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From the Archives: Ex-Villan's World Cup claim to fame
Rob Bishop on an amusing tale from 1966.
18th Jun 2014
From the Archives: Ex-Villan's World Cup claim to fame


Bishop

"They think it's all over. It is now. Some people are on the pitch…."

No, we have haven't got Kenneth Wolstenholme's legendary 1966 World Cup final commentary in the wrong order. That's just the way it happened for Neil Rioch.

The former Villa defender wasn't one of the spectators who ventured on to the Wembley playing surface just before Geoff Hurst completed his hat-trick against West Germany.

But he and his friend made sure they ran on to the hallowed turf once the post-match celebrations were under way - even though they were under strict instructions not to!

Rioch, you see, was one of the ball boys at the most famous match in England's football history - and he has a unique claim to fame.

"I often ask people: Who was the first Englishman to touch the ball in the 1966 World Cup final," he says.

"They usually go through all the team - and even some of the squad members who weren't playing - before I tell them it was me!

"Uwe Seeler kicked off for Germany and Wolfgang Overath played a pass out to the right wing but it went out of play.

"That was the area I was patrolling, so I ran to the ball, picked it up and threw it to Martin Peters for the throw-in. Ray Wilson wasn't far away, either. Just think - the game might have been totally different if I'd given it to him instead!"

Rioch's involvement in the 1966 final remained little known until his brother Bruce - another ex-Villa man who later became Arsenal manager - was asked by BBC East to talk about the Wembley game.

The older Rioch brother was unable to oblige because he was about to go on holiday - but revealed the fascinating story that Neil had been on the touchline that July afternoon 48 years ago.

Kid brother subsequently appeared on television news items in both East Anglia and on Midlands Today.

Two of England's World Cup winners were already aware of the interesting statistic.

Some years ago, Neil was asked by Geoff Hurst for a contribution to a book he was writing, while he also met Nobby Stiles during a stay at Hendon Hall - the hotel where England were based during the finals.

"My wife Lynne said to Nobby: 'Did you know my husband was a ball boy at the final?' He was fascinated and we sat up talking until 4am. Nobby said it was the first time he'd been back to the hotel since 1966 - and he couldn't believe he was talking to one of the ball boys.

"He was doing a book signing the following day, and I have a copy signed 'to the ball boy.'"

Charlton

Neil was a 15-year-old living in Luton when the World Cup finals were staged in this country.

He played for Bedfordshire Schoolboys, who were selected by the FA to provide ball boys for two matches in the World Cup - the France v Mexico group game at White City and the final.

Eighteen were required - eight plus a "reserve" for each game - so Neil and his team-mates drew lots and he was one of the lucky nine.

"It was an incredible experience," he recalls. "I'd already bought tickets for England's group games, along with my friend Robin Wainwright (who went on to play for Luton, Northampton and Cambridge United) and he also pulled out an X to be a ball boy at the final.

"Watching the games against Uruguay, Mexico and France, it was amazing to know we would be back at Wembley for the final - and it was all the better when England got there.

"Robin was stationed behind the goal and my 'area' was the touchline to the right of the Royal Box. I reckon I had a better view of the game than Alf Ramsey!

"I was certainly closer to the action. I was only three yards from the pitch. I could hear everything that was going on and I really felt part of it.

"The ball boys were taken by coach to Wembley and we were shown the pitch before changing into our kit in a small room next to the England dressing room.

"Written instructions had been sent to us but the FA people went through them again before the match. We weren't allowed to kick the ball at all - even though it was tempting - and we were told we weren't allowed on the pitch under any circumstances.

"But after England had won, no-one seemed to worry what was happening. Robin ran round to where I was and it just came into my mind that I might never have another chance like this.

"We ran past the England players and straight down the pitch to the tunnel. Nobody said a word."

A week after the final, Rioch signed as an apprentice with Luton Town and went on to play for the England youth team.

Three years later he and his older brother joined Villa on the same day in a £110,000 deal.

His 'value' was set at a modest £10,000, which was reflected in the pair's records in claret and blue.

While Bruce played 155 games and scored 37 goals, Neil made just 25 first team appearances during his six-year stay, scoring three times.

One of those goals was the winner at the Holte End against Bristol City in 1973 but he admits that July afternoon at Wembley is his fondest personal memory.

"I know it's not massive in terms of achievements because I didn't really achieve anything," he said. "From a football point of view, playing at Villa Park and scoring at the Holte End was the greatest moment of my football career. And I had to pinch myself when I later played in America against the likes of Pele, George Best, Eusebio and Geoff Hurst.

"But as a personal memory, it's very difficult to top what happened that day.

"It was the only time the World Cup has been played in this country, England won it - and I was there, pitchside, when they did it. In a very small way, I felt part of what happened."

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