Noel Cantwell was a cultured footballer, an eloquent, deep-thinking charmer who enjoyed an accomplished 15-year playing career, mostly as a full-back, with the Uniteds of West Ham and Manchester, and captained the Republic of Ireland. Later he became a bold and imaginative team boss, but ultimately his achievements in management proved a trifle anticlimactic, certainly in view of the enormous expectations his early work had generated, and that raised some nagging questions.
Most pertinently, why didn't Cantwell succeed Sir Matt Busby as guiding light of the Old Trafford club in the late 1960s, as many close observers of the Manchester scene both expected and advocated? Also, might such an appointment have averted United's demoralising decline of the early 1970s, during which the glorious empire built up by the inspirational Scot stumbled into a lengthy period of painful mediocrity?
The two men, both pillars of integrity and natural leaders, liked and respected each other, they shared an all-consuming love of the game and both cherished a compelling vision of how it should be played. However, although each of them espoused a fluid, attacking style of play, there was a fundamental chasm between their preferred methods of obtaining it and, probably, that is what precluded Cantwell's succession.
In general terms, the Busby creed encompassed off-the-cuff adventure, whereby a collection of richly talented individuals tore opponents apart through instinctive brilliance, untrammelled by detailed instructions. Cantwell hailed from a more theoretical school, believing passionately in the benefits of careful coaching. This divide caused confusion from the outset in an otherwise harmonious relationship.
Soon after his arrival at Old Trafford, Cantwell told friends that he was dumbfounded by Busby's pre-match talks, which apparently involved little more than wishing the players all the best and telling them to enjoy themselves. The newcomer had been looking forward to receiving complicated tactical insights from the great man, and was dismayed to discover Busby's credo that, if he had to tell his footballers how to play, then he wouldn't have signed them in the first place. Indeed, later Cantwell was to describe the Busby approach as "so simple it was frightening", so it was hardly surprising that Busby overlooked the Irishman when recommending to United's board the man to carry on his life's work.
Cantwell made his first footballing impact as a teenager with his home-town club, Cork Athletic, before being recruited to the West Ham cause in 1952 by their manager Ted Fenton, a charismatic cockney who fired the teenager's imagination. Meteoric progress rocketed him from the Hammers "A" team to their Second Division side during his first season at Upton Park and soon he formed an enterprising full-back partnership with John Bond.
Neither of them conformed to the old-fashioned image of static, brutally physical defenders, instead becoming involved in build-up play and relishing overlapping runs into attack. Cantwell, in particular, was a versatile performer who could switch to centre-half or centre-forward at need, and he emerged as one of West Ham's key men during the remainder of the decade, skippering the side to the Second Division title in 1957/58, then proving a bulwark as they consolidated in the top flight.
It was during this period that Cantwell - who was such an all-round sportsman that he also played cricket for Ireland in 1956 - became enchanted by coaching, joining the renowned West Ham "academy" of soccer thinkers, a group which included the likes of Malcolm Allison and Bond (two Manchester City managers of the future) and Frank O'Farrell and Dave Sexton (who would both manage United). After training they would adjourn to a café near Upton Park to spend countless hours talking football, moving sugar bowls and salt-cellars across the table-top to make their tactical points.
Meanwhile, too, Cantwell had become an integral part of the Republic of Ireland set-up, making his début as a centre-half in 1953, then becoming a fixture at left-back and taking over the captaincy in 1957. Sometimes he proved invaluable as a surprise attacking weapon for his country, scoring from 40 yards against Austria in 1962, then netting from the penalty spot to earn a late draw against the same opponents a year later, thus securing a place in the quarter-finals of the European Nations Cup.
By then, Cantwell was a Manchester United player, having become Britain's most expensive full-back when he was transferred for £29,500 in November 1960 and charged with the task of providing much-needed stability as Busby strove to rebuild his team after the Munich air disaster of 1958. Thanks to a combination of strong character and ample ability, he grew into a hugely influential figure at his new club, which he captained to FA Cup triumph against Leicester City in 1963. That sunny afternoon at Wembley, when Cantwell horrified officials by hurling the famous silver bauble skywards in glee (he caught it safely), United reached the turning point in their reconstruction, putting five years of unrewarded toil behind them and moving once more into the front rank of English footballing powers.
Thereafter the articulate Irishman, who earned widespread plaudits for his efforts as chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, was a regular throughout most of 1963/64, during which the Red Devils finished as championship runners-up to Liverpool.
But with his movement becoming distinctly ponderous in his early thirties, he was out of the side during the title-winning campaign that followed, bouncing back to offer cover for the full-backs Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne and the centre-half Bill Foulkes in 1965/66, then receding once more to the periphery and missing out on another championship triumph in 1966/67. At that point, however, it spoke volumes for his stature at Old Trafford that, although Denis Law skippered the team, Cantwell remained club captain, fuelling speculation that he was being groomed as the club's next boss.
In fact, a move into management was imminent, but instead of assuming United's reins Cantwell took over from Jimmy Hill at newly promoted Coventry City, guiding them resourcefully clear of relegation during their first term in the premier division, as well as completing a brief part-time stint in charge of the Republic of Ireland. Over the next four years, he impressed at Coventry, leading the Sky Blues to sixth place in 1969/70, thus qualifying for the European Fairs Cup (now the Uefa Cup) and bowing out honourably at the hands of mighty Bayern Munich. There were more relegation scraps but, crucially for City's long-term good, Cantwell launched a successful youth policy, only to be ousted by an impatient chairman in 1972.
Thereafter, surprisingly, the only other English club he managed was Peterborough United, in two spells sandwiched by successful coaching appointments in the United States. During his first sojourn at London Road, he took over a team struggling at the foot of the Fourth Division and led them to promotion as champions some 18 months later, in 1974. A decade later, he brought shrewdness and authority to the task of maintaining the Posh in a respectable mid-table berth in the basement flight.
Subsequently, the sociable Cantwell thrived as the landlord of a Peterborough pub, then returned to football as a scout for the Football Association.
Ivan PontingReuse content