In 1966, Alf Ramsey famously led England to the World Cup final and consequently the Jules Rimet trophy. However, Sir Alf was not the first Englishman to manage a team to a World Cup final. That achievement was first accomplished by George Raynor, a man sadly consigned to the side-lines of English footballing history.
Raynor, the son of a miner, was born in Yorkshire in 1907. He carved out an unremarkable playing career at clubs such as Sheffield United, Rotherham, Bury and Mansfield Town.
Following the outbreak of World War Two, he enlisted in the British Army. Like many footballers, he became a PT instructor. It was whilst training soldiers that the foundations of his coaching career were laid.
His first taste of management came whilst posted in Iraq during the war. During his deployment, Raynor helped set up an Iraq national XI. The team was mainly made up of students but nevertheless toured neighbouring states as a representative team for Iraq.
Following his demobilisation from the army in 1945, Raynor returned to England with the ambition of evolving the footballing ideals and methods he had begun to develop in Iraq and to forge them into an organised and coherent system of coaching.
However, Raynor found that his coaching ideals drew little interest from English football clubs, and despite his glowing references from Iraq, his first post-war role was the management of the Aldershot reserves.
Despite the lack of interest from English clubs, the high-profile endorsements of Raynor’s coaching talents brought his name to the attention of Stanley Rous, the secretary of the FA.
It was in fact Rous who suggested Raynor to the Swedish FA, who had written to him asking for managerial recommendations. Raynor himself was reluctant to accept the Swedish FA’s offer and initially only signed on a six-month contract.
Despite his reservations, Raynor found a footballing structure in Sweden which had been relatively untouched by World War Two, and found that there were many technically gifted players who he could integrate into his system of play.
With few people aware of the name George Raynor even in his home country, his appointment as the manager of the national side was met with great scepticism in Sweden. Many were alarmed by the lack of details about the man and the limited evidence of his managerial capabilities.
However, his methods soon began to bring success on the pitch and quickly disquieted any concerns over his aptitude for the role.
He impressed upon his team the value of quick reaction, agility and hardness and quickly constructed a team with talents such as Gunnar Gren, Niels Liedholm and the trio of Nordahl brothers- Bertil, Knut, and Gunnar.
Evidence of Raynor’s transformative effect on the Swedish side came in July 1946 when they thrashed Switzerland 7-2, a side who only a year prior had beaten them 3-0.
The major tactical innovation that Raynor employed was a strategy known as the ‘G man’. In this strategy, he utilised Knut Nordahl in a roaming (G-man) midfield role who collected the ball from the defence and delivered it to the forwards Gren and Gunnar Nordahl, who pressed high up-field.
In 1947 his tactics were given a rare exhibition in his homeland, as his side pushed England to the wire in a 4-2 loss.
Two years into his reign Raynor’s system brought great rewards as Sweden stormed their way to a gold medal at the 1948 Olympic games in London, thumping Austria 3-0, South Korea 12-0 and Denmark 4-2 along the way to the final where they defeated Yugoslavia by three goals to one.
However, the success of the Swedish side bought the attention of many foreign suitors and within a year Gunnar Nordahl, Gren and Liedholm had departed Sweden for Italy, signing for AC Milan. Soon afterwards the other two Nordahl brothers departed for Roma and Atalanta.
Due to the Swedish FA’s insistence on only picking amateur players, Raynor lost his best players and had to fashion a brand-new side for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
In spite of their international inexperience, the new-look side had no trouble in making it out of the first group stage of the tournament, defeating Italy along the way.
Despite suffering a 7-1 hammering from the hosts and a narrow defeat to Uruguay in the final stage, a 3-2 win over Spain ensured that amateur side secured a remarkable third-place finish.
Another highlight came in 1953 when his team earned an impressive 2-2 draw in a friendly against Hungary’s ‘Magnificent Magyars’, undoubtedly the best team in Europe at that time. Ten days later Hungary travelled to London, where they trashed England 6-3 at Wembley.
Raynor had advised the English FA that the best way to get to the Hungarians was to use man-to-man marking to neutralise the threat of midfielder Nando Hidegkuti. As always his tactical nous was ignored by his compatriots and England suffered one of their most humiliating defeats.
Raynor left the Sweden national side in 1954, two years after guiding them to another medal at the Olympic Games in Helsinki.
A spell managing Lazio in Serie A followed but ended after just a season. Following this, he endured an underwhelming stint with Coventry City in the Third Division South.
After two years away and little success or fulfilment at club level, Raynor was enticed back by the Swedish FA to build a team for the 1958 World Cup (for which they were the host nation), with the added incentive that he could now pick professional players.
The new selections and his pragmatic style meant that Raynor was soon able to revitalise the morale of the Swedes which had been damaged by a disappointing defeat to neighbours Norway and quickly began to re-establish the team as a force in European football.
Although managing to whip yet another new Sweden side into shape, Raynor insisted to the board on the recalling of Liedholm, Hamrin, Skoglund and Gustavsson. Who had been exiled from the national team since their moves to Serie A in Italy.
Once again Raynor’s new-fashioned side hit the ground running. The Swedes topped their group, finishing ahead of Hungary (the defeated finalists of the 1954 World Cup), Wales and Mexico. With their explosive wing-play, in particular, catching the eye.
As they progressed to the knock-out stages, Raynor’s side eased past the Soviet Union in the quarter-finals, before defeating the world champions West Germany 3-1 in the semis.
The hosts had made it to the final for the first time, and now only Brazil and their dynamic 17-year-old forward Pele stood between Raynor’s Sweden and the Jules Rimet trophy.
In front of a home crowd of 52,000, the Swedes made a fantastic start to the final, taking a 1-0 lead after just four minutes. However, Sweden could not match the flair and power of Brazilians over the full ninety minutes and the match finished with the Swedes on the wrong end of a 5-2 scoreline.
Despite the disappointment of defeat at the final hurdle, it could not diminish the scale of Raynor’s achievements in Sweden. Two Olympic medals and a runners-up and third-place finish at two World Cups had been achieved with essentially three different sides, a testament to the management and coaching capabilities of the Englishman.
Raynor left Sweden after the World Cup to return to England expecting to finally establish his name in his home country. Incredibly, his achievements in Scandinavia went completely unnoticed and no offers of employment were made by either English clubs or the FA.
He ended up taking the manager’s job at Skegness Town coaching a part-time team whilst also working as a store-hand at Butlin’s.
His autobiography Football Ambassador at Large, in which he criticised the FA and many of their practices for England’s failures at successive World Cups, isolated him even further from England’s footballing establishment.
His final job was an unsuccessful seventeen-month stay as Fourth Division Doncaster Rovers, from which he was made redundant in 1967.
Raynor’s success on the international stage is something which few English managers have been able to replicate. So, it seems strange that his name is one which has been consigned to the shadows of English football.
In contrast to his homeland, Raynor’s achievements have not been overlooked in Sweden, where he was awarded a knighthood for his successes with the national side.
As well as Sweden’s successes during his time in charge, Raynor should also be remembered for his trailblazing approach to coaching. His belief in the need for an organised system of coaching was arguably ahead of its time, and one which many in his native England would have down well to have listened to.
A coaching talent which was ignored and taken for granted by his homeland at the time. George Raynor’s career is one which should be highlighted and celebrated
As one of only two Englishmen to coach a side to a World Cup final, it should be ensured that his legacy receives the recognition in the English game that he was unfairly denied in his lifetime.