The Ten Greatest English Coaches (Unheard of in England)

In recent years, there has been a perceived tendency in English managers and coaches to stay on home soil rather than ply their trade overseas. True or no, the migration of Steve McClaren to Twente and then Wolfsburg, with varying degrees of success, has been seen as the exception that proves the rule. Several factors have been put forward to explain this supposed phenomenon, not least of all the fact that English clubs pay their staff very handily – Ian Dowie, for instance, earns £300,000 a year as an assistant at Newcastle. Why should he move his family to Portugal or Holland to be paid considerably less for a harder job?

But the usual charges of technical and tactical simplicity have been levelled at the English game. It is a reputation well deserved, but to blame the coaches at the top would be a harsh judgement. Out of the last eight coaches to manage the national team, five have worked abroad. Unfortunately, they have found it difficult to bring any foreign-born innovations to the team. Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Eriksson, supposedly brought in to challenge the hegemony of pure-of-heart and stout-of-challenge anti-philosophy that has plagued us since the 60s, could make no headway. Indeed, Capello, seeing no way for his team to adapt, played the standard 4-4-2 all the way up England’s embarrassing defeat against the fluid 4-2-3-1 of a young, dynamic German side in the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps he remembered the variations McClaren tried to make to the tried and tested formula of failure, with disastrous results. Going back a bit further, Tony Adams, in his autobiography, recalls Terry Venables’ attempts to get England to play a three-man defence, hardly a strenuous request of professional players. Even Adams, a cultured centreback by English standards, had no idea what Venables was talking about.

Yes, it is true that the English game has long been aloof, isolated, in a self-imposed exile from the great dialogue of world football. Famously, England, believing in their assumed self-evident superiority, either declined to participate in the first World Cups or treated them as a holiday. But to say that English managers and coaches historically fall victim to the same arrogant hodophobia as the people around them is only indicative of how little we know about the sport. We know about the Bobby Robsons and the El Tels, and even fellow Brits like Chris Coleman, David Platt, Graeme Souness, Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and John Toshack who have left the safety of these isles, for better or worse. But what of the unsung heroes, the covert operators who have shaped and moulded football? For it is the case that Englishmen have had an almost unmatched impact on the development of the beautiful game from the beginning.

I am not simply making reference to the accepted wisdom that England invented the game. That would be to fall victim to the same hubris that has stood in the way of success time and again. I have instead chosen to shine a spotlight on men who are known and respected far ashore, but unheard of here. To do this I have chosen a list of ten, in an approximate order. My intention is not to simply brag about the contributions of my countrymen, but to argue for us to engage more in the great and vibrant dialectic that is taking place worldwide; to not simply see English football as a spent force, but an entity that requires constant vigilance and self-assessment in order to renew and rejuvenate not just itself, but the wider community.

So, without further ado, the Ten Greatest English Coaches Unheard of in England!

10. Jack Kirwan

Though he played for Ireland internationally, Kirwan was born in England and played for Spurs, Chelsea and Everton. In 1910, he became the first professional coach of Ajax, the club that would go on to revolutionise football in the 1970s. After a year, he led them to promotion.

9. Arthur Johnson

After Miguel Muñoz, nobody has managed more Real Madrid matches than Arthur Johnson, their first ever coach and a key figure in the formative years of what would become Europe’s most successful club. Ten years at the helm between 1910 to 1920 brought four regional championships and the first Copa del Ray.


8. Jack Greenwell

As if in reply, here is Barcelona’s second longest serving manager – only Johann Cruyff managed the club for more consecutive seasons. Between 1917 and 1923, Greenwell won 6 regional championships and 2 Copa del Reys. He also managed Peru to their first South American Championship, becoming the only non-South American to win that trophy. He also managed Barcelona’s local rivals, Espanyol, winning the Copa del Ray, along with Valencia, Gijon and Mallorca. Back in England, he got to play for Crook Town. Oh well.


7. Fred Pentland

The short passing game Spain used to win Euro 2008 and the World Cup two years later can be traced back to Fred Pentland, who introduced it during his time at Athletic Bilbao in the ’20s and ’30s. He won two doubles and three more Copa del Reys whole there, and was coaching the Spanish national side when they became the first non-British team to defeat England. Pentland is still seen as a kind of father figure in Spain, and his birthday is still celebrated in Bilbao. Back in England? He coached Barrow for a season.


