OLIVER HOLT: My magical night with Sir Geoff Hurst

OLIVER HOLT: A magical night with Sir Geoff Hurst – one of the last links to a disappearing world. As the BBC should have heeded, there’s a powerful bond between sporting heroes of yesteryear and fans

  • I recently attended a Meet and Greet with England World Cup hero Geoff Hurst
  • Hurst scored a hat-trick in the 1966 final and reflected on that achievement
  • He also spoke about the relationships he formed with his England team-mates 

Thick wet snowflakes had begun to coat the road outside the Royal Spa Centre when the members of the audience who had paid an extra few pounds for the Meet and Greet part of the evening with Sir Geoff Hurst began to arrive in the foyer. 

We took comfort in the shelter and the warmth. A huge poster advertising an upcoming Evening with Anton du Beke and a flyer for a show called Totally Tina stared down at us from the walls.

I bought a couple of signed retro shirts – one West Ham, one England – from a memorabilia stall that had been set up on a trestle table. 

There were other options: signed Geoff Hurst boots, signed Geoff Hurst footballs, signed Geoff Hurst photos, Denis Law memorabilia, Martin Peters memorabilia, George Best memorabilia and a brilliant yellow Brazil shirt with Pele’s signature on it. All our yesterdays in a provincial theatre in Leamington Spa.

I stood there for a while, admiring a print of the famous picture of Sir Geoff in mid-air at Wembley on July 30, 1966, his left leg extended in front of him and the ball speeding towards the West Germany net, one of the greatest sports action images ever taken. 

I had the pleasure of attending a Meet and Greet with England hero Sir Geoff Hurst

Hurst completed his hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final with a thunderous left foot shot

Hurst’s team-mate Sir Bobby Moore remains the only England captain to lift the World Cup

It was England’s fourth goal in the World Cup Final, and Hurst’s third. Somewhere, high in the stands, the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was saying ‘they think it’s all over, it is now’.

One of the staff asked us to form a queue for the Meet and Greet. After a little while, we filed into the auditorium and sat in the first two rows. I looked at the people around me. There were a lot of West Ham fans, old and young. And a lot of people, like me, football fans who had come so they could say they once met, and listened to, England’s greatest living footballer, a man who would be a legend in any age.

One lady walked in with the aid of two sticks. I spoke to her afterwards. Her name was Myrtle Tunney and she was 86 and she had come with three generations of her West Ham-supporting family. 

She had grown up in Forest Gate and had been a regular at Upton Park when Sir Geoff, Bobby Moore and Peters were in the side. We were all here on a pilgrimage of sorts and this was hers.

A pilgrimage and maybe a bit more than that. Sir Geoff is one of the last links to a disappearing world, a link to a piece of glorious history that we have never quite been able to emulate. 

Only he and the great Sir Bobby Charlton remain from the Boys of 66, the team preserved in our memories as the young men who gave England its greatest sporting moment nearly 60 years ago.

Perhaps one of the lessons we can learn from the Gary Lineker affair, one of the lessons that the BBC should have heeded, is that there is a powerful bond between the sporting heroes of yesteryear and the fans. 

It is hard to break that bond and the near-unanimity of football’s support for Lineker, not a World Cup winner but one of our greatest ever goalscorers, was another reminder of the affection in which we hold the game’s icons.

To be in Hurst’s company, to hear him speak, to listen to him reminisce, is something precious if you love our game. We talk a lot about wanting to honour the sporting heroes of the past and show them they are not forgotten but too often it is just lip service. 

The BBC should have known the affection we have for our sporting heroes when handling their dispute with Gary Lineker (above)

The evening at the Royal Spa Centre, for me anyway, was a small way of showing one of my heroes how much we value what he did for our game and how much we value the team he represents.

I’ve met Sir Geoff before briefly, at press events here and there, but I would have paid double or triple what I paid in Leamington Spa for the chance to shake his hand and listen to him tell stories that brought that golden day at Wembley back to life.

