Skip to content

Ron Greenwood – England’s ‘forgotten’ manager

This month 40 years ago, Ron Greenwood was appointed England manager on a permanent basis. It was a reign in which positives were achieved and the side’s exile from major tournaments ended, but he would struggle to capture the hearts of the English nation after landing a role many people wanted Brian Clough to be given…

Whenever a photograph appears on social media of either Brian Clough or the England team in the 1970s or 1980s, there’s a fair chance someone will pipe up that Clough should have been England manager and they would have won the World Cup with him at the helm. It is one of English football’s great ‘what if?’ moments, the Football Association in December 1977 opting to select caretaker manager Ron Greenwood instead of Clough for the permanent position. Greenwood had moved upstairs at West Ham United three years earlier, but the England role would allow him to return to his natural habitat of the training ground and impart his vast football knowledge. He remained in the position until retiring after the 1982 World Cup.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Clough’s non-appointment, Greenwood’s credentials in the eyes of the FA hierarchy were understandable. He believed in football being played the right way, holding a Corinthian-like philosophy that the manner of performance should come before the need to win at any cost. He had a good knowledge of foreign sides and had gained some insight into international football management during a previous spell with the England under-23s, while he had been appointed to FIFA’s technical committees for the 1966 and 1970 World Cups.

He had proved himself in Europe as a manager by winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup with West Ham in 1965 and he took indirect credit for England’s 1966 triumph by helping develop the careers of Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Bobby Moore (some of England’s goals during the tournament seemed to come straight from the West Ham training ground, most notably Hurst’s winner against Argentina from a cross by Peters). Although it was not ideal that Greenwood had not been a team manager for three years, the spell upstairs at Upton Park meant he would adjust more naturally to the day-to-day routine of the England job than most other contenders.

And, significantly, he had a natural diplomacy about him, something that would count in his favour ahead of the outspoken Clough. Greenwood was more likely to be able to form a cordial relationship with FA chairman Sir Harold Thompson – a man widely branded an ‘autocrat’ – than Revie had or Clough would be likely to. The Football League secretary Alan Hardaker give a perceptive analysis of Greenwood’s character when he said: “He is not a ‘yes’ man and he has the character to disagree with someone without falling out with them.”

While he wasn’t an FA insider, Greenwood had long been on their radar and he rejected the chance to pursue the England manager’s role when Walter Winterbottom departed in 1962 as he believed it had come too soon for him. Now though it was a mutually attractive position, a chance to take on the most coveted – but challenging – manager’s job in the country. He understood the pressures that came with it. Asked on one occasion who he was answerable to as England manager, Greenwood replied: “Nobody – except the nation.”

After Don Revie’s exit, the FA would naturally seek someone they could trust. In the same way that Manchester United could feel pretty confident that Dave Sexton’s personal life was unlikely to cause them acute embarrassment like predecessor Tommy Docherty’s just had, so the FA could rest easy that with Greenwood there would be no acrimonious parting as there had just been with Revie. And, crucially, Greenwood was keen to help overhaul the England coaching set-up, helping nurture potential successors.

Not Brian Clough

The basic fact he wasn’t Clough, the people’s choice, would forever make it difficult for Greenwood to capture the public imagination and shake off the perception that he was the safe rather than sexy option. While his death in 2006 did not pass unnoticed, there did not seem to be anything like the same widespread mourning as when his successor Sir Bobby Robson died in 2009.

The largely excellent BBC documentary Three Lions afforded him only the briefest of mentions when virtually all other England managers in the 1966 to 2000 era received far more attention. The docudrama Tina & Bobby shown earlier this year on ITV portrayed Greenwood as neither likeable or patriotic, coming across as a joyless West Ham boss who was obstructive to Moore’s career hopes and expressed little pleasure for him after he played such a major part in England’s 1966 triumph. A reference in the show to Greenwood by his familiar footballing nickname of ‘Reverend Ron’ seemed to be made disparagingly rather than in recognition of how he preached the football gospel. The recent publication of Gary Jordan’s thorough account of England’s 1982 World Cup campaign provided a proper and deserved retrospective look at Greenwood’s reign, but little else has been written that extensively assesses his years at the helm.

