The World Cup of 1958 featured some of the tournament’s most memorable individual achievements. It was in Sweden 54 years ago where mercurial Frenchman, Just Fontaine, scored an incredible 13 goals, a feat no one has since come anywhere near emulating. It also featured the world-stage debut of a 17-year-old Brazilian by the name of Pele, who became the youngest player to ever lift the Jules Rimet trophy. The 5-2 victory in the final over the hosts featured a Pele double, the first of which – with sublime chest control, deft flick over a defender’s head and pin-point volley to finish – is up there on any list of great all-time World Cup goals. That tournament was also where Sweden achieved the best result in their history; their runners up position was an achievement that, like Fontaine’s, is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
And the 1958 World Cup also marked the highest point in the illustrious career of an Englishman. George Raynor was coach of Sweden that year, and is easily the most successful manager Sweden has ever had; his contribution to Swedish football saw him receive a knighthood from the King of Sweden. He is also the best international manager England has ever produced.
Raynor’s playing career was, like some of the outstanding manager’s today, nothing to write home about, and ended at Aldershot in 1939. A training instructor in Baghdad during the Second World War, he returned to Aldershot at the end of the hostilities to coach their reserves. After pestering the FA’s Stanley Rous for a reference, he was recommended to the Swedish FA who took him on a six-month trial. He immediately impressed, and the national team position was his.
Raynor was at the helm as Sweden claimed Gold at the 1948 Olympics in England, he was there two years later as they came third at the Brazil World Cup and was again in charge when the Swedes took bronze at the ’52 Olympics in neighbouring Finland.
It’s clear that Raynor was blessed with the greatest crop of Swedish talent ever produced. The 1948 Olympic triumph, sealed with a 3-1 win over Yugoslavia at Wembley, featured the triumvirate of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, all of whom were snapped up by Milan once the tournament was over. The trio would famously become known in Italy as the Gre-No-Li, and each grace the Rossoneri’s hall of fame. But Raynor achieved most of his success without these players available to him. Sweden’s strict amateur-only policy meant the stars of Milan, as well as Internazionale’s electric left-winger, Lennart Skoglund, weren’t available for the 1950 World Cup. Considering the Gre-No-Li were 29, 28 and 27 respectively, they would have been at the peak of their powers in Brazil.
The 1952 Olympic Games in which they took bronze (still without the Italian contingent) featured gold-medallists, Hungary, at their strongest. The Mighty Magyars scored six without reply against the Swedes in the semi-finals, with Nándor Hideguti running riot. Raynor took note. A year later, in Budapest, against a team now in the middle of what would be a four-year unbeaten run, Sweden earned a 2-2 draw. The secret, he’d concluded, was man-marking Hideguti and thus strangling their supply line. Being the patriotic Englishman, Raynor reported his theories to the Football Association. England were due to host Hungary in November that same year and Raynor wanted to give Walter Winterbottom’s men the edge. His advice, however, was met with derision. “Can you really expect us to ask Stanley Matthews to track back?” one FA member reportedly asked him. In what would become known as ‘The Match of the Century’, Hungary won 6-3. Hideguti scored a hat-trick.
By 1954 Raynor himself headed to Italy, where he coached both Juventus and Lazio, before heading home to England for the first time in ten years in 1956. Here he took the Coventry job but quickly resigned citing boardroom interference. English football’s chairmen, it would seem, wouldn’t forget this. So he returned to Sweden and would remain as their national team coach until he’d secured their finest World Cup finish on home soil. A high profile role in England, surely, was not far away.
But just a matter of months after pitting his wits against Pele in front of 50,000 fans at the highest level of international football, Raynor was in charge of the part timers of Skegness Town in the Midland League. No top-flight club (or perhaps more importantly, chairman) wanted to take the risk on this football maverick. He even took a sabbatical from Skegness to oversee Sweden’s 3-2 victory at Wembley in 1959, only the third time England had ever lost there. He told reporters that night, “I got some sort of satisfaction out of the result but not enough. 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.” But once again, he was ignored.
A year later he wrote his autobiography, ‘Football Ambassador At Large’, which he hoped would serve as one last attempt to gain the England job. He wrote about introducing three points for a win, about a slimmed-down ‘premier’ league and about youth development programmes. He wrote about why he’d been so successful with Sweden and why England hadn’t been. If ever there was a case for someone being ahead of their time, George Raynor was it. But he made one fatal error. In his book he also panned both the England selectors and Winterbottom, which outraged the precious FA. Instead of courting them for a role, it did quite the opposite; his book was withdrawn from the country.
So here was England’s most successful manager coaching Lincolnshire schoolkids and teaching English to Hungarian refugees at the Derbyshire Miners Welfare Holiday Centre. Here was England’s most successful manager advertising his services in the local Daily Herald newspaper. Here was England’s most successful manager, just a couple of years after standing on the touchline in a World Cup final, working as an assistant storeman at a Yorkshire Butlins. After a six-year hiatus and now aged 60, he was offered a job at lowly Doncaster in the fourth division. It didn’t last. “This was my swansong – and now I’m the dying swan.”
George Raynor died in Buxton 18 years later in 1985. It was unrecorded in English newspapers. Quite how a country with such a rich football tradition could turn its back on their most forward-thinking and successful international coach is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he was just too forward thinking. Or perhaps success abroad meant nothing in his homeland. Whatever the reasons, George Raynor’s achievements with Sweden can’t be overstated. It’s just a tragedy he never got a chance to properly demonstrate them in his the land of his birth, and a tragedy his name is only revered in a country far from home.
By Richard Milway
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona