Tottenham: Why Legend Arthur Rowe Was Football's Quiet Revolutionary
One of the most influential figures in football history made his last public appearance while sitting in an armchair at home. It was 1982 and he was being interviewed by the BBC’s Sportsnight. In the last scene of a special programme made to mark the centenary of Tottenham Hotspur, Arthur Rowe, the manager who led the side to its first League title in 1951, was asked what the club meant to him. Rowe looks up, sets his jaw, then opens his mouth, then sets his jaw again. He is obviously struggling to contain his emotions. He tries once more to speak, but the words catch, his jaw quivers and he adjusts in his seat, his hand coming up to grip his chin as he attempts to regain the control he is losing. He succeeds and, his eyes coming up to look once more at his questioner, says simply: “I like them. They are a great club and to be associated with them…” – the words threaten to catch once more but he just manages to whisper them – “was nice”.
It is an almost unbearably poignant moment, beautifully edited by a production team who knew the value of silence and space, and one which provides a vivid snapshot of the mixture of the English reserve and quiet passion which defined Arthur Rowe. His story is one of great innovation and ambition, of joy and real, crushing sadness. It is a story that is fading both because of the passage of time and because of the light it subsequently enabled to shine. And it is a story that deserves to be told again.
When the great managers of football are listed these days, Rowe rarely gets a mention. He comes from an age of football that predates television’s grip on the game, from an age where personality had not yet elbowed its way to the fore. True, the game was a mass obsession and Rowe was revered in his time. But he seems to have slipped from the collective memory.
Not only was Rowe a great manager in the English game, he was a great manager for the English game
Not only was Rowe a great manager in the English game, he was a great manager for the English game. Because arguably, without Rowe the English game would have stayed constrained and oblivious inside its self-satisfied cocoon of assumed superiority for far longer than it did. And maybe Rowe is not afforded the status he deserves because the game does not fully understand what it is he did. Without Rowe, one of the greatest names in the English game would not have achieved one of the greatest feats of any club side in the 20th century. Bill Nicholson’s Double-winning Spurs based a style of play still rated by many who saw it as the greatest ever, on an approach set down by Rowe. That side went on to become the first English club to take on and beat the best of the continental sides and in so doing complete the English game’s journey from self-imposed isolation to the heart of the new transnational era. It was Rowe who used a new way of thinking to put a new style of football into practice. Like all genuine visionaries, he recognised that mixing the best of what he had with the best of what he found was the key to not simply interpreting the world, but to changing it. Arthur Rowe was football’s quiet revolutionary.
Rowe was born, where else?, but in Tottenham in 1906. When he was 15, he came to the attention of the club, and two years later in 1923 he signed as an amateur after playing for nursery clubs at Cheshunt – later to be the training ground which produced a succession of great sides – and Northfleet United. The Northfleet connection enables us to begin to trace the DNA of a style of play that was to change the football world.
In the early 1920s, Tottenham Hotspur’s enlightened Scottish coach Peter McWilliam came to an arrangement with Kent club Northfleet United to farm out talented young players in order for them to gain experience in playing football in the way McWilliam thought it should be played. It was a style Spurs fans still refer to as The Spurs Way, and though it was the Spurs sides of first Rowe and then Nicholson which eventually took it to the ultimate level, it is also a style that has been adopted by some of the most successful sides in the world. Think space and shape, angle and incision, flexibility and interchangeability, keeping the ball on the ground and making it do the work.
When Rowe retired from playing, he was not finished with the game. A thinking player, he wanted to apply those thoughts as a coach
In 1934 a 19-year-old wing-half called Vic Buckingham signed for Spurs and played his first season at the Northfleet nursery. He went on to play 230 games for the club, most of them under the tutelage of McWilliam. When he stopped playing in 1949, he went into management, encouraged by Rowe who he viewed as something of a mentor. In 1953-54 Buckingham almost became the first manager to win the modern Double, taking the West Bromwich Albion side of Ray Barlow and Ronnie Allen to within four league points of the feat. In 1959 he took his ideas, honed under McWilliam and encouraged by Rowe, to Ajax of Amsterdam. There he laid the foundations of a system called Total Football and discovered a young player who he nurtured and encouraged. The player’s name was Johan Cruyff.
When Rowe retired from playing, he was not finished with the game. A thinking player, he wanted to apply those thoughts as a coach. He travelled to Hungary on a lecture tour in 1939 and made such an impression that Laszlo Feleki, a writer for the well-regarded Nemzeti Sport magazine, wrote to English FA chairman Stanley Rous in July 1939 thanking him for recommending Rowe. The Hungarians wanted to employ Rowe as “football professor of the first Hungarian course for football trainers” and to “prepare the Amateur International team for the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki.”
For a man schooled by the ideas of Peter McWilliam about space, shape and making the ball do the work, plunging into a footballing culture that had been developing similar ideas must have been an invigorating experience. For the Hungarians, an Englishman who had proved himself in the cradle of the game but who was also willing and able to take on the new aesthetic must have created quite an impression. Two of the men he met on his lecture tour were themselves to go on to have a significant impact on the game – Gusztáv Sebes and Ferenc Puskás.
In his obituary for The Independent, Reg Drury said Rowe had “one of the sharpest soccer brains the English game has ever known”
Rowe never got to take up the role the Hungarian FA was so keen to offer. The outbreak of war forced him to return home and he ended up coaching the army football team. In 1945 he got the manager’s job at Chelmsford City and led them to the Southern League title. He had quickly established a reputation as an innovative and effective coach able to get his ideas across simply to his players. In 1949 Spurs approached him to replace Joe Hulme and, on 4 May, Rowe became the manager of the club he had once played for.
Rowe died on 5 November 1993. He was 87 years old. In his obituary for The Independent, Reg Drury said Rowe had “one of the sharpest soccer brains the English game has ever known” and went on “English football could do with a young Arthur Rowe”.
Rowe is a pivotal figure who influenced the game at arguably its most vital point. In the 1950s the genuinely visionary figures in the game were battling against the game itself in a struggle to make sure English clubs did not get left behind. Chelsea and Manchester United were banned from competing in Europe despite seeing the benefits of doing so. The British establishment’s distress in dealing with the reality that it no longer ruled the waves was as nothing compared to the football establishment’s sheer refusal to acknowledge that it had to engage with all things foreign if it was to survive, let alone prosper. What Rowe did was show that a combination of domestic and international could get results. He broke the hold the traditional English way had on the domestic game.
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