How Arthur Rowe changed Spurs forever

How Arthur Rowe changed Spurs forever


There’s nothing like an international break to prompt a bout of soul-searching about England’s place in world football. Greg Dyke, in his first major speech as chairman of the FA, has ruffled feathers with some blunt observations too this time around. I wonder what Arthur Rowe would have made of it all.

Rowe is a figure much under-appreciated in English football, and that is perhaps telling because, arguably, without Rowe the English game would have stayed isolated for far longer than it did. And Spurs would certainly not need be the force they are today.

Rowe was a Tottenham lad, born a stone’s throw from White Hart Lane. He played for the club after coming to their attention at the age of just 15, going on to play under and be influenced by the great Scottish coach Peter McWilliam, who laid the roots of what we’ve come to know as The Spurs Way. McWilliam’s view of the game was all about space and shape, angle and incision. He wanted the ball played on the ground and made to do the work, and he wanted players to be flexible and able to interchange position.

Rowe matured into a cultured centre-half and played a crucial part in the Spurs team that finished third in the league in 1933, also winning his first England cap. But a succession of injuries eventually forced him to stop playing. But Rowe was a football man and he wanted to apply his thinking about the game as a coach.

In 1939, the year he retired from playing, he went to Hungary on a lecture tour. The Hungarians were so impressed they tried to get him to stay and work with them, but the outbreak of war meant Rowe returned home. Hungary had impressed Rowe too. In that country during the 1930s, a school of thinking dubbed “the coffee house” by Jonathan Wilson in his history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, had begun to challenge the aesthetic limitations of the British W-M approach. The Hungarians played a more fluid game, with greater emphasis on passing and movement, forwards dropped deeper to receive the ball and linking the play between the midfield and the forward line was valued.

This emphasis on fluidity and movement chimed with the ideas Rowe had grown up with under McWilliam. He became more convinced than ever that English football had to change or be left behind. Not only did the tactical approach need rethinking, English clubs needed to look outwards and compete with the best of what the Continent had to offer. During his time in Hungary, Rowe met Gusztáv Sebes and Ferenc Puskás. Almost 15 years later, Sebes was coach and Puskás the star of the Hungarian national side dubbed the Magical Magyars who destroyed the myth of English football supremacy during a breathtaking 6-3 win at Wembley. Rowe had seen it coming long before the complacent guardians of the English game.

When Rowe became manager of Spurs in 1949 he told the players he wanted to play his way. Club captain Ron Burgess said his ideas were “revolutionary”. Rowe signed an intelligent, attack-minded full back to help put his ideas into practice. The player’s name was Alf Ramsey, who went on to achieve a thing or two. Alongside Burgess at half-back was another player who would go on to make quite an impact on the game – Bill Nicholson.

The style Rowe developed was known as push and run. It won Spurs the Second Division title in his first season in charge, going 22 matches unbeaten. The following year Spurs won the League, thrashing Newcastle United 7-0 along the way in a game that signaled the beginning of the end for the old order. Sebes’ Hungary merely confirmed the passing of the old way two years later when they shocked England at Wembley.

Without Rowe there would have been no Spurs Double, for it was Bill Nicholson who took Rowe’s ideas and honed them to produce a side still described as the best English football team of the 20th century. And Nicholson knew, having fed on Rowe’s ideas, that it was Europe where the true test was – eventually leading that great side to the lift the first trophy won by a British team in Europe. It was Rowe too who first coined the slick, simple phrases Nicholson would drum into his Double winners – ‘Keep it simple, keep it quick”; a good player runs to the ball, a bad player runs after it”.

Rowe also mentored a young player called Vic Buckingham who he’d played alongside at Spurs. Rowe encouraged Buckingham to go into management, and Buckingham eventually went to Ajax of Amsterdam, introducing a system that came to be known as Total Football and discovering a player called Johann Cruyff.

Bill Nicholson said he felt that, while Rowe learned much from his time in Hungary, “the Hungarians learned from us, not the other way round”. But what’s key is that Rowe looked outwards, in great contrast to those running the English game who believed England had nothing to prove against the foreigners, and who prevented English clubs from entering European competition for years before the will of men such as Matt Busby and Nicholson made that position impossible to maintain.

It was Rowe, too, who signed Danny Blanchflower for Spurs – arguably the player who was the key to the Double, but certainly one whose approach to the game was something Rowe admired. In fact, long before Blanchflower uttered the quote about glory that will be forever associated with Spurs, it was Rowe who made the connection between style and success. What’s often forgotten when that quote is used is that it emphasises both style and winning – and what Rowe and those who followed him realised was that you could not separate the two and stay true to football.

As English football once more considers its role in the world, it’s time for a new assessment of Arthur Rowe’s quiet revolution.

