The village green in Dagenham
, Ramsey's birthplace and childhood home. (2007)
Alfred Ernest Ramsey was born on 22 January 1920 at 6 Parrish Cottages, Halbutt Street in Dagenham, which was then an agrarian village in Essex, about 10 miles (16 km) east of central London. He was the third of five children, four boys and a girl, born to Herbert Ramsey, a manual labourer who worked a smallholding, kept pigs and drove a horse-drawn dustcart, and his wife Florence (née Bixby). Parrish Cottages lacked hot running water and electricity, and the only toilet was outside. Such conditions were typical of Dagenham during this period, although Ramsey's street gradually became something of an anachronism as he grew up. From 1921, London County Council transformed the area into the Becontree estate, a vast urban community that by 1934 was home to 120,000 people and the Ford Dagenham automobile factory. Parrish Cottages remained largely untouched: electricity was not installed until the 1950s, and even then only with the reluctant approval of Ramsey's mother, who, according to a neighbour, was frightened of it. In the recollection of a childhood contemporary, Phil Cairns, the Ramsey house was "little more than a wooden hut".
The young Alf Ramsey was described by his friend Fred Tibble as "a very quiet boy who really loved sport". In his 1952 autobiography Talking Football, Ramsey would describe "liv[ing] for the open air from the moment I could toddle", spending hours each day in the meadow behind the family cottage, playing ball games with his brothers. He learned skills such as ball control, kicking and heading with a tennis ball. From the age of five, Ramsey attended Becontree Heath School, which had a roll of about 200 pupils aged from four to 14. He and his brothers had to walk two hours from their house to get there, and passed a ball between each other on the way to break the monotony. Ramsey was not especially popular socially, nor particularly diligent as a student, but he excelled in sports. In addition to football, he played cricket to a high standard and represented the school in the high jump, the long jump, the 100-yard and 200-yard dash. Despite his diminutive stature, he also enjoyed boxing until an incident when he was 10 years old, when a much larger opponent—"as wide as I was tall" in Ramsey's recollection—gave him a severe beating in a school tournament. Ramsey carried a noticeable scar above his mouth, a memento of this fight, for the rest of his life.
"He was very withdrawn, almost surly," Cairns recalled, "but he became animated on the football field". Ramsey was selected to play for Becontree Heath School when he was only seven years old, playing at inside-left alongside boys as old as fourteen; his nine-year-old brother Len was at inside-right. Alf's selection for the school team prompted the purchase of his first pair of football boots. Two years later, aged nine, he became captain of the school team. By this point he had switched to playing at —the key position of the then favoured in British football, between the full-backs and the forwards. His main strength was generally perceived to be his extremely accurate passing; his chief shortcoming was a lack of pace, for which Ramsey compensated by learning to read the game and position himself well. Ramsey played for teams representing the schools of Dagenham and Essex County respectively, and trialled unsuccessfully for the London schools team while at Becontree. While he was at school, his brother Albert took him to see his first match, watching their favourite team, West Ham United, play against Arsenal. This was the only senior match Alf would attend before playing in them himself. He later wrote that his main recollection of it was the performance of one of the Arsenal forwards, the Scotland international .
On leaving school in 1934, the 14-year-old Ramsey tried to get a job at the Ford plant, then told his family he intended to become a greengrocer. To that end he became an apprentice at a local branch of the Co-op, delivering groceries on a bicycle. The manual work helped to bulk up Ramsey's physique, but he found himself unable to play organised football because he had to work on Saturday afternoons. After a two-year hiatus, he returned to the game when he joined Five Elms, a newly formed amateur club whose matches on Thursdays fitted with his work schedule. About a year later, during the 1937–38 season, Ramsey was spotted by Ned Liddell, a scout from Portsmouth, then a well-established top-flight club. Liddell offered a contract as an amateur. Rather than signing on the spot, Ramsey asked to take the forms home to examine first; he signed them that night and sent them to Portsmouth by post. Much to Ramsey's disappointment, Portsmouth did not contact him again. He spent the next two years working at the Co-op while playing cricket in the summer and football in the winter.
