If ever there was a man to epitomise the expression, ‘Steady Eddie’, it was Don Howe.
A more unadventurous player, coach or manager would be difficult to find over the last sixty years or so, and yet Don Howe was universally respected within the football world as both a great tactician and a gentleman.
One could, if one was being a little uncharitable and mischievous as well, even say that Howe characterised the club he served so well in three different spells – Arsenal.
He was staid, upright, well-presented and turned out, and very, very “1-0” in personality.
Donald Howe was born in Wolverhampton in 1935 and made a career as a steady player in the stripes of West Bromwich Albion for whom he played for a dozen years. Joining the Baggies straight from school, Howe had to wait until he was almost 20 years of age before making his debut in 1955.
In total, Howe was to play 379 league and cup games for West Brom and score a total of 19 goals. It was during this period that Howe first gained a reputation for steadiness. A disciplined yet energetic full-back, Howe was even then at this early point in his career taking an interest in tactics and coaching.
From 1957 to 1959, Howe played 23 times for England and appeared in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.
In 1964, he was head-hunted by Arsenal manager, Billy Wright, and was made club captain upon signing for the Gunners.
As revered as he had been, and still is to some degree, at the Hawthorns, Don Howe and Arsenal were an immediate match. The famed marble halls and tradition of the place seemed to strike a chord with Howe, and from the day he signed for the club he always used the definite article when referring to it, as in ‘I am proud to be a player for The Arsenal’.
Howe played for (the) Arsenal a relatively short time, only spending two seasons adorning the red and white of the Gunners, but in that time he amassed over 70 appearances in all competitions and weighed in with just a solitary goal.
An injury in 1966 pretty much put paid to his career, and so when he retired from playing he stayed on the Arsenal staff as a coach. Initially, Howe was involved with the reserve team but upon Dave Sexton’s departure to Chelsea, he stepped up to become an assistant to new manager, Bertie Mee.
Mee had surprisingly been made manager upon Billy Wright’s dismissal despite having been employed as the club’s physiotherapist for the past six years. Fearing his own lack of tactical prowess would hold the team back, Mee was to lean heavily on the astute Howe in the coming years.
In the 1970-71 season, Arsenal famously became only the second side in the twentieth century to achieve the double of League and FA Cup in the same season, and Howe’s influence on the side and its tactics and shape was instrumental. By now Howe had honed his tactical and coaching expertise and was responsible for almost all of the coaching and team structure at Highbury.
Surprisingly, Howe left Arsenal in the summer of 1971 in order to return to the Hawthorns as manager of West Bromwich Albion. Having served what he saw as an apprenticeship, Howe was keen to try his hand at management. Unfortunately, his time ‘back home’ wasn’t a particular success and the club was relegated in 1973. Despite this, Howe stayed in the hot seat at West Brom for another two seasons before he was replaced by Johnny Giles.
There then followed a short spell coaching at Leeds United and a further foray into management at Galatasaray before Bertie Mee stepped down as Arsenal manager in 1976. Terry Neil was appointed in his place and in 1977 Neill moved to appoint Don Howe as his assistant.
This time, Howe would stay at Highbury for almost another decade – firstly as Neill’s assistant and then as a manager in his own right.
During these years, Arsenal, and by extension, Howe, were often labelled ‘boring’. This was due to the defensive discipline Howe instilled into the teams of that period. Indeed, this had often been the charge levelled at even the famous ‘Double-winning’ side of 1971.
It is true that Howe favoured defensive stability, reasoning that if the other side doesn’t score, then you can’t lose the game. While effective to a degree, the style of football often deployed by Arsenal during this period won them few friends amongst the neutrals. Even some of Arsenal’s own supporters found enjoying football a bit of a struggle at times.
Nevertheless, Arsenal did reach four cup finals during the Neill/Howe years and qualified for Europe on a number of occasions due to high league positions. The fact that Arsenal failed to score in three of these finals and only one was won was unfortunate.
When Neill was sacked in December 1983, Howe was probably as bemused as most other people when he was offered the manager’s job but accept it he did and two-and-a-half years of not much followed. Arsenal finished sixth and seventh under Howe and although often tipped to challenge, usually flattered to deceive.
In March 1986, with Arsenal on the fringes of the title race, rumours were abound that the Arsenal board had approached Terry Venables with a view to naming him as Howe’s successor. When Howe was unable to get clarity or reassurance from the board, he promptly resigned.
It was during this period that Howe was also heavily involved in the England set-up. He had been asked to work with Ron Greenwood in 1981 and together the two men had secured World Cup qualification for the first time in over a decade.
In the 1982 World Cup Finals held in Spain, England made it through the first group stage unscathed with a 100% record with only one goal conceded. Again, Howe’s imprint could clearly be seen on the side.
Unfortunately, the same could be true in the second group stage when England were eliminated due to their inability to do better than secure goalless draws against West Germany and an already eliminated host nation.
When Greenwood stepped down after the World Cup, Sir Bobby Robson took over as manager and kept Howe as his coach and assistant over the next eight years. Two more World Cups were reached, culminating in England’s defeat to West Germany on penalties in the semi-final at Italia ‘90.
Howe’s England services were not retained by Graham Taylor in 1990, but Terry Venables didn’t hesitate to bring him back into the fold when he took over from Taylor in early 1994.
After leaving Highbury under somewhat acrimonious circumstances, Howe continued to work in first-team club football for much of the next decade. Perhaps his greatest moment came when he was the tactical nous behind Wimbledon’s surprise FA Cup victory over Liverpool in 1988. At the time he was working as Bobby Gould’s assistant.
He had further spells in club management with Queens Park Rangers and Coventry City before moving back to Arsenal to head up the Academy as Youth Team Coach. Howe would spend another six years in this role before finally retiring for good in 2003.
Although somewhat unfairly maligned over the years as a defensive coach, the respect that Don Howe was held in by all those who knew and worked with him was legendary. Nobody in the footballing fraternity had a bad word to say against the man who lived, ate and slept football for the better part of six decades.
As he grew older, he more and more often seemed to be put into positions whereby he had to explain or refute his apparent dour playing image and he felt that his achievements didn’t always get the appreciation they deserved. In an interview with the Independent newspaper at the tail end of his career, he noted:
‘Sometimes you think, ‘What is appreciation?’. I suppose it’s when someone realises what you’re putting in and sits down with you and says, ‘Look, thanks for what you’re doing for us.’ And with the greatest respect that didn’t happen too often. I’m not saying it never happened, but there were times I thought to myself, ‘Yes I am being used here. There’s no doubt about it. I am being used.’ ‘.
Don Howe died in December 2015 at the age of 80.