A great football man was buried in Peterborough yesterday. It is not one of the power bases of football, but it is where the big man from Cork chose to end his career and for his admirers this is maybe distinction enough for the little town on the edge of the Fens.
Noel Cantwell, 73, was never festooned with honours, but he had a few: he won a Second Division championship medal with West Ham United and he led Manchester United on their first step to post-Munich glory with victory in the 1963 FA Cup final. He gained 36 Republic of Ireland caps in various positions, but his specialist role was full-back: he was one of the first of his breed to grasp that diving into tackles on a Tom Finney or a Cliff Jones was one of the last words in human folly. What you had to do was jockey and make sure of support.
His glory, though, was not in his trophy cabinet but in his vision of what football could be and in his impatience with what he saw as the great malaise of the English game. He wanted football to grow up here as it had across Europe and South America. This was recognised in the church yesterday when the pews were filled by men like Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, Ian St John and Paddy Crerand, Martin Peters, John Giles and Tommy Docherty.
The funeral of Noel Cantwell had a double poignancy yesterday. There was pain at the passing of a brave, generous and handsome man who had a passion for life as well as football.
Cantwell had a dream. It was of a game where everyone fought for improved training techniques in a drive to enhance performance, where footballers behaved like professional men and were given the respect, and the rewards, that were their due. The sadness in his story is the reality of so much of today's football, the game of agents and spiralling rewards and imploding personal and collective discipline.
Many, including the great man himself, saw Cantwell as the natural successor to Sir Matt Busby, but though the Irishman deeply admired the meaning of Busby's career, he was shocked by the Old Trafford regime when he arrived in 1960.
Perhaps fatally for his long- term prospects, he said so. Eamon Dunphy, a young pro at that time, recalled in his acclaimed biography of Busby, A Strange Kind of Glory, one Cantwell outburst. He announced that the place "was a joke" and he railed against one pre-game talk by Busby which had as its central point the instruction, "keep it simple, find a red shirt".
Cantwell exploded, "Find a fucking red shirt? You don't need a manager for that. How do you find a red shirt if you haven't worked on it, talked about it."
He knew that Busby's genius lay in other areas, most dramatically in his ability to recognise individual talent that could be embraced in a beautiful style of play and the building of a winning aura, but he wanted a new approach to the factory floor of football. He wanted thinking, working pros receiving the benefit of all the wisdom that had revolutionised football in places like Eastern Europe, Italy and Spain.
The "English revolution" had started at Upton Park when men like Cantwell, Malcolm Allison, Frank O'Farrell, John Bond and Malcolm Musgrove had looked around the English game and been appalled by what they saw.
Allison was the most vociferous. On national service in Austria in the late forties, one morning he had spied on the Soviet army team training in the Viennese woods. It carried the force of revelation. The Soviets had very little equipment, and were playing in big old army boots, but their training and practice was full of innovation. When he returned to Charlton Athletic, the players were still running endless circles of The Valley. The veteran Jimmy Seed was underwhelmed, despite the impact of Moscow Dynamo, on a post-war tour. When Allison moved to West Ham he did so as a prophet and Cantwell stood by his side when the talk in the dressing-room, and around the corner in an Italian greasy spoon cafe, was of a new football.
Eventually, Allison put his ideas into practice when he inspired Manchester City to the League title, the FA Cup, the Cup-winners Cup and the League Cup in a spell-binding burst of thrilling football between 1968 and 1970 Cantwell, who also served as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, didn't find such fulfilment as a coach and manager, but here, too, was a story that defined both the feel that Cantwell had for the game and the often fiendishly fine line between overwhelming success and something so many club chairmen would see as failure.
Instead of waiting on his chances of succeeding Busby, the challenge eventually going to Wilf McGuiness and then, quickly, O'Farrell, Cantwell went to Coventry City to succeed Jimmy Hill, who had carried the club into the First Division. It is always a perilous situation when a newly promoted club fights to establish itself in the top flight but for four years Cantwell did so superbly. However, he had a season of struggle in 1972 and the chairman of the club, Derek Robbins, a controversial figure, had an Easter time panic. He relieved Cantwell of his duties and, successively, invited staff members Ian St John and former England goalkeeper Tony Waiters to take over the job. Both refused, out of loyalty to their boss and shock at the injustice.
St John gives a telling account of the firing of Noel Cantwell. He went out to the chairman's house with his boss and waited in the hallway while Cantwell went into the lounge and argued for his future at a club which was brimming with fast-developing talent. St John heard Cantwell tell Robbins that this was a classic situation in football, a time when a strong chairman would be looking to the future and seeing all the progress that had occurred. He cited examples of the success of this policy, starting with the faith the Manchester United board had always shown in Busby. But the argument did not go well. Cantwell came out of the room and said to St John, "I'm finished."
How good were Cantwell's Coventry? Far too good to go down, as they proved in the closing weeks of the season. All of Cantwell's discoveries went on to have fine careers. Dennis Mortimer was an outstanding young midfielder: quick, bright and skilful. Willie Carr was one of the last of the Scottish craftsmen, clever and creative and hugely popular with the fans. Ernie Hunt was one of the game's most colourful characters. The line was led by the strong young striker Billy Rafferty and a fortress was developing in defence with Jeff Blockley, a potential England stopper and the formidable Scot, Roy Barry, and in goal Bill Glazier was a paragon of reliability. But a chairman panicked and Noel Cantwell, a man of great strength and intelligence was gone.
So much of the history of English football is encapsulated in that last forlorn sentence. Cantwell had stints with the New England/Jacksonville Tea Men, he had a year in charge of the Irish team, was manager, then general manager of Peterborough United. But he knew that the tide of his ambition had run its course. He had his hurts, not least the loss of a beloved son, and serious illness which he fought with great courage. You would occasionally see him at a big match and he was always the same, a smile on his fine face and with no cargo of bitterness. Whatever he thought of how things had turned out, he didn't rant about betrayal. He got on with the business of living his life, and from time to time he would rejoice about so many of his experiences in football.
He wanted it to be so much better, as it was and how it turned out to be, and that he was unable, in the end, to make as much difference as he craved, never touched his affection for football. He always cared. One of the mourners, Giles, recalled his own arrival in the Irish squad as a nervous teenager. "Noel was a god but when I reported in the Gresham Hotel on O'Connell street in Dublin he took me aside, put an arm round my shoulder and told me how I should approach the game. He took away the fear. He always did that."
That is no mean memorial to any football man - and it will be so as long as the game is played.Reuse content