What have been the most important and most pleasing triumphs in your career?
If I go back to Sweden I think it was the second league championship with Halmstad. Winning the title in the first season was just a fairy tale. They were a team who had only survived relegation on the final day of the previous campaign and then lost six of the team and replaced them with almost nobody. It was going to be Halmstad reserves in 1976 with a new, unknown coach. Nobody else had wanted the job and all the newspapers predicted we would finish bottom. Things went our way and it was a pure fairy tale, a dream scenario in your first job.
The second one, in 1979, was very satisfying because that proved something: that you could do it again, that you could build something. I went to Malmo and won five titles in succession and that was another fairy tale. The Switzerland experience was special, reaching two UEFA Cup Finals with Inter and Fulham too.
Switzerland was special because they’d had no success for such a long time. When I was appointed the mood in the country was so negative. They thought the team was hopeless and people didn’t like the fact they couldn’t find their own coach and had to go to this English guy. It was incredible. To turn that around, and to get to the 1994 World Cup and do well, and then qualify for Euro 1996, was satisfying. We put a lot of emphasis on youth, started a coaching programme to identify the best talent, and the whole belief changed. They’ve had a lot of success ever since at all levels. It was very satisfying to be the catalyst for a country and for football to take its rightful place as the number one sport again.
Fulham was a wonderful experience as well; I really enjoyed my time there and taking them to a European club Final. I went to Fulham after coaching Finland and I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do. I had an offer from Massimo Moratti to return to Inter and work as a kind of technical director, in a similar role that Giacinto Facchetti did. I was seriously contemplating it when a few offers came in – from Fulham and from Ukraine, and I also talked to the Irish about their job. That made me think I was being a bit premature in stopping as a coach.
Before going to Fulham and working in England during the last five years, you had been abroad for almost all your career. Was there a sense of being unappreciated at home?
No, I don’t think I felt that. The thing was, I never really courted publicity. If I had wanted to make people aware of what I was doing, I would have had to make a concerted effort to do so, appear on television and so on. That wasn’t me. Strangely enough, it didn’t stop my name being mentioned with the England national team as far back as 2000 when Sven Goran Eriksson was appointed.
I always felt that there was a certain degree of recognition within the football people in the country. When I came back I was embraced back into the fold by the important people like Bobby Robson, Dave Sexton and Terry Venables. They knew what I was doing, and there was comfort to be taken in that. The people really in the know were very aware that Bob Houghton and myself were bona fide football people.
Was it always an ambition to become England manager?
It was a wish rather than a burning ambition. In my opinion it’s the top job in England and as an Englishman, if you are a football manager or coach, it’s the job you should envy and you should wish for. At the same time, I never made a concerted effort to get it. It was nice to be mentioned on some occasions and to know that you’re not completely forgotten. This time I was lucky enough that they wanted me. I could call it a dream come true, but I suppose this late in your career, when so many good things have happened, to say that sounds a little false, a little trite. It is certainly something I am very proud of and very pleased to have the chance to do, even though it is not an easy job.
Has anything surprised you in the job?
Yes, the players have surprised me with their lack of ego. If people from the outside could really see them together, working as a group together to achieve their goals, getting on well with each other, it would be a very different scenario to the widespread impression of egotistical, selfish people. That agenda of “it’s all about me” hasn’t been the case at all. There is also this myth that the players don’t care, that England doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the club teams. That’s wrong. They are very keen to pursue England careers and have success with the national team – to reach semi-finals, finals and win tournaments.
What about continental influences on your coaching career?
I got on very well with Arrigo Sacchi. He took a lot of his ideas from England. We were fellow souls in the sense that we both tried to play the same type of football, we were both interested in getting the ball back early, and pressurising and getting our defences to play as high as they could – all the sort of principles that I have followed in my life. Arrigo had great success with it and he had a fantastic influence on Italian football. Until then it was the opposite of what he did with his teams. The way Milan played was much more akin to a top British side than a typical Italian side.
When I went to Italy in 1995, to coach Internazionale, they still played with a libero and they still played man-to-man. That was the Inter team I took over and one that I had to change into a zonal team. It’s only 17 years ago, so we are not talking about the dark ages, we are not talking about catenaccio. What helped me was that Arrigo had already paved the way, so there was no problem for me in trying to change things. We first met in 1992 and then came across each other many times. He liked the way we played.
The current Barcelona team have been described as the best in the history of football. Do you agree with that?
I do admire them very much. They may be the best, but I am not a great lover of comparisons. I don’t think it is possible because things change so much over the years in football. It’s only opinion, it’s only eyesight, and the older you get the more you glorify the past. As Brian Clough used to say: “If the stopwatch hadn’t been invented, Jesse Owens would be the fastest man who’d ever run.” We run that risk.
During my serious time in football, the 40-odd years of it, quite a few teams have been named as the best ever. I would satisfy myself by saying that Barcelona are a fantastic football team. I like the way they play. The principles they follow are pretty much the principles that we were talking about with Arrigo Sacchi and, if you go back further, to Don Howe [first-team coach to manager Bertie Mee] in Arsenal’s 1971 double-winning team, for example. It is that ability to get players forward, and when you are forward to make certain you win the ball back early and put the pressure on. Don’t just retreat and let people have the ball.
Of course, because of the technical level of the game now, one sees less of that high-pressurising style. The change in the offside rule also means less of it too. Barcelona do it, they take the risks involved, but they have so many good players that they will get away with it. What we admire about them is their hard work, their technical ability and their movement off the ball. But they are not a negative team. They don’t, in my opinion, just keep the ball for the sake of it. They are always looking for the decisive pass.
At the moment they also have an outstanding player in Lionel Messi, who does make such an enormous difference to the game. On a bad day he can still win them matches off his own bat. Never forget that all the great teams of the past have always had that one individual who has made them greater because the whole team feeds off his ability.
How many languages do you speak and how important is it to be fluent in the language of the country that you are working in?
It definitely helps to speak the local language. I learnt Swedish when I went to work there and it was very worthwhile. Because the languages are so close, it meant it helped in Norway and Denmark. In Italy and Switzerland, I certainly couldn’t have worked without learning the language. My school French polished up pretty quickly and Italian came quite easily after that. German was more difficult. When I was in the UAE I made no attempt to learn Arabic. At FC Copenhagen the players preferred me to speak English. At my time of life now I wouldn’t thank you for having to learn another new language.
Interview by Jim Holden