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Tottenham’s Arthur Rowe: A Pioneer in English Football

In the aftermath of two humiliating defeats to Hungary (6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest) the English press quickly understood that England no longer stood at the pinnacle of the sport. Not just that, we were actually out of touch with the best by light years. Hidegkuti and Puskas sufficiently bemused the rigid W-M England had employed and the Hungarians’ fluidity and superior technical skill flummoxed the England players: ‘We completely underestimated the advances that the Hungarians had made,’ admitted England captain at the time, Billy Wright.

Yet four years prior to this culturally-awakening defeat, in 1949, an ex-Tottenham player by the name of Arthur Rowe had taken charge of the North London outfit and got them promoted back into the first division. He did it using a simple formula: pass-AND-move.

Whilst the English malaise was completed in Budapest in 1954 and various publications inexplicably demanded a regression to the 2-3-5 that had seen England flourish – though almost outdated for twenty years – all that was clear by the episode was a stereotypically English failing; an inability to progress naturally and adopt new ideas with any level of enthusiasm. Had the top flight taken more notice of Rowe’s methods in Tottenham’s 1950/51 title success – immediately following promotion – then perhaps we wouldn’t have had such a rude awakening at Wembley in 53’. What’s worse is that Rowe had been in Hungary lecturing in 1940 and brought back their methods to English shores.

Arthur Rowe was born in North London and made 182 league appearances for Spurs, captaining them to a third place finish in 1934. Injury prematurely ended his playing career in 1939 and he immediately left for Hungary, lecturing football tactics in a government appointed role. Education proved to be two way and the methods of the Hungarians were indelibly marked on his football ideals. Hungary offered identification for Rowe’s own abilities; he played as a deep lying central defender and chose to hold onto possession until an accurate pass became available as opposed to hitting the ball aimlessly long, more in hope than design. Though his own proclivities as a ball playing defender were anomalous, it was only in Hungary that he realised the full extent of their worth: possession was far more valued elsewhere in Europe than in England. In 1949 he was appointed manager of Tottenham and his primary dictum was based, in his own words, on simplicity:

“Make it simple, make it quick… In fact, mate, it’s just a case of doing the obvious. Football’s a simple game; it’s the players who make it difficult.”

Rowe’s success in his first two seasons was not due to an overhaul in personnel or formation. Instead he offers yet more weight to the truth about formations: they are neutral. It is the approach and the instructions given to players that make a formation either defensive or offensive. His first act, a signal of intent, was to sign forward thinking fullback Alf Ramsey. Rowe’s explanation is simple and logical and made the team baffling for rigid opposition players:

“More progress could be made if [Ramsey] pumped 15 yard passes into Sonny Walters [coming deep to collect from the outside right position]. The opposing left back would hesitate to follow Walters back into the Spurs half, which was definitely no-man’s land to the fullback then, thus giving him the vital gift of space. And he could now make an inside pass if Alf followed him up…”

Rowe was revolutionary in his simplicity. His team was given the reputation of the ‘push and run’ Tottenham side and possession became the key – geometric patterns were exploited by short passes (players assembled in triangles and passed between themselves; second nature in today’s teams). When on top of their game they were unplayable and won the first division in 1951 by four points. Arthur Rowe’s methods bore the blueprint of Spurs’ historic League and cup double only a decade later.

It is ironic, painful even, to note that Tottenham’s success was still received with relative suspicion. Possession play did not become more widespread and Helenio Herrara’s proclamation in 1960 was indicative of the staunch refusal for progress on home soil:

“You in England are playing in the style that we continentals used many years ago, with much physical strength, but no method, no technique.”

Rowe had implemented the simplest ideals and achieved memorable success. And this was all before the embarrassment of Wembley in 1953 against the Hungarians. His own managerial career was cut short at Spurs due to a nervous breakdown but his appointment in 1949 has shaped the way Tottenham have played ever since.

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Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson

Article title: Tottenham’s Arthur Rowe: A Pioneer in English Football

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