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Ron Greenwood at the Arsenal: was he the cause of the failure from 1958 to 1961?

By Tony Attwood

In December 1957 Ron Greenwood became assistant coach at Arsenal, having been a coach at Eastbourne United, and stayed in the post under April 1961 when he replaced Ted Fenton as manager of West Ham.  During this time he also coached the England under 23 team, having been spotted by Sir Harold Thompson (who later became chair of the FA) while coaching at Oxford University.

His spell at Arsenal was to say the least controversial.   A typical account from Wikipedia claims that “Greenwood proved a stimulating influence on a Gunners side undergoing radical reconstruction and he was considered for the manager’s chair when Jack Crayston left in 1958.”

But ex-Arsenal man Jim Magill very kindly took the time to write to the Arsenal History site with this comment.

I accidentally found this Web side regarding George Swindon’s period as manager for Arsenal.However, before going further,allow mé to identify myself. My name is Jim Magill, Christened Edward James Magill and I had the good fortune to play under George at Arsenal. I am a little disappointed regarding the negative comments in connection with his reign at Highbury. George lived and breathed Arsenal and was always a great support and always was thère to help us when necessary.Perhaps one of the obstacles he had to deal with was his partnership with Ron Greenwood. They were both each very qualified to manage football clubs, but together as a partnership thère were just too many different opinions which very often led to a bit of confusion as to how we should play and therefore had an influence ón the results over the time George was at the helm.

So I have been trying to find some commentaries, match facts and insights from the era that might help throw more light on this.

The relevant period from our history of Arsenal managers runs like this

Jack Crayston October 1956 to May 1958

First season (1956/7): won 14, drew 7, lost 6.  Arsenal 5th

Second season (1957/8) up to Ron Greenwood joining, Won 9,  drew 3, lost 8

(5 December 1957 Ron Greenwood joined)

Second season after Ron Greenwood joined: Won 7, drew 4, lost 11.  Arsenal 12th

George Swindin June 1958 to 1 May 1962

First season (1958/9) won 21, drew 8, lost 13.  Arsenal 3rd

Second season (1959/60) won 15, drew 9 lost 18.  Arsenal 13th.

Third season (1960/61), won 15, drew 11, lost 16.  Arsenal 11th

(30 April 1961 Ron Greenwood left)

Fourth season (1961/2) won 15, drew 11, lost 15.  Arsenal 10th.

That season Greenwood was manager of West Ham who came 8th.  In 1962/3 Arsenal under Wright came 7th while West Ham came 12th.

So what can be get from these figures?

Jack Crayston took over suddenly when Tom Whittaker became the second Arsenal manager to die in office.  It may well have been thought by the board that Crayston needed help and so, seemingly, they foisted it upon him.  There was certainly no immediate improvement after Greenwood joined; indeed there was a distinct downturn in results.

In the second season of Crayston, things did not go well – so the question is, was this and the subsequent decline due to the growing influence of Greenwood?

Under George Swindin, however things did improve significantly at first, and clearly Swindin took the job with the knowledge that Greenwood was there, but then the club faded away from contention as it was clear that the days of Chapman’s Arsenal were now gone, although in appointing Swindin the club continued the approach of using ex-players (he was originally signed by George Allison).

So maybe that was the problem – or part of the problem.   Greenwood simply had his own ideas and they were nothing much to do with Arsenal and the Arsenal tradition.

Greenwood was essentially a purist who believed in developing a new style of playing, seeking to become the man who gave Arsenal a completely new approach.

But whereas Chapman, the man who had done this in the 1920s, worked closely with the players and was able to show them exactly what he wanted – and get them to do it – Greenwood gained a reputation at the time as being a man who simply could not get footballers to grasp the theoretical changes he wanted.

It also appears that Swindin, who had been brought up in the Arsenal Way under Allison, didn’t appreciate this radical transformation of the club’s style and approach by a man who was supposedly working under him.

There is also a comment on this in the book “Red Letter Days” in which Geoff Strong – an Arsenal player who had enormous talent and ability and could have turned the club around, but ultimately left the club to find the success his abilities deserved – said, “Ron was too hypothetical and couldn’t man manage.  On one occasion he was talking to us about rotating positions and being clever without the ball.   It got very very technical and there wasn’t the quality of player to run with what Ron said.  Players kept being switched around too.  It was chaos.  I turned to young Gerry Ward and asked him if he grasped what Ron was trying to teach us.  ‘Not a bloody clue,’ came Gerry’s response.”

The fact that it was Greenwood with all these ideas is interesting,  He was after all a centre half whose career was with Chelsea as an amateur, Bradford PA and Brentford before eventually going back to Chelsea where he won a league winners medal playing under Ted Drake as manager.

