Yesterday, 23rd December, saw the passing of an unsung Arsenal hero.
Although for those of an older generation Don Howe was associated primarily with West Brom (recently voted one of their greatest ever players) and England, he served the Gunners with distinction, firstly as a player and then more notably as first team coach (twice) and manager.
After a glowing career (including an FA Cup win under influential boss Vic Buckingham) at West Bromwich Albion, the Wolverhampton born right-back was brought to North London in 1964 for £42,000 by the universally respected, but ultimately unsuccessful Billy Wright, one of his heroes as a teenager. The ex-England captain immediately made his ex-international colleague Howe his club captain, but despite 74 appearances for the club at what should have been his peak, his career was prematurely ended by a badly broken leg after just two years at Highbury.
However, his coaching potential had already been noted, and he soon found himself in charge of the reserve team, before stepping up to be chief coach under the new manager, Bertie Mee, after Dave Sexton left to manage Chelsea in October 1967. In all the current conversation about ‘losing the dressing room’ it is worth recalling how many of the Arsenal players at the time were unimpressed by the prospect of Howe when he replaced the respected Dave Sexton. Don took the challenge straight on and won them over with his knowledge and force of personality. Having won his first battle as a senior coach, he was made assistant manager in March 1969. Just over a year later the Gunners won their first-ever European trophy, the 1970 Fairs Cup and followed that with a magnificent league and cup ‘double’ the next season.
Plenty within the game have stated that Bertie Mee’s 1971 double-winning side, and to a lesser extent Terry Neil’s end of the decade cup specialists, owed more to the background work done by Howe that the capacity of the men in charge. Certainly Charlie George suggested as much on several occasions, and there seems an obvious correlation between his departure from the club in the summer of 1971 to manage West Brom (“my greatest mistake”) and the rapid decline and break-up of the early 70s side. And the fact that the team’s fortunes improved so much after his return in 1977 hardly seems coincidental.
Former boss George Graham said that Arsenal’s 1971 double under manager Bertie Mee was “due to the organisation of Don”. Graham told BBC Radio 5 live: “He was a lovely man. Quiet in company but he could lose his temper as well. Certainly one of the best coaches I have worked for.”
His impact on Bertie Mee’s side didn’t just stop at tactical coaching and match preparation. He had also been coach of the reserves when the likes of Pat Rice, Ray Kennedy, Charlie George, Sammy Nelson, Eddie Kelly and others where all taking their first steps from the youth team.
When he returned to Highbury as Terry Neill’s chief coach in the summer of 1977, combining his role with the same position for England, (“I suppose in many ways I was happiest at Arsenal” he said at the time) he coached the team to three successive FA Cup finals – winning in 1979 – and the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1980.
Neill was sacked on 16th December 1983, with Arsenal in 12th place, after five defeats in six games. Don was made caretaker manager and having guided the team to 6th in the table, was appointed permanent Arsenal manager in April 1984. However, that was about as good as it got in what was to be a mixed couple of years, in a period of what can be most generously termed ‘transition’.
Although not as painful as his relegation in charge of a badly declining West Brom in 1973 (and probably not as colourful as his spell managing Galatasary), his time at the Highbury helm was a frustrating one, and the end ignominious. Despite a run of form of four consecutive wins in a run of 8 wins, 2 draws and 1 defeat in 11 games, Don Howe resigned on 22 March 1986 amidst rumours that he was going to be replaced at the season’s end. The club were once again trying to lure Terry Venables back from Barcelona. El Tel stayed where he was, reportedly unimpressed by the board going behind Howe’s back, leaving the club without a manager. Alex Ferguson also declined to step into the breach due to his Scotland commitments. Steve Burtenshaw had to take over with the club 5th in the league. The momentum Howe had built was immediately lost and with five defeats in the next seven games Arsenal slipped away from their challenging position.
It seems, not without some justification, the Arsenal boardroom saw Don Howe as a better number two than leader (which perhaps influenced their original appointment of him as caretaker manager only), an accusation that followed him throughout his career.
Despite this, the quality of his coaching and ability to educate young footballers remained undiminished, with the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Niall Quinn and Martin Hayes all becoming regular first team contributors under his tutelage, and a young Stewart Robson was at his peak during Don’s tenure. He was also instrumental in starting the Arsenal careers of Paul Merson, Vic Akers and John Lukic, as well as bringing short term successes Steve Williams and Viv Anderson to the club, who like all of the above (bar Robson) were to be crucial contributors to his successor’s achievements.
