Sir Walter Winterbottom

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The Independent Online

Walter Winterbottom, footballer, football manager and administrator: born Oldham, Lancashire 31 March 1913; played for Manchester United 1934-37; Director of Coaching and Manager of England Team, Football Association 1946-62; OBE 1963, CBE 1972; General Secretary, Central Council of Physical Recreation 1963-72; Director, Sports Council 1965-78; Kt 1978; married 1942 Ann Richards (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Guildford, Surrey 16 February 2002.

Walter Winterbottom was the first and longest-serving manager of the England football team – and also the least powerful.

Unlike his successors, from Alf Ramsey through to Sven-Göran Eriksson, for a long time he had to submit his chosen sides for ratification by a selection committee. Thus hamstrung, Winterbottom – an eloquent, affable intellectual – was burdened with huge public responsibility without true authority to discharge it; he could never justly be judged on results alone.

However, despite being answerable to often meddlesome, if mostly well-meaning, amateurs at the Football Association, and although he failed to take England beyond the quarter-final stage in four successive World Cup tournaments, the dedicated, enthusiastic Lancastrian made a worthy fist of an unenviable task.

When evaluating Winterbottom's record between 1946 and 1962 – 139 matches played, of which 78 were won, 33 drawn and only 28 lost – it should be remembered that not only was he national team boss, but he also managed England's amateur side and served as the FA's director of coaching. In the last role he had to travel thousands of miles, giving lectures, supervising courses and liaising with managers, schoolteachers, referees, youth leaders and local authorities, as well as drafting coaching manuals.

Those close to Winterbottom maintain that it was in this less public, unglamorous part of his brief – establishing a national coaching framework where none had existed – that he was most happy and fulfilled. However, it will not be for those labours, but for his efforts in charge of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves, that he will take his place in soccer history.

Born in Oldham in the year before the First World War began, Winterbottom was educated at his local grammar school, then went to college at Chester, where he developed a love of football theory that was to shape his working life. Thereafter he taught for three years in his home town, and played centre-half for amateur teams such as Royston and Mossley before being spotted by the famous Manchester United scout Louis Rocca and turning professional at Old Trafford.

Two years later Winterbottom made his senior début for the Red Devils and, enjoying spells at both centre- and wing-half, was hailed as one of the major discoveries of the 1936-37 season. Tall, strong and well-built, he was not an ostentatious performer but passed well and possessed an acute positional sense.

Though United struggled unavailingly against relegation to the Second Division, Winterbottom's star shone brightly and much was expected of him. However, a spinal injury suffered in 1937 ending his playing career after only 25 League matches. Though he was left with a slight stoop, there followed a partial recovery which allowed him to guest for Chelsea and lead representative sides during the Second World War, in which he served as the RAF's head of physical education and rose to the rank of Wing Commander.

After the conflict, Winterbottom might have resumed full-time teaching, but he had impressed highly-placed soccer administrators with an array of attributes: a deep knowledge of the game and visionary tactical approach were underpinned by sharp intelligence, unimpeachable integrity and, not least, a delightful, unassuming charm which made him at home in any company.

At the time the FA were laying plans to develop the game on a grand and organised scale and they also wanted someone to "take charge" of the national side. Thus in 1946 Walter Winterbottom became England's first director of coaching and team manager.

At the top level in that era, he was able to call on some fabulously talented individuals – the likes of Matthews, Finney, Tommy Lawton, Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion – and the new supremo tended to let them have their heads, suggesting but rarely insisting, and all the while working closely in harness with the England skipper Billy Wright.

Such a stellar combination should have been capable of conquering the most accomplished opposition but – not helped by selectorial foibles, which included the periodic axing of Matthews, among a bewildering succession of team changes – a stable side was not achieved. There were plenty of rousing victories but, at a time when the English soccer establishment appeared to believe in their nation's divine right to rule the world, there were fearful débâcles, too.

One of the biggest came in 1950 when England, having condescended for the first time to enter the World Cup, were knocked out in the first stage of the finals in Brazil, losing to the unfancied United States along the way. But if that was embarrassing, what followed in 1953 was positively humiliating: England suffered their first reverse on home soil, being thrashed 6-3 by the brilliant, innovative Hungarians.

Winterbottom suffered no such hysterical crucifixion as did Graham Taylor some 40 years later. But he did receive severe criticism, much of which was unfair as he recognised the need for new thinking. Sadly, all too often his hands were tied.

Nevertheless Winterbottom achieved plenty. An England youth team was launched in 1947 and an under-23 side in 1954, the year in which he led the seniors to the last eight of the World Cup tournament in Switzerland, where they bowed out to Uruguay.

Four years on, with expectations unrealistically high, Winterbottom's England flopped in Sweden, but that setback should be viewed in the context of the Manchester United air disaster earlier in 1958, which had claimed the lives of three of his key men – Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and the incomparable Duncan Edwards.

Significantly, despite the disappointments, Winterbottom retained the respect and, in many cases, the affection of his players. Though he was distinctly donnish, perhaps too academic to get the best from some of his charges, and lacked the hard-nosed pragmatism of, say, a Ramsey, he was ready to roll up his sleeves in the common cause, even cooking for the squad during part of one tour.

Kind and sincere, he was intensely loyal to his footballers, ever ready to deflect in his own direction verbal barbs aimed at them. Arguably he was a little too "nice" at times, perhaps offering a gently delivered and rather complicated tactical discourse when a touch of fire-and-brimstone oratory might have served better, but that was the nature of the man.

There were many times, of course, when he got it right, never more so than in 1960/61 when his team – captained by Johnny Haynes and including Greaves and Charlton – enjoyed a sequence of six straight victories, conceding eight goals and scoring no less than 40.

What a pity that was not a World Cup season. When the tournament came round once more in 1962, the side had slipped from their pinnacle of excellence and progressed no further than the quarter-finals in Chile. Not for the first time Winterbottom battled bravely in the face of administrative incompetence – for example, there was no doctor in the England party and the centre-half Peter Swan fell so ill that he nearly died.

Perhaps feeling he had achieved all he could expect to, Winterbottom retired from his gruelling combination of roles at the end of that year, making way for Alf Ramsey.

It had been widely expected that Winterbottom would succeed his mentor, Sir Stanley Rous, as FA Secretary. But the job went instead to Denis Follows and Winterbottom joined the Central Council for Physical Education, where he made full use of his gift for organisation, and later, from 1965, served on the Sports Council.

In 1978 he was knighted for his services to British sport, an honour greeted warmly throughout the world of football.

Ivan Ponting