Now, being a top player does not make a man a top manager – indeed maybe the reverse is true.  But when minor players move into successful management with success they tend to be slow in terms of the changes they make, and they work their way through a number of minor clubs.  Greenwood seemed to want to transform Arsenal without having had a broad experience of getting players to do what he wants them to do.

So how did Greenwood do with the under 23s for England?

  • 15 October 1958: England 3 Czechoslovakia 0
  • 19 March 1959: France 1 England 1
  • 7 May 1959: Italy 0 England 3
  • 10 May 1959: West Germany 2 England 2
  • 23 September 1959: England 0 Hungary 1
  • 11 November 1959: England 2 France 0
  • 2 March 1960: Scotland 4 England 4
  • 16 March 1960: England 5 Netherlands 2
  • 15 May 1960: German Democratic Republic 1 England 4
  • 18 May 1960: Poland 2 England 3
  • 22 May 1960: Israel 4 England 0
  • 2 November 1960: England 1 Italy 1
  • 8 February 1961: England 2 Wales 0
  • 1 March 1961: England 0 Scotland 1.
  • 15 March 1961: England 4 West Germany 1

Results: won 8, drew 4, lost 2

What is particularly interesting is that Greenwood was working with strong talented teams including the likes of Alan Mullery, Bobby Moore, Joe Baker, Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks, George Cohen, Jimmy Greaves, Jimmy Armfield, etc.   But not a single Arsenal player in sight.

So it is quite possible that he could see how to work with the most talented of players – but an assistant coach at a club works with what he has got, and develops them.

At West Ham as manager he had Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, and managed the club from 1961 to 1974 during which time WHU won the FA Cup in 1965 and the CWC the following season.  But in the league that glittering trio did not manage to capture the heights.

  • 1961 – 18th
  • 1962 – 8th
  • 1963 – 12th
  • 1964 – 14th
  • 1965 – 9th
  • 1966 – 12th
  • 1967 – 16th
  • 1968 – 12th
  • 1969 – 8th
  • 1970 – 17th
  • 1971 – 20th
  • 1972 – 14th
  • 1973 – 6th
  • 1974 – 18th

Putting all the bits together it looks as if when working with very talented players at the top of the game he could get them to a cup victory – and indeed the subsequent CWC trophy – but even here this was not enough to get a single top five finish in all these years.  Indeed in 10 of these 14 years WHU ended up 12th or lower in a league of 22 clubs.

He was gifted a very good under 23 team, and did get the results there, so clearly with great players he could do things.  But Arsenal, during his time there, did not have a vast array of great players, but had many good and some very good players who could have become great with the right nurturing.

My thought overall is that Arsenal directors, on appointing Greenwood, were trying to live up to the club’s aristocratic image.  Here was an inexperienced coach who had worked with the social elite at Oxford University, and was linked with the FA.  That was the sort of image Arsenal wanted.

Jack Crayston was a footballer through and through who had no such pretentions, as was his successor George Swindin.  Had these men been given support from other men steeped in the Arsenal, rather than in the FA and the university, the result would have been very different, I suspect.

The Arsenal History Society web site, and the anniversary files

5 comments to Ron Greenwood at the Arsenal: was he the cause of the failure from 1958 to 1961?

  • mark

    Does anyone know of a list, authorised or otherwise, of all of the coaches and scouts that have ever worked for the Arsenal, and if so, where I could get hold of a copy? Greenwood was one of many who served their time at the Arsenal before going on to make a name for themselves elsewhere.

  • Mark there is no list of this nature that I know of. All one can do is plod through the history of the club looking for mentions. Sorry – its a bore but that is how it is. Much of the history on this site arises from me looking at the life of a player, finding a remark, then following that new line of thought.

  • Mark

    Many thanks Tony. I pretty much follow the same ‘process’ as you whereby I’ll come across a reference to an (old) coach or scout and then try and research him as much as I can. What made me ask the question was that I am very belatedly reading ‘True Storey’ at the moment, and Peter refers to being approached on behalf of the club by an Arsenal scout Alf Faulkner. I had not come across him before, thus my question.
    Many thanks, and keep up the fantastic work! It is very much appreciated by this Arsenal supporter.

  • Mark

    Tony,
    a similar question if I may: do you have information on Bert Owens? All I have is that he was assistant trainer / reserve team manager from @ 1946 through to some time in the mid 70’s? Many thanks

  • Bernie Davenport

    Two Coaches come to mind Les Shannon under Billy Wright,Bobby Campbell with Bertie Mee, and Steve Burtenshaw.Ref Bert Owens and Alf Fields pretty sure one if not two came on the pitch at Wembly in 71 after the victory.Ref Ron Greenwood and George Swindon we must remember George was a keeper and I cant think of any keeper that has had success a a manager.

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