Sir Geoff Hurst: “This new format has helped us take a big step forward. Now we have a chance to win something.”

SIR GEOFF HURST had an eye for goal and a sense of anticipation that often meant the England striker was a yard ahead of his marker before the ball had left a team-mate’s boot.

LEADING MAN: Gareth Southgate consoles his players after their World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia. Picture: Adam Davy/PA

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His controversial second goal in the 1966 World Cup final readily attests to that, Hurst having left West Germany defender Willi Schulz on his heels to collect Alan Ball’s pass before swivelling to thunder a shot against the underside of the crossbar and over the line.

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This ability to see things before others is also why Hurst remains the only man to net a hat-trick in the final, Wolfgang Overath this time the unfortunate German defender to be left trailing before ‘that’ thunderous left-foot shot sparked the most famous line of commentary in history from Kenneth Wolstenholme.

THE PINNACLE: Sir Geoff Hurst, fourth from left, celebrates with his England team-mates after winning the World Cup in 1966. Picture: Central Press/Getty Images)

More than five decades on from that golden afternoon for English football, Hurst remains in good shape.

At 77, this Knight of the Realm appears to be very close to his old playing weight. He also positively bounds into the lounge at Sheffield’s revamped Grosvenor Casino, where The Yorkshire Post is waiting for an exclusive interview to discuss England’s remarkable revival in fortunes under Gareth Southgate.

During the chat that follows, Hurst’s delight at following a World Cup semi-final appearance with a place in the last four of the inaugural UEFA Nations League is clear to see.

What is also quickly evident is that – unlike during all those years leading the line for England and West Ham United – Hurst did not see this recent upturn coming.

File photo dated 07-07-2018 of England manager Gareth Southgate celebrates victory after the FIFA World Cup, Quarter Final match at the Samara Stadium. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday July 8, 2018. Gareth Southgate believes togetherness and drive has been a winning combination for his eager squad, with even the Euro 2016 humiliation providing a platform as England reached the World Cup semi-finals. See PA story WORLDCUP England. Photo credit should read Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

“Not at all,” he admits. “We were knocked out by Iceland in Euro 2016. That is the country, not the food shop.

“Two years before that at the World Cup in Brazil, after two games in a three-game group we were out again. Astonishingly awful.

“To go from that to almost reaching the final last year and now being in contention for what is a real trophy represents a great resurgence. The last year to 18 months has been a major step forward.”

Further advancement along the road to a possible tilt at emulating Hurst, Moore et al may come in the next four days.

The Nations League may be less than a year old but the autumn tussles with Croatia and Spain served as the perfect pick-me-up following the heartache of missing out on a World Cup final in Russia.

England were mightily impressive, too, and stand an excellent chance of prevailing in Portugal.

“I am all for the new competition,” added Hurst, who netted 24 times in 49 appearances for the Three Lions. “A lot of the qualifying games (World Cup or Euros) in recent years have been against very ordinary teams.

“The team qualifies and then, all of a sudden, you are up against the big boys. That is a big step up. So, this new format has helped us take a big step forward.

“Getting to the final by beating Spain and Croatia was fantastic in itself. But now we have a chance to win something.”

Success in Portugal would, of course, not come even close to matching those deeds of 1966. But silverware would act as a further fillip to a country that has spent far too long in the footballing doldrums.

“What I like about this group is the togetherness and the camaraderie it clearly has,” added Hurst.

“We had that, back when I played in the medieval days. I see the same in this team. There is a real bond there, that is obvious from how the coaching staff and the players congratulate each other.

“They want to play for England, rather than view it as second best behind their clubs. That hasn’t always been the case.

“There was an article I read in the newspaper a few months ago. Rio (Ferindand) was talking to Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, three of the best players we have had in a long time.

“They all said how, when on England duty, none of them would feel able to sit on the same table at lunch or dinner. They did not want to give anything away about their clubs.

“Ashley Cole also said only recently in a documentary I saw that the team spirit was not very good. I know better than most how important team spirit is for a team to be successful. This team seems to have that and Gareth deserves big credit.”

England’s revival under Southgate means Hurst no longer finds himself shouting at the television in frustration, as he did during those early exits in 2014 and 2016.

Instead, the one-time county cricketer – his debut for Essex came against Lancashire at Liverpool – is able to sit back and enjoy the upturn in fortunes.

“I like what Gareth is doing,” he adds. “Most of the credit in my time goes to a great manager in Alf Ramsey and his coaching staff. Having good leadership is so important in any walk of life, football or business.

“Look at the Premier League and Championship in the past season, the successful clubs are the ones with the right people in charge.

“England have that with Gareth, who has benefited from being able to assess the characters of this squad for a few years (through being England Under-21s manager).

“That continuity is something we have not seen since Ron Greenwood got the job in 1977. He appointed Bobby Robson as B-team manager and brought in Terry Venables.

“Both later went very, very close to being successful as England manager. It was no coincidence and shows the value of continuity.

“The frustrating thing since our time in the national team is that we have had some good players but still been unbelievably unsuccessful.

“Now, we have a bunch of young kids – some who have hardly kicked a ball in the Premier League – and they are performing.

“Gareth Southgate cannot be given enough credit for what he has done so far. Let’s hope he continues.”

Sir Geoff Hurst was speaking at the launch of Grosvenor Casino Sheffield, after a £1.5m refurbishment which includes the new Rich Energy Sports Lounge.