George Raynor: One of England’s finest exports – part two


Welcome back to part two of FBH’s look at legendary coach George Raynor. This piece picks up from last week’s analysis of the gaffer’s playing career, managerial exploits and that famous gold medal at the 1948 Olympics. After the latter success, attention turned to the next challenge – the 1950 World Cup. However, it would be potentially more challenging than previous tournaments.

Aftermath of the Olympics

Olympic success signalled the beginning of an interesting transition period for Sweden. Their football had undoubtedly turned heads, gaining admirers from all over the world. However, this wasn’t always a good thing. The Italian FA adopted a particular penchant for Raynor’s Blågult (Blue and Yellow) and enabled by a fresh new start following the war scouted the team heavily.

In Italy, clubs were now allowed as many as three foreign players. With this new ruling, scouts looked upon the Olympic games as the perfect shop window. Put simply, there was an exodus of Swedish players moving to Italy. Now, with the World Cup looming, these players had moved to a higher standard and thus, overstepped the amateur threshold. New talent had to be found.

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Fortunately, the Olympic Gold was such a feat for Sweden that it inspired a new national interest in football. So much was the enthusiasm, that the Swedish FA made new reforms in how football would be taught. Initiatives to get people playing just after the Olympics sowed the seeds that would later be harvested at the 1958 World Cup.

Sports newspaper Idrottsbladet’ began a national sponsorship programme for 12-15 year olds to undertake tests in kicking, heading, dribbling, ball control and running. Those gifted youngsters that passed the tests were awarded bronze, silver or gold badges. Their schools were provided with football equipment. It was a great programme in a newly emerging football-mad country. The more youngsters the school put forward, the more equipment they received.

1950 World Cup in Brazil

With all things considered, the 1950 World Cup in Brazil offered a strange triumph to Raynor and his squad. A team that had been dishevelled by professional constraints and players moving abroad, the English boss had to pull together a more makeshift setup.

In five games, the team lost twice and conceded 15 goals. After the widespread ‘purchase’ of their finest players, Sweden were not expected to make it out of the group. Yet, the fact they went on to finish third with reserve and youth players in place was quite a pleasant surprise. They finished highest of any European team.

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Tough defeats came against Uruguay and the hosts, Brazil. The game versus Uruguay saw La Celeste force two goals in the final 15 minutes to win 3-2.  The other defeat against Brazil was much more polarising. Raynor’s men were battered 7-1. One big highlight from the tournament was beating Italy. Playing against a team whose FA had nabbed so many top talents, Sweden looked to be on the back foot. At the game, Austrian journalist Willy Meisl reported that there was a ‘veritable drumfire of rockets’ as the Italians entered the field. Sweden emerged ‘in silence’.

Raynor was determined his side could win – this was evidenced by a statement he made after the game. “We knew we could beat them, for I have never subscribed to the view that Sweden must always be the underdogs.” Sweden ended up winning a five goal thriller, 3-2. Willy Meisl wrote that Sweden had produced a ‘truly excellent performance’ that was warmly received by the sporting crowd. This result was the first of many shocks that would characterise the World Cup. Therefore, Meisl once again mused, ‘few experts had been prepared for Sweden actually beating Italy.’

1952 Olympics

Raynor took Sweden to the 1952 Olympics in Finland yet again as a hollowed unit. More than ten players had been scouted from his World Cup squad meaning that once more, he had to restart. The Hoyland native commented: “We had just one forward and not one half back, but we were prepared to start once again.”

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Remarkably, Raynor was able to reorganise his troops. The disciplined acumen of the Swedes paired well with the Englishman’s wily strategies to always get the best out of an ever-depleted group. One of his preferred ideas was to switch players’ positions in training games. Therefore, he would find hidden strengths all the while taking pressure off players. One notorious find was the conversion of Bengt Gustavsson from inside forward at club level, to international-grade centre half, a position that had been difficult to fill since his previous man had departed in 1950. Gustavsson would develop as an important cog in Sweden’s future. Up top, Orebro forward Yngve Brod was employed as goal scorer with Ingvar Rydell eventually selected as his strike partner.

At the games themselves, Sweden enjoyed good form. In the first round, they comfortably beat Norway 4-1 with Brod and Rydell playing starring roles along with Sylvie Bengtsson. In the quarter finals, the Swedes eased past Austria 3-1 with Brod and Rydell once again scoring. This time, Gösta Sandberg joined them on the scoresheet.

