IT is with great sadness that West Bromwich Albion today announce the death of legendary right-back and one-time manager Don Howe, aged 80.
Local lad Howe made 379 appearances for the Club, scoring 19 times, during a 14-year spell at The Hawthorns.
He also played for Arsenal and won 23 caps for England.
Having helped Arsenal to the League and Cup double as a coach in 1971, Howe returned to Albion as manager, where he spent four years.
Howe spent a period as manager of Arsenal and assistant manager at Wimbledon when they won the 1988 FA Cup. He also coached England during the 1980s and 1990s, working with Sir Bobby Robson and later Terry Venables.
In 2004, he was named as one of West Bromwich Albion's 16 greatest players, in a poll organised as part of the Club's 125th anniversary celebrations.
Publications editor Dave Bowler looked back on Howe's career at The Hawthorns, both as a player and as manager.
THERE'S a silken thread – or, in our part of the world, a chain forged from iron links – that runs from the now to then, connecting us with who we were and what we are via where the distance we’ve travelled.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll see proof of that around your Christmas dinner table this week as the family gathers. The Albion is by necessity a broader church, and we’re not all going to get in your front room let’s face it, but as a collective, we are still bound by family ties that go back through the years, the games, the goals, the greats.
We have lost a link in that mighty chain today with the sad passing of Don Howe.
Don had two distinct Albion careers, bearing the twin masks of triumph as a player and then tragedy as a manager. It speaks much of his character that he treated those impostors the same and that Albion’s supporters revel in the one and have largely forgiven and forgotten the other.
It was extraordinary that in four seasons here as manager, Howe should not meet with success. He returned home to The Hawthorns after coaching Arsenal to the double in 1970/71 and with chairman Jim Gaunt’s exhortations about challenging for the title ringing in his ears.
On his first day in charge, Howe called a meeting of the players to tell them that together, they would make the blue and white stripes as famous as the all white shirts of Real Madrid. Too many changes made too quickly caught us out and relegation followed, as did his departure at the end of his contract in the spring of 1975.
Nobody could have worked harder, tried more earnestly, craved success more fervently for the Albion than Don did, but it somehow proved elusive.
Or did it?
A season later and we were promoted, three years on and we were beating Valencia. Much of that thrilling, cavalier football was built on the defensive foundations laid by Don Howe, turning Wile and Robertson into an impregnably clockwork unit. It was enhanced by the youth and vitality of Robson, Trewick, Statham, youngsters who came through the ranks in his time and benefited from Howe’s coaching genius.
Even veterans such as Tony Brown, years after Howe had gone, found himself scoring and creating goals and then stopping to think, “Don taught me to do that”. Howe’s role as the Godfather of that great side has long been under reported, mea culpa as much as any.
Timing is everything in life and, second time around at The Hawthorns, Don’s was out. But what a contrast that was to his spell here as a player, arriving at a university of the game, growing up in the wake of the celestial “Team of the Century” under the inspirational tutelage of Vic Buckingham who was willing to give new ideas the freest of rein.
Howe signed when he was just a schoolboy from Wolverhampton, joining as a boy in December 1950, signing professional two years later. He travelled into work on the bus and talked football incessantly with the likes of Johnnie Nicholls and Norman Heath, then after training, he joined the senior pros in a café in West Bromwich, soaking up ideas, listening, contributing, devouring football, football, football.
That Howe wasn’t simply a technically gifted player was quickly apparent. Here was a thinking footballer, one who could see the game in a different light to what had gone before, that would not be hidebound by convention but would, like all true visionaries, go his own way, do his own thing and prove, simply by trusting in his talent, that his way was the right way.
Howe has an unimpeachable hold on the title of the club’s greatest ever right-back. More than that, he is one of England’s greatest ever in that role for, in tandem with his contemporary, Jimmy Armfield, he simply reinvented the position.
From a world where the full-back was not allowed to venture beyond halfway, Howe blew those constraints wide open. As good a reader of the game as we’ve seen, with a supernatural sense of how to be in the right place at the right time, he was soundness itself at the back.
But that was merely a springboard for him to use his galloping pace to dart forward, going away on the overlap, drawing defenders away from Frank Griffin, or cutting inside to unleash a ferocious shot.
Football had changed over 30 years of course, but consider this. In his 495 game career, Jesse Pennington never scored for Albion. Howe scored 19 goals – only seven of which were penalties – in 116 games fewer. That in itself encapsulates the way Howe transformed his job.
With a footballing intellect on the Einsteinan scale, once elevated to the international scene Howe, encouraged by England boss Walter Winterbottom, was bitten by the coaching bug and became a doyen of the FA set up at Lilleshall, learning, teaching, exchanging ideas, developing tactics.
It fed into his football and even caused his Albion departure, falling out with manager Jimmy Hagan over his refusal to allow them to protect their muscles in icy training sessions by warming up in tracksuits.
It was an unedifying end, but it was also a perfect summation of the man. Years ahead of his time, he was not going to be cowed into doing what he knew to be wrong.
A man of principle and of vision, sometimes a prophet in the wilderness and a footballer of breathless magnificence. How English football could do with another Don Howe today.
Rest easy Don.