Football: Survivor with the know-how: Simon O'Hagan meets Don Howe, the enduring figure in England's coaching set-up

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The Independent Online
ENZO BEARZOT, the former Italy coach, was looking at an England team-sheet one day and summed it up with a wry smile and the immortal phrase, 'Butcher sempre Butcher'. Anyone looking at the England bench during Wednesday's match against the United States might be tempted to say something similar: 'Don Howe, always Don Howe.'

Howe, a key member of Terry Venables's coaching team, before him of Bobby Robson's, and before him of Ron Greenwood's, seems to have been around even longer than the 16 years since he first became part of the England set-up. At 58, he is very much the senior pro of the backroom staff, an upright figure in a jacket and tie and brown trilby who feels closer to the 1950s world of Walter Winterbottom - the man who first got him into coaching - than Venables's 1990s. But this is just one of the many apparent contradictions about Howe.

Here is a man with a strenuous job and a history of heart trouble; who dislikes upheaval but has worked at no fewer than eight clubs; regarded by some as a sergeant-major type but possessing a deep strain of humility; a highly influential coach who has had little success as a manager; responsible for some dour football but an enlightened student of the game; the sort of Englishman who feels completely at home at his Hertfordshire golf club but likes nothing more than jumping on a plane to go to watch a match in Italy.

But talk to people in football and there is a theme that recurs: when it comes to earning the respect of players, Howe is almost in a class of his own. 'Howe and Venables. If it's working with players, those are the two anybody would turn to if they could.' That is the view of Bobby Gould, who played under Howe for Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion and then employed him as a coach when he was manager of Wimbledon.

Gould had just joined Arsenal in 1968 when he first came across Howe. 'Dave Sexton had just left as coach and Don had come in as his replacement,' Gould remembers. 'I was new at the club and hadn't known Dave but it was clear that a lot of players thought the sun shone out of him. For weeks afterwards it was all 'Dave wouldn't have done that, Dave would have done this', and then one day Don walked in and he said, 'Right, I've had enough of this Dave business. From now on we're doing it my way.' And it was the making of him.'

Within three years Howe was coaching Arsenal to the Double. Then, either as coach or manager, his travels began: to West Brom, Galatasaray, Leeds, Arsenal again, Wimbledon, Queen's Park Rangers, Coventry and Chelsea. And on top of that was all his coaching with England - alongside every manager since Don Revie, bar Graham Taylor.

Howe is a survivor, whose club record has its highs and lows but who has coached England to the second round of the World Cup (1982), the quarter- finals (1986), and the semi- finals (1990). When Venables announced he was bringing Howe back, however, the reaction was equivocal. Some felt it was a retrograde step.

Howe has had some great tactical coups in his time - notably, and ironically given Venables's latest squad, the nullification of John Barnes in the 1988 FA Cup Final when Wimbledon, coached by Howe, showed how far method can take a team, with their logic- defying defeat of Liverpool. But was Howe's influence really going to be good for England?

Venables obviously thought so. 'I got a phone call from Terry and he said, 'You've got a lot of experience. Would you like to come and help?' ' It was the chance to return to the role Howe loves best, looking after the detail but without the cares of high office.

After Greenwood ('a super brain, terrific to work with') and Robson ('very dedicated, a brilliant assessor of a player') Howe describes Venables as 'first-class, good on psychology, with a great sense of humour'. He also thinks Venables has assembled some outstanding players. 'But I don't think we know our team yet. As a coach you have to look for lots of things in a player. You've got to look at his ability, his character, you've got to look at him in the camp - how he is on big occasions. There are a million assessment areas.'

Does this smack of over- cautiousness? Howe's problem, as he realises, is his reputation for negativity, not helped by his deployment by Venables as coach of the defence. 'People see me working with defenders and think, 'Oh he's just teaching them how to tackle,' ' Howe says. 'I don't. I teach them how to play, to play it out from the back and be comfortable on the ball. I work on their first touch and on their psychology. To teach them, 'That's not a risk, play it there.' Teaching people how to defend and being defensive are two different things.'

But some of Howe's teams have been pretty dull, haven't they? What about his Arsenal team of the mid-Eighties? 'Arsenal are always supposed to be dull aren't they?' he says. 'It's part of how they are regarded. And if you're the bloke in charge you have to go along with that tag. Anybody who has seen me work would say that's far from the truth. You ask the players I've worked with.'

Tony Woodcock, for example - one of Howe's few flair players at Arsenal and now a coach himself, with Leipzig in the German league. 'It never crossed my mind that Don was extra defensive,' he said. 'But every player has to learn to defend. That's something I've come to realise now. The thing I remember about Don was he was always looking at what other teams were doing, and experimenting with new methods himself. He was always very enthusiastic.'

But reputations stick, and Howe believes that his may have cost him some of the credit he feels he deserves. There is certainly something about the way in which clubs who have just lost a manager or a coach often seem to turn to him which smacks more of expediency than real commitment.

'Sometimes you think, 'What is appreciation?' ' Howe says. 'I suppose it's when someone realises what you're putting in and sits down with you and says, 'Look, thanks for what you're doing for us.' And with the greatest respect that didn't happen too often. I'm not saying it never happened, but there were times I thought to myself, 'Yes I am being used here. There's no doubt about it. I am being used.' '

But Howe accepts that managing and coaching are far from the same and that his own preference has always been for the coaching. 'You've got to know what you're good at, I suppose. I never thought I was a failure as a manager, but in the management side the aspect I liked best was working with the players, which was like being the coach.'

Bobby Gould thinks Howe's single greatest attribute is that 'he knows what he wants'. But talking to Howe, it is as much his self-knowledge as what he knows about football that strikes you.

Take this experience, from 1992, when he was caretaker at Coventry and in the running for the manager's job. 'I'd had a difficult day and then gone to watch a play-off game at Derby. I was driving home on the M1 when I got stopped for speeding. The policeman said, 'Do you know what speed you were doing?' I wasn't sure and he said I'd been doing 120mph. He said I was very lucky because he'd been told only to warn people, not to book them, and it brought me down to earth. I drove the rest of the way doing under 70mph, and when I got back I thought, 'This is daft' and the next day I told Coventry I couldn't take the job.'

Back-seat driver may be Howe's best position, but if it helps keep the England show on the road, then nobody will be complaining.

(Photograph omitted)