BY Vince Cooper
An end-of-season friendly in 1964 saw England, with Bobby Moore, skippering the team for the first time at Wembley, beat Uruguay 2-1 thanks to a pair of goals from West Ham’s Johnny Byrne. Only 55,000 fans watched the match which was fairly nondescript as England matches go.
Manager Alf Ramsey did make one important change in his line-up for the match, replacing long-time right back Jimmy Armfield and bringing in Fulham’s George Cohen in his place. And so started the international career of a defender no less than George Best would call; ‘The best full-back I ever played against’.
George Reginald Cohen was born in Cassidy Road, just off the Fulham Road and within half-a-mile of Chelsea’s home at Stamford Bridge on 22 October 1939 the son of Louis and Catherine and he loved playing football from an early age, following in the footsteps of his dad and elder brother Len (there would later be a third brother, Peter).
George and his family moved to West Kensington when he was four. He had the choice, of course, of going to watch either Fulham or Chelsea (or indeed both) when young as both were walking distance from home. Although he attended Stamford Bridge on one memorable occasion, Craven Cottage enabled free access thanks to a tree which could be climbed, allowing you to drop in to the ground.
George attended first St John’s Primary then Fulham Central Secondary School which later became Henry Thornton and which another famous athlete, Linford Christie would later attend.
Indeed track and field was his early sport of choice. But he had played football, representing both the school and West London and using his pace to great effect. Then Ernie Shepherd, a Fulham coach and former Manchester United player informed him that both local clubs might be interested in signing him.
A young George
Unsurprisingly, Ernie recommended Fulham and even though he was at Stamford Bridge to witness the 1945 visit of the mighty Moscow Dynamo, Cohen heeded the former pro’s advice that it might be better to be a big fish in a smaller pond and signed for the Craven Cottage club in 1956.
When George was first approached to sign for Fulham as a 15-year-old his dad said he would prefer him to play part-time and focus his attentions on learning a trade, suggesting electrician as a possibility. But mum Catherine was keen that he follow his dream so it was off to Craven Cottage.
After two years learning his game he was thrust into the limelight when then-manager Dugald Livingstone informed him that he was in the team for the visit of Liverpool on 2 March 1957. Having initially joined as a half-back, Cohen had been switched to full-back in a reserve match and it was found that his pace could be better utilised there, stopping speedy, tricky wingers. Tutored in the arts of defending by seasoned pro Dave Bacuzzi, he quickly took to the position and now, at just 17, he was in the big time.
Although Fulham lost that first match 2-1 and he had a tough opponent in international winger Alan A’Court, Cohen acquitted himself well and it earned him a pay rise from £3 to £4 10s a week, although it was then back to the reserves to continue learning his craft.
When he re-emerged into the first team in November of that year, replacing injured regular right-back Robin Lawler for a 2-1 win over Huddersfield he quickly made the spot his own and was an ever-present for the rest of the season.
And George had a new tutor. Former Chelsea and England centre-forward Roy Bentley had moved to Fulham, and moved to right-half just in front of young Cohen. The veteran proved to be an excellent mentor teaching his younger teammate much about the finer, and also the mental points of the game.
In 1959 George met Daphne who had been brought to a match at Craven Cottage by the wife of a teammate. Three years later they married and would later go on to have two sons, Andrew and Anthony.
On the pitch Fulham, with players of the calibre of Jim Langley, Jimmy Hill, Graham Leggat, Tony Macedo, Bobby Robson and of course the peerless Johnny Haynes in their line-up could beat the very best on their day. But they proved to be maddeningly inconsistent and more often than not struggled in the lower reaches of the first division after promotion in 1958-59.
In Cohen’s later years at the club budding stars Rodney Marsh, Allan Clarke and Malcolm MacDonald all found their way to Fulham but it proved to be a stepping stone for all three who reached their peak elsewhere.
Typically of an inconsistent team the closest The Cottagers came to glory was in the FA Cup. In Cohen’s first full season, in 1958, they reached the semi-final and drew 2-2 with Manchester United before losing the replay 5-3. Four years later they again made the last four and this time it was Burnley who denied George a visit to the Twin Towers with his club losing the replay 2-1 after leading the first encounter through a Graham Leggat goal before John Connolly equalised.
Johnny Haynes and George Cohen
With Bentley still guiding him Cohen continued to blossom and when another former England star, Bedford Jezzard took over as manager he started to earn rave reviews for his performances. September 1959 saw the first England call up, when he was picked for the under-23 team that lost 1-0 to Hungary at Goodison Park. He would go on to win 8 caps at the level, spread out over four years.
With Fulham teammates Alan Mullery and Johnny Haynes
When a new man took over in front of him in the form of another future England star, Alan Mullery, Cohen’s game developed more and he was learning when to use his pace to get up in support of the attack and when to stay deep and help his team keep their shape.
With his game now approaching its peak it was little surprise when he was called up to the national squad in 1963 and the following year he received that first cap when he was called into the line-up after a disappointing display by Jimmy Armfield against Scotland. Cohen settled comfortably into his new role and immediately became a regular in the line-up. Disciplined in his approach with good pace and able to keep his sense of adventure in check unless he knew he had cover he was the perfect player for Alf Ramsey’s old position.
He quickly became the established right-back for his national team and offers started to come in for his signature. Wolves, Arsenal and Everton all made bids and Spurs, at the time they took Alan Mullery to White Hart Lane also wanted George and were prepared to pay £80,000. Fulham, whilst they seemed happy to allow many others to move on, refused all offers so he carried on at Craven Cottage.