Second World War
After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Ramsey was conscripted into the British Army on 24 June 1940. He was assigned to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and underwent his initial training in Truro, where he and other recruits were housed in a hotel commandeered by the army. Ramsey found the experience a thrilling adventure. "Until I travelled to Cornwall, the longest journey I had undertaken was a trip to Brighton by train," he recalled. "It was the first time I had ever been into a hotel! Even with us sleeping twelve to a room, on straw mattresses, could not end for me the awe of living in a swagger hotel." "That set the tone for Alf's war," Leo McKinstry suggests in his 2010 biography; attached to his regiment's 6th Battalion, Ramsey spent the entire war in Britain on home defence duties. The training was still physically demanding though, and, in Ramsey's words, made him "a fitter young fellow than when I reported for duty as a grocery apprentice from Dagenham".
Writing in 1952, Ramsey would call joining the army "one of the greatest things which ever happened to me", adding "I learnt, in a few weeks, more about life in general that I had picked up in years at home." Military life taught Ramsey about discipline and leadership, and improved his social skills: "I have never been very good at mixing with people but you have to in the army or else you are in trouble," the journalist Nigel Clarke recalled him saying. Ramsey rose to be a company quartermaster sergeant in an anti-aircraft unit.
Military service also allowed Ramsey to play football more regularly, and at a higher standard than before. In late 1940 he was posted to St Austell, on the south coast of Cornwall, where he manned beach defences and became captain of the battalion football team, playing at centre-half or centre-forward as circumstances dictated. After three years in various seaside postings, Ramsey was, in 1943, moved to Barton Stacey in Hampshire, where he came under the command of a Colonel Fletcher, himself an accomplished footballer. Ramsey's battalion team by this time featured players from a number of Football League clubs, including the Brentford forward Len Townsend and Arsenal's Cyril Hodges. Ramsey played at centre-half for his battalion team as Southampton defeated them 10–3 at the Dell in a pre-season friendly on 21 August 1943, and a week later played again as the battalion took on Southampton's reserve team. The soldiers won the second match 4–1.
On 8 October 1943, Colonel Fletcher called Ramsey to his office to inform him that Southampton needed a centre-half for their match away to Luton Town the next day, and had enquired about the sergeant's availability. The 23-year-old Ramsey was cautious, saying he lacked experience, but said he would "give it a try" when the colonel suggested that playing might set him on the way to a . The next day, while en route to Luton by train, Ramsey signed for Southampton as an amateur, making his debut for the club at Luton's Kenilworth Road ground. Ramsey gave away a late in the game with Southampton 2–1 ahead, allowing Luton to equalise, but Southampton managed to win 3–2. He played in three more matches for the team during the 1943–44 season before his battalion's posting to County Durham forced his absence. After his unit returned to the south coast at the start of the 1944–45 season, Ramsey played in a trial match at Southampton, and performed well enough that the club offered a professional contract on wages of £2 per match. Ramsey was still uncertain about pursuing a football career; he signed the contract only after Southampton assured him that he could leave at the end of the season if he wished.
Ramsey was injured during the 1944–45 pre-season, ironically while playing against Southampton for his battalion team, so he did not make his first appearance as a professional until December. During the match, against Arsenal at White Hart Lane,[n 1] Ramsey played centre-half opposite the formidable Arsenal centre-forward Ted Drake and according to McKinstry "had the best game of his career to date." Drake scored twice, but Ramsey still felt that he had proven his ability to play League football. On 3 March 1945, against Luton Town at the Dell, Ramsey was switched to inside-left because of injuries elsewhere in the team; he scored four goals in a 12–3 Southampton win. The Southern Daily Echo reported "he can certainly hammer a ball." Ramsey finished the season having made 11 League South appearances.
Ramsey remained in the army during the 1945–46 season, the first campaign following the war. Starting as a centre-forward, he scored two goals in each of Southampton's opening two games, then a hat-trick in a 6–2 victory at Newport County on 6 October 1945. He played in 13 League South matches before military commitments again intervened—in December 1945 he was deployed to Mandatory Palestine, where he accepted an invitation to captain a football team representing the British garrison. This side included Arthur Rowley, who later scored hundreds of goals for Leicester City and Shrewsbury Town, and the future Scotland international forward . Ramsey returned to England in June 1946 to find himself entertaining overtures from both the new Southampton manager Bill Dodgin and the Dagenham Co-op, the latter of which offered Ramsey his pre-war job back. Ramsey initially turned Southampton down, but accepted after the club offered better terms: £6 per week during the summer, £7 in winter and £8 if he was selected for the League team. He was formally discharged from the army soon after.