But while he may not have been regarded as a man of the people during his England reign, most who knew Greenwood would recognise his qualities and find him an affable man who had both a pleasant manner and a depth of footballing knowledge. “To listen to him talk about football was both a pleasure and an education,” wrote BBC commentator Barry Davies in his autobiography. Greenwood perhaps didn’t display quite the level of overt patriotism of successor Robson or have his infectious personality, but there is little doubt he wanted England to succeed during his reign and, like Glenn Hoddle two decades later, sought to achieve it in a stylish manner. His approach was certainly welcomed by the players if Trevor Brooking’s autobiography is anything to go by, as he wrote: “Even today, England players of that era will tell you how much they thought of him. The Liverpool lads of the time were playing for the best, most successful club in Europe and they thought he was terrific to work with.”

It may not have ended in glory, but there were high points too and Greenwood got England back to major tournaments after a lengthy and painful absence. He was not some insular Englishman who just wanted to play the same way as many teams did in the Football League every week, instead crafting a reputation at West Ham for playing attractive football and learning from great foreign sides such as the celebrated Hungarians in the mid-1950s. He was essentially a football man rather than a celebrity and unlike Clough he was not likely to be in demand to appear in front of the wider audience on shows such as Parkinson. But within the game his views and ideas were highly respected. As with Ramsey before him he was a player’s manager.

Yet somehow as England manager he never seemed to quite register in the public consciousness in the same way that many of his predecessors and successors have. He generally kept a lower profile than others and once he retired he kept out of the way, apart from working as a radio summariser for a time. “It was a great shame that he was lost to the game after his five-year reign as England manager,” reflected Brooking, the one man to play extensively under Greenwood for both club and country.

With the exception of Sir Alf Ramsey, most England reigns are primarily defined by how they end. For Robson and Terry Venables it was heroic failure after reaching the semi-finals of a major tournament and losing only on penalties; for others such as Graham Taylor, Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson it would be amid what was regarded as national humiliation; and for the likes of Hoddle, Revie and Sam Allardyce there would be a messy divorce. For Greenwood it was none of those things. His retirement in 1982 was amicable and he left amid neither national joy or humiliation at the World Cup in Spain. He had realistically reached par, England effectively back as quarter-final losers like so often before and since – except they wouldn’t actually lose…

A goalkeeping dilemma

Some of Greenwood’s England team selections attracted criticism, most notably over his indecision over who the better goalkeeper was between Ray Clemence and Peter Shilton. It was an embarrassment of riches and he would have taken flack for whoever he kept out of the side, but he decided the best option was to have the pair sharing duties with neither emerging as outright number one until he finally selected Shilton for the whole of the 1982 World Cup. In some respects the policy was a sensible solution to an unusual problem, but to critics it was a sign of a man who couldn’t make up his mind and it would not really satisfy the wishes of either goalkeeper as they sat out half the matches. Clough was absolutely adamant that Greenwood should have made Shilton his number one.

By contrast Greenwood was limited in his central defensive options, to the extent that midfielder Bryan Robson had to be deployed there against Brazil in 1981. There was also the dilemma of Hoddle, whose debut goal against Bulgaria in 1979 led to him being hailed as a new star for England. But the perception of the midfielder as an enigma wouldn’t go away and Greenwood controversially seemed reluctant to make him a regular, as Hoddle had to be content with being a bit-part player as others such as Terry McDermott, Graham Rix and Ray Wilkins were picked in midfield. He wasn’t the only promising midfielder to feel frustration over Greenwood’s selections, as Robson was left out of the 1980 European Championship squad (although he became a regular after that).

To critics, Greenwood was very loyal to his ‘Dad’s Army’ squad containing a high number of experienced players. But Greenwood did allow youngster Kenny Sansom to establish himself as regular left-back, while he saw the benefits of the emergence of black players in the English game – having earlier given Clyde Best his chance at West Ham – as Viv Anderson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis were all handed their England debuts. “Yellow, purple or black. If they’re good enough I’ll pick them,” he declared ahead of Anderson winning his first cap against Czechoslovakia in 1978. Times were changing, but no black player would ultimately make appearances for England at the 1982 World Cup.

Greenwood showed some boldness in his selections, particularly early on when he selected six Liverpool players – plus Kevin Keegan who had just left – for his debut friendly against Switzerland. He would show age was no barrier as he recalled Ian Callaghan after an 11-year absence for that match and later called-up the uncapped 34-year-old Billy Bonds for the aforementioned game against Brazil (injury would cruelly deny him his opportunity). In his third and final game as caretaker boss against Italy in a World Cup qualifier, Greenwood showed an attacking intent by selecting two natural wingers in Peter Barnes and Steve Coppell. Although England’s 2-0 win was insufficient to make the finals, the night restored national pride and helped his prospects of getting the job full-time.

