When the World Cup came to Welwyn
PUBLISHED: 12:03 05 July 2016 | UPDATED: 10:16 11 July 2016
It's a little-known fact that three of the biggest footballing nations trained and stayed in Herts during the 1966 World Cup as one by one they were defeated by an unstoppable England. Half a century on from the cup final this month, Mark Hemmings reports
Football fans across the nation are set to celebrate the 50th anniversary on July 30 of England winning the World Cup.
Captain Bobby Moore on teammates’ shoulders as he holds aloft the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s BBC commentary, ‘Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now!’ as Geoff Hurst rattled in England’s fourth goal to secure the 4-2 final win spring immediately to mind.
As well as those iconic moments, fans in Hertfordshire have their own very different and personal memories of the 1966 cup run – meeting football stars from across the world who were based in the county for the tournament.
While Sir Alf Ramsey’s England squad set up camp close by at Hendon Hall Hotel in north London, their eventual opposition in the final, West Germany, as well as France and Argentina, called Herts home during the contest. The three footballing giants all stayed at Welwyn Garden City’s Homestead Court Hotel.
France and Argentina trained at the King George V playing fields next door and Gosling Sports Park, while the Germans practised at the former British Aerospace sports ground at Bragbury End, where Stevenage FC now has its training centre.
Fans flocked to Homestead Court to catch a glimpse of the stars and collect signatures.
Richard Kreider remembers vividly heading to the hotel as a young boy and meeting World Cup heroes.
‘Most football fans will have etched in the backs of their minds that one defining moment when they became addicted to the world game, for me especially. I will never forget it. I was a small impressionable 12-year-old when three of the biggest footballing nations came to my home town, Welwyn Garden City. How could you not be mesmerised when you meet some of the finest footballers on the planet at that time?’
The young schoolboy and his pals soon descended on the teams’ base as soon as they heard the players were in town.
‘It was 1966 and England was hosting the World Cup, and I was kicking a ball with mates at the large King George V playing fields, which are adjacent to the Homestead Court Hotel, when news spread that the French national team was staying there.
‘In no time, we found ourselves getting signatures from the likes of Baraffe, Hausser, Bonnel and Combin. I would love to mention other names, but most signatures are indecipherable. I had the names on a piece of paper and hid it in my bedroom until I talked mum into buying me a proper autograph book.’
France were followed by the Argentinian squad arriving at the hotel, then by West Germany on July 26 after they had qualified for the finals.
‘The temperamental Argentine side was next but I don’t recall why I was not able to get up close to them,’ Richard remembers.
‘That didn’t matter because the next team were the mighty West Germans and they couldn’t have been more pleasant. Again, I got plenty of signatures but I’m only able to decipher the names Emmerich and Held.’
France had a miserable tournament, exiting at the group stages without a win; a Roger Hunt brace saw them beaten 2-0 by group winners England in front of 98,000 people at Wembley.
Argentina fared better, progressing to the quarter-finals, but there they were knocked out by England with Geoff Hurst’s second-half strike the only goal of the game.
The Germans set up camp in Welwyn GC during the latter part of the event to prepare for the final against the hosts; where of course Hurst was back on form, firing a hat-trick to seal England’s most famous footballing success.
Eight years on from the events of that remarkable year and Richard Kreider left the county for Australia. His love of the game, sparked by the 1966 meetings, led him to a career in the sport.
‘Fast-forward to 1972 and I was off to live in Perth, where joining a football team was the ideal way to make friends. Five knee operations later, and after reaching a decent level, I decided to move into football media. During this time, I was able to meet players from the 1966 England team who came to Perth to play for local clubs as guest players. Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Alan Ball and Bobby Charlton are four that I’m delighted to have interviewed at some point.’
Current Homestead Court general manager Nabil Lababedi has ensured the hotel’s World Cup links have not been forgotten. The former professional tennis player joined his family’s hotel business after his playing career ended and is proud of Homestead’s sporting heritage.
‘The French, Argentina and German team all stayed here, while England used the hotel as their base after the World Cup as well,’ he said.
To celebrate the history, when the family took over the hotel 15 years ago, a decision was made to honour the teams.
‘We spent a lot of money on it; converted the studios to apartments and named them after the 1966 England team and heroes like Ball, Moore and Charlton. We have built as many rooms as we can to use the names up!
‘The bar is called Bar 66 after the World Cup guests and victory for England, with framed tickets, original shirts and signed shirts hanging on the wall. We have tried to keep some of that nostalgia and it helps to keep the hotel homely.
‘The 50th anniversary of the tournament is a one-time opportunity to celebrate and we have a unique link to it. It’s good for the community in general and good for WGC to be able to celebrate the tournament, especially as it is the only one we have won.’
As interest has grown in celebrating the anniversary, Lababedi has been contacted by people recounting tales from 50 years ago.
‘Locals have written in to us on Facebook about their memories of the teams staying here and I’ve heard stories about the West German team being tormented by kids on the King George playing fields, but they were good natured about it. It’s mostly nice stories about watching them play. It wasn’t such a hoo-ha back then – you could go up to the players and speak to them, not like now when they’d be behind security.
‘How football has moved on.’