Back to the days of no logo and incredibly short shorts

I've had flu all week, despite having had an anti-flu jab, what a waste that was, and it's been so boring, staying inside being sensible, overdosing on cough mixture, becoming addicted to Lemsip, counting the hours till the next Strepsil. It always happens after an expensive hol in the Caribbean. Oh, been away, have you, say the neighbours, somewhere nice, you don't look it.

It's just men who have flu, according to the wife. Women simply have a cold. But to cheer me up, distract me, she said why don't you get out that video you got at Christmas from Caitlin, I'll watch it with you, if you like.

"We might see you on it," she said, smirking, as she unwrapped the 1966 World Cup Final, a BBC video of the full match, with original commentary by Kenneth Wolstenholme. No, I wasn't playing, but I was there, as I've boasted for years, though I can't actually remember the goals or any incidents. Just the atmosphere and excitement, and, of course, England winning.

The first surprise was the quality of the film. Black and white, no action replays or incredible close-ups, but you could see everything clearly. And Wolstenholme's accent was not all that dated, no more than Peter Drury's. No advertising hoardings - except for Radio Times on the scoreboard - no sponsors' logos on the players' shirts. What an innocent, uncommercialised age it was. Every player had the same hair, short back and sides, except for Bobby Charlton's sweep-over. All shorts were incredibly short, almost up to their bollocks. The crowd wore rosettes and did a lot of clapping, but very limited singing, apart from "Oh when the reds go marching in", and limited chanting, apart from "Ing-land" or "Attack, Attack". No obscenities. When the crowd didn't like the ref, they sang, "Oh, oh, what a referee". Today it's "Who's that wanker in the black?". In 1966, when the Germans chanted "Deutschland", we replied with "England". Today, it's more likely to be "You're gonna win fuck all".

It rained in the second half, yet in my mind the sun shone all day long and the Wembley pitch was perfect, as always. The England team are now all giants, but on the day they were so thin and wiry. Nobby Stiles looked malnourished and deprived. Must have been the war rations, observed my wife. He made Lee Bowyer look like Mr Universe. There was nobody in the England team who you would call big and strong, unlike Emile Heskey or Sol Campbell today. Jack Charlton was tall, but giraffe-like, awkward rather than hefty. You don't get such clumsy, awkward England players today, not since Carlton Palmer.

But they all looked incredibly fit, despite players' diets being rubbish in those days, so we are told, eating half a cow before kick-off. They did tire, though, and well before the end. With no subs, they were all knackered in extra time, except for Alan Ball. He was amazing, running non-stop. There were no nasty tackles, no diving, no pretending, no pushing and shoving, no arguing with the ref, and players helped each other up and shook hands. It was, after all, a World Cup Final. Players realised they were on show.

As for the skills, the passing, the control, the movements, I would say the quality of the England team today is not appreciably better than 36 years ago. Cruyff's swivel turn had not been invented, but almost all the other fancy bits were there, bringing the ball down on your instep, overlapping full-backs, clever side back heels. Our full-backs were poor, as they are today, with Ray Wilson giving away the first goal, but the rest of the team were excellent, not a weak link.

I interviewed Bobby Charlton last year, and his memory was of hardly being in the match. He and Beckenbauer had been detailed to mark each other, so cancelled each other out, but Bobby had a very good game. His passing was as good as Beckham's, but he could also shoot from any distance, which Becks doesn't. Bobby Moore was indeed elegant, but I'd forgotten his chest control, how it gave him so much space to come forward.

Germany had lots of possession, some good movement, but England took their chances and deserved to win. For the first time, I properly understood Wolstenholme's now famous words: "They think it's all over - it is now!" I was there, so didn't hear him say them. I'd assumed it referred to the ref blowing the final whistle, but he says the second part as Hurst scores - to make it 4-2. I loved watching it; it took my mind off my aches, and I felt, well, uplifted. First, because my memory had not played tricks. The England team in 1966 were excellent. But also because I detect that Sven is slowly coming round to the belief that England should play as England have traditionally played.

We are not going to be able to pass or keep the ball as well as the Italians, French or the Argentinians. We are not suited to a slow build-up, passing our way intricately down the field. Such play can be good to watch, and frustrating for the opposition, but is ultimately pretty useless unless you have penetration at the end. Ideally, you want to be able to do both, but few teams ever manage that. France, the world champs, don't have it. The last ones were the Brazilians of the 1970s. In 1966, we had that penetration with Hurst. Today we have it with Owen. In 1966, there was no big belting of the ball from defence. Charlton, Ball and Peters moved the ball forward quickly from midfield, just as Becks, Gerrard and Scholes do so well today. Quick counter-attacking is what England are good at, were good at - not posing, endless passing, fannying around, getting nowhere.

England got somewhere in 1966. I am now feeling chirpier about WC 2002. My wife fell asleep.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The unusual suspects