Talking Points: Ron Greenwood, the Gunners, and West Ham

Next month marks 40 years since Ron Greenwood took the England job permanently. In terms of management, he was best known for being national team coach as well as West Ham manager where he helped the Irons win the 1964 FA Cup before triumphing the following year over 1860 Munich in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final at Wembley. Greenwood’s time in East London also saw the Hammers reach the semi-finals of the same competition before losing 5-2 on aggregate to Borussia Dortmund in the 1965-66 season.

Greenwood is often remembered for the technical development of players at West Ham, including a young Sir Geoff Hurst, (he changed Hurst’s wing-back position to that of a striker) as well as Martin Peters and Bobby Moore. All three started in the World Cup Final against West Germany when England brought the Jules Rimet home in 1966.

Greenwood took the reins at England in 1971, coming in after Don Revie’s resignation. While working for the Three Lions, he took the national team to Euro 1980 and then to the World Cup 1982 in Spain – the latter being England’s first World Cup for 12 years.

Much less is made of Greenwood’s time as Arsenal’s assistant manager, where he served firstly  Jack Crayston, and then the latter’s successor, George Swindin. Having coached Eastbourne United as well as the Oxford University football team, Greenwood was brought on board in North London in December 1957 when Jack Crayston was in the dugout. So highly regarded was Greenwood by Arsenal that he was touted by the press as successor for the manager’s position, when Crayston resigned in 1958. Sadly for Greenwood, the job went to Swindin – a former Arsenal player who had previously managed Peterborough United.

But what if Greenwood had been given the reins at Arsenal when the vacancy arose? What would have transpired over the next decade had Arsenal chosen to give the young prodigy the job?

Arsenal’s first season with both Swindin and Greenwood at the helm saw the team finish a respectable third in Division 1 in 1958-59. While coaching at Arsenal, Greenwood simultaneously coached the England’s under-23s. Observers of the North London club at the time often remembered how different Greenwood’s tactical methodology was when compared to his superior, Swindin. Certain results didn’t enamour the role that Greenwood played to the Arsenal faithful, with the Daily Mirror’s Ken Jones noting in January 1960 how Arsenal’s FA Cup loss to Rotherham United saw some Highbury spectators believing that the blame lay at Greenwood’s door (as well as the manager’s) – most notably because of the assistant manager’s continental approach to the game.

In light of this it’s perhaps no surprise to learn Greenwood was a cultured and yet commanding centre-back, turning out for Brentford and Chelsea, and helped the Blues win their inaugural First Division championship under Ted Drake in 1955. Greenwood later had a spell at Fulham.

‘Reverend Ron’ – as he came known because of his honest character – was a stickler for tactics. As one Arsenal blog points out, Greenwood wanted to bring a continental style to the Gunners, yet Swindin saw the pathway to success from a different perspective. Don Howe, Greenwood’s assistant with England, noted how advanced Greenwood was in his perception and understanding of the modern game. When Greenwood died in 2006, Howe told The Times: “His technical thinking was way ahead. He was up there with anyone in the world. He knew how to get the players to understand and used to say simplicity was genius – and it was with him. Walter Winterbottom was director of coaching at the FA and he took Ron on. Together they took the game forward.” In the same newspaper, Trevor Francis also recalled how Greenwood was always coming up with new training ideas – a constant innovator.

It’s interesting to compare the fluctuations of both Arsenal and West Ham during this period. When Greenwood left Arsenal as Gunners assistant and took the West Ham manager’s job in April 1961, the Hammers went on to have considerable success over the next decade, whereas Arsenal lost two consecutive League Cup finals in 1968 and 1969. The Gunners did triumph later by winning the double in 1970-71 – taking home both the First Division and the FA Cup under Bertie Mee – but by this point former England player Billy Wright had already served four years in the Gunners managerial hot seat after Swindin’s contract was not renewed.

So what if Greenwood had been given the manager’s role, and stayed at Arsenal? Would the 1960s and 1970s have been a richer time for the Gunners? Certainly, you could argue success might have come sooner and the technical development of the team more pronounced.

The final word goes to Harry Redknapp speaking in his book A Man Walks onto a Pitch: Tales from a  Life in Football. Talking about the summer of 1963 – two years after Greenwood had arrived at Upton Park – Redknapp remembers the focus on overlapping full-backs being pivotal to training drills at West Ham – something which Redknapp noted was conspicuous by its absence when playing with England youth colleagues at Lilleshall.  “I didn’t realise what we were doing (at West Ham) was so different, until I went to Lilleshall” he said. “Alf Ramsey had come nearest to changing the full-back role at Ipswich Town, but Ron was taking wing play in a new and radical direction.” Having made clear one day his inclination for such wing play at an international level with England, Redknapp said: “That night at Lilleshall the coaches had a meeting. The following day every one of their coaching sessions worked on overlapping wide play. It was as if the penny had dropped – they had seen the future. That was Ron Greenwood’s doing.”

Should the Arsenal directors have taken more of a risk in 1958 and promoted their young assistant? Maybe. Some Gunners fans no doubt see a parallel with the risk-averse approach taken by the Arsenal board today. As the German philosopher Karl Marx remarked: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”


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