A fuller appreciation of Arthur Rowe can be found in Martin Cloake’s ebook Arthur Rowe. It costs just £2.99 and can be downloaded direct to your computer or mobile device. His latest ebook, Sound of the crowd, has just been released, and full list of his books can be found at his bookstore.


  1. Great man of Spurs and all his teams were fantasic to watch. During his time it was football at its best, lets hope that our present team can reach the same standard of style and results

  2. Excellent article, from a time when the game was all about the game and not about the money, when we could reach out and touch our hero’s and you didn’t need a bank loan to buy a programme. Great days, much loved day’s and now sadly gone.

  3. I was very pleased to read the article because I’ve always felt that the achievments of Arthur Rowe have never really been fully appreciated.
    I first saw Tottenham play in 1948. At the time they were an average second division side. When Rowe took over in 1949 it all changed. Tottenhan ran away with the second division championship and were the team everyone was talking about. In 1950 Spurs met high flying first division Sunderland in the FA Cup and walloped them 5-1. It was a measure of how much they’d developed over a short period.
    The remarkable thing is Alf Ramsey was the only player signed by Rowe, the others he inherited. So he turned an underperforming bunch of players into a team who were to win the second and first division titles in consecutive seasons. He did make a couple more signings but in relative terms he didn’t spend anything like the amount clubs lay out today.
    He was simply a brilliant tactician.
    Yes I’d be the first to admit that football now is much better than it was then but…standing on the terraces in those days was a very, very enjoyable experience and many of my happy memories are thanks to Arthur Rowe. A real football genius.

  4. We hear a lot over the years about how “west ham won the World Cup” it’s always struck me that the influence of our Mr Rowe over Alf Ramsey must of been massive during their years together at Spurs.

  5. I too am sick of the West Ham insistence they won the World Cup. Managers win cups. England’s manager was Sir Alf Ramsey. Where did he learn his football? White Hart Lane. Ergo Spurs won the World Cup

  6. Almost 40 years ago now, circa 1975, there was a football exhibition in Central London, the exact venue of which escapes me, but the host was one Arthur Rowe. As a diehard young Spurs fan, I already knew of the significant contribution that Arthur had made to English football and of course even more so to Spurs, with the legendary ‘push and run’, so I decided to go along to the exhibition. It was surprisingly sparsely attended, however I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in the company of Mr Rowe, with just a couple of other fans, whilst he showed film footage of 1950’s football, particularly the 1953 “Stanley Matthew’s” FA Cup final and broke it down for us tactically. A charming man and an absorbing afternoon’s education in football coaching and the methodology that he pioneered.

  7. My brother and I as snotty nosed kids would drive our Mum mad on match day. We’d gobble our meal (great digestive system then) and bolt down to our 2nd home to watch the players arrive at the ground. My special hero was our fabulous goalie Ted Ditchburn. In one purple patch during the championship winning season we beat Stoke 6-1, Portsmouth (who were the reigning champions) 5-1, and Newcastle (who won the cup that season) 7-0. After the game we’d hang around the ground just to see our heroes leave the ground and either walk home or catch the bus. If God grants me one wish when I reach Heaven it will be to see the 51 push and run side play the double winning side.

  8. What memories. I remember my dad taking me on his shoulders to watch that great defender A Rowe play. I never dreamed that decade later I would be playing at the lane, being pulled off the Tottenham marshes to play right half for Tottenham boys v Edmonton boys. My opposition was a young lad named Johnny Haynes. What a hiding I got. Little knowing that this lad would eventually play for Fulham then England. Certainly Bill Nicholson was the greatest tactical attacking defender I have witnessed. Cyril Boylett

  9. During the sixties, Spurs with a ground full to 60,000+ would open the double gates at the Paxton Road end a few minutes after the second half kick off, hundreds of penniless kids would rush in and try to push their way down to the front, I was one of them, in my case it was to watch Mackay and Jones, two players never to be forgotten. How football has changed, in more ways than one.

  10. My earliest memories at White Hart Lane were behind the goal at Paxton End late 60’s when we beat Man U 2-0. The Greenhoff brothers were playing for Man U at the time. The best match I saw was our 3-1 win against Porto. We are a great club. A special club that has produced three England managers.
    The 60’s were fantastic for Spurs’ fans. We could beat anybody. Now I hope nobody who supports us, forgets to respect all who played for Spurs over the years. We should never become like Arsenal fans who boo their team even though they’ve done well playing proper football recently.
    The Spurs’ way looks simple but few of our teams have managed it over the years. When we get it right, not only is it a delight to watch, but suddenly everybody either copies or resents our success. This is already starting to happen under Pochettino. If we stick together as a squad, build resources carefully and calmly, by the time we occupy the new stadium, we will once again be the best club this country has. Then all the false-dawns will be in our past.

