From Iraq to Skegness via Juventus: the story of George Raynor, the first Englishman to reach the World Cup final

From Iraq to Skegness via Juventus: the story of George Raynor, the first Englishman to reach the World Cup final

Stockholm, 1958. Four minutes and seven seconds into the World Cup final. Nils Liedholm steers around one defender, then another. The space opens up. He prods towards the goalkeeper’s bottom right. Goal. Sweden 1-0 Brazil. 

For five psychedelic minutes, Swedish fans could dream of being champions of the world – and on home soil too. On the touchline stood George Raynor, Sweden manager, on and off, from 1946 to 1961 and the first Englishman to reach a World Cup final, a full eight years before Alf Ramsey in 1966. 

International tournament football can be a misleading litmus test for judging a manager’s ability – Sunderland fans can attest to that. Five or six games once every few years is hardly a reliable sample size. But Sweden’s glorious run to the final in 1958 was no flash in the pan. At the 1950 World Cup, when the tournament was still decided by a round-robin, the Blågult finished third behind only Uruguay and Brazil. 

Two years earlier they won gold at the London Olympic Games. Four years after that they managed bronze in Helsinki, beaten only by the mind-meltingly good Hungary side of Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás. Though he never won a World Cup, Raynor can therefore stake a genuine claim to be the most successful English international manager there has ever been. Based on consistency, it wouldn’t be too outlandish to place him among the best international managers of all time. 

But while he is rightly deified in Scandinavia, he is at best a peripheral figure in the historical canon of the English game. A baffling injustice, not only because of his remarkable achievements with the Swedish national team but also because of the Homeric odyssey that was his career in the club game. Throughout 25 years as a manager, the Yorkshireman built a CV so varied it almost puts C.B Fry to shame; from Iraq to Skegness via Juventus, Raynor’s story is far from your usual tale of the managerial merry-go-round. His globetrotting was born not out of wanderlust, but out of conflict, necessity and genius. 

After being dispatched to the Middle East in the Second World War, Raynor – who played football to a reasonable standard for a handful of Football League clubs – worked as a physical training instructor, ensuring troops were fighting fit before entering combat with the Ninth Army. While stationed in Basra, word was handed down to Raynor that Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, wanted to form the country’s first national football team. Raynor would be the man to take the reins.

Seven years before they were first recognised by FIFA, Raynor was paid the equivalent of £30 a week to manage the first Iraq XI. The side, made up of students and army officers from Baghdad, played matches against Polish and English military teams as well as a number of friendlies in nearby Lebanon and Syria.

Read  |  Nils Liedholm: the Swede who conquered calcio

In 1944, an exhibition match in Beirut was abandoned after it sparked a riot which killed eight and injured a further 200. In his excellent biography of Raynor, Ashley Hyne records that, when asked about the catastrophe many years later, the manager rather sardonically replied: “That was my introduction to big-time football.” It would also turn out to be the making of him as a coach.  

After the war’s end, Raynor returned to England. In his pocket, he carried a letter of recommendation from al-Said. That letter helped him form a relationship with Stanley Rous, then secretary of the Football Association. Rous and Raynor were of a similar vintage in that both believed in the power of coaching to shape the future of the English game. While to the modern reader this opinion will hardly sound revolutionary, it was not one shared by a famously myopic English footballing hierarchy at the time. 

Raynor briefly coached Aldershot’s reserve side before being let go in 1946. Out of a job, he was told by Rous of an opportunity in Scandinavia, where coaching was not the contemptible pursuit it was back in Blighty. Although he would manage the team, intermittently, for over 15 years, the Sweden position was originally only offered to Raynor on a temporary basis. Nepotism got him the job; glory kept him in it.

The Olympic victory in 1948 was his first real triumph. The London games were the first global football tournament since the end of the war, meaning the gold medal hung slightly heavier from the necks of the Swedish victors. They scored 22 goals in four matches, although this figure was admittedly bolstered by a 12-0 victory over South Korea in the quarter-finals. Their squad contained the three Nordahl brothers: Gunnar, Bertil and Knut. Gunnar Nordahl was a fireman, Bertil a mechanic and Knut a policeman – unlike most of Europe, football remained an amateur game in Sweden until 1956. 

Gunnar scored in the final too, his seventh of the tournament. In fact, the only game in which he failed to get on the scoresheet was the 4-2 semi-final win over Denmark, but still he made the headlines. The official Olympic report recalls that “as his team attacked, Nordahl realised he was offside and so, as the laws allowed, he jumped into the opposition’s team goal and so removed himself from the field of play. A moment, later teammate Henry Carlsson scored with a header, and Nordahl actually caught the ball before it hit the net.”

