When royal sculptor Philip Jackson was working on the magnificent figure of Bobby Moore which stands guard at the portals to Wembley Stadium he would invite one of his neighbours to his West Sussex studio to offer periodic guidance and approval.
Who better to be his advisor than George Cohen?
On one such occasion, as the statue was nearing completion, Bobby’s widow Stephanie was one of a small advance viewing party which included myself and a couple of Fleet Street colleagues.
As we admired the double-life-size bronze of the only man to captain England to World Cup glory we noted how he was standing supreme with his foot on the ball. Instantly, Jackson deferred to Cohen for that particular inspiration.
George grinned and said: ‘Mooro was the guv’nor. Master of all he surveyed.’
The beauty of it was that the skipper and the right back of the Boys of 66 could not have been more opposite in style and temperament. Moore the cool, commanding, unflappable, classical leader of men by example. Cohen the fierce defender and rampaging over-lapper into barn-storming attack.
Yet each was a huge admirer of the other. When Bobby transferred from West Ham to George’s one-and-only club Fulham in the autumn of his career we went for a post-match drink with another revered veteran recruited at Craven Cottage.
George Best was oft on the record saying: ‘George was the best right back I ever played against.’ As he said it again, Moore raised a glass to ‘the best England right back.’
Cohen blushed. This footballer of extraordinary humility always did so when heaped upon with praise. But he grinned more often. It is hard to remember this George without a smile on his face.
Cohen (right) waving to the crowd alongside Bobby Moore (left) and Gordon Banks (behind) after the 1966 World Cup final
Cohen (second from right, top row) was vice-captain when England won the World Cup for the first and only time in 1966
Cohen (left) built a strong relationship with former England captain Moore (centre) during their playing days
Cohen has passed away at the age of 83, meaning only two members of England’s starting XI in the 1966 final are still alive
One of Cohen’s most vital contributions to the winning of the World Cup was the esprit de corps he fostered in the dressing room and carried onto the pitch. No matter how extreme the adversity.
‘Come on lads. Heads up. Keep smiling.’
And if the lads did lose: ‘Never mind. Not the end of the world. There’s always next Saturday.’
So it proved come the greatest Saturday of his life, which didn’t end until the World Cup Final had been won through the anguish of extra-time against arch-rivals West Germany and celebrated to the full.
For a man born into Jewish heritage but brought up Anglican and married to Daphne the love of his life in the Church of England, fate played its part along the way to that pinnacle of his career and manager Alf Ramsey’s ultimate endorsement as ‘England’s greatest right back.’
Injury to England’s established right back Jimmy Armfield helped Cohen take over the No 2 shirt in time for the World Cup. Full justification came as one of his thunderous runs and howitzer crosses set up Bobby Charlton for the semi-final winner against Portugal.
The smiling Cohen pictured alongside Moore (left) and Don Revie (right) as Moore made his final professional appearance
Sir Alf Ramsey prevented Cohen from swapping shirts with an Argentina player in 1966 after his side’s quarter-final win
Even so, his innate sportsmanship got him into trouble with Ramsey in the preceding quarter final. The manager marched onto the Wembley pitch at the end of victory over Argentina to prevent Cohen exchanging shirts with one of the opponents he had accused of being ‘animals’ for the cynical brutality of their tackling.
As ever, George had to laugh. Not least with Alan Ball, the chirpiest of them all. Ramsey’s England had been denounced as his ’wingless wonders’ when he jettisoned football’s traditional wide men for the World Cup. There was method to his supposed madness. This strategy enabled him to amplify the energy, stamina, productivity and resilience of his midfield.
Not only that, it set up the tireless running of Ball and the foraging of Cohen to exploit the open space along England’s right. Their interchanging established command of that flank in almost every match, almost all crucial moments.
Cohen (left) was known for his tough-tackling, and George Best (right) described him as the best right back he ever faced
Yes, there were times when Cohen’s exuberance resulted in his crosses veering into the crowds behind goals. But they were delivered so early and at such pace that he and Ball kept opposing defences in a constant state of anxiety. And if they did go astray, George had to smile at Ballie’s frustration.
Perhaps the only times I saw a shadow cross that warm face were in concerns about illness. It distressed him when bowel cancer, from which he himself had recovered in the 80s, claimed Moore’s life so prematurely.
Then again as he witnessed the dementia which had taken his mother haunting so many of his team-mates. At the 50th and what proved to be the last anniversary reunion of the survivors of England’s World Cup triumph Cohen observed: ‘I still have my memories of that day but sadly they are no longer still there for so many of the lads.’
The grin returned when his own statue was erected by the club for whom he made all his 459 first team appearances before injury forced early retirement, at 29. It made him chuckle that his bronze took over the plinth on which previous Fulham owner, former Harrods proprietor Mohamed Al Fayed, had installed a bizarre monument to – yes, the – Michael Jackson.
Cohen was a one club man in his career, making 459 appearances for Fulham during his 13 years at the club as a professional
Cohen (left) became a well-known and much-loved figure at Craven Cottage for his overlapping runs down the right flank
A statue of Cohen was unveiled outside Craven Cottage in 2016, 50 years after he played his part in England’s World Cup win
As his own likeness was unveiled Cohen asked, tongue in cheek: ‘Is that George Clooney?’
By that autumn day in 2016 he was on sticks and his mobility remained impaired thereafter. Until this day of George Reginald Cohen’s passing at 83.
Still one of the kindest men you could wish to meet. Still, we are assured, with a smile on his face.
Even though, sadly, in Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst, there are now only two World Cup heroes still standing.