Sir Geoff Hurst: England’s World Cup-winning hero on double hat-tricks, synergy and the Germans

By James Horncastle 
Photography by Neil Bedford
Styling by Elle Korhaliller

This article first appeared in Issue 7 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014

Sir Geoff Hurst is talking about Twitter. How many members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team, do you think, are interacting on social media? Not many, I would guess. Hurst admits he doesn’t have much to do with it, but an interaction with his followers a couple of days before our interview had brought a smile to his face.

It was Bonfire Night. “People were analysing the number of First Division games played on Saturday, November 5th,” Hurst explains. “One of those games was West Ham v Fulham.” It was a memorable afternoon; Hurst scored four times and his teammate, fellow World Cup-winner Martin Peters, got the other two in a 6-1 rout at the Boleyn Ground.

It resonated among the more nostalgic of his many followers. All of a sudden his mentions column was filled with the reminiscences of West Ham supporters. “Oh yes, I remember that,” tweets one. “I’ve been a Hammer for 40 or 50 years and on the following Monday we played Leeds United in the League Cup and beat them 7-0. You got three more.” Another Iron reminded everyone: “The following Saturday, we played Spurs and beat them 4-3. You got two.”

Hurst found the back of the net nine times in seven days. “And I’d forgotten that,” he reveals. “Can you imagine scoring a four, a three and a two in a week today? Astonishing.” That’s form worthy of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. How West Ham must wish Hurst could turn back the clock. “… 17 [team] goals in a week,” wrote one follower in amazement. “We can’t score 17 in a flaming season!”

The weekend before our meeting, West Ham had drawn 0-0 at home to Aston Villa. It was their sixth goalless draw of the season – hardly surprising when you consider that they were playing without a striker. Andy Carroll was yet to turn out for his new club; an injury sustained shortly after a loan deal from Liverpool was made permanent, for a club record fee of £15.4m, had kept the forward sidelined.

Sir Geoff Hurst

Sir Geoff Hurst — London 2014 by Neil Bedford

“Can you imagine scoring a four, a three and a two in a week today? Astonishing.”

Back in 1959, Hurst cost the Hammers a lot, lot less. Nothing, to be precise. And for that, West Ham would reap the rewards of 249 goals in 501 appearances.

Born in Ashton-under-Lyne, a town now part of Greater Manchester – and where another World Cup-winner, Simone Perrotta (part of Italy’s 2006 tournament-winning side) also came into the world – Hurst was brought up in Chelmsford, Essex. Taken on as an apprentice by West Ham at the age of 15, he progressed through the ranks at Chadwell Heath alongside Martin Peters and future England captain, Bobby Moore.

The trio’s emergence at West Ham, and the defining role they would go on to play in the national team’s finest hour – a triumph commemorated by the bronze statue at the junction of Barking Road and Green Street – earned the club the nickname, the Academy of Football. West Ham became defined by their ability to nurture young players and future England internationals, as evidenced by the success of Moore, Peters and Hurst.

It was an organic process. Senior players felt that they had an obligation to younger members of the squad. They retained a sense of responsibility. After finishing their own sessions, rather than showering up, slinging their kit bags over their shoulders and going home, the likes of John Bond, Malcolm Allison – who, along with Joe Mercer, would later manage Manchester City – and Malcolm Musgrove would stay behind to mentor the kids on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

“It was a bit of a coaching revolution,” Hurst recalls. “The days where players ran around the track and up and down the stands was long gone.” A lot of the emphasis within West Ham at that time, and certainly later, under manager Ron Greenwood, appears to have been on developing players’ intuition and enhancing the understanding between them.

By advancing through the youth system together, and playing so regularly on the same team, Hurst, Moore and Peters had a seemingly telepathic understanding; they were on the same wavelength. That was to be of great benefit to England.

“Of course, all the Hammers fans will tell you West Ham won the World Cup,” Hurst smiles, “but very importantly the relationship three players had and developed and worked on at Chadwell Heath was taken to the World Cup finals. The goal in the quarter-final [a cross delivered by Peters which was met by a glancing header from Hurst, and secured a 1-0 win against Argentina] was a West Ham goal. The equaliser in the final [a Moore free-kick for another Hurst header] was a West Ham goal, an intuitive response between two players.”

We all know what happened next. Hurst became the first and only player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Within six months of making his England debut, he was a living legend. At 24, Hurst had reserved for himself a place in posterity. It all happened very quickly. Granted, not as quickly as for Peters, who had won his first cap only two months before the final. Still, it wasn’t exactly an irresistible rise. “I wasn’t a big schoolboy player. I wasn’t a big name at West Ham. I was a fairly slow developer,” Hurst admits.

Football didn’t become his sole focus until he was in his twenties. He was also a talented cricketer, and even played a first-class match for Essex in 1962. “When you’re working for a living,” Hurst reflects, “you’ve got to concentrate on the job.” Cricket was a distraction. It meant he was unable to attend pre-season training at West Ham and was absent throughout August and for two weeks of September.

