The manager’s role

AP

Greece could never, so sensationally, have won the last European Championship in Portugal with a team without stars, had that wily German, Otto Rehhagel, not been in charge of their team.

Do England, who are now to pay Fabio Capello £4 million tax free a year, and another million to his entourage, need a manager? The question may seem heretical, even illogical. Yet, surely it has to be admitted that managers, not least international managers, can do harm as well as good. Can it seriously be asserted that without Steve McClaren so ineptly in charge, England might even have survived their European group, rather than go down in ignominy?

Before looking back on McClaren’s palsied reign, his plethora of dumb mistakes — which hasn’t prevented him from walking away with a £2.5 million pay off — let us turn back the clock to the 20 pre-War years in which England teams had no managers; yet, never lost at home to any foreign team.

There were one or two near things. Such as the visit to Stamford Bridge of the brilliant Austrian so-called Wunderteam, beaten 4-3 with much difficulty; though to be fair to England, the final whistle blew just as David Jack was about to knock in a fifth goal. Two years later, there was the so-called Battle of Highbury when the England team was ruthlessly maltreated by an Italian side reduced almost at once to 10 men. 3-0 down at half-time, they rallied to lose only 3-2 and it needed the alert goalkeeping of England’s Frank Moss to keep them at bay.

England teams then were picked by a so-called selection committee, made up by directors of various League clubs. In fact, even when a full-time manager in the shape of Walter Winterbottom was finally appointed in 1946, the selection committee, however farcically, still picked his teams.

Well, notionally at least, since those of us journalists who covered the World Cup finals of 1958 in Sweden were well aware that Walter, in fact, was calling the shots. The selectors passively went along with his sometimes old choices, whatever their own views.

Yet, when it came to the demands of tactics, Walter was far from convincing. The bizarre existence of a selection committee with a manager unable to pick the teams he wanted was, in fact, the result of an uneasy compromise between Stanley Rous and the FA councillors. Intent on retaining power, they, at first, opposed the very idea of a manager, and at last acceded to the unwieldy compromise of allowing there to be one but retaining the right to select his teams, themselves.

Yet, in retrospect, the whole Rous-Winterbottom regime seems absurd. Walter remained in power for 16 years. Elsewhere, Italy’s Vittorio Pozzo commanded for 20, Sepp Herberger of Germany for 24 years. But each of them won World Cups. Walter, in my view, was hardly to be blamed for the most humiliating defeat in the history of the England team, when they went down 1-0 in Belo Horizonte in the 1950 Brazilian World Cup to a USA team made up of a strange but resilient admixture of obscure players. On paper, an England team which included such giants of the game as Tom Finney, Wilf Mannion and Stanley Mortenesen should have strolled through the game. But there were no real excuses for the two abysmal defeats by the Hungarians, at Wembley in November 1953 and in Budapest the following May, by 6-3 — first-ever defeat for England at home by a foreign team — and 7-1. Walter got his defensive tactics badly wrong at Wembley and all those months later still hadn’t worked them out. True, the brilliant Hungary team would doubtless have won both games anyway, but hardly by the same crushing margins.

By sheer contrast, as you may recall, a fortnight before England collapsed at Wembley, that ebullient little Yorkshire coach George Raynor had taken his Sweden team, still unable to call on foreign-based star professionals, to Budapest and got a 2-2 draw. Having worked out that the Hungary team pivoted on the deep lying centre-forward play of Nandor Hidegkuti and marked him.

But Winterbottom, as he told me years later himself, simply asked his centre-half Harry Johnston whether he wanted to close mark Hidegkuti or stand off him. Stand off him said Johnston which he did. But no one else was deputed to mark Hidegkuti, who scored in 90 seconds and completed a hat-trick. The return in Budapest was plainly going to be an exercise in damage limitation, but Winterbottom did nothing to limit it, despite the lessons of Wembley. So Hungary ran riot and scored seven goals.

In May 1955, at the Quirinale Hotel in Rome, I heard Stanley Rous offer the England role to Jesse Carver, then the resourceful manager of Roma: “It’s about time we brought Walter into the office,” he said. But Carver refused in due course and Winterbottom lasted another seven years. Would England really have been much worse off if he had never been there at all?

Other countries, other ways. Impossible to imagine Italy winning two pre-War World Cups in 1934 and 1938 without the benevolent despotism of Vittorio Pozzo. “Kind, but with a strong hand,” he once told me. “If I let them make mistakes, I lose my authority.” Which was exceptional. Scorning the new orthodoxy of the Third Back Game, which swept England, he relied on the pre-World War I tactics he had studied as an impoverished student in England.

Bela Guttmann, once a star Hungarian centre-half, later to win European Cups with Benfica, once told me in Rome when he had just been sacked by Milan, then top of the Championship, of the symbolic time that little Lucchese, en route to play mighty Juventus in Turin, were traumatised when their manager died. In desperation, their directors phoned all over the country till at the last moment a new manager arrived. The game was drawn, the Lucchese players carried the new manager off on their shoulders!

By the same token, I’m sure Nobby Stiles was right when after England had won the 1966 World Cup Final, he tearfully said, “You did it, Alf; we’d have been nothing without you!” And Greece could never, so sensationally, have won the last European Championship in Portugal with a team without stars, had that wily German, Otto Rehhagel, not been in charge of their team. If only he had recently been managing England!