I went up on stage when it was my turn to have my picture taken with him and get my shirts signed. Exchanging a few words with him, and those mementoes I clutched, are things I’ll treasure.

Half an hour after he had finished his Meet and Greet, a bigger crowd of us filed back into the auditorium to listen to him chatting about the past. I have heard some of the stories before, obviously, like the fact Hurst knew his second goal had crossed the line when it bounced down off the crossbar because Roger Hunt, a goalscorer supreme, turned away when he saw where it had landed.

And there were some stories I hadn’t heard. When he was running on through on goal in the last seconds of extra time, Hurst said, he could hear Alan Ball, who was man of the match that day, screaming at him to pass. 

‘Hursty, Hursty,’ Hurst screeched, imitating Ball’s famously high-pitched voice. Hurst said, with a broad smile and a happy profanity, that he had dismissed the thought from his mind.

‘My thought process was that I would hit it as hard as I could,’ he said, ‘and that I would probably miss but that it would fly so far over the bar that by the time it could be retrieved, then surely to goodness the game would be over. Anyway, as we all know, I mishit it and it went in.’ 

The audience broke into a little roar of applause at that point and that image of Hurst in mid-air, his left leg stretched out in front of him, flashed through every mind in the theatre.

Hurst talked about Sir Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves, the man he called ‘a genius’, the man whose place in the team he took midway through the tournament. 

Hurst reflected on the bond he had with his England team-mates after their World Cup glory

He talked about how Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby had once offered West Ham £200,000 to sign him and the West Ham manager Ron Greenwood had sent back a telegram that merely said: ‘No thank you.’

And he talked about sadness, too. He talked about Ray Wilson, England’s left back in the final, announcing to the rest of the team at a reunion some years ago that he was in the early stages of dementia. 

He talked about seeing his great friend Peters decline suddenly in the throes of the same illness. Hurst is slim and trim and sharp as a tack at 81 but he paused for a moment there as he considered the friends he has lost.

After a couple of hours, it was over, the applause rang out, the spell was broken and we all wandered back into the foyer. It was still snowing those great wet flakes outside so I clutched the signed shirts in a plastic bag in my hand and wrapped them up even tighter against the elements.

Guardiola has influenced a generation 

A ranking of the best coaches from 1996-2022 compiled by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics put Sir Alex Ferguson first, Jose Mourinho second, Pep Guardiola third, Arsene Wenger fourth and Joachim Low fifth.

It seemed slightly odd to me not to have Carlo Ancelotti (who was sixth) higher up the list, given that he won the Champions League four times in the years allotted but they are all great managers. 

A different question would be to ask who has been the most influential coach of the past 25 years. In that list, Guardiola would be out on his own at the top.

BBC radio stars merit gratitude, not abuse 

The abuse aimed at radio commentators Ian Dennis, John Murray and Alistair Bruce-Ball, who have no connection with Match of the Day, and did their jobs over the weekend, was nothing more than the ugly, irrational, misguided ranting of a mob.

Ian Dennis (above) did not deserve the abuse he received for doing his job over the weekend

Dennis, Murray and Bruce-Ball represent the best of BBC Sport. They are its finest radio commentators and its best operators, professional to their core, loyal, committed, knowledgeable, informed and wonderful to listen to. 

A car journey spent in the company of one of their match commentaries is a journey enriched and a slice of life enhanced. Dennis, Murray and Bruce-Ball were not being disloyal to Lineker – who won a humiliating climbdown from the corporation on Monday – any more than Carol Kirkwood was being disloyal to him by doing the weather report on BBC Breakfast. 

The idea that they were undermining Lineker in any way is patently absurd. In fact, it seemed rather ironic that in the midst of an argument that was partly about free speech, some were trying to impose a tyranny of silence on other broadcasters. 

Of course, there were some with no connection to Match of the Day who chose to posture anyway lest they miss the opportunity for some reflected virtue. Dennis, Murray and Bruce-Ball, who work on staff contracts at the BBC anyway, fulfilled their obligations to their listeners and, like hundreds of thousands of others of their devotees, I was grateful to them for that.

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