“Imagine someone missing that sort of training and expecting to progress in their career as a youngster that’s not even in the team,” Hurst says. “It’s easy to look back and say what you should have done. I was [first] picked for England in ‘66 but I look back now and, conceitedly, in a way think I should have been picked in ‘63-64. I started to play very well, perform very well and know I was playing very well that season.

“In fact, I remember coming home during the FA Cup run in ‘64. We played an earlier round at Swindon and won 3-1. I scored two and clearly remember coming home to my wife and saying, ‘I know what I’m doing now’. And that’s a genuine feeling.”

Didn’t he just. Hurst scored 26 goals that season. He notched seven in the FA Cup. 2-0 up against Manchester United in the semi-final, Denis Law pulled one back, only for Hurst to land the knockout blow and seal a 3-1 win. He would also galvanise West Ham as they twice fought back from behind to overcome Preston North End 3-2 in the final and claim the trophy for the first time in the club’s history.

“I wasn’t a big schoolboy player. I wasn’t a big name at West Ham. I was a fairly slow developer.”

A year later, Hurst was back at Wembley, this time for the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against 1860 Munich. Alan Sealey scored twice to put the game beyond their opponents. It was some story. “Not long before, we were in the Second Division and had been in the Second Division for what seemed like forever [26 years],” Hurst remembers. “We came up in ‘58-59, I joined the club around that time, then four or five years later we were winning an FA Cup and a European trophy. How long does it take to win a European trophy [after promotion]?” Liverpool, for what it’s worth, took 11 years to West Ham’s seven.

As Hurst walked up the famous Wembley steps to receive yet another winners’ medal and lift another piece of silverware, he couldn’t possibly have imagined the circumstances under which he would return the following season. This time, under Moore’s captaincy and with Peters again at his side, he would run out at the ‘Home of Football’ not for his club, but for his country, to face German opposition in a World Cup final. “And it wasn’t new for us,” Hurst insists. “We’d been at Wembley three times.”

Still, his overriding emotion was that of someone who was “just happy to be there.” As he is at pains to point out, Hurst didn’t receive his first cap until the spring of 1966; yet while he felt it to be recognition that was somewhat overdue, particularly given that he was in the midst of a 40-goal season for West Ham, it was an honour and a privilege that came without presumption.

“Forget World Cups, I didn’t think about playing for England [when I was growing up],” Hurst reveals. “My own personal view during my career at the time was I always felt I could earn a good living and be a consistent player for West Ham. I always felt confident, upon looking at who was playing in the first team, that I could go up and replace them and have a reasonably good career. I never dreamt about playing for England… It was just astonishing for me, a huge surprise. I remember exactly where I was when I was told I was picked for this squad for the first time.”

That has in some way cultivated the image of Hurst as an accidental hero. Right place, right time. It’s poppycock; you make your own luck in life. If you get a chance, take it. Hurst grasped the opportunity given to him by Sir Alf Ramsey with both hands. Even more important, perhaps, than the hat-trick he scored in the final was the goal that clinched the quarter-final against victory over Argentina, by far the toughest of England’s opponents.

Why? Because “without it,” asks Jonathan Wilson in The Anatomy of England, “how much greater might have been the clamour for [Jimmy] Greaves to return to the side when he was fit again [after a shin injury]? Without it, would he even have been in the side to score a hat-trick in the final?”

Hurst’s international team-mate, then-Everton left-back Ray Wilson, believed he would. “Greaves was bloody useless in the air,” he said. “The chances we were going to get at Wembley would be mainly in the air because the other teams were so outrageously defensive. There comes a time in that situation when you have to start hitting 50-50 balls. And that’s where Geoff was so good.”

His performance in the final represents two hours of immense cultural and social importance; as his third goal sailed past West German ’keeper Hans Tilkowski at the near post in the final minute of extra-time, the ripples it sent through the net were felt across the land. Hurst, you might say, is responsible for our nation’s obsession with the World Cup.

“The first thing I’d say about ‘66 is that if you go back through England’s involvement in World Cups prior to that, we weren’t regular members of the World Cup,” Hurst explains. “They started to hold the tournament in 1930. We didn’t play our first World Cup until 1950 and that was a disaster. The United States beat us 1-0. Not only that but our league clubs and elements of the people in charge of the game here didn’t really want to play in Europe, which was an absolute nonsense.

“When we got the World Cup in our country, people hadn’t experienced it… It was a little bit fresh in a way: a World Cup in this country! And it was an experience people weren’t sure how to react to. Having won it there was certainly a feeling, in my opinion, of: ‘Oh, we love the World Cup. This is absolutely fantastic. We’ll do this again in four years’ time’, and people realise it’s not as easy as that.”

It’s now getting on for 50 years since Moore sat on one of Hurst’s shoulders and thrust the glinting Jules Rimet trophy to the sky in what remains one of the most iconic images of 20th century England. But perhaps Ramsey’s team should have been more successful. “That period of time was the best period we’ve had without a shadow of a doubt,” Hurst argues. “Not just winning the World Cup. We had a very strong squad.”