  11. I played football for Crystal Palaces Under 18 Accademy team in 1958-1959 and Arthur Rowe was The Manager of Crystal Palace having just arrived from Spurs. What a wonderful man, very kind and gentle, and certainly new the games of Football. I will always remember Spurs in the 60’s with Greaves, Blanchflower, Mackay, Bobby Smith etc. What a greatteam and Greaves only cost a pound under 100 thousand pounds. What happy memories.


    Now all u manure fans SUCK IT.

  13. Great Article , I feel extremely proud that as a young kid in the 60’s living in west london surrounded by chelsea, fulham and QPR. I use to travel to tottenham on a saturdays to sneak into the ground, to watch greavise, chivers peters etc play the game how it should be, what happened to us in the interim years has been heart breaking, especially since 1994, we became a laughing stock, under developed and always also rans, yes we have had a few successes since the 60’s in FA and Uefa cups and league cups more than many other teams, however we have always under performed even when we had hoddle, perryman, waddle, Gazza because in most cases the manger/management were completely useless and always seek to buy cheap.. spurs should not be in the position it is today, with only 36K capacity, since the 90’s it should have build a bigger stadium it woud have been cheaper.. Anyway lets look to a positive season ahead to build on what has been achieved 16/16 season, we still have and did not win anything finishing is not WInning, we need and should have done better, we had the opportunities but sadly could not take the opportunities, by fininshing off sides ruthlessly, that is where we need better mental capacity. COYS… lets return to our roots and fully play our pass and move game…its the best.. I agree with anderson armstrong

  14. First taken to watch spurs when Jo Hulme was manager–they were then an underperforming 2nd div side for two or 3 seasons until Arthur Rowe took over. Then came that sudden, glorious football revolution called push and run which basically saw all the players use the rapid “wall” pass combined with bewidering ( to the opposition ) interchange of positions which completely out-foxed the opposing teams. These tactics made space in and around the penalty area for our strikers to capitalise on .Current teams find this much harder because of more highly organised defences. Ultimately though, after two or three amazing seasons, spurs became less successful. This was due to a.combination of factors such as an aging team,the heavy pitches and the heavier ball prevailing at that time. Also opposing teams became more wise to spurs tactics, Then after a few years in the doldrums along came another genius named Bill Nicholson and the rest, as they say, is history. But forever imprinted in my memory will be the wonderful football , the glorious goals and the amazing crowds of those times.

  15. A series of wonderful articles from people who love our Club as much as I do, a Supporter of increasing devotion since 1944. I endorse everything they say, having lived with it virtually all my life. No incentive in the world could prise me from my deep attachment to the history, tradition and style of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur.

  16. Ah, sweet memories! It is 71 years since I first saw Spurs agin Chesterfield. Despite the poor management under Hulme I supported them until the halcyon days under Rowe. Although he came from non-League my uncles were excited when we learned he was replacing the Gooner. They said he was a cultured centrehalf whose career was blighted by injury. In 1950 I went to Tottenham Grammar in White Hart Lane. Spurs trained at the Ground in those days and finished in time for my lunch break. I got to know Rowe and the team very well. Arthur Willis our left back was a particularly nice guy and would tell me things they had been working on. I used to divulge this to surrounding supporters on match day and gained much respect. Oh those blessed, blessed days….none better. Ted Ditchburn, incidentally, who had a sports shop in Northumberland Ave, supplied my first soccer boots and Dubbin to rub in. COYS. Leon Ruskin

  17. What a lovely time. To see A. Rowe, the great defender, my father used to carry me around on his shoulders. I never believed I’d be on the lane a decade later, pulled from the Tottenham marshes to play right half for Tottenham against Edmonton. My opponent was Johnny Haynes, a young guy. What a mess I’ve created for myself.

  18. Oh, such wonderful memories! I haven’t seen Spurs in Chesterfield for 71 years. I supported them till the halcyon days under Rowe, despite the awful administration under Hulme. My relatives were ecstatic when we realized he would be replacing the Gooner, despite his non-League background. He was described as a cultured centrehalf whose career had been cut short due to injuries.

  19. My uncle Les Bennett told me that without AR being manager he would never had a great career. He was well aware that as ball player he could be frustrating when hanging on to the ball. AR knew this he also knew that Les could be a bit of ‘Jack the Lad’, but he kept him in the team and he scored more than his fair share of goals as an inside forward. My dad was at Spurs as well as a youth player he went on to have a good career in 3rd Division South. To him he was always said that AR best ever manager. He called their style ‘push and run’. Seems that Arthur is little known outside Spurs these days. But he did change English football. A great mam!


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