All the time Sweden enjoyed some good fortunes, a quiet rumbling could be felt on the other side of the tournament tree. This Olympics had signalled the first sightings of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ to the West and they were thrashing teams left and right. Hungary were Sweden’s next opponents in the semis and boasted such talents as Péter Palotás, Sándor Kocsis, Ferenc Puskás , Nandor Hidegkuti and Zoltán Czibor.

Hungary approached the game against Sweden coming off of the back of a 7-1 drubbing of Turkey. They employed a certain fitness, fluidity and teamwork that was hard to match. Even Raynor’s expertise struggled to find a foothold and the ‘Golden Team’ as they would be later known, marched to a dominant 6-0 victory. “Hungary”, said Raynor, “were just about the finest side I had ever set my eyes on”. They would eventually clinch the Gold medal, beating Yugoslavia 2-0.

Learning about the Hungarians 

After this Olympic experience, Raynor was set on learning more about the Hungarians. As a result, Sweden took on a two-game Autumn tour in 1953 – of which one was against the Magyars in Budapest. Raynor is reputed as saying of that November game: “If we win, I’ll paint [the Stalin statue’s] moustache red.”

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George had studied the side extensively and determined the best way to deal with the Hungarians was to limit key man, Nandor Hidegkuti. The game ended 2-2 and utilising zonal marking had relinquished the inside forward of most of his finesse. Raynor put his inside left on Hidegkuti in the first half. Then, in the second when the creative player moved to the centre, he left the marking job to centre forward John Eriksson. Such tactics would be unthinkable in England. In the Three Lions team, the forwards of Stanley Matthews’ calibre would never have taken up defensive roles.

Perhaps, that was the difference. Sweden had adapted under Raynor’s understanding of team dynamics and players – especially when playing against a special team in Hungary. On the journey back to Sweden, Raynor met Walter Winterbottom in Vienna and explained to him how to play the Hungarians, using man-to-man marking to cut out the threat of Hidegkuti. Yet, Winterbottom didn’t take this advice on board and this, in part, led to the embarrassing home defeat at Wembley that same month in what became known as the ‘Match of the Century.’

Bouncing around club management and then the 1958 World Cup

After 1954, Raynor left his post with the Swedish national team. However, he enjoyed living and working in the Scandinavian country and took on responsibilities at club level.

Starting off in Gothenburg Raynor was in charge of GAIS for a year before moving to the capital Stockholm to work with AIK. He would remain with the club for three years before transferring to Åtvidaberg. He would then bounce between Juventus, Lazio and Coventry (three teams rarely mentioned in the same sentence) before once again he was back in charge of Sweden.

Much had happened in Swedish football since Raynor’s departure. Perhaps the biggest change was the Swedish FA allowing professionalism in domestic football. This was a real positive, as now Sweden wouldn’t have to worry about squads depleted of their best players. That said, they did have to go ‘cap in hand’ and get permission from Italian clubs to let their best talent play. Plus, there was still a need to convince the Swedish public of the need to play ‘foreigners’ (or foreign based stars) in the national side. Raynor said:

“It would have been impossible for us to meet world class opposition without such performers as Liedholm (Milan), Gren (Genoa), Hamrin (Padova) and Skoglund (Inter). Some people thought it wrong to play these ‘Italians’ as the side was not representative of Swedish football. Perhaps it wasn’t, but it was representative of the footballers Sweden produced.”

With Sweden the host nation, and with Raynor back at the helm with a fully available team, it looked as if the stars had aligned for the 1958 World Cup. The tournament began well, as Raynor’s men progressed from Group 3. Against the odds, Wales joined – besting Hungary in points. The Magyars were no longer so mighty and had become a spent force after their appearance in the final of the previous tournament. They had lost their best players two years before, when they fled in the wake of the failed uprising against the communist regime.

The next challenge for Sweden was the USSR and despite the infamous ‘Black Spider’, Lev Yashin in goal, the Blue and Yellow marched on. One of those ‘foreigners’, Kurt Hamrin opened the scoring at the start of the second half before Agne Simonsson put the icing on the cake two minutes from time.

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Elsewhere in the tournament, prolific goal scorer Just Fontaine was doing the business for France. Brazil were going about their business quietly as they beat Wales 1-0. In the semis, Sweden defeated the defending champions West Germany 3-1 and it must have been here where the ecstasy came to a head. Could the hosts really go all the way?

