The legacy of Walter Winterbottom

STRANGE that Nandor Hidegkuti and Walter Winterbottom should recently have died within a day of each other. Strange because in a sense Hidegkuti was Walter's nemesis, the man who destroyed the England defence on that November afternoon in 1953 when he scored three of the Hungarian goals in a crushing 6-3 victory; the first ever by a foreign team on English soil. Nandor then was the deep lying centre forward of the great Hungarian team, lurking between the lines, just behind the devastating combination of Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis.

At Wembley that day he had virtual freedom to do what he liked. I talked to Winterbottom not long ago and he told me somewhat naively - he was never much of a tactician, alas - that as the England team manager he had asked his centre half Harry Johnston of Blackpool whether he preferred to close mark Hidegkuti or stay back in defence. Harry replied that he would stay back; which clearly necessitated putting a midfield player close to Hidegkuti. It wasn't done. So Nandor got a cleverly taken goal from outside the box after a mere 90 seconds and went on to score a couple more of the Hungarian half dozen.

England's disorganised exhibition was thrown into dire perspective by the fact that just two weeks earlier, little George Raynor, the Yorkshire manager of Sweden, had taken his team to Budapest and forced a 2-2 draw. Winterbottom would later try to play down the merits of that draw but when I knew Raynor in Rome in the mid fifties as manager of Lazio, he explained to me just what he had done. Which was to mark Hidegkuti tight in the first half with his inside-left, with his centre forward in the second. That severely hampered the Hungarian style.

But Winterbottom seemed to have learned nothing of all this, for when England went to Budapest in May 1954 to play the return, they were annihilated 7-1! True Winterbottom, who remained in office for an amazing 16 years, from 1946 to 1962, for most of that time was obliged to field the teams the selection committee of club directors picked for him; and they certainly picked a pretty strange one for Budapest. But it was surely not beyond the wits of a coach to devise a tactical means of at least minimising the damage.

In almost any other country, Walter would have been out after the England team were so astoundingly humiliated by a scratch USA team in Belo Horizonte in the 1950 World Cup. Yet on that occasion I feel that he was blameless. Beaten 1-0 by a headed goal from Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian centre-forward, England dominated the game with a team which at least on paper looked formidable even if Stanley Matthews wasn't playing.

The truth was that Walter as team manager was a kind of civil servant remaining in office so to speak while governments fell. He was a decent, intelligent, honest man who once told me significantly that he rated his other job as Football Association Director of Coaching the more important. And here too his contribution was somewhat ambiguous.

He was surely right to encourage coaching and coaches such as Ron Greenwood, later manager of West Ham and even England, to study the game and implement new training policies. But there can be no doubt that the whole coaching scheme degenerated into a potentially dangerous orthodox which became much worse when Walter in 1962 retired. Terminology was rife; the charge was that an essentially simple game was being made needlessly complicated. Arthur Rowe, the lively, humorous Londoner who so successfully managed Spurs in the 1950s and was no mean coach himself, ridiculed the use of a phrase such as "peripheral vicion." "You know what that means?" I once heard him say. "It means seeing out of your backside!"

John Arlott, most famous of cricket commentators and a soccer expert besides, once told that he was chatting with Walter and remarked on the capacity of some players to know in a flash just what was going on around them. "Yes," said Walter, "we know about that. We call it Environmental Awareness."

Walter himself was no mean footballer, playing League soccer before the war for Manchester United as a centre half and as a guest for Chelsea in wartime when he worked, a Wing Commander in the RAF, at the Air Ministry in London. He owed his promotion to team manager, etc. to the all powerful FA Secretary, Stanley Rous and would surely never have stayed all those 16 years in office without such patronage. He should surely have succeeded Rous as FA Secretary in 1962 when Stanley became the new President of FIFA, but was thwarted by the malign machinations of Sir Harold Thompson, the late FA vice president, who hated Rous because he could never get the better of him. Thanks to Thompson's scheming the job went to the mediocre Denis Followes, another who resented Rous and his power but who would never make the same impact.

By the time of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, however, Winterbottom, despite the existence of the selection committee - to be swept away by Alf Ramsey when he took over in 1962 - was pretty well getting his own way. In Gothenburg, selectors would confide to journalists that they wanted to make changes in the England team which was labouring; but when they emerged from their meeting it would always be to announce there was to be no change at all.

Much attention has been given to England's seemingly resplendent record under Winterbottom which reminds one that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Those two defeats by Hungary, the humiliation by the USA, stand out in all their awful embarrassment.