England has long taught the world to play the beautiful game – when will they learn themselves?
Fascinating new book outlines the long history of the English ‘Mister’ abroad
Football’s European Championships are little over a month away, bringing with them that biennial ritual welcomed by most football fans: England crashing out in the early stages.
The usual welter of essay-writing over the state of the national game will follow, before the Olympics start and it’s all forgotten about until Sam Allardyce’s Brave Boys are sent packing from Russia 2018.
Coaching standards will be blamed, and the claim made that England don’t focus on technical ability like other nations. The standard historical argument for this is that England, buoyed by their god-given status as inventors of the game, closed themselves off in arrogant isolation to the rest of the world, dedicating themselves to kick and rush while the shifty continentals were catching up and then overtaking them.
In his fascinating new book, Times writer Rory Smith does not disagree, but argues the existence of a little-recognised parallel narrative: “It is one not of haughty dismissal but of intense generosity, of first an individual and later a collective desire to see football grow and thrive across the planet, to make sure everyone could benefit from Britain’s great invention.”
Mister – The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game charts the fortunes of several of these English coaches, who went around the world preaching technique and tactics.
These prophets who helped develop football in Spain, Italy, Germany and far beyond were not just without honour in their own land, but ignored entirely; yet ‘Mister’ is still the word for ‘manager’ in many countries.
“[George Raynor] is typical, in many ways, because his reputation remains considerably higher abroad than at home,” writes current England coach Roy Hodgson – who spent 30 years coaching successfully abroad before finally making an impact at home – in the foreword.
“Here was a man who fell short of football’s ultimate triumph only because his side ran into a 17-year-old by the name of Pele in the World Cup final [with Sweden in 1958], and yet he struggled to find work when he returned to England.”
Despite Raynor’s success with Sweden – he won Olympic gold in 1948 and bronze in ’52 and finished third in the 1950 World Cup – the best job he could get at home was with Skegness Town. His is a typical story.
Smith writes with clarity and wit about many other early visionaries, whose names are little known in their own country but still resonate in their adopted nations.
There’s Fred Pentland, who emerged from a WWI internment camp in Germany to revolutionise Spanish football with a new, short-passing game; Jack Greenwell, who Smith argues is Barcelona’s longest-serving manager – “not Johan Cruyff, the elegant superstar, but a gentle giant from County Durham”; William Garbutt, who coached at Genoa, Lazio and Napoli and was described on his death as “the most important man in the history of Italian football” by Vittorio Pozzo, Italy’s World Cup-winning coach in 1934 and ’38; Jimmy Hogan, of whom the German Football Federation wrote “none had such a seismic impact on the game” and who also was key to the development of fleeting powerhouses Austria and Hungary; Vic Buckingham, who preceded the legendary Rinus Michels at both Ajax and Barcelona and who Smith argues was instrumental to the development of the Ajax-Barca-Cruyff school of Total Football.
The list goes on. Smith has spent hours amid yellowing cuttings, and tracked down and spoken to lesser-known figures who spread England’s footballing gospel around the world.
One thing they had in common was their belief that football could be taught and technique was paramount, ideas utterly opposed to the accepted wisdom for much of English football’s history. They were roundly ignored, even scoffed at when they tried to convince their compatriots of this.
Even while an FA coaching programme set up by Walter Winterbottom was sending educators who believed in “mastery of the ball” to all corners of the globe, clubs in the Football League could not have been less interested.
“[FA chairman Stanley] Rous and Winterbottom set out to help Britain stay ahead of the rest of the world,” Smith writes, his frustration at a decades of ignorance palpable.“They ended up having precisely the opposite effect. They did more than most to speed up the chase.”
And now the Premier League is a global competition, with only three of its 20 managers English. Those of us who enjoy a chortle at the Three Lions’ years of hurt will hope the lessons in Mister continue to be ignored.
● Mister, by Rory Smith, is out now from Simon and Schuster.