Ken Jones: Winterbottom's battle with selectorial stupidity

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The Independent Football

The obituaries, some of them anyway, identified Walter Winterbottom as a kindly man unsuited to the rough and tumble of international football management, an academic whose nature did not allow for confrontation with the buffoons who made up England's selection committee until 1962.

This has some substance. Once, when we were making quite a long journey by road, returning from some game or other, Winterbottom admitted that he frequently yielded to ludicrous regional bias in order to get somewhere near the England team he wanted. "Two or three players pick themselves," he said, "so I concentrate my arguments on the most important of the others knowing that I will be out-voted in one or two positions."

As you have probably worked out, a system Alf Ramsey would bluntly demolish – "My team, my policy," – led to players being selected on the flimsiest of evidence, and in some cases for no better reason than they turned out for a club in an area represented by one of the selectors.

It was not the only difficulty Winterbottom came up against. Take, for example, the World Cup finals of 1950, the first in which England participated, more of a stand-out in their football history because of an astonishing loss to a team of expatriate part-time professionals representing the United States. With a 2-0 victory over Chile in the bag, Winterbottom wanted to rest players against the US, but England's chief selector, Arthur Drewry, overruled him. We can't be sure, but it is reasonable to suppose that the team Winterbottom wanted to play would have avoided one of the grimmest results English football has known.

Some time afterwards, a cartoon in Punch depicted a doomed figure in the Coliseum of ancient Rome bearing a placard that read: "Sack the Selectors". Winterbottom, I know, found this amusingly apposite but for one reason or another he never challenged the system.

It is now pretty well established that Winterbottom did more than anyone to advance football coaching in England, his example an inspiration for such notable teachers of the game as Ron Greenwood, Bill Nicholson, Alan Brown, Malcolm Allison and many others. However, Winterbottom never escaped from critics, many from the professional ranks, who did not share his view that scholarship and sport were congenial cultures. Terminology common-place today made him an easy target. "Why do you think British footballers lack environmental awareness?" was a question put to aspiring coaches on a course at Lilleshall. "Because they didn't get enough meat during the war," came the smart-arsed reply.

If it was not unusual to hear remarks like that during Winterbottom's reign as manager of the England team, one that spanned four World Cups without bringing better than a place in the quarter-finals, and plenty of people have reason to be grateful for his guidance. Dave Sexton recalls attending one of Winterbottom's courses when still a player. "I'd heard it said that Walter was too much of a theorist, but it struck me right away that his ideas had real purpose," Sexton said when we spoke earlier this week. "One thing I particularly remember was a practice to avoid being caught offside. It was about flattening off runs and I've used it ever since."

One thing we both remember is the number of leading foreign coaches who accepted invitations to lecture at Lilleshall. Gustav Sebes, who plotted the heavy defeats Hungary inflicted on England in the early 1950s. Helenio Herrera of Internazionale. Many came, all left their marks thanks to Winterbottom's initiative.

Now that they have had an opportunity to look back over the period of Winterbottom's stewardship, heard the remarks of old-timers who played under him and read the compositions of writers armed only with history books, people may conclude that his reign was one of far-reaching significance.

If so, they are right. Had Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor not fallen victim to the Manchester United air disaster in February 1958, a great deal more would have been heard from England in the World Cup finals that summer.

When Winterbottom resigned following the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile he was tipped to succeed Stanley Rous (the new president of Fifa) as secretary of the Football Association, a job to which he was ideally suited. Instead, fearing an extension of Rous's influence, the FA appointed Denis Follows. When Winterbottom heard the news he shook his head, ruefully. The suits had done him again.