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Juventus, Olympic gold, a World Cup final and then obscurity: the coach England shunned

George Raynor brought plenty of success to Sweden but was never afforded any opportunities where he wanted them most.

Image: Popperfoto

GEORGE RAYNOR DIED in November 1985.

There was no minute’s silence at games. No black armbands. There wasn’t a single obituary in a national newspaper. Yet, he was one of the greatest English football coaches.

Damningly, his story had never been given the plaudits it deserved. He had never been championed in his own country. When he returned there, after remarkable achievements at international and club level, he was shunned and ignored.

Raynor’s biggest accomplishment was managing Sweden to the 1958 World Cup final, where they took the lead against Brazil before suffering a 5-2 defeat. Along the way, they beat the Soviets and reigning champions West Germany and Raynor had, once again, delivered for the country on a grand stage.

Ten years previously, he guided Sweden to Olympic gold in London. Afterwards, he stayed on to oversee the team’s appearance at the World Cup two years later where the side managed a third-place finish, despite having to stick to their amateur-only policy, which meant the best players – Gunnar Nordahl, Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren – were all left behind.

There was an Olympic bronze medal in 1952 but, when Sweden failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup, Raynor felt it was the right time to step away.

And, he also wanted to go home.

Soccer - League Division Two - Bury v Doncaster - Gigg Lane George Raynor pictured during his time with Bury. Source: Barratts

Born in south Yorkshire, he’d never been much of a player. There were stints with Sheffield United, Bury and Aldershot before the war intervened. When Raynor signed up,  he was assigned physical training duties and later served in north Africa. While based in Iraq, he trained recruits and organised various sports teams. The onus was on building leadership, resilience and toughness and his work led to an invitation from the Iraqi prime minister – Nuri al-Said – to take charge of the first incarnation of its national team for some upcoming friendlies.

He made many friends in the Middle East due to his coaching acumen. And when the war ended in 1945, he returned to the UK with glowing references pertaining to his football knowledge and educational nous.

But, he seemed ahead of his time. That same year, Matt Busby was appointed as Manchester United manager in what was seen as a revolutionary move. He was young – even younger than Raynor by two years – and was the first ‘tracksuit manager’, regularly joining in with the players during sessions. It signalled a switch from administrator to coach. Before that, the boss – resplendent in a natty three-piece and trilby – observed from the sidelines, puffing relentlessly on a pipe.

When Raynor did get a chance, it came from the Aldershot reserves but he only lasted nine months. He had big, revolutionary ideas but nowhere to practice them. The rigid, one-dimensional Football League was the wrong place to be, though Raynor took a little persuading to try his hand elsewhere.

Stanley Rous, who would go on to become the Fifa president in 1961 – was the long-standing FA secretary who received the various commendations owing to Raynor’s time in Iraq. When he fielded communication from the Swedish FA asking for any names of good coaches who could take charge of the under-performing national side, Rous suggested Raynor.

But, there was a problem. Raynor didn’t want the job. What he wanted was to stay put and contribute to the development of the game in England, to help with piecing together a football blueprint for the country. However, no club hired him. And he wasn’t a pipe-smoking administrator so Rous couldn’t get him into the FA either. The alternative was to step away from football completely. So, he packed his thickest sweaters and heaviest overcoat and, in 1946, arrived in Gothenburg.

Swedish footballl team posing Raynor (seated bottom row, second from right) pictured with some of the Sweden squad during some down time at the 1958 World Cup. Source: Mondadori

His arrival dovetailed neatly with an inexplicable collection of domestic talent but Raynor succeeded even without the likes of Liedholm, Nordahl and Gren. In his eight years at the helm, he transformed Swedish football but by the mid-1950s, there was still no call from England.

It certainly was surprising because Raynor was on their radar.

At the 1952 Olympics, the Swedes were humiliated 6-0 in the semi-finals by that glorious Hungarian side which boasted the likes of Puskas, Kocsis and Hidegkuti. But the following year, another game was scheduled for Budapest. With the World Cup around the corner, England were enamoured by the Hungarians and had arranged a friendly at Wembley for 10 days afterwards. Such was the fascination, the FA sent a travelling party on a reconnaissance mission and the Swedish friendly was even covered by English journalists.

Raynor pored over research, looking to exploit any weakness. He focused his attention on Hidegkuti and trying to curb his influence. He tutored his players on zonal marking, which meant each man was responsible for what happened in his area of the field. In that system, even attacking players had to track back. The game finished 2-2 and Sweden almost snatched a win late on. Hungary had been frustrated and news of Raynor’s tactical triumph filtered around Europe.