After Arsenal, his abilities lost none of their touch, being assistant manager as Wimbledon (“It was like realising Miss World was single and being the only one with the courage to ask her out.”– Bobby Gould) won the FA Cup in 1988, briefly managing QPR and Coventry City, and helping England to semi-finals at World Cup Italia ’90 and Euro ’96.
In this sphere too, the theme of him being a great educator and a ‘lovely man’ was continually echoed, not least in tributes this week from Gary Neville, Gary Lineker.
Following his time assisting his great contemporary and rival Terry Venables, he returned to Arsenal as head youth-team coach in the summer of 1997, enjoying a very successful six seasons developing the talents of Arsenal’s young players (including Ashley Cole), leading the team to FA Youth Cup wins in 2000 and 2001, before retiring at the end of the 2002/03 season.
His legacy to the English coaching fraternity remains undiminished, and nearly 15 years after the end of his four decades in coaching, his name is still whispered reverently in such circles today.
Roy Hodgson was particularly effusive on the Football Association website, paying an emotional tribute to a man he described as ‘an inspiration, a friend and a mentor’ “to me and friends of my generation…I think we were very fortunate growing up as young coaches to be able to take inspiration from Don, Sir Bobby Robson and Dave Sexton alongside him. He was absolutely one of the very best coaches I have ever come across in my life and, certainly in my opinion, one of the very best coaches England ever had.”
“I shall miss him and he will always be remembered by people within the game as one of the true greats, one of the true legendary coaches. He was ahead of his time.
“He wasn’t just a great coach, he was a great human being.”
This combination of universal admiration for the coach and affection for the man was also summed up rather nicely by an effusive Paul Merson.
“He was so far ahead of his time it was scary. You talk about the Wengers and people like that, he was the best coach in the world of football, not just in England in the world of football. He was a phenomenal, phenomenal coach.
“You won’t find anyone in the game that had a bad word to say about Don Howe. He was one of the nicest blokes I have ever met.”
Perhaps it was this niceness, this lack of chutzpah and, crucially, ruthlessness that stopped him being able to really successfully apply his undoubted knowledge and dedication to management, despite being widely recognised as a coach ahead of his time.
Perhaps, in more ways than one. Although long recognised as a man meticulous in his preparation of training, willing to embrace the latest approaches, his modernity is partly reflected in his personality. In a day of autocratic leaders, messianic inspirers and belt and braces bellowers, Howe was a thoughtful, comparatively erudite figure (despite his thick black country accent), and an unashamed football ‘geek’. He was out of place in boardrooms or press conferences; he was “a training-ground technician who was in his element working with players, glorying in minute detail, outwardly stern but essentially warm, a man utterly consumed by his craft . ” (Ivan Ponting, The Independent )
As Martin Keown said on the BBC “He lived and breathed football”, and it seems likely that his return to coach the youth team, 11 years after his acrimonious departure was certainly due in part to his appreciation by Arsene Wenger and particularly Liam Brady.
“I was pleased to see him come back in 1977 as coach to Terry Neill. We had a wonderful few years before I left for Juventus in 1980. We reached four finals in three years, winning the FA Cup in 1979. Don was a big reason why the team reached those heights.
“When I became head of the academy, I wanted to bring Don back to the club to help develop the young players. He was tremendous with the youngsters – he was a wonderful, inspirational coach.”
It seems likely he would have been more likely to thrive as a number one in today’s era of football technocrats, rather than his heyday of motivators and disciplinarians. Certainly not having to deal with the deeply entrenched drinking cultures he encountered in managerial hotseats would have appealed to his comparatively scientific methods.
Bob Wilson said Howe was “a fine player but truly he was one of the greatest ever coaches in football”.
Despite his reputation as a tactical defensive specialist, he was passionately enthusiastic in his appreciation of the beauty of attacking flair. Sometimes decried as negative, he was in fact a permanent embracer of the new, the inventive, the revolutionary.
“If you are not ambitious, if you are not continually looking for better things, striving for perfection, then you are dead.”
Sounds a little like the philosophy of a certain Frenchman striding through the marble halls today.
As our chairman Sir Chips Keswick summed up; “He was the very best at what he did – and he did it with us, at Arsenal, for decade after decade. His name will live on in the history books as one of the most influential footballing figures in the history of the club.”