Because Helmut Schon had been seriously ill for a number of years, his retirement, like that of Bob Paisley, made bleak by the onset of Alzheimer's disease, news of his death yesterday at 80 did not come as a great shock. The sadness is in knowing that Schon was not able to enjoy fully the celebration of his achievements as manager of West Germany and the respect people in many countries had for him.
We had a friendship of sorts, by which I mean that he was never difficult to reach and could be relied upon to engage warmly in conversation, especially in the urbane company of the team's press officer and later secretary of the West German Football Association, Dr Wilfred Gerhardt, an anglophile who spoke English fluently and enjoyed the goodwill of many in this country.
Later it became clear that the relationship a few of us shared with them, and afterwards Schon's successor Jupp Derwall, did not please a number of German football writers who are far more vicious in criticism than even their counterparts on the payrolls of British tabloids.
West Germany's appearance in the 1966 World Cup final against England confirmed the sense in Schon's promotion from assistant to the renowned Sepp Herberger, but because of internal strife and the gossip-mongering of critics, his triumphs would be hard won.
Factional disturbances in the squad almost brought about Schon's resignation during the 1970 World Cup finals, but behind a lugubrious expression there was enough of the hard man to see him through. When word reached Schon that his players were threatening mutiny over the fees paid by a German- based boot company, he took decisive action. Holding up a fistful of air tickets, he said, "Anyone who does not want to play for us can collect one of these and go home." There were no takers.
Shortly before England met West Germany in back-to-back qualifying matches for the 1972 European Championship finals I visited Schon at his home in Wiesbaden. There was nothing phoney in his respect for English football or his admiration for Sir Alf Ramsey. "We have a better team that we beat England two years ago in Mexico but it will be extremely difficult for us to get through," he said.
In going along with Franz Beckenbauer's belief that he would be best employed as a sweeper, Schon had helped to give West Germany a new dimension. "It means that many of our attacks are initiated from deep positions and it is difficult for opponents to pick up Franz when he comes out with the ball."
Denied the services of their centre-half, Roy McFarland who turned out for Derby two days after withdrawing through injury, England lost 3-1, causing Ramsey to come under scathing criticism. Demands for the inclusion of younger players interested Schon considerably. "Do you think Ramsey will do this?" he asked a few days before the return match.
"It would be completely out of character," I replied.
"Unfortunate," he said. "If England put out a young team, we would score six against them. A problem for all international managers is not that they cling to great players but that great players cling to them."
West Germany's subsequent victory in the final and their World Cup success two years later confirmed Schon as an outstanding figure in the game but by the 1978 finals in Argentina the strain was obviously telling on him.
Together with Hugh McIlvanney and Jack Charlton I met again with Schon at the German's tightly secured training camp at Asochinga, some 40 miles from Cordoba.
"The World Cups of 1958 and 1962 were garden parties compared with what is involved now, with the pressures that have developed," he said. "The increase in pressure seems continuous from one competition to the next. In 1966 it was already terrific, in 1970 it was worse, in 1974 still more terrible and now it is almost completely out of hand. In nearly all countries football is the most popular sport and today the media bring it to the masses and bring the demands of the masses back to those working in the game. Football has become almost a kind of war." Soon afterwards, Schon handed over to Derwall.
A personal memory concerns Schon's appearance, in 1977, as guest of honour at the Football Writers' annual dinner. Discovering that a speech was required, he said, "You have tricked me and nobody will understand my English." Danny Blanchflower was also on the menu and I said, "If they can understand him they can understand you." Schon charmed the life out of them and the tumultous response brought tears to his eyes.
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