Losing to Yugoslavia in the semi-finals of the 1968 European Championship – “a very tough game” – was “a big disappointment.” The biggest, however, would come in 1970. “I felt we were probably very close to being successful again,” Hurst explains. “Many people thought we had a slightly better team. The backbone was still there and a couple of players, like Alan Mullery from Spurs and Francis Lee from Man City, had been introduced. We fancied our chances to win it again.”

England lost 1-0 to Brazil in the group stages, a game remembered for Moore’s titanic duel with Pelé – a tussle played out by two giants in the true spirit of the competition, as symbolised by their embrace and exchanging of shirts at the final whistle. But who can forget Gordon Banks’ miraculous save? Struck down by illness before the quarter-final against West Germany, “Montezuma’s revenge, as they call it,” Banks was replaced by Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti.

For Hurst, the loss of “arguably the greatest goalkeeper we’ve had, arguably the greatest goalkeeper there’s ever been… the best of his time who was playing at his best” was “the biggest factor in us losing that day.” More so than Ramsey’s decision to take off Bobby Charlton after 70 minutes? After all, Franz Beckenbauer had just pulled one back. England had been 2-0 up. Why substitute your most talented player?

Had Ramsey been presumptuous in replacing Charlton ahead of an anticipated semi-final? Not in Hurst’s opinion. “They’d always done that. During those early rounds they’d take Bobby off to rest him for the next game. He was one of our top players and he was slightly older playing in difficult conditions. “The game took place in the full glare of the Mexican midday sun. The location: León, a city 5,000ft above sea level. “It was 100 degrees in the shade,” Hurst winces, “so extremely difficult conditions.”

England wilted. Without Charlton to occupy Beckenbauer, Der Kaiser adopted an increasingly advanced role and began to influence the game. With eight minutes left, Uwe Seeler equalised to take the game into extra-time, before Gerd Müller completed the turnaround and put Germany into what would prove an unassailable 3-2 lead. It took some getting over. “I went to Acapulco with my wife and Bobby Moore and his wife for a week’s break,” Hurst reflects. “It was a long car journey after losing that game, a long car journey.”

On another day it might well have been different, they could tell themselves. It was impossible, however, to find the same consolation two years later when a West Germany side, benefiting from the dominance of Bayern Munich in the European Cup, outclassed England 3-1 at Wembley in the first leg of the European Championships quarter-final.

Sir Geoff Hurst

Sir Geoff Hurst — London 2014 by Neil Bedford

“I never dreamt about playing for England… It was just astonishing for me, a huge surprise.”

Encounters with Die Mannschaft would come to define Hurst’s international career. “I’ve got a close connection with Germany,” he explains. “Unusually, I played against them five times in a short career playing for one team. My first game was against Germany. My last game was against Germany. My best game was against Germany and my worst game was against Germany. And there was a fifth game against Germany in Hannover which we lost. I can’t get away from them, really.”

He is well received whenever he travels there. “I went to visit Hans Tilkowski,” Hurst recalls. “There was a little thing in his honour in Dortmund. He played for Dortmund. And his best friend’s a Schalke supporter so between them they decided to do something for him but also get me over just for him to say: ‘It wasn’t in’. In fact, they had me signing photographs. He would sign it in German, ‘the ball was in’ and he taught me how to sign it, ‘the ball was not in’, in German.”

That German sense of humour, eh? They should take it up with Tofiq Bahramov, the ‘Russian’ linesman from Azerbaijan. Still, the ambiguity surrounding whether or not Hurst’s second goal crossed the line, its contentiousness and the controversy it caused, ensured that the game would be talked about long after referee Gottfried Dienst had blown the final whistle. The debate still rages. New technology is applied to it. It means we’re still talking about it. It keeps Hurst in our minds long after the names of other World Cup final scorers have escaped us and been forgotten.

It has another effect, too. The night before we meet, Hurst had been at a charity function. During the course of the evening, someone had come up to him and asked: “Does it irritate you that you’re only known for one thing?” That seems unfair. Then again, it might be argued that, in the collective national consciousness, the hat-trick he scored in 1966 has eclipsed almost everything else he achieved during his career.

“Absolutely bloody not,” Hurst responded. “If you take away my England career and that game I still feel very satisfied with the career I had at West Ham. I am still the leading scorer in the League Cup along with Ian Rush, and still the last person to score six, a double hat-trick [against Sunderland], in 1968.”

Statistics like that serve as a reminder of the mark that Hurst left on the domestic game. You get the sense, though, that of all the things to be remembered for, being the only player to have scored a hat-trick in a World Cup final – the only final England have ever reached, the only one they have won (and against Germany, too) – never gets old.

A bit like Hurst, then. He likes to joke that now, aged 71, he is “still standing”. He need not worry – whether for Irons or Lions, he is a footballing immortal.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014

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