6. Jesse Carver

Though he only won a single league title with Juventus, the Liverpudlian, who also managed the Netherlands, Lazio and Roma, was known for getting his teams to play elegant football and was ahead of his time as a coach and trainer, innovating the idea of actually training with a football. He could not duplicate such influence at Millwall and Coventry in England.


5. William Garbutt
Garbutt was, and still is, a model for managers in Italy. He changed Genoa from top to bottom, making them the first Italian team to play outside of Italy, and won three league championships with them, including their last to date. He was, in addition, Roma’s first ever manager, and took Napoli to then-record breaking highs (3rd twice in the early 30s, something they wouldn’t match for another 30 years or so). He would also win La Liga with Athletic Bilbao, and had a spell at AC Milan. After that, he returned to recently-relegated Genoa and got them back up to third, before he was deported by the growing fascist regime. Back in England? Ignored by the press, even during a recent “forgotten expatriate managers” programme by the Guardian.

4. James Richardson Spensley
Years before Garbutt came along, Genoa won the first Serie A under English manager James Richardson Spensley. He is still considered one of the fathers of Italian football, and while there he won six consecutive league titles. Further biographical information marks him as a near polymath, able to speak Greek and Sanskrit as well as being a trained doctor and a boxer.

3. Jack Reynolds
Ajax’s second English manager, but had far more of a lasting impact than Kirwan, and perhaps anyone: he stands side by side with the likes of Rinus Michels as one of the ultimate pioneers of Dutch football. For it is he who is credited with building the world famous Ajax youth academy from scratch, and laying the foundations for the Total Football style that would change world football. In addition, he won the league on eight occasions and the Dutch cup twice, and coached the national side for a period.

2. George Raynor
The first Englishman to manage in a World Cup final, taking the Swedish side of Gre-No-Li there in 1958. They would also win an Olympic Gold Medal, and managed a 2-2 draw with the legendary Hungarian Golden Team. How was he received in England? His advice on the Marvellous Magyars (his Swedish side also defeated England at Wembley) was ignored, and he was sacked by Doncaster Rovers. He did get a stint at Skegness Town, I suppose.

1. Jimmy Hogan
Gustav Sebes, coach of the aforementioned Hungarian Golden Team that thrashed England 6-3 at Wembley, went 4 years undefeated and other such ludicrous feats, said, “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.” Hogan partnered with Hugo Meisl to coach the Austrian Wunderteam, beginning a revolution in European football by stressing such innovations as fluid movement, short passing and close ball control (innovations all but ignored in the British Isles, but eventually became the blueprint for all of European football). Helped Switzerland and Austria to Olympic finals, the greatest Swiss success to date. Has also been called “the father of German football” and “arguably the most influential single manager anywhere, at any time.” Back in England? Refused a job at the FA, sacked at Fulham while he was still in hospital.


While this is doubtless an impressive list, it does not exhaust the contributions English managers have made worldwide. An honourable mention should go to Tony Waiters, the former Blackpool goalkeeper who upset the New York Cosmos to the North American title with the Vancouver Whitecaps, and is still the only manager to get Canada to the World Cup finals. Also to Herbert Kiplin, no less a person than the founder of AC Milan, who managed them to their first honours. And to Vic Buckingham, another precursor of Total Football at Ajax; how different would football have been had he not spotted a young Johann Cruyff? Buckingham also managed Barcelona, but his reputation back home was tarnished by unproven match-fixing allegations. And that’s before we get into more gentlemen who took charge at famous European clubs in their formative years, such as Herbert Burgess, Robert Firth, George Aitken, Ralph Kirby and Bob Spottiswode.

We see that the case of Roy Hodgson, who introduced zonal marking to Sweden but found it difficult at Blackburn and Liverpool, is not a unique or extreme one. If it is the case that English and British managers moving abroad is now a rarity, is it something we should be concerned about? It is often said that, due to the Diaspora following the Famine, the Irish Industrial Revolution happened overseas – it seems plain that England’s footballing revolution was similarly migrated. The true message here is a familiar one: that the governing bodies of football are too often pigheaded. The FA needs to listen more, as they didn’t listen to Jimmy Hogan and George Raynor. English football should be inclusive as well as expansive. We do ourselves no good by being introverted and set in our ways, nor by exiling our best minds and talents. Similarly, the culture of celebrity that has made English players believe they know best is something that should be combated. In short, we need to create incentives for English coaches to move abroad, and incentives for them to come back again.


England, your world needs you.


L.K. Thompson

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