Well, in the other semi, those two giants of France and Brazil collided to decide who would play the Swedes. Alas, Brazil would progress at the expense of Les Bleus. The two were tied 1–1 for much of the first half. However, 36 minutes into the game French captain and most experienced defender Robert Jonquet suffered a broken leg and the momentum turned. With no substitutions, a young Pelé added to his goal against Wales with a brilliant hattrick and Didi got on the scoresheet to sink the French. Although Fontaine bagged another, it ended 5-2 to set up a Sweden – Brazil final.

The final – agonisingly close to glory

It is widely perceived before the final, that many teams had struggled to deal with the Swedish attacking components of Lennart Skoglund and Hamrin. Such attacking tactics involving these two had confirmed Raynor’s position of taking the game to his side’s opponents rather than sit back and take blows. Remember, his teams were never to be known as underdogs in any case. However, sometimes that can be difficult – especially when playing Brazil.

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In reflection, Brazil’s side was one of the best of the twentieth century. Their sheer skill and experience in big games was bolstered by the upcoming talent of future great Pelé. Just as much as Raynor studied his opposition, the Brazilians had also done their homework. Before the final, Seleção had decided to drop de Sordi for Djalma Santos at right back. This was an effort designed specifically to neutralise the threat and pace of Skoglund on the left wing. On the other side, Nilson Santos was deployed to take care of Hamrin. In the centre, Orlando and the captain Hilderaldo Bellini would patrol the midfield – coping with Simonsson and the two inside forwards Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren. Zito was additionally called upon to hold things together, whilst the more creative outlets of left half, Didi and the skilful Garrincha would cause chaos. Vavá, Pelé and Mario Zagallo were also incredibly key components.

In the final, Sweden attacked with great early energy (something that they had become synonymous with this tournament). They took the lead just four minutes in after an excellent take by captain Liedholm, firing low into the bottom left corner. The lead would be cancelled out just five minutes later though as Vavá hit the back of the net from close range. 25 minutes later, he’d score a near-identical goal to take the lead.

Brazil were looking much the better team and 10 minutes into the second half, they’d make it 3-1 with an iconic goal from Pelé that would keep eyes glued on him for many decades to come. Nilson Santos lifted the ball into the box. The 17-year-old jumped with his defender, yet like nothing caught the ball perfectly with his chest. Another Swedish body flew towards him. Yet, just like he was playing beach football, the young striker lifted the ball gracefully into the air, before striking a low volley past the helpless Kalle Svensson in goal. It was a trademark finish quickly becoming recognisable for this emerging poster boy of the tournament.

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Raynor’s men were simply outclassed. Brazil had made it 4-1 midway through the second half through Zagallo sliding in at the near post to convert into the bottom left corner. It was starting to feel like an exhibition rather than a World Cup final. Ten minutes from the end, Simonsson did restore some pride yet it was all too late and Pelé even had time to put the final nail in the coffin. His headed effort in stoppage time capped a deserved victory and was the beginning of a famous relationship between Brazil and the World Cup.

Sweden on the other hand were victims of sheer greatness. The coach was proud of his boys and accepted it just wasn’t their day. He would later write:

Excuses? Of course not. The only excuse there can be for Sweden’s defeat, is that Brazil had the better individual footballers and consequently the classier teamwork. In short, Brazil were the masters in a glorious match played in the finest spirit in a great sporting land.

There you have it. Those words truly reflect the vigour with which George Raynor coached his beloved football. Even in defeat, he was just as humble as he was in victory – ever-willing to think of the impact this would have on the sport.

The English attitude sadly puts Raynor’s triumphs in a much forgotten category. Nine years after his World Cup exploits, Raynor was being made redundant at Doncaster Rovers in the  Fourth Division. What illustrates the contrast between the international profile and his English one even clearer, is that he went from the likes of Sweden and Lazio to ending his career with Skegness Town.

The runners up place is still the greatest achievement ever for Sweden and adding this to the two Olympic medals with his second home, Raynor should rightfully be remembered as one of the most successful international football managers ever. He should also be a great figure of national sporting pride. Considering his tactical mastery, it really makes you think what if. What if he got the England job? Would we have another World Cup? Would he have stopped the Hungarians in 1953?