When Sheffield was centre of World Cup plans

World Cup tea gardens behind Pauldens store in Sheffield
World Cup tea gardens behind Pauldens store in Sheffield
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Half a century ago, on July 12, 1966, West Germany beat Switzerland 5-0 in front of more than 36,000 spectators at Hillsborough Stadium.

This was the first of four World Cup matches held in Sheffield.

A row of World Cup flags set up outside the Midland Station, Sheffield in July 1966

A row of World Cup flags set up outside the Midland Station, Sheffield in July 1966

Most people know that West Germany went on to an iconic Wembley final in which they were beaten in somewhat controversial circumstances by hosts England.

What is less known about is the preparation and behind-the-scenes administration that went in to Sheffield’s involvement with the 1966 World Cup.

Sheffield figured in the Football Association’s plans for the 1966 World Cup right from the start.

FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous, together with Walter Winterbottom (the director of the Sports Council and a former England team manager), chose Hillsborough as a host stadium in their initial plan.

World Cup Quarter Final 1966 at Hillsborough, July 23, 1966, West Germany v Uruguay. Schnellinger (West Germany) heads out a Silva shot.

World Cup Quarter Final 1966 at Hillsborough, July 23, 1966, West Germany v Uruguay. Schnellinger (West Germany) heads out a Silva shot.

The Owls had intended to build a new ground but this idea was watered down to simply building a new North Stand at Hillsborough by the club’s board.

The FA, however, decided to stick with Wednesday, curiously putting the ground into a ‘Midlands’ group with Villa Park.

The Labour government, led by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, spent almost £500,000 on preparations for the tournament, £96,400 of which was spent at Hillsborough, including the new Leppings Lane End Stand with 5,000 seats, 3,400 seats in the South Stand, new visitor reception areas in the North and South stands, TV installations and a new gymnasium.

This development raised Hillsborough’s seating capacity to 24,400 (which was 900 seats more than at Manchester United’s Old Trafford!)

As in all of the host cities, a local liaison committee was active by the end of 1963.

This committee was formed by the County Football Association, in this case the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA, together with officials from bodies such as the city council, British Rail, the General Post Office and utility companies.

Gripped by World Cup fever, the corporation installed a seven-feet tall floral ‘living’ football in Victoria Square, built by six Parks Department gardeners and comprising more than 8,000 plants.

Meanwhile the Cleansing and Baths Committee gave visiting teams free use of the public baths and the Libraries and Arts Committee organised a programme of film shows and gramophone record recitals.

There were also celebratory arts events – Sheffield Grand Opera Company staged a concert on July 17 and the Sheffield and District Amateur Theatre Association performed a comedy play, Thark by Ben Travers for the week July 11-16.

The play, written in 1927, had no obvious link to football but was undergoing a revival, having reopened in London’s West End in 1965.

Two further classical concerts were also held, at the City Hall, and at the city’s art gallery, on July 13 and 26.

Despite these offerings, many visiting fans decided to stay in London, with its bright lights, and commuted to Sheffield via special trains laid on by British Rail.

BR’s catering department went all out for the occasion, offering “wrapped foods of the sort we know sporting men like when they are travelling” including such delights as pork pies and long life ‘canned beer’!

On the pitch, Hillsborough, together with Villa Park, hosted Group 2 matches between West Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Argentina.

West Germany and Argentina progressed from the group, West Germany beating Uruguay 4-0 in a quarter-final also held at Hillsborough on July 23.

Attendances were good, 40,007 being the figure for the quarter-final.

Over the four matches the aggregate attendance came to 130,836; gate receipts totalled £133,005 17s 6d, of which Wednesday received a ‘hire fee’ of £16,950 17s 6d.

The rest went to the 16 FAs qualifying for the finals and to keep FIFA going for the next four years!

Of course, there was much more to the legacy of 1966 than just the direct financial performance of the tournament.

Indeed, 1966 has become a part of our national culture and has had global impact.

‘World Cup Willie’ paved the way for a whole new intensity of sports event merchandising and it would be almost unthinkable for a World Cup event nowadays to be without its own mascot.

The expression ‘they think it’s all over’ from Kenneth Wolstenholme’s iconic commentary has become a well-used expression throughout the land and the 1966 tournament ushered in a new era of media interest and televised coverage of international football.

It is clear that the city of Sheffield played a significant part in what many people consider to be England’s greatest ever sporting achievement, hosting and winning the greatest global sporting mega-event of them all, the FIFA World Cup.

n Writers Dr Kevin D Tennent and Dr Alex G Gillett work at the York Management School, University of York.

Their book, Foundations of Managing Sporting Events: Organizing the 1966 FIFA World Cup, is out soon, published by Routledge, a division of of Taylor & Francis Ltd (ISBN 9781138645202).

They have also contributed to an exhibition held at the National Football Museum, Manchester, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 FIFA World Cup. The exhibition will run until April 23 and admission is free.