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The greatest football coach England never had


Despite being the most successful national coach in the history of football – an accolade bestowed by the Guinness Book of Records – Raynor is one of the least well known within Great Britain. Rising from humble beginnings as a miner's son, he became a competent but unexceptional footballer for Second and Third Division clubs before discovering his real forte and beginning a meteoric ascent as a coach.

Dispatched to Sweden after the Second World War, Raynor achieved such success at international level that he clearly came to believe, justifiably, that he would one day be given the responsibility to lead England. His work overseas therefore carries with it the feeling that all was a rehearsal for a triumphant return. However, this was never to come to pass. In this way, Raynor, although an ambassador for English football, became increasingly a reluctant and embittered one.

Against all the odds, he steered Sweden to Olympic Gold and Bronze medals as well as to second and third places in two World Cups, and managed Italian giants Lazio and Juventus. Yet on leaving Sweden in 1958, the man whose services had been recognised with a knighthood from the King of Sweden and a Presidential Medal from the Brazilian Government was inexplicably (or widely presumed to be) shunned by First Division clubs and found himself working at a grammar school in Skegness as a PE teacher.

In his own country George Raynor was, and continues to be, ignored or misunderstood. His successes were received by sceptics and resisted by those who had no genuine interest in seeing England win anything. Even today references to him in football history books are disparaging: ‘A little known clogger,’ according to one, and in another (a history of football tactics no less) reference to Raynor is not only fleeting but his name misspelt. Jonathan Wilson’s binning of Raynor’s impact on the ascendance of Swedish football (and, indeed, European football after the Second World War in general) in his Inverting the Pyramid is astonishing not least in its brevity: ‘Under [Raynor’s] guidance, and advantaged by their wartime neutrality, Sweden won Gold at the 1948 London Olympics, finished third at the 1950 World Cup and then reached the final against [Brazil] in 1958. There, they played a typical WM with man-marking …’ And that's it!

Did Sweden really play ‘a typical WM’ formation? If they did so play, how could such an antiquated formation produce such success? And, given that it was successful, what influence, if any, did Sweden's play have on other nations? Moreover, how much a factor was the Swedish neutrality in the war? Particularly in light of the comparative lack of success of Switzerland and Spain who, equally, were neutral in the war. Is this commonplace ignorance and disdain for Raynor's achievements an indication that Olympic Gold in 1948 and Bronze in 1952, and a second and third place in the 1958 and 1950 World Cup were commonplace and that his ideas lacked tactical sophistication? Is it evidence that the 7-2 victory over Karl Rappan's Switzerland in 1946 and a 2-2 draw with Gustav Sebes’ world-beating Hungarians in November 1953 – just days before Hungary beat England 6-3 – were merely the results of luck and chance?

Under Raynor’s tutelage, at each and every international competition in which Sweden qualified they ‘medalled’. Yet in England, the nation which yearned so much for victory their self-belief should have confirmed, there was never a desire to bring Raynor into the fold. He was quite possibly the greatest coach England never had.

George Raynor’s story might ostensibly be regarded as just another straightforward ‘poor boy makes good’ tale, but in fact it is one which, when examined more closely, raises a number of intriguing questions. Apart from the obvious – why his methods were so outstandingly successful – probably the most perplexing and difficult to answer is why his evident talents and experience were never to be called upon by his own country. 

By Ashley Hyne

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