The erratic English manager

Stanley Rous, the progressive secretary, meaning chief executive of the Football Association, wanted his protege Walter Winterbottom and when he got him he would astonishingly manage to keep him in office for 16 years, writes Brian Glanville.

England’s football team never had an official manager till as late as 1946; and even then the very idea was sullenly opposed by the senior councillors of the Football Association; alarmed by the prospect of losing their own powers and privileges. Stanley Rous, the progressive secretary, meaning chief executive of the Football Association, wanted his protege Walter Winterbottom and when he got him he would astonishingly manage to keep him in office for 16 years. Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo guided the Azzurri for even longer than that but won two World Cups in the process. Winterbottom never got near to that and even managed the England team that was sensationally humiliated by a part-time USA team in the Brazilian World Cup of 1950; though that was hardly his fault.

The reluctant councillors insisted that though Winterbottom would manage the international team, there could be the absurd compromise of their own so-called selection committee actually picking the team. Nominally at least this absurd arrangement inured right to the end of his managership in 1962; though those of us journalists who reported the Swedish World Cup of 1958 were well aware that the so called selectors were by then simply endorsing Walter’s own choice.

Now Winterbottom’s son-in-law Graham Norse has celebrated the 100th anniversary of Winterbottom’s birth with a eulogistic biography, subtitled grandiosely ‘The Father of Modern Football’. Which he wasn’t.

For me, however, who knew Walter well and for years travelled the globe with him and the England team, including two World Cups, the book has a certain fascination. As much for what it sometimes doesn’t say as what it does.

It does though at least refute the sneering dismissal of Winterbottom by such famous internationals as Raich Carter and Tommy Lawton, whose international careers spanned the Second World War, that Walter had never even played professional football. In fact he, himself a Lancashire-man, had played shortly before the Second World War as centre half in the First Division for Manchester United. Indeed he was even prominent enough to figure on one of those free gift black and white photo cards, bulky shin-pads and all, issued by the old Topical Times, a prominent weekly of that era, from which myself, as a very young schoolboy, collected Walter’s picture. He used the money he thus earned to put himself through the Carnegie Physical Training College with a view to his future profession.

In the Second World War, he became a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force in charge of physical fitness training and playing at times as a guest for Chelsea. Rous, who had already spotted his abilities at Carnegie College, brought him in not only as manager for the England team but as director of the Football Association’s coaching programme; which Walter surely significantly, would always say was his principle job.

Despite the contempt of players such as Lawton, a famed centre forward, over Walter’s attempts to suggest tactics to his team, results were on the whole pretty good; there were talented players to choose. But in 1950 came the American disaster. And in 1953/54 the shocking defeats by Hungary which showed up all too clearly Walter’s limits as a tactician. Unmentioned in this laudatory book is that fact that two weeks before the Hungarians under Ferenc Puskas came to Wembley and annihilated England 6-3 the canny little Yorkshireman, George Raynor, had taken his Sweden team — so many of whose stars had left for teams in Italy and thus, as professionals, were unavailable — and forced Hungary to a 2-2 draw. Doing what England dismally failed to do; nullify Nandor Hidegkuti who scored three times at Wembley.

Walter’s half-baked attempt to mark him with two different players sharing the task was doomed. Raynor used two players too, but with the crucial difference that one marked Hidegkuti tightly in the first half, the other in the second.

The following May, the teams met in Budapest where England were destroyed 7-1. True, their selectors had made some odd choices, but surely a shrewder manager than Winterbottom could have devised a strategy to keep defeat within reasonable bounds. Difficult to think of any other international manager anywhere else keeping his job after two such disasters but with Rous as his guardian Walter kept his. In this biography mention is made of Sweden and Raynor’s achievement. No mention, either, in this book of the notable occasion in the hall of the Hotel Quirinale in Via Nazionale in Rome when, in May, 1955, Rous offered Jesse Carver Winterbottom’s job: “It’s about time we brought Walter back into the office.” This, in front of me, a journalist, however young and obscure. “Who are you?” he’d asked me when I greeted him. In the event, I kept the secret for many years; and Carver didn’t accept the role.

In an ideal world Walter, a born administrator who always found it hard to make real contact with his England players, would have succeeded Rous as FA Secretary. His tactical choice as England’s manager had remained erratic. When England reached a playoff versus Russia in Gothenburg in the 1958 World Cup, he ignored the young Bobby Charlton and threw on two attackers, Peter Broadbent and Peter Brabrook, both making their debut. England lost 1-0.

That he didn’t follow Rous as secretary was thanks to the malign, conniving of Professor Sir Harold Thompson, a distinguished Oxford scientist who had constantly, when he made trouble, been swatted like a fly by Rous. On the morning of the crucial vote at a London hotel, he went round to every member of the voting committee brandishing a Sunday paper which, he complained, had made Walter a clear choice, so Walter didn’t get the job in football for which he was best suited.