Arthur Rowe

An extract from ‘Arthur Rowe’, the latest in the Spurs Shots series of ebooks by Martin Cloake and Adam Powley, gives a flavour of the man who quietly brought an early version of Total Football to England, in N17. 

When the great managers of football are listed these days, Arthur Rowe rarely gets a mention. He comes from an age of football that predates television’s grip on the game, from an age where personality had not yet elbowed its way to the fore. True, the game was a mass obsession and Rowe was revered in his time. But he seems to have slipped from the collective memory. If the absence of mass media and the cult of the sporting personality is to blame for this, how come Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse are still names that could trip off the lips of the most cursory student of football? Maybe it is because players have greater status in the collective consciousness than managers. But if this is so, how can the status of Herbert Chapman and Stan Cullis be explained? Rowe was never a man to court the limelight or make extravagant claims for what he did. Like the greatest of the greats, he genuinely saw what he did as simply the best way to do the job. And he got on with it with the minimum of fuss as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Which to him it was.

Not only was Rowe a great manager in the English game, he was a great manager for the English game. Because arguably, without Rowe the English game would have stayed constrained and oblivious inside its self-satisfied cocoon of assumed superiority for far longer than it did. And maybe Rowe is not afforded the status he deserves because the game does not fully understand what it is he did.

Without Rowe, one of the greatest names in the English game would not have achieved one of the greatest feats of any club side in the 20th century. Bill Nicholson’s Double-winning Spurs based a style of play still rated by many who saw it as the greatest ever on an approach set down by Rowe. That side went on to become the first English club to take on and beat the best of the continental sides and in so doing complete the English game’s journey from self-imposed isolation to the heart of the new transnational era. It was Rowe who used a new way of thinking to put a new style of football into practice. Like all genuine visionaries, he recognised that mixing the best of what he had with the best of what he found was the key to not simply interpreting the world, but to changing it. Arthur Rowe was football’s quiet revolutionary.

Rowe was born, where else, but in Tottenham in 1906. If his life were to be made into a movie, the opening scene could justifiably show a goal kick from the famous ground hitting the front door of the house where Rowe was born – a football cliché made all the more powerful by its accuracy in this instance. When he was 15, he came to the attention of the club, and two years later in 1923 he signed as an amateur after playing for nursery clubs at Cheshunt – later to be the training ground which produced a succession of great sides – and Northfleet United. The Northfleet connection enables us to begin to trace the DNA of a style of play that was to change the football world.

In the early 1920s, Tottenham Hotspur’s enlightened Scottish coach Peter McWilliam came to an arrangement with the Kent club to farm out talented young players in order for them to gain experience in playing football in the way McWilliam thought it should be played. It was a style Spurs fans still refer to as The Spurs Way, and though it was the Spurs sides of first Rowe and then Nicholson which eventually took it to the ultimate level, it is also a style that has been adopted by some of the most successful sides in the world. Think space and shape, angle and incision, flexibility and interchangeability, keeping the ball on the ground and making it do the work.

In 1934 a 19-year-old wing-half called Vic Buckingham signed for Spurs and played his first season at the Northfleet nursery. He went on to play 230 games for the club, most of them under the tutelage of McWilliam. When he stopped playing in 1949, he went into management, encouraged by Rowe who he viewed as something of a mentor. In 1953-54 Buckingham almost became the first manager to win the modern Double, taking the West Bromwich Albion side of Ray Barlow and Ronnie Allen to within four league points of the feat. In 1959 he took his ideas, honed under McWilliam and encouraged by Rowe, to Ajax of Amsterdam. There he laid the foundations of a system called Total Football and discovered a young player who he nurtured and encouraged. The player’s name was Johan Cruyff.

Rowe had played alongside Buckingham and the two men had similar ideas about the game. As a player, Rowe was a cultured centre-half who favoured playing out of trouble rather than the stop and hoof approach that the consensus of the time said should be adopted by a player in his position. He won his first England cap in 1933 in a season in which Spurs finished in third place in the league. He was a crucial player, and this fact was underlined when the team collapsed after injury sidelined him the following season. He was never the same again, a succession of injuries culminating in a cartilage strain that forced him to retire in 1939.

But Rowe was not finished with the game. A thinking player, he wanted to apply those thoughts as a coach. He travelled to Hungary on a lecture tour in 1939 and made such an impression that Laszlo Feleki, a writer for the well-regarded Nemzeti Sport magazine, wrote to English FA chairman Stanley Rous in July 1939 thanking him for recommending Rowe. The Hungarians wanted to employ Rowe as “football professor of the first Hungarian course for football trainers” and to “prepare the Amateur International team for the 1940 Olympics in Helsinki.”

Feleki seems to have been acting as an intermediary for the Hungarian FA. The idea, he said in the letter, was to “lay down new foundations for Hungarian football with English help”. The flattery was intended to get Rous onside, as Feleki went on to say that he was sure “Rowe will ask for your opinion about the whole matter and I think it would be the best solution if you sent him to us”. Closing the letter, Feleki says “if we had to choose another man we have to be very careful because in this matter not only the football knowledge counts but this trainer must be as intelligent and as fine a gentleman as Rowe”. This should not be seen as a foreign association prostrating itself before the all-knowing English, though. Let’s not forget the Hungarian school of football had been developing its ideas for some time. Clearly, there was a meeting of minds here.

In the 1930s, a school of thinking dubbed “the coffee house” by Jonathan Wilson in his history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, had begun to challenge the aesthetic limitations of the British W-M approach. This was a defensively solid formation which employed stoppers to do just that, stop the opposition from playing, while placing emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly and directly to powerful forwards. Passing, especially the short and patient style, was viewed as not very British at all and therefore a bit suspect. But from the coffee house school of thinking a more subtle approach developed. Forwards dropped deeper to pick up the ball, a fluid front four rather than a solid line of five emerged, linking the play became more important.

For a man schooled by the ideas of Peter McWilliam about space, shape and making the ball do the work, plunging into a footballing culture that had been developing similar ideas must have been an invigorating experience. For the Hungarians, an Englishman who had proved himself in the cradle of the game but who was also willing and able to take on the new aesthetic must have created quite an impression. Two of the men he met on his lecture tour were themselves to go on to have a significant impact on the game – Gusztáv Sebes and Ferenc Puskás.

Martin Cloake

This is an extract from ‘Arthur Rowe’,  available as an e-shot from Amazon and as an epub from Lulu.  The book is a slightly extended version of a feature that first appeared in Issue 4 of The Blizzard. Arthur Rowe is the latest in a series of Spurs e-shots from Adam and Martin that also include Danny Blanchflower and Glenn Hoddle. An extract from Danny Blanchlower is here.

With echoes of Glory from Danny Blanchflower to Bruce Springsteen, and full of the flavour of Escape which European Travel brings, The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley‘ tells the tales of his journey over land and sea as Spurs returned to the European Cup for the first time in 49 seasons. It recounts memories including Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, a North London Derby comeback as well as the Glory Nights from the San Siro to N17. It is available for preview and to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.