George Raynor Sweden England Gamechangers

The transformative nature of international management is remarkable. Steve McLaren was head-hunted by Sir Alex Ferguson to be his assistant before moving on to somehow take Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final, but a poor few performances with England – culminating in a drenched Wembley defeat to Croatia – saw him remembered on these shores more for his umbrella than his exceptional coaching ability. McLaren’s signing Gareth Southgate was seen largely as a polite but ineffectual manager before this summer, but after reaching the World Cup semi-final through a summer of euphoric optimism, he has been hailed as the saviour of the Three Lions.

That McLaren won FC Twente’s first ever Eredivisie title, or that Southgate wore a brown paper bag on national television, are inconsequential when placed alongside the former’s cringe-worthy imitation of a Dutch accent or the latter’s heroics in Russia. England’s warped relationship between national team manager and public perception is not a new conundrum, however. Seventy years ago, possibly the most visionary manager in English football history was shunned by his own people, despite having reached the World Cup final. In any other culture, that achievement would guarantee a job in one of Europe’s cathedrals of football. For George Raynor, it earned him a ticket to Skegness.

Raynor’s Magical Magyar warnings go unheed

In the world of insular arrogance that engulfed English football, any form of free thinking was condemned. The immediate aftermath of the Magnificent Magyars’ stunning 6-3 win over England at Wembley in 1953 was filled with indignant bluster that only decades of imperial introspection can cultivate. In hindsight, it should come as little surprise that there was almost equal shock at the 7-1 humiliation in the return game in Budapest a few months later, or that there still remained a stubborn belief in the old methods.

Even in the face of such comprehensive failure, Raynor’s voice of warning had gone unheeded. He had pointed out the dangers of Sandor Hidegkuti drifting between the lines before the match and had suggested that he be marked. He wasn’t the only English coaching luminary ignored opinion, either. Jimmy Hogan was an Englishman who had effectively nurtured the forward-thinking disregard of rigid positional play to Hungarian football. Gustav Sebes, the manager of the Hungarian team at Wembley, famously said that “[Hogan’s] name should be written on gold letters” when telling the history of football in his country.

England turns it back on Raynor

Neither Hogan nor Raynor were acknowledged in England. It is difficult to conceive of quite how aggressively their progressive knowledge of the game was shunted to one side in blind, misguided deference to the draconian methodology born in the 19th century. Raynor wrote an autobiography in 1960 in which he criticised the FA for ignoring the winds of change, and with it, he effectively signed away what little shred of opportunity for recognition lingered.

To characterise Raynor as someone who disavowed his motherland would be to do the man a great injustice. He served during the Second World War with the Ninth Army in North Africa before eventually being sent to Iraq. There was a significant presence in the country, with almost all new RAF recruits from African colonial outposts sent there, including a certain Roald Dahl.

Raynor was tasked with running a rigid physical exercise and sport program for two years until the end of the War, as well as managing a touring side to play in the region. Even then, though, he had begun to cultivate his own philosophy that went far beyond cardiovascular preparation.

As a player, he had met with a reasonable if unremarkable career. Sheffield United became his first professional club in 1930, but by the start of hostilities, his playing career was over at the age of 32. After his training experience overseas, he returned to Aldershot Town – his last club before the War – to play one last game before being appointed reserve team manager.

He would cycle for miles around to scout the best talent. Scouring regions for the next breed of players was a habit he insisted upon wherever he worked. Nevertheless, it was relatively ungratifying work in less than salubrious surroundings.

A path less travelled – to Sweden

Sweden was still entrenched in the world of amateurism in sports at the time. Professionals were barred from representing their country, despite the likes of Gunnar Nordhahl and Nils Liedholm starring in Italian football. At least their national team directors were willing to expand their horizons.

Sir Stanley Rous was secretary of the FA, and would also go on to be president of FIFA from 1961 onwards such was his standing in the global game. He was a rare convertee of Raynor’s coaching strengths, even if countless football league clubs were not. Raynor sent dozens of application letters to no avail until a letter dropped upon Rous’ desk in London from his Swedish counterpart.

It is a bizarre paradox, but in the mid-20th century, English coaches still carried an almost automatic level of respect despite the regressive style of English teams. The Swedes were looking for a coach to lead them out of the dark ages, and Rous had no hesitation in putting forward Raynor.

Raynor reluctantly accepted the opportunity and sailed to Gothenburg. He was quite open about his desire to prove himself in his own country but realised that his time would have to wait. Instead, he set about putting his theories into practice.