Back in the big time

As Greenwood won the race to become permanent manager, he faced the task of finally getting them back into major tournaments – let alone trying to win them. Although things were perhaps not quite so desperate as they seemed at the time – they had narrowly finished second in qualifying groups to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Italy who each went on to have lengthy runs in the respective tournaments – it was not considered anywhere near good enough for a nation which had won the World Cup as recently as 1966. Youngsters were growing up having yet to see England grace a major tournament and the side was stuck in the international football wilderness. Revie’s reign had initially brought much hope, but it became an increasingly unhappy marriage as he struggled to replicate both the spirit and success of his Leeds United years.

But now a great opportunity fell England’s way under Greenwood, as they were handed a fortuitous qualifying draw for the 1980 European Championship. It was grabbed with both hands, England dropping just one point as they qualified emphatically for the eight-team finals in Italy. It wasn’t the World Cup, but simply qualifying for a major tournament represented a big step forward for the nation after a bleak period. Expectation was initially high, but it soon vanished as England’s fate was sealed just two games in after a draw with Belgium and defeat to Italy. Greenwood had the misfortune to be in charge during a period when international football deviated from the more conventional tournament formats, as out in Italy the group winners would go straight through to the final which meant English hopes ended before their third group game when they would ordinarily have stayed intact (as it turned out they only finished third in the group despite beating Spain).

It was a forgettable tournament characterised by dull football and low crowds, with England’s campaign unfortunately mainly remembered for the outbreak of hooliganism on the terraces during the draw with Belgium (Greenwood pictured above with his players as the match was temporarily halted). Greenwood had gained a good insight into some of the less desirable elements among England’s travelling support as trouble flared away to Luxembourg in his second game in caretaker charge in 1977, but this incident in Turin was viewed across Europe and represented a new low point for the nation. One can only imagine how Clough would have dealt with it, but even for the normally diplomatic and restrained Greenwood the violence left him at breaking point. He fumed: “We have done everything to create the right impression here, then these bastards let you down.”

The following year brought more deplorable hooliganism when England visited Switzerland, on a black night as Greenwood’s side lost 2-1 to leave their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup in the balance. The side was experiencing a dreadful 1981, criticism was pouring in and for Greenwood it was hassle he could do without. He decided he was going to retire after the following week’s daunting qualifier away to Hungary, when England delivered a much-improved display to win 3-1 and stay in contention.

He announced on the flight home he was calling it a day, only to be talked out of it by his senior players – perhaps illustrating the respect he was held in by the squad. He must have regretted that U-turn when his side suffered a “hell of a beating” in Norway in September and all looked lost, before Rev Ron’s prayers were answered as other results went his way and a win over Hungary a week after his 60th birthday meant he would be leading England at a World Cup. In typical Greenwood fashion he quietly made his way to the dressing room while the players celebrated out on the field. His months of planning for the following summer in Spain would begin immediately.

Bowing out in Spain

The 1982 World Cup was going to be Greenwood’s last act before retirement, the tournament representing a natural parting point. At 60 he was younger when leaving the England job than Allardyce and Hodgson would be when they later arrived in the role, but for him it was time to call it a day and going after the finals would allow him to bow out gracefully – and with the hope of delivering a major success story at the end of his managerial career.

The side’s preparations weren’t helped by injuries to Brooking and Kevin Keegan – two men who had been central to Greenwood’s plans. But despite both players being on the treatment table, England delivered with an assured display in beating a highly-rated France side in the opening game and followed it up by defeating Czechoslovakia and Kuwait. After such a fraught qualifying campaign that had initially yielded little optimism for the finals, England were suddenly being talked about as potential winners. And then things would go wrong. The 1982 World Cup uniquely included a second phase containing four groups of three teams, with only the winners advancing to the semi-finals. It was brutal and, despite finishing as first round group winners, England ended up in a tough section with West Germany and hosts Spain. If they were lucky to qualify in the first place – a qualification that owed much to the expansion to 24 teams and then Switzerland digging England out of a hole by beating Romania – and then be seeded for the first round, then they were most definitely unlucky to land a second phase group like this when runners-up France were paired with Austria and Northern Ireland.