George looks on anxiously as Jimmy Greaves goes close for Spurs
Whilst there were plenty of struggles and battles against relegation at Fulham, on the international front everything was going fine and, with that disciplined approach manager Ramsey loved, Cohen managed to hold off Blackpool’s Armfield, Paul Reaney of Leeds and others to keep his place in the side in the build up to 1966.
George meets the Queen
Ramsey had a settled back-six for the big tournament. With the world-class Gordon Banks in goal and Nobby Stiles operating in defensive midfield, the England manager’s choice of Cohen and Ray Wilson for the full-back roles compensated for a lack of pace in central defence as Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore brought their own qualities.
The hosts started the tournament with four clean sheets and this was only ended by Eusebio’s penalty in the semi-final. Two goals were conceded in the final but, of course, Geoff Hurt’s hat-trick and another from Martin Peters saw England to glory.
And, of course, they did so without wingers – eventually. The ‘wingless wonders’ method had first been employed in a superb November 1965 2-0 win over Spain in Madrid. Ramsey tried to use wide men in the early stages of the World Cup but reverted to the method in the quarter-final. The system gave the speedy full backs license to get further up the pitch knowing they had Stiles and the tireless Alan Ball covering them.
The quarter-final saw one of the iconic images of the tournament (main photo) when Cohen attempted to swap shirts with Argentina’s Alberto Gonzalez at the final whistle. Ramsey, incensed by the way the opposition had played intervened and stopped the exchange.
George holds off West Germany’s Siggi Held
Then came the final itself and another impeccable performance from Cohen. It was watched by Daphne and his mum and perhaps the only regret was that his dad had passed away four years before and wasn’t present on that special day
Alan Ball, Gordon Banks and George Cohen
More than any tactical nuance this England was a team. Honed by a long build-up of matches, by the time the tournament came around they knew each other’s games so well that it was more like a club side than a national one.
Cohen was 26 at the time of the World Cup win and was surely looking forward to many more caps and the chance of being a member of the team that defended the trophy four years later.
With World Cup-winning teammates Alan Ball and Ray Wilson
The season after the Wembley triumph was perhaps the best of Cohen’s career at club level. He finished runner-up to Bobby Charlton in voting for Footballer of the Year even though his team again barely managed to escape relegation and, still only 28, was certainly playing at his peak.
But then it was all gone. After just eight minutes of the match against Liverpool on 2 December 1967 Cohen went down in agony after clashing with England colleague Peter Thompson. He stayed on until the 20th minute but, clearly in pain, then left the pitch.
Cohen quickly absolved Thompson of any blame. “It wasn’t Peter’s fault,” he said. “I did it myself when falling.”
The injury was initially misdiagnosed as strained knee ligaments then he had part of a cartilage removed and, as he tried to recover it ‘went’ again when he tried to come back against Bristol City at Ashton Gate in March 1969. This time he was told that it was all over after 459 games for his only club.
George Best once called George ‘The greatest full-back I ever played against’
So the career of the man who had won 37 caps for his country finished when he should have had at least another two or three years at his peak . He received an £18,000 insurance payout from his club and another £8,000 from a testimonial night.
The testimonial was on 10 November 1969 and featured a warm-up between Fulham Past and Fulham Present before a 1966 World Cup XI beat an International XI 10-7. George, who had been training for the night and was hoping to play was struck down by flu and pleurisy and was advised not to attend. He did so, muffled in a heavy coat and scarf and was presented with a silver salver by his World Cup boss Sir Alf Ramsey.
Former England teammate Nobby Stiles, one of six World Cup winners who played, was still recovering from a second cartilage operation but said: “I promised George I would play. I would have crawled here rather than let him down.”
After a short time working with the youth team at Fulham, George turned his back on top-class football and got involved in property planning and development. There were ups and downs in the business but he battled back from each setback.
At the request of business associate Sydney Brickman, a director of the club, Cohen took over as manager of Southern League Tonbridge in 1974 and he spent two-and-a-half years at the club, leading them to victory in the Kent Senior Cup.
Much the same can be said about his personal life with, perhaps, more downs than ups. Three times he has fought off cancer. In 1971 his mother was tragically killed when hit by a juggernaut in Fulham. In 2000 younger brother Peter had his own life taken from him when, a month after an attack by a gang of thugs in a nightclub he owned in Northampton he suffered a series of strokes.
Awarded an MBE in 2000, Cohen sold his World Cup winners medal to then-Fulham owner Mohamed Al-Fayed (‘I have two sons, I couldn’t leave it to both of them’ was his reasoning) and set up a pension plan for his retirement.
With nephew Ben
In 2003 George’s nephew Ben (Peter’s son) was a member of the England team that won the rugby World Cup in Australia. His uncle was in the stands and looked on proudly as his nephew matched the feat George had achieved in football 37 years before.
In 2016, the same year that he was given the freedom of the Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, a statue of George was unveiled at the Riverside Corner of the Hammersmith End at Craven Cottage. The words underneath it read: George Cohen. Fulham player. World Cup Winner. Gentleman. Hosting guests in the George Cohen lounge on matchdays at the ground, he is happy to reminisce and share memories of his football days, with most people, of course, wanting to hear about that very special day in July 1966.
The boys of ‘66
The man of whom Bobby Moore once said; ‘Nobody is more willing or dedicated than him’ has soldiered on and taken many blows first ending his playing career then after walking away from football. He has weathered them all and proved that the willingness and dedication shown on the pitch and in training have been just as important since he left the game that could, and should, have given him so much more.