What price Winterbottom?


RECENTLY, a memorial service was held for the late Sir Walter Winterbottom. There were sincere eulogies, not least from Sir Bobby Robson, himself, like Walter, an England team manager. How heartily I agree with Sir Bobby that it was a great shame that in 1962 Walter did not succeed his mentor, Sir Stanley Rous, as the Secretary of the Football Association. It would surely have been an ideal role for him, but more of that later. But let us concentrate first on his joint Football Association roles as England team manager and Director of Coaching of which, very significantly, he once told me he thought the latter the more important.

Bobby, perhaps, was somewhat carried away in his oration. As the Romans said, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, speak nothing but good of the dead. But when Bobby praised Walter for "using language everyone could understand," he was going just a little too far. I remember Jim Wilson, who used to be in charge of the Army representative team when, given the existence then of conscription, it was full of rising young stars, telling me of how Bobby Charlton, then a soldier, said to him, "Walter gave us a lovely talk. I don't know what he meant."

Another anecdote comes to mind. Of the England team in training on the lush pastures of the Bank of England ground at Roehampton. "I want you five forwards," said Walter, "to go down the field inter-passing, then when you reach the penalty area, just put the ball into the goal."

That brilliant maverick inside-forward Len Shackleton, alias the Clown Prince of Soccer, looked up wearily from the ground where he lay. "Which side of the goal Mr. Winterbottom?" he languidly inquired.

I knew Walter pretty well for many years and always found him greatly likeable, a charming, intelligent man. But as the first-ever full time manager of the England team, and one who amazingly lasted 16 years, he was scarcely ideal. During those years, I was wont to write, Walter was like a civil servant, who remained in office while governments fell. True, for much of that time he was in the absurd position of having to field teams picked for him by a selection committee, consisting largely of the chairmen of professional clubs. And it was Len Shackleton who put the cat among the pigeons in his Clown Prince autobiography, with a one-page chapter headed, The Average Director's Knowledge Of Football. The page was blank.

During those years Walter survived the cataclysmic 1-0 defeat of the England in the 1950 World Cup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, by a rag, tag and bobtail USA team. The 6-3 humiliation by the Hungarians at Wembley in November,1953: the first ever defeat at home for England by a team from outside the British Isles. The subsequent 7-1 route by the Hungarians in Budapest, the following May.

Even if those England teams were picked by the selectors — and the one which went down 7-1 had some odd choices — Walter's tactics still in retrospect seem woefully inadequate. A few years ago, I spoke to him about the defeat at Wembley, largely engineered by the Hungarians' deep lying centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti who scored the first goal in 90 seconds and went on to get a couple more. Why had he been given the freedom of the park?

Winterbottom told me that he had asked his centre-half, Harry Johnston, how he wanted to play Hidegkuti: would he close mark him or stand off him. Johnston said he'd prefer to stand off. All well and good, but surely this implied that someone would look after Hidegkuti. It didn't happen. Nandor was largely left alone to wreak havoc.

What a contrast with what had happened in Budapest a mere fortnight earlier, when Sweden held Hungary to a 2-2 draw. Another, very different, English manager was in charge of the Swedish team: the little Yorkshireman George Raynor.

Raynor told me, when I got to know him well in Rome as manager of Lazio, how he'd planned to nullify Hidegkuti. Having promised his players, "If we win, I'll paint Stalin's moustache (on his statue) red!" What he did was to depute a player to shadow Hidegkuti in each half; his inside-left in the first-half, his centre-forward in the second. It worked. Sweden forced a gallant 2-2 draw. In his latter years, Walter tried to denigrate that achievement for one reason or another. But results are results and the 7-1 thrashing in Budapest cannot easily be explained away.

Surely by then, whatever the team he was given, Walter should have learned enough about Hungary and Hidegkuti at least to avoid humiliation. A policy of containment should have been mandatory. Packed defence, breakaway attacks where possible. Raynor and Sweden had shown the way; Winterbottom and inept England didn't follow it.

I never blamed Walter for the defeat by the USA. Those wise after the traumatising event have blamed England — and the then sole selector, Arthur Drewry — for not picking Stanley Matthews, that gloriously elusive outside-right. But this was an England team full of glittering stars: Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney, Stan Mortenson. It should have overwhelmed an American team without a single-known player. That it didn't, provided surely the greatest shock in any World Cup tournament, and I'm not forgetting North Korea's 1-0 defeat of Italy in 1966 at Middlesbrough.

So how, in the name of logic, did Walter survive so long, where for years now any England manager who enters a bad streak — look now at Sven Goran Eriksson — comes under withering fire? Answer: Stanley Rous. The all-powerful, authoritarian Secretary of the F.A. Walter was his protege; some said even his poodle. The football Press then was far less abrasive and confrontational than now. And Walter did at least get his England team to the World Cup finals of 1950, 1954, 1958 and 1962.

What of his coaching scheme? He once told me that coaching was simply a matter of "showing how to practice." But though it unquestionably schooled outstanding future manager-coaches such as Ron Greenwood, famous at West Ham, the scheme became an orthodoxy, ridden with jargon: "peripheral vision," "environmental awareness," and what not, ultimately begetting a department which promoted the sterility of long ball football, at the expense of true skills.

Walter should certainly have succeeded Rous as F.A. Secretary but was sabotaged by the scheming Professor Harold Thompson, an F.A. vice-President who hated Rous, who'd always stamped hard on the late Thompson's machinations. But Thompson managed to convince the appointing committee to prefer Danis Follows; whom he could later drive into a heart-attack, with his constant pressures and plotting. Walter became a senior sporting bureaucrat, but, in the role of F.A. Secretary, there was so much he could have done for the game. More, one feels, than he ever could as coach and as a bizarrely long-serving England team manager.