Preparation and team spirit

One key cornerstone of his methodology was preparation, no matter what circumstances he found himself in, as Skegness Town winger Brian Asher recalled over half a century later.

“He brought team spirit,” said Asher. “He had a dossier on everyone. When you went out to play, you knew exactly what you had to do. His organisation was first class. He left nothing to chance: he’d have been a great manager to take, no doubt about that.”

Ahead of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, Raynor displayed his thoroughness. Despite not being able to practically make it to South America before the tournament itself, he approached Swedish corporation Facit who had staff based in Rio De Janeiro. They advised him on the climate, the people, the cuisine and even helped book training camp locations out of town under Raynor’s instructions. The hotel owner arranged special trains to take them from their more secluded base to Fluminense’s training facilities.

There was also plenty of carrot to the stick about Raynor, however. To compliment his meticulous planning, he relaxed his grip at opportune moments. At one point of the 1950 tournament, Sweden were left with eight days between fixtures, so Raynor paid for his players to enjoy a luxury breakfast at the Copacabana Palace Hotel. His knowledge of his home country led him to set up camp in Richmond Park for the 1948 Olympics, with trips to Bentalls shopping mall planned. The Swedes went on to win the gold medal.

Stars of the Future

Back in 1946 though, there was serious work to be done. On the pitch, Raynor was undoubtedly the master of his own fate, but his most serious and challenging work was off it. Despite being in charge of team affairs, as was the custom in those days the selection of players was still controlled by the committee. Professionals were out of bounds – not just for the Olympics, but for any fixtures – meaning the net had to be cast wider than ever before.

He rolled an ambitious ‘Stars of the Future’ program, which involved establishing training courses for the most promising young players around. In a similar vein to Sir Matt Busby’s infamously ravenous youth system that produced some of England’s finest talent in the 1950s, the principle was simple: leave no stone unturned. At least five prominent internationals were produced from this scheme, including Sven Axbom who played in all of Sweden’s 1958 World Cup matches.

After a hugely promising third-place finish in Brazil – while England were knocked out having lost 1-0 to the USA – Raynor continued the momentum forwards to the Helsinki Olympics two years later. Another bronze medal followed, with the Englishman’s stock rising exponentially.

An Italian Job

Even if recognition was not forthcoming from his own country, it did not mean he went unnoticed across the continent. The Agnelli family in Turin rarely didn’t get what they wanted, and when their attention was piqued by Raynor’s heroics in Sweden they persuaded him to upgrade to a fully professional atmosphere.

Italian football in the middle of the last century was exploding with serious money, but with equally serious politicking. He was appointed alongside Aldo Olivieri, who was given seniority when it came to training and preparation. Olivieri’s ideals included the popular Italian habit of locking players away from days on end in intense training camps, which rankled with Raynor’s understanding of the need to cultivate the personal side of players as much as the tactical and physical.

Giovani Agnelli left the club in the hands of his son Umberto in September 1954, mere weeks after Raynor had arrived. With his iron grip gone, the cracks began already. Players refused to travel to an away game against Internazionale when an increase in bonus payments was denied, while Olivieri claimed it was still unclear what roe Raynor himself had. A brief dalliance at Lazio later, which included a derby win over Jesse Carver’s AS Roma, and the opportunity Raynor never thought would come arrived – English football.

England once again lose Raynor to Sweden

Coventry City had appointed Carver, who approached Raynor to join him on his staff. As bizarre as it may seem, there were to Serie A managers taking over at a Third Division side. Their continental approach to tactical preparation didn’t take off, however, in the lower reaches of English football. Carver was soon enough lured back by the lira to take over at Internazionale, while Raynor was persuaded to come home: Sweden wanted him back.

This time, the effects of his upgraded running of the sport were bearing fruit. By the time the World Cup came to their own doorstep, Swedish selectors relented in their dogged refusal to allow professionals and unleashed the full potential of the country’s finest footballers. To think that they were leading in the final, having already won medals at the Olympic and World Cup level is a testament to the effect that Raynor had on the country.

After all this, the best job he could find in England was at Skegness, before one last fling at Fourth Division Doncaster Rovers where he was fired after seven months. That was the last the footballing world saw of Raynor. A man who was knighted in Sweden, and received a letter of commendation personally from the Prime Minister of Iraq, was left no option but to slink quietly out the back door. His legacy would never take root in England as had longed for, but it remains enshrined in Swedish folklore to this day.


If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the new magazine from totalfootballanalysis.com – 118 pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Get your copy today for just £4.99 here!