In the final, Sweden overcame Yugoslavia 3-1 in a Wembley showpiece stained by nauseatingly excessive unpleasantries. In his autobiography Football Ambassador at Large, Raynor recorded his confrontation with a member of the Yugoslavian staff at the full-time whistle: “He spat straight in my face and said, ‘ah, English referee, English coach. Communist [he said, thumbing his own chest]. It is bribery.”‘ Before bodily fluids were flung in anger, Johan Gunnar Gren also got in on the goals, scoring twice either side of Nordahl’s penalty. 

Later that summer, Gunnar would join AC Milan. He was soon joined by Gunnar Gren – who also scored in the 1948 final – and Liedholm in the 1949/50 season. Together, they formed a revered tripartite forward line, going on to win the Scudetto twice. The became known affectionately as the “Gre-No-Li”. Bertil and Knut Nordahl also followed them to Italy, joining Atalanta and Roma respectively.

Read  |  Gunnar Nordahl: the first great calcio import

But while his squad’s move on mass to Italy reinforced the fact that Raynor was doing a superb job, it also proved to be his and Sweden’s downfall in subsequent years. Sweden remained stubbornly amateur, and as soon as a player signed a professional contract, it was the end of his international career. When Gunnar Nordahl scored all five goals in Sweden’s 5-3 win over Norway in the now-defunct Nordic Championship, it would have been bittersweet for Raynor. With AC Milan scouts in the stands, they would be the last goals the centre-forward scored for his country. Nordahl finished his international career with a remarkable record: played 33, scored 43.

By this time, Raynor was balancing his national team duties with commitments at club level. The Swedish FA had asked Raynor to help improve the standard of the Allsvenskan and toward that end, he started working with Gothenburg-based GAIS, one of the country’s oldest clubs. His first venture into club management was disappointing and, after a less than a year in charge, he would relocate to Stockholm to take charge of AIK. Raynor, riding a wave of optimism since the Olympic triumph, won the Swedish Cup twice in successive years before turning his attention to the World Cup in 1950. 

Though the authorities would try to spin it that way, Sweden’s good showing in Brazil was in spite of their refusal to accept professionalism, not because of it. Of Raynor’s 22-man squad, 14 were players who had not featured at all in London two years earlier. There was no Gre-No-Li. Gunnar Andersson, the 22-year-old who would go on to be Marseille’s all-time top scorer, was absent too. So was Henry Carlsson, a Primera División champion with Atlético Madrid at the end of the 1949/50 campaign. 

Raynor had been in charge of Sweden for four years. His side was instilled with English grit and discipline, but also with a continental verve and technical excellence which would have seemed alien to many of his contemporaries across the North Sea. In their opening match, Sweden beat Italy 3-2; it was the reigning champions’ first loss at a World Cup – and it came against a team of amateurs. As the Swedes had lost their best players to the opulence of calcio, the win took on an added significance. 

The footage from that day is grainy, but even through the black and white blur, one can see a Swedish team speeding the ball about the pitch with an efficiency uncharacteristic of 1950s football. There was a theatricality in their play, but certainly no frivolity – Raynor’s side were as comfortable with the long ball as they were with an intricate passing game. 

In their second match, a 2-2 draw with Paraguay saw Raynor’s side through to the final group stage where they would face Brazil, Uruguay and Spain. In front of nearly 140,000 at the Maracanã, Sweden were whipped 7-1 by the hosts. There was no shame in it; the same team had scored 46 goals in eight matches at the previous year’s South American Championships.

Sweden’s slender hopes of becoming world champions were ended by a 3-2 loss to Uruguay four days later. At the same time as Brazil were losing to Uruguay in the decisive match, Sweden beat Spain 3-1 in what’s fair to say was a less historically important fixture, but one which meant they finished in third place, thus making them highest-ranking European team at the tournament.

Read  |  Vic Buckingham: the Englishman history forgot

Raynor’s next two years were spent working as a coach for Åtvidaberg in the Swedish second division. More pressing, however, was dealing, once again, with the loss of the best of his Sweden team. Ten players from the 1950 squad moved abroad to turn professional in the weeks and months after the tournament. In the case of Nacka Skoglund, one of Sweden’s best performers in Brazil, Inter reached a deal to secure the winger’s services before Uruguay had even lifted the Jules Rimet trophy.

At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the only players to have represented Sweden at the 1948 games in London were Erik Nilsson and Kalle Svensson. And yet Raynor, deprived of a generational squad by Sweden’s commitment to amateurism, still managed to lead his team to a bronze medal.

