The father of modern English football

Sir Walter Winterbottom: The Father of Modern English Football

Sir Walter Winterbottom: The Father of Modern English FootballWalter was of course England’s first, youngest and longest serving team manager. Writing in the Daily Mail Jeff Powell described him as “The father of modern English football.” It was an apt description. A pioneer of coaching and an outstanding teacher, Walter worked tirelessly to overcome resistance to coaching and drag English football into the modern era, encouraging players, clubs and administrators to change the way they thought about the game. It was a monumental task that occupied all of his 16 years as the FA Director of Coaching and England team manager.

His father worked in the cotton mills of Oldham but a rare combination of the scholarly and the athletic set Walter him apart from other boys. Hard work and determination won him scholarships to high school and teacher training college. Soon he was playing in Manchester United’s first team, but a career of outstanding promise was cut short by a spinal disease. His Manchester United wages paid for him to attend Carnegie College of Physical Education and on graduating he was appointed a lecturer at Carnegie. During the war he rose to the rank of wing commander, based in Whitehall, and responsible for physical education in the RAF.

It seems extraordinary now, that at the age of 34, and having never managed any football team before, he was invited by Sir Stanley Rous to become the FA’s first Director of Coaching in 1946 with the additional responsibility of managing the England team.

“Nobody believed in coaches at first,” he said, “I wanted to change the whole attitude to coaching in this country.” He saw that the key to changing the culture of English football was coaching: in schools and youth clubs as well as professional clubs. He founded the FA’s National Coaching Scheme and ran residential summer courses at Lilleshall to train coaches at all levels. Famous players were encouraged to qualify and coach in schools. Men like Bill Nicholson, Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill became known as his disciples. As his influence grew he was able to place his young coaches in top clubs and a new breed of young managers evolved. “He was, of his generation, the leading technical thinker and exponent of football coaching in the world.” said Charles Hughes.

At first the England team was chosen by a nine man selection committee and his access to players was very limited. England were the masters who had taken football to the world but he saw that things were changing. Now the pupils could teach the masters but in an insular and partisan country no one wanted to listen. Embarrassed by the United States in 1950 and humiliated by Hungary in 1953, Walter used these setbacks as evidence to get club managers to accept new ideas.

Gradually he brought about radical change within the national team set up. After World Cup defeats in 1950 and 1954 he argued that in order to compete at the highest level England had to be more professional in its preparations. He introduced an under-23 side, changed the playing system from 2-3-5 to 4-2-4, had more squad training sessions with players and began to get his own way with the selection committee.

He led England to four World Cup Finals. In 1958 a team on the verge of greatness was devastated by the Manchester United air disaster that tragically robbed England of the spine of the team. He was unlucky again in 1962 when he lost three key players through injury before leaving for Chile and England lost to Brazil in the quarter finals.

His record during his remarkable sixteen year reign as England manager stands comparison with any: played 139, won 78, drawn 33, lost 28, (win rate 56%) and England only lost six games at home in his time.

When Sir Stanley Rous left the FA to become President of FIFA it was widely expected that Walter would succeed his mentor as FA secretary. But The FA councillors voted instead for their treasurer. Bitterly disappointed by the snub and unhappy with the way the matter was conducted he resigned.

He began a second career in sports administration becoming the first Director of the Sports Council where he helped to change the face of British sport at both elite and grass roots level. The swimming pools and multipurpose sports centres in every major town in England are a lasting legacy to his efforts to make facilities and coaching available to everyone. When he retired in 1978 he was knighted for his services to sport and made an Honorary Vice President of the FA. He served on the FIFA International Coaches Panel and led the FIFA Technical Study Group at every World Cup from 1966-1982.

As a person he was patient, kind, generous, loyal and universally liked. Players had great respect and affection for him. Bobby Charlton said in 1967 “There cannot be many men in the game who see the theory, practice and politics of football as clearly as Walter does.” Jimmy Greaves said he had “the shrewdest football brain in the country.” Bobby Robson said, “I owe to him my entire international career, both as a player and as a manager.”

Surprisingly Walter’s story has never been told. It is the story of a remarkable man who overcame many obstacles and setbacks in his life. He was devoid of ego, a modest man who shunned personal ambition but achieved great things. Above all he was dedicated to a life of service.

Perhaps Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail got to the heart of the man in 2002 when he wrote, “He took football not by storm but by self effacing charm, unflagging courtesy and a willingness to impart his wisdom with a generosity of spirit which sought no other reward than to see the seeds he planted flourish. Had he been in his scholarly pomp today he could have made a fortune lecturing on the subject, except that he would have never asked for a penny.”

Sir Walter Winterbottom: The Father of Modern English Football, by Graham Morse is published by John Blake on 4 March 2013.  It is available from all good bookshops, Waterstones and It can be purchased in hardback, Kindle, and as an audio book.