This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War as well as the latest edition of the football World Cup in Russia. The reason I link the two is as I grew up I was fascinated by the history of the two World Wars in the 20th century. I would eagerly watch any programme where veterans related their stories of what they’d seen and done. Unfortunately, the last survivor of the first World War passed a few years back but there are still veterans of the second global conflict with a tale to tell. In the same nostalgic vein, every new World Cup affords TV and the media a chance to remember England’s finest hour on a football field. It is now 52 years since we won the World Cup yet supporters of all generations are familiar with the story thanks to the recognition that team still gets. In particular, Fulham fans are well aware of the story as the team included one of our own, the legendary George Cohen who still graces the Cottage on matchdays as a host and on every day with a beautiful statue of him gracing the Riverside corner of the Hammersmith End.
George represents the club as well today as he did during his stellar playing career which was tragically cut short by injury at the age of 29. George was born in Kensington just after the outbreak of the Second World War in October 1939 and joined Fulham from school. His strength and speed were soon apparent and he was thrust into his first team debut at home to Liverpool in March 1957 at the tender age of 17. The game ended in a 2-1 defeat and George didn’t feature again that season but in November that year Robin Lawler was injured and Cohen again was asked to replace him at right back. This game ended more happily in a 2-1 win over Huddersfield and from then on he didn’t look back. George was ever present for the rest of an excellent season that ended with us just 4 points short of promotion in 5th place in the second division and only succumbing to Manchester United in an F.A. Cup Semi Final Replay. In a sense, George was fortunate to break through to the first team at a time our fortunes were on the up with a lovely blend of youth and experience. Roy Bentley was approaching the twilight of his career and was expertly marshalling the defence at Centre Back. However, our real strength lay in an attack prompted by probably the only Fulham player to usurp George in legendary status at the Club; the imperious Johnny Haynes.
Fulham went from strength to strength the next season under new manager Bedford Jezzard as we were promoted in second place just behind Sheffield Wednesday a comfortable 7 points clear of Sheffield United in 3rd. George missed just one game that season and even notched his first goal for the club in a Boxing Day victory against Brighton.
The First Division was a bigger challenge but Fulham and George rose to it admirably in their first season back in the top flight. A run of 8 wins in 10 games in the Autumn had fans dreaming of competing for the title but although results petered out after that a 10th place finish was creditable with young George an ever-present in the side. Cohen missed just one game in 1960-61 which turned into more of a struggle with a 17th place finish just 4 points clear of the drop. George’s performances though were starting to be recognised as he had by now been capped by England Under 23’s and went on to make 8 appearances at that level.
The following season was even more difficult although we were reasonably placed after beating Blackburn 2-0 at home at the end of November. However, we then lost the next 11 games in the League as the big freeze of 1962 set in. Fortunately, the F.A.Cup proved a welcome distraction where we were cruelly denied again at the Semi-Final stage by high flying Burnley. This run was possibly the catalyst for an upturn in League form and six wins in the last 11 games saved us from relegation by a point. The club was starting to make a habit of these close shaves and although results were dreadfully inconsistent George wasn’t as he missed just one game in the entire campaign.
1962-3 was a much more comfortable ride and Cohen played a full part in our 8 successive victories in the spring that catapulted us well clear of any danger. The following year was a real success by our standards at the time and although we were a lowly 15th we were a mammoth 11 points clear of the drop. George again was a model of consistency missing just one game and when new England manager Alf Ramsey was disappointed with Jimmy Armfield’s performance against Scotland he handed George his full England debut in a 2-1 friendly victory against Uruguay in May 1964, the first of his 37 caps. George must have impressed as from that moment on he was Ramsey’s regular pick at right back which was good news with the approaching World Cup on home soil.
The next season saw a familiar return to the lower echelons of the table although our 20th place finish was a relatively comfortable 4 points clear of relegation. George missed just two games that season and even managed to chip in with a couple of goals in a draw at West Brom and a home win over Wolves. This was the prelude to a much closer shave in 1965-66 which was commonly referred to as the Great Escape until Roy Hodgson’s class of 2008 laid claim to the title. By the end of February that season we were in danger of being cut adrift at the bottom. However, a shock 2-0 win against Champions elect Liverpool sparked us into an amazing run of 20 points from the final 13 games. A 4-2 come from behind victory at Northampton in the relegation four-pointer at the season’s end was ultimately the result that saved us from what had seemed our inevitable fate. The achievement must have set George off in good heart as he joined up with his England team-mates for that summer’s World Cup.
Ramsey had revolutionised the England team with his much more organised and professional approach. He favoured a 4-4-2 formation which went against the grain of most teams at that time who commonly employed wingers in attacking positions. Ramsey’s line up became known as the Wingless Wonders as he liked a much more solid midfield with two orthodox central forwards up front. It meant there was much more responsibility on the full-backs to get forward in overlapping positions and it was a role that suited Cohen down to the ground. He had the strength, speed and stamina required for the role and although sometimes his final crosses lacked accuracy his performances had earned Ramsey’s trust.
Being born in 1962 I have no first-hand recollection of the 1966 tournament but having read so much about it and viewed so much footage it is etched on my memory forever. Cohen was an ever-present as we won the World Cup thanks to a Geoff Hurst hat-trick and a Russian linesman. Who knows what current goal-line technology would have made of it although the Germans assuredly had Karma when Lampard’s effort in South Africa in 2010 wasn’t given. The boys of 66 probably didn’t get the recognition they deserved at the time but as each passing tournament goes by with us ever more distant from success their achievement gains extra lustre.
George returned as a hero to the Cottage for the new season and he again played a full part in what was another season of struggle. George scored in a 4-1 win against Manchester City and played 35 games for a side that finished 18th. Unfortunately, it was to be George’s last full season in a Fulham shirt. In December 1967 he sustained a serious knee injury at home to Liverpool and although he attempted a comeback he never really recovered. Nor did Fulham in all honesty and it was probably no coincidence that in George’s absence we finally succumbed to the relegation we had successfully dodged so many times.
The next year went from bad to worse. Cohen tried to make a difference as he got back into the side in early 1969 but he clearly wasn’t over his injury. His last appearance sadly was in a 6-0 thrashing at Bristol City which I guess was the final straw for George in knowing his knee wasn’t up to it. It was a sad way for it to end but couldn’t detract from what had been a magnificent career with George’s 459 games placing him 4th in the all-time list. Without the injury, he would assuredly have got much closer to his old mate Johnny Haynes at the top.
With this year’s World Cup approaching there has been speculation whether Ryan Sessegnon should get a call-up to the England squad. Although it’s probably too soon there is no harm in reminding Gareth Southgate that England have only ever won the World Cup with a Fulham player in the team. That fact is something all Fulham supporters cherish and makes us ever thankful that George Cohen was one of our own.