An 80th birthday tribute to Don Howe
ASK Don Howe what are the three key ingredients for a long and successful career in the beautiful game, and the answer is very straightforward. Education, education, education.
That attitude should come as no surprise given Howe carved out a reputation for himself as one of the most forward thinking and successful coaches in the English game over the thirty or more since he hung up his boots following a fearful injury picked up in his time at Arsenal.
Howe’s name has become synonymous with the Gunners down the years, but he’s no less a Hawthorns hero than a Highbury one, having worn the blue and white stripes with as much distinction as anyone in 379 appearances in league and cup games, adding 23 England caps to that tally, making him Albion’s second most capped Englishman behind the peerless Jesse Pennington, another full-back of supreme ability.
The irony is that while Don made his name as one of the top Baggies of all time, his career really should havestarted down the road in Staffordshire given the nature and location of his upbringing.
“I grew up as a Wolves fan because I lived there, I went to school there and I played for Wolverhampton schoolboys. We used to train at the Molineux, which was one of the perks of being in that team, every Wednesday afternoon.
“I was a Wolves fan until I got offered a job at West Brom on the groundstaff and then my allegiance changed! I worked at that job until I was 17 and then I was offered a professional contract by Albion.”
Don was one of the early commuters, taking a comparatively short, but sometimes time consuming journey across the Black Country. But it was that journey which began his real schooling in the footballing arts.
“I travelled back and forth every day on the bus and I quite enjoyed that, because I was usually with Johnnie Nicholls who lived in Wednesfield, so we caught the 90 bus to West Brom, then the 75 to The Hawthorns. Norman Heath got the same buses and we used to talk football and that was an education, you pick things up from them. It started once we’d finished training.
“We’d get the bus into West Brom, stop and have a cup of coffee, and then get the bus home. In this little coffee shop, there’d be six or seven of us, Joe Kennedy, Derek Kevan lots of the lads, and it was a great talking shop which players miss these days I think, because they get in the car and go their separate ways. We went upstairs on the bus and talked football!”
Initially of course, Howe was not part of the first team set-up, slowly working his way through the ranks towards a first team debut on August 24 1955, against Everton, the day Derek Kevan made his Albion bow.
“In my early days we used to have eight teams, two in the Erdington Albion Leagues, another in the West Midlands league, one in the Birmingham Combination, and you used to have to work your way through the levels to get to the top. It wasn’t easy. We’d play Saturday morning, then come back to watch the games Saturday afternoon – we had jobs to do as well, but we could watch them play, be in the dressing rooms, and it was amazing how much that helped your education.”
Once in the side, Howe became pretty much a regular, no mean feat in that glittering Albion side of the time. “They were good times, top six team, played some great football. But we were rebuilding a bit as well, and that ended up with us bringing in one player who became a great mate of mine.
“At the time, Fulham had three great players, Johnny Haynes, Bedford Jezzard who was a goalscorer, and Bobby Robson, and they were getting all the publicity, and players talked about them, then suddenly one day, we signed Bobby Robson. I was right-back, he played right-half, and we became very big friends, hit if off well. We enjoyed playing together, talking about the game, Bobby loved talking football, just as I did.
“And we were part of a new side with Maurice Setters, Derek Kevan, Alec Jackson, building again after the 1954 team. Ronnie Allen was still there of course, and Ray Barlow who was a very big influence on my career, they both passed things down, which was the way it was at the good clubs then.
“But just because it was a different era, you mustn’t think things were behind the times, because West Brom in particular was a very advanced club in the 1950s. I was lucky that we had good coaches, good managers.
“Jesse Carver was the first, he’d been in Italy at Roma, a Geordie but he’d learned about the game abroad, and then there was Vic Buckingham, who was influenced by Arthur Rowe from the push and run school at Spurs, so I grew up being taught how to play proper football by them and by the senior pros, who were great with me.
“I was one of the first overlapping full-backs in England. Vic Buckingham encouraged me to do it because it had been part of the Spurs style with Alf Ramsey, but that was the exception. You never went forward, it was looked on as madness, you didn’t know how to play.
“But TV came in, we saw continental full-backs going down the line and crossing the ball and it opened people’s eyes but people like myself, Angus at Burnley, Jimmy Armfield, we were the first who really attacked, and I was lucky that West Brom encouraged it – other clubs might have stopped me, “We don’t do that here!”
“Albion had outstanding players when you compared them with other clubs and football was controlled by the midlands clubs then, especially Albion and Wolves, though Villa won the cup as well and Birmingham did ok. But this was the heartland and we were a big part of that because we were open to ideas from abroad and it was a very interesting club to be at.
“That meant the likes of myself and Bobby were in the limelight and won caps. I came through the under-23 set-up, started with Duncan Edwards, Ronnie Clayton and we moved up to get full caps. When we went to London to play and I got on the train to go down there, I was with Billy Wright, Ron Flowers, Bill Slater, so again there was a lot of mixing and talking, changing ideas of how you did things back home. I became big friends with Billy Wright, great player, Jimmy Mullen and Ron Flowers too.”
One way or another, Don was associated with the England team for the better part of 40 years, but nothing matched the momentous occasionswhen he pulled on the white shirt and represent your country on the field of play.
“It was a great thrill to play for England, among these wonderful players who’d you heard about on the radio or in the press, blokes like Stan Matthews, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse. It was terrific to be about these top notch players.
“Before my first game I went down for lunch and looked round the table and Matthews was here! Gee whiz, unbelievable. Then Tom Finney walked in. Well, you can imagine! They were Gods to me.
“We stayed at Hendon Hall, went to Wembley, and it probably was more stimulating than players find it today, because we were all a bit more naïve then, life was more innocent perhaps, no TV, it was all something new and exciting. They were things you never thought could happen – I never dreamed as a kid that I’d play for England and then suddenly it happens, something from your wildest dreams.
“There were times standing at Wembley when they played the national anthems, I’d be shivering like mad, I couldn’t keep still, and you couldn’t control it until the game was underway. It was trilling and frightening. It took a few times at Wembley before the nerves went.
“Looking back, amazing things happened to me. Billy Wright got his 100th cap at Wembley, against Scotland I think it was, and at the end Ronnie Clayton came across and said “Don, let’s carry him off.” So we put him on our shoulders and carried him off the pitch. I look at the photo and I think, “How did that happen. I was just an ordinary kid from Wolverhampton and suddenly I’m walking off at Wembley with the greatest player I’d ever thought about on my shoulders!”
“That sense of wonder has gone these days I think, and I’ve got a feeling it’s because everyone has everything, there’s no awe, they’ve done it all, there’s a matter of factness about it, so many big games, internationals, Champions League and all these things.”
Joining up with England offered another turning point in Howe’s career, offering up a mentor in the form of the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, a man about whom he still enthuses.
“Walter was a great man, started many good things off, opened us up to continental football, told everyone that if we didn’t get a grip, bring new things in, that we’d fall behind, which we did. He’d warned us about it, and then the Hungarians and then Real Madrid came along and showed us how to play.
“Walter knew what was coming but we were stuck in the old WM formation, the old fashioned styles. Managers wouldn’t listen and we suffered for years as a result. He was very forward in his thinking and he was a big influence on me and Bobby Robson, and many others from that era, he encouraged a lot of us to take courses, go into coaching after playing. He always said it would help your game too, and it did.”
Just as Robson left Albion for London in 1962, so too did Don a couple of years later, beginning his lengthy association with Arsenal in an effort to revitalise his career at the age of 29. He returned here as manager in 1971, but that’s another story for another day…