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.