Remembering Raynor

George Raynor was surely the most successful coach, or team manager, that Sweden ever had, winning the Olympic gold in 1948 with a glittering team, reaching the 1958 World Cup Final against Brazil in Stockholm 10 years later, and having taken a Swedish team shorn of its professional stars to the finals of the Brazilian World Cup in 1950, writes Brian Glanville.

Was George Raynor, as the sub-title of Ashley Hyne’s newly-published book proclaims, “The Greatest Coach England Never Had”? Maybe, maybe not. But he was surely the most successful coach, or team manager, that Sweden ever had, winning the Olympic gold in 1948 with a glittering team, reaching the 1958 World Cup Final against Brazil in Stockholm 10 years later, and having taken a Swedish team shorn of its professional stars to the finals of the Brazilian World Cup in 1950. Though this is essentially a eulogy, a celebration of the little Yorkshireman’s managerial career, it deserved the wide readership it is so unlikely to get. For George, in the old saying, was never a prophet in his own country. Never more, by his own admission, than “a second class player,” never the winning manager of a major English club.

The book is of particular interest to me since, in the Italian football season of 1954/55, I was living in Rome and working there for the major daily Corriere dello Sport when George was managing Lazio. By a fascinating coincidence, the other big Roman club Roma was coached by the Englishman Jesse Carver. There could hardly have been a greater contrast in character. George so ebullient, open and friendly, Jesse the Liverpudlian who had long since erased his accent, closed — though not to the players who adored him — wary and detached.

Ironically enough, while Hyne, a lawyer rather than a professional writer, feels that Raynor should have been preferred to Ramsey as the England manager, it was Carver, who, in the spring of 1955, was offered the England role by Stanley Rous, the all-powerful FA Secretary. Who, in fact, was the man who facilitated Raynor’s career, when George wrote to him to inform him of his successes in wartime Iraqi football. It was Rous, in fact, in the foyer of the Quirinale Hotel at the top of Via Nazionale, who offered Carver the England position saying, “It’s about time we brought Walter (Winterbottom, long-serving England manager) back into office.”

As a 23-year-old freelance journalist, I was beneath Rous’ notice: (“Who are you?”) though when a year later my novel Along the Arno was enthusiastically reviewed, the music changed to, “God bless you, old boy.” I kept the secret of that offer for the next 20 years. But, offer it certainly was.

Raynor worked wonders in Sweden, where his initial appointment to the managerial job was greeted at first with scepticism. The music changed radically when his clever tactics brought a six goal win against Switzerland. He would travel all over Sweden coaching young talents with impressive success.

The superb 1948 team had gone to the winds, most of its stars snapped up by rich Italian clubs — Liedhom, the three Nordahl brothers, Gunnar Gran — which under Swedish regulations then debarred them from playing for their country. After Raynor’s 1950 World Cup team, in Brazil, had beaten the Italy side, Italian clubs swooped again. Yet, in 1953, just two weeks before the brilliant Hungarians smashed England’s unbeaten home record 6-3 at Wembley, Raynor had taken his patched up side to Budapest and gained a 2-2 draw. Skilfully doing what Winterbottom’s England would abjectly fail to do: Nullify the deep lying centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti, marking him tight in the first-half with Sweden’s centre-forward, in the second with their inside-left. Against England, Hidegkuti, scorer of a hat-trick, would run wild and free. Nils Liedhom, by then a star with Milan, once called Raynor “a good manager of a happy team.”

Rome, however, with its exotic history of corruption, scheming and duplicity, was a profound shock to him. I remember him sitting at a table in the ghastly new built flat Lazio had given him saying sadly to himself that he had always thought that football was a game for gentlemen. Not alas for the serpentine likes of Count Vaselli, Vice-President of Lazio and a self made millionaire whose business some years later was due to collapse. Meanwhile, he tried to undermine Raynor in every way he could.

Hyne, not always apprised of the realities of Italian football, disputed my claim in my book Soccer Nemesis that Raynor saved Lazio from relegation since they ultimately finished some halfway up the Campionato table. But the fact was that for many weeks Lazio seemed doomed, so much so that the typically Roman joke was circulating that Lazio had signed a fictitious Chinese player, Va-In-B meaning go into Serie B, through relegation. Which was resourcefully avoided.

I have never forgotten an astonishing rainy Sunday afternoon at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, built grandiosely by Mussolini, when Raynor’s Lazio defied all predictions in the local derby and comfortably beat a Roma team which had just won well at Bologna, prompting banner newspaper headlines: Everyone to the stadium to applaud Roma! But it was Lazio, shrewdly deployed by Raynor, who prevailed.

When the season ended, there was a major shock in store. Not only had Carver, his Roma team finishing third then promoted to runners-up since Udinese were found guilty of buying a match in the season before, decided to walk out on Roma in characteristic style. His next choice was of all teams Third Division South’s Coventry City! And he took George with him as his assistant!!

In the event, perhaps all too predictably, Carver would desert Coventry for Inter in mid-season, leaving Raynor in managerial charge. But dealing with largely pedestrian and sometimes recalcitrant players was not Raynor’s forte and when results went wrong he found himself playing second fiddle to Harry Warren, an old-fashioned manager for whom coaching was a closed book.

So George would find his way triumphantly back to Sweden and a national team which, at long last, could reclaim its star professionals — Liedholm, Gren, Nacka Skoglund, Kutr Hamrin; these last two splendid on the wings. “We’re the slowest team in the competition,” I heard him say after a victory in Stockholm. “If there was a relay race between all the teams, Sweden would finish last! But we’ll still reach the Final.” So they did, but though George had declared that if Brazil gave away an early goal they would “panic all over the show,” they did… and then they didn’t, sweeping Sweden aside with the brilliance of Pele and Garrincha.

George’s later years in English football were a sad anti-climax, with spells at Doncaster and even tiny Skegness. But he was indeed a Titan among coaches.