Greenwood had long preached his purist beliefs about how to play, rather than how to win, going on record as saying: “I cared more about the purity and finer values of football than I did about winning for winning’s sake – and if that is a sin then I am a sinner. Football should be about taking risks.” And yet the game against West Germany seemed to go against everything he stood for, as England played out a cagey 0-0 draw that smacked of a fear of losing rather than a belief they could win. The tournament format undeniably affected the mindset as neither side could afford to lose, but those who knew Greenwood well from West Ham found it hard to reconcile that this would be his favoured approach in any game. Brooking and ITV pundit John Bond were among those to speculate how much influence Greenwood’s assistant Don Howe – a well-respected coach, but not renowned as an attacking purist – was being allowed to exert tactically.

West Germany’s 2-1 win over Spain meant England went into their decisive game against the already-eliminated hosts needing to win and score at least twice to remain in the tournament. Criticism would again be aired about England’s approach in a game when they needed to go for it, but they still might have done enough to go through if Brooking and Keegan – both finally brought on after injury-plagued tournaments – had scored the chances that came their way. But a 0-0 draw represented an anti-climatic exit for England, who had started the competition so brightly but then faded into mediocrity. They returned home unbeaten, having conceded just one goal and certainly not disgraced themselves at their first World Cup finals for 12 years. But there would remain a nagging feeling that a great opportunity to go further had not been grasped. In major tournament matches Greenwood’s record of one defeat in eight games was impressive, but the side had ultimately paid for drawing games when they needed to win.

Davies summed up matters fairly succinctly when he wrote of Greenwood in his autobiography: “He had left his club position at West Ham much too soon, to give his protege John Lyall his chance. He came to the England helm a little too late and was probably too influenced by the eager, and from a fitness point of view too demanding, coach. Many players felt that Don Howe’s approach in training was more for a season’s start than a season’s end.” Would things have panned out any differently had Greenwood been given the job earlier? It’s possible, but we will never know.

Greenwood retired as neither a hero or villain, as someone who had got England back to major tournaments but hadn’t made at least the last four at them as hoped (he’s hardly alone in this). His handover was perhaps the most amicable there has been, with Robson having been entrusted to lead an England B side – although full caps were awarded – shortly before the finals in Iceland (the pair are pictured together below with Terry Venables). Greenwood accepted Robson’s invitation to meet in the build-up to the 1986 World Cup, willingly sharing his experiences of leading England at the tournament four years earlier.

Greenwood largely stayed in the background in later years and it would add to his status as a a ‘forgotten’ England manager – even though only two of his successors have been in the role for longer. In tributes after his death his footballing philosophy was lauded, but his England reign was recounted more as a moderate success. Brian Glanville wrote in Greenwood’s obituary in The Guardian: “It was an irony that he probably did more for the England team that won the 1966 World Cup by helping the development of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters than he did as manager in the 1982 World Cup in Spain.” His reign seemed to mainly be regarded as a solid, if unspectacular, work. Ivan Ponting in Greenwood’s obituary in The Independent described him as “having done an honourable and competent job without ever capturing the imagination of the public”.

Greenwood may not have been the darling of English football fans, but he commanded respect within the game for his beliefs and there were games which helped bring some of the old national pride back. Wins over Hungary in 1978 and Spain and Argentina in 1980 would rank among England’s most celebrated friendly displays in the last 50 years, while he successfully negotiated two full qualifying campaigns to get the team back at major tournaments. The win against France in England’s first game of the 1982 World Cup was impressive and it’s just a shame that momentum could not be carried through during the rest of the tournament. If it had, one suspects Greenwood would be remembered far more than he is by the English public. But his reign, like his overall football managerial career, should never be forgotten regardless.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

One thought on “Ron Greenwood – England’s ‘forgotten’ manager Leave a comment

  1. Ron had a great run for about a year and a half with an exciting 442 formation with Barnes and Coppell on the wings. But then he lost himself when he switched formation to some unsymmetrical thing with Barnes replaced with a striker, Keegan dropping back from being one of two strikers to being just behind two strikers.

    I think it was a qualifying match against Northern Ireland or Bulgaria when Woodcock and Francis played together up front and scored 3 or 4 between them that make him try to fit both of these plus Keegan into the team.

    He wedded himself to this unsymmetrical formation so much that Barnes and Laurie Cunningham were left out of the 1980 Euros squad, Coppell being the only genuine winger included.

    Ron finished up with a decent record but I can’t help thinking It could have all been so much better.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: