“Keep it simple, keep it quick, keep it accurate” is a phrase most associated with double winning Tottenham Hotspur manager Bill Nicholson, but it was originally uttered by Arthur Rowe the man who had created the environment for Nicholson’s triumph, ten years previously at White Hart Lane. In doing so he not only laid a template for Spurs forever ephemeral footballing aesthetic but also planted the seed for England’s world cup triumph.
A Tottenham man by birth, Rowe grew up with the club spending time with their nursery clubs Cheshunt and Northfleet United in the 1920s. The Spurs coach at the time was Peter McWilliam, a Scot who brought with him the passing tradition of making the ball do the work, for which his native country had been renowned since Victorian times.
In Rowe he had a willing student, although McWilliam’s departure meant by the time Rowe’s cultured centre half act was on show in the first team in the 1930s he was suffocated by the dominant English philosophy of kick and rush which he translated in these terms: “I never scored a goal for the first team. They didn't like the centre-half to go too far over the halfway line in those days.”
England recognition followed in 1933 but a cartilage injury restricted his progress and he retired in 1939. Fate then intervened to create a serendipitous invitation to advise the Hungarian FA on developing their national game. The outward looking Rowe accepted and went onto consult with the likes of Gustav Sebes and Ferenc Puskas in a meeting of minds which promised much only to be cut short by World War two. However in being able to discuss and develop his progressive tactics, Rowe was given the confidence to implement his radical philosophy when peace returned.
This began at Chelmsford City whom he led to the Southern League title in 1946, the Clarets almost following this up with election to the Football League. His success was noted by his alma mater and he was appointed manager at second division Spurs in 1949. What followed was in the words of his Spurs captain Ronnie Burgess, nothing short of a “revolution”.
Rowe saw his ideas as the embodiment of the notion that football was a simple game. Peppering his team talks with aphorisms such as “a good player runs to the ball, a bad player runs after it”, Rowe emphasised the importance of the short pass accompanied by swift movement off the ball as the key to success. The style, to Rowe’s distaste, became known as push and run, featuring a high frequency of wall passes, a term Rowe did approve of given how as a child he had honed his technique by kicking a ball against an actual wall.
By its nature this required players to free themselves of the strictures of their notional position, either to fall back from the forward line to collect the ball, or attack from defence to pursue it.
For what would now be an overlapping full back, Rowe signed Alf Ramsey, with the seeds of the latter’s World Cup winning wingless wonders being planted as Spurs raced to the Division Two title in 1950, leading throughout the season to win by a margin of nine points as the leading scorers and best defence.
Twelve months later, Spurs were champions of all England, winning plaudits for their breath taking football which reached its apogee in a seven goal demolition of Newcastle United. They almost defended their title, finishing runners up in 1952 but from this point on, faded quickly, a demise which led to Rowe suffering greatly from anxiety and depression, resigning his post in 1955 in the wake of an FA Cup defeat to York.
His success in developing instantly, with the addition of Ramsey, an existing Spurs squad into an irresistible force for three seasons created sky high expectations which he couldn’t maintain. However having imbued his philosophy in his players Bill Nicholson and Eddie Baily he had created the management team that would take the club to new heights in the early sixties, winning not only the double and back to back FA Cups, but also England’s first European title. In 1954 he had also signed Nicholson’s captain Danny Blanchflower.
The fifties also saw the flowering of the managerial talent Vic Buckingham (MWMMF 17) at West Bromwich Albion. He had been a team mate of Rowe’s at Tottenham in the 1930s and considered him his mentor.
Rowe returned to football as assistant manager at fourth division Crystal Palace in the late fifties, becoming manager in 1960 and taking the Eagles to promotion in 1961. He again resigned due to the pressure of the job in 1962 but soon reverted back to his assistant role, helping the club to another promotion in 1964 as Palace continued a decade long climb to a first ever season in the top flight.
Granted a Selhurst Park testimonial, an honour not received at White Hart Lane, Rowe drifted around the game into the seventies with spells at Orient, Brentford, West Brom and Millwall. He had become something of a forgotten man, remembered only by those privileged to see his team play in a pre-television era. This proved to be a fleeting glimpse of what English football might have become, as with the exception of the tantalising triumphs of Nicholson’s Spurs and Ramsey’s England, clubs reverted to type.
Rowe summed up this devotion to character rather than intellect saying: “All you need to remember is that 50 per cent of the people in the game are bluffers. So a decent manager's halfway there when he starts out.”