Wembley around 12,000 under capacity for England’s opening group game against Uruguay. A tepid goalless draw against the South Americans hardly suggested that those who had given the national stadium a miss would have had too many regrets.
It was a similar story in other cities. Liverpool’s hotels made 20,000 rooms available but only 800 were filled, while many stadia were far from full even for games involving stellar footballing names.
A price and income freeze would not have helped but, even so, there was still an underwhelming air to proceedings as the tournament reached the quarter-final stage. This even extended to England’s performances, Ramsey admitting after his side’s bad-tempered 1-0 victory over Argentina in the last eight: “We have still to produce our best”.
Come the semi-final, however, and all that changed. Nobby Stiles’s masterful snuffing out of Eusebio’s prodigious attacking threat and two stunning goals from Bobby Charlton were enough to not only see off Portugal but also electrify a nation.
Suddenly, the talk was of Ramsey’s ‘wingless wonders’ as this sleek, sophisticated team took on the look of an unstoppable juggernaut. Standing between England and glory were West Germany.
“I remember a great deal of the game itself,” recalls Hurst, preferred to Jimmy Greaves in the final by Ramsey despite the prolific Tottenham Hotspur striker being declared fit after injury.
“Before and after was a bit of a blur, but it was the most important game of many people’s lives, including the team.
“When you come out of the two dressing rooms and into the tunnel, the crowd became aware, it was like a forest fire with the noise coming back down the tunnel.
“I remember at that moment, it felt like the whole country was out there. I really think we just couldn’t afford to be beaten, that was my feeling at the time.”
Few English football fans, even those born long after the final, need reminding of the game itself.
Germany went ahead on 12 minutes through Helmut Haller only for the hosts to equalise through a deft Hurst header after the striker had been picked out by West Ham team-mate Bobby Moore.
With Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer largely cancelling each other out, it was left to others to carry the attacking fight. Alan Ball, the game’s man of the match, answered the call magnificently and England went ahead 12 minutes from time.
Martin Peters netted with a half-volley and that seemed to be that. Wolfgang Weber, however, had other ideas and his last-gasp equaliser sent the final into extra-time.
Ramsey, knowing his players needed a psychological lift, kept it simple. “You’ve won it once,” the England manager told his crestfallen side on the Wembley pitch, “now go and do it again”.
Eleven minutes into extra-time, Ball’s right-wing cross found Hurst and he swivelled quickly before crashing a shot against the underside of the crossbar and down onto the turf.
Roger Hunt, Hurst’s strike partner, was following in and he immediately threw his arms into the air in celebration to signal a goal.
West Germany vehemently disagreed but Soviet linesman Tofik Bakhramov signalled to referee Gottfried Dienst that he considered the ball to have crossed the line.
The debate as to whether Bakhramov got the call right continues to be debated to this day. The Germans maintain the goal should not have stood, while English fans counter by pointing out that not only was the goal given but Weber’s dramatic late equaliser in normal time was only made possible by a free-kick being incorrectly awarded against Jack Charlton.
England made sure of victory in the 120th minute when Hurst latched on to a long pass from Moore before thundering a shot into the roof of the net. Not that the man himself was overly sure that the strike had counted, thanks to there having been – as BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme so famously put it – “some people are on the pitch” as the striker bore down on the German goal.
Had the referee blown for time before the ball reached the net? Did the fans invading the pitch mean the game was already over?
“The thought was nagging at the back of my mind,” said Hurst, knighted in 1998. “I wasn’t worried about the second, but instead whether the referee had blown before my third went in.
“Everyone was congratulating me on my hat-trick but I wasn’t convinced. I even walked back out to the pitch after our dressing room celebrations, just to check the scoreboard. Sure enough, it said ‘England 4 West Germany 2’.”
It is hard to imagine a player from the modern era having to check for himself whether a goal stood. Just as, in the wake of England’s shameful Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, it is hard to imagine the Three Lions once again sitting atop world football.
“Not in our wildest dreams did we ever think it wouldn’t happen again,” added Hurst.
“People ask what it is like to win a World Cup and the first emotion is relief. People still talk to us all, they tell you they were there and tell you their stories, so you never stop enjoying it. The enjoyment is phenomenal.
“In your own profession, it puts you in a different stratosphere if you are one of 11 people who have won it. You wait for that moment when the final whistle goes and it’s just, ‘We’ve done it, we’ve got through’.”