They put four past Scandinavian rivals Norway before three goals in the closing ten minutes against Austria saw them through to the semi-finals. But, like in 1950, Sweden lost by a six-goal margin to an extraordinary side – this time it was Hungary. It was at the tournament in 1952 that the Magical Magyars, already on a two-year unbeaten run, announced themselves as the best team in the world. Sweden beat Germany 2-0 in the bronze medal match. 

Categorically, the Olympic campaign was a success; in three successive international tournaments, Raynor’s side had finished first, third and third again, all with a team of unpaid footballers. Had the manager been able to call on the likes of Gre-No-Li, the Nordahl brothers, Henry Carlsson and Gunnar Andersson in all three tournaments, Sweden’s football history might be a little more decorated. As it happened, the Helsinki games were the beginning of an unfruitful six years, for Sweden and for Raynor. 

There was, however, one more moment in the sun. In 1953, Kurt Hamrin, Raynor’s right-winger and great friend, was a crossbar’s width away from ending the great Hungary side’s four-year unbeaten run. Just ten days later, the same Hungary team beat England 6-3 in the “Match of the Century”.

The Yorkshireman’s expectation-defying feats had not gone unnoticed in the club game and in 1954, Raynor was appointed as manager of Juventus, a job for which he resigned from his post as manager of the Sweden national team, much to the dismay of his adoring public. 

His Italian adventure was brief and ill-fated in equal measure. In Turin, Raynor lasted only until October when, trailing league leaders AC Milan by five points, he was shipped out to bottom of the league Lazio. Raynor managed to turn the tide at the club, leading them to a mid-table finish despite being frustrated by meetings about meetings, bribery and deception which, at the time, were as ingrained into Italian football culture just as much as Catenaccio. 

Read  |  How Pelé, at just 17, dominated the 1958 World Cup final

In the same season, Sweden – now under new management – failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup, winning just one of their four qualifying matches. The amateurs’ downfall was the catalyst for the introduction of professionalism into the Swedish game and, in many ways, the key reason for Sweden’s success in the 1958 World Cup. While it was too late for Gunnar Nordahl and Gunnar Gren, Liedholm returned to the team, as did Lennart Skoglund, Bengt Gustavsson and Arne Selmosson. Sweden were no longer plucky, unpaid over-achievers but a genuine tour de force. But something was missing. 

Raynor returned to his spiritual home in Sweden in March 1957 after, in what was a remarkable step-down, an 11-month stretch with third-tier Coventry, first as Jesse Carver’s assistant and then as manager after Carver’s dramatic exit to Italy. Raynor had never made a secret of his ambitions to manage in his homeland, but his ideas were not well received. Conservative to the core, England always looks towards an ideal past rather than an ideal future. Raynor was an ideas man, and ideas don’t become reality overnight. At the helm of a side whose hierarchy demanded immediate success, he was destined to fail

Raynor was still incredibly well respected in Sweden and, with a home World Cup just around the corner, he was warmly received on his return to the national team setup. When he finalised his squad for the tournament, it had an average age of nearly 29 – one of the oldest squads ever seen in the competition. Raynor had worked hard to assemble it too, having first had to convince the Swedish FA to let him pick Italian-based players and then the convince the clubs themselves to release the players in question. 

Sweden sauntered through the group stages, inflicting a measure of revenge on Hungary for 1952 in the process. A Hamrin deuce secured victory over a side that, admittedly, weren’t the dominant force they had been throughout most of the 1950s. The Fiorentina forward also bagged in the 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the quarter-final, then again in the 3-1 semi-final win over reigning champions West Germany.

Tor-Björn Andersson called Sweden ’58 the first proper World Cup and the last idyllic one. It was the first truly global edition of the tournament, with each of the four qualifying groups containing a South American, Eastern European, Western European and a British team – no Asian or African countries qualified in 1958.

The Swedish authorities made a concerted effort to bring football to towns and venues which, in the modern era, could never dream of hosting World Cup football. In stark contrast to modern editions, the tournament was largely non-politicised. There was also the bombastic emergence of a 17-year-old Pelé. 

Almost twice as old as the Brazilian teenager was Liedholm, the man who opened the scoring in the final. Had the scores stated that way, history might remember Raynor in a manner that befits his astonishing career. Instead, Pelé and Vavá ran rampage, finishing 5-2. The Seleção won their first World Cup; a great Sweden team became a footnote.

Raynor, the first Englishman to reach a World Cup final, next found work at non-league Skegness Town. He retired not long after, knighted in Sweden but barely remembered in England.

By Adam Williams

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