Afterwards, he was cornered by FA top brass who picked his brain. In a Vienna cafe, he met with England boss Walter Winterbottom and passed on his advise. Still, Winterbottom was stubborn and stopped short of committing fully to Raynor’s suggestions. At Wembley, infamously, England were embarrassed 6-3. There was no zonal marking so Hidegkuti, who dropped deep, was allowed to pull defenders away and create space in attack. He finished the game with a hat-trick and the result led to an inquest into football practices and a move away from old-fashioned traditionalism. But, Winterbottom still remained until 1962.

Raynor was a revolutionary but unwanted at home. So, in 1954, after persistent nagging from various Serie A sides, he decided to join one: Juventus.

Sport/Football. 1958 World Cup Final. Stockholm. 29th June 1958. Sweden 2 v Brazil 5. The Brazil captain Bellini (left) greeted by Sweden captain Nils Liedholm before the final as the match officials look on. Nils Liedholm, a legend at AC Milan, captained Sweden in the 1958 decider. Source: Popperfoto

At the time, Swedes wielded significant influence on the domestic league with the likes of Liedholm and Nordahl – who got their moves to Milan thanks to the 1948 Olympic success that Raynor was responsible for – standout performers.

There was also another Englishman in Italy too – Jesse Carver – who had won a championship in charge of Juve, before taking on jobs with Lazio and Torino. By the time Raynor took the reins at the Old Lady, Carver was in the capital with Roma.

The pair would face each other in a memorable derby later in the 1954/55 season after Raynor endured a tough spell with Juventus and was brought in to help Lazio try and stay in the top-flight. He achieved much better than that – a mid-table finish that was buoyed by a big victory over their local rivals. But, he was a purist and struggled to get to grips with the culture of the Italian game.

At Juve, he felt constantly undermined by the influence of owner Giovanni Agnelli – the charismatic business magnate – and the media. When he arrived in Rome, the ferocity and intensity was unrelenting. After overseeing that superb derby win, he still didn’t get any credit. To the local media, the game had just been fixed.

At the end of the campaign, he was done with Italy but was naive with his next move. Approached by Coventry (then of the third tier), the proposal sounded too good to be true: Carver as manager, Raynor as coach. Nevertheless, he accepted. Carver lasted six months, Raynor a little longer. An unmitigated disaster, he was quickly without a job.

“I wanted to stay at home and help in whatever way I could, but apparently nobody wanted me,” he later commented.

But there was one country that did. And in 1957, he returned to Sweden to take charge of the national team as it prepared to host the World Cup the following year.

Despite their veteran status, Raynor wanted the likes of Liedholm and Gren back in the squad, regardless of them being professionals. So, the Swedish FA relented and after torturous negotiations with the various Serie A clubs, the five Italian-based players joined the group shortly before the tournament got underway.

Swedish Team At The World Cup 1958 Source: Keystone-France

And though they were ultimately blown away by the brilliance of a teenage Pele, the vibrant Vava and the wing wizardry of Garrincha, the quintet proved crucial to the team’s magnificent journey to the final.

From there, Raynor – seemingly set for more high-profile jobs – unforgivingly faded into obscurity.

Just days later he was back at his home in the seaside town of Skegness, on England’s east coast. He’d been made a Knight of the Order of Vasa by the King of Sweden, honoured for his contributions to football in the country and for the national pride he’d instilled owing to the World Cup performance.

But, in England, the phone never rang. He coached locally, with the non-league Skegness Town and in 1959, there was another cameo as Sweden boss for a friendly at Wembley. That night, he masterminded another special victory as the English suffered a defeat at the stadium for only the third time ever.

“I got some sort of satisfaction out of the result but not enough,” he said after the game.

“I would much rather have been doing the same sort of thing for the country of my birth. All I consider is that the people in England have had their chance. I want to work in England, for England. They want me in Ghana, in Israel, in Mexico and in Sweden. I am a knight in Sweden and have a huge gold medal of thanks from King Gustaf. I have a letter of thanks and commendation from the Prime Minister of Iraq. My record as a coach is the best in the world. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I live for football.”

Soccer - International Friendlies - England v Sweden - London Raynor pictured with some of the Sweden squad in 1959. Source: PA

But, when the England job came up three years later, it went to Alf Ramsey. In the intervening time, Raynor had published a book that detailed certain conversations with FA officials and also criticised English performances. When the legal threats came, it was withdrawn from book shops and Raynor’s fate was sealed.

Afterwards, he worked at a Butlins camp to make ends meet. His final managerial stint was at Doncaster in the bottom tier where he suffered the ignominy of being sacked.

“This was my swansong – and now I’m the dying swan,” he quipped.

An Olympic gold medal, a World Cup final, managerial jobs with Juventus and Lazio but George Raynor still lived out the bulk of his final two decades in absolute anonymity.

A radical and pioneering figure in so many places but unwanted and unappreciated in his own country.

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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