Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game
Written by Rory Smith, a football writer for The Times, this is a fascinating and relatively unknown story or collection of ‘stories’; packed with anecdotes, this book will introduce you to an eccentric bunch of characters who have all managed football teams abroad.
Learn of men like Fred Pentland, a former Blackburn Rovers player, who spent a long time as a prisoner of war in WW1. After the war, Pentland became one of Atletico Bilbao’s greatest managers and has since been regarded as one of football’s trail-blazers.
England has, the book argues, not only given the beautiful game to the world, it has supplied the world with the coaches capable of creating teams good enough to beat England at their own game.
Each folder is two or three inches thick. They are filled with yellowing pages, turned dry and brittle by time, bound with frayed, fragile string and placed between non-descript cardboard covers. Leafing through leaves a fine film of dust and newsprint on your fingers; after a while, the small, neat print turns into a haze in front of your eyes.
The stories in Mister span more than a century, from the playing days of Steve Bloomer – the David Beckham of the 1890s – right up to the sacking of Gary Neville at Valencia, in the spring of 2016. They criss-cross the globe, too: tracing the lives of the men who taught the world to play required accessing archives in Colombia and talking to people on Skype in Laos; the ancient and the modern, across oceans and time-zones.
Each one required a slightly different treatment; each one was its own unique puzzle. Two of the characters featured – Alan Rogers and Harry Game – are still alive; I was fortunate enough to be able to hear of their adventures first-hand.
For Jack Greenwell, I drew not only on archive material in Spain but from the version of his story passed down through his family to his grand-daughter, Doris. Piecing it together felt like working on a cold case, taking what Doris had been told and checking it against the contemporary accounts. Doris came to feel like a friend; so, for that matter, did Jack, though he died in 1942.
Several of the stories, though, were contained within those yellowing pages. The British Library holds a copy of almost every newspaper printed in Britain. They are organised by publication, six months or a year of each paper gathered together in one of those folders, two or three inches thick, an edition for every day or every week. Each folder, each year, each page is a treasure trove.
There is, presumably, some devastatingly efficient way of tackling such a daunting resource. One used by experienced, guileful writers, determined not to waste a second of what is always a fraught, slightly desperate process. If there is, it was not disclosed to me. So, for much of the first two months of summer, as the sun bleached London, I sat in the Reading Room at the British Library, methodically turning every page, reading every edition of All Sports Weekly and the Athletic News, from 1910 on to the mid 1930s, a prospector sifting for gold.
And there is gold, in great quantities, recorded by but lost to history. So much, in fact, that what might have been a laborious process became a wonderfully uplifting one.
Not simply because of the stories that helped piece together the lives of the men I was investigating: the fervent, increasingly furious letters sent by Jimmy Hogan, that great coaching evangelist, to the Athletic News explaining in great detail why English football would soon be caught and overtaken by the continentals; the couple of paragraphs explaining what had happened to Greenwell at the start of the Spanish Civil War; the mention of William Garbutt, the father of Italian football, midway through a match report of England’s encounter with Italy at the Battle of Highbury.
Not even because of the occasional find that solved a mystery for me. Fred Pentland, for example, is a famous figure in Spanish football: he was coach at Athletic Bilbao, a beloved and enormously popular one, and helped establish that club as one of the most important in the country. He had also been a prisoner of war, incarcerated at Ruhleben, just outside Berlin, for the duration of the First World War. Beyond that, though, his early life was only documented in the most cursory of sketches; his playing career, with Reading and Arsenal and Blackburn, barely commented on.
And then, in the folder containing All Sports Weekly from 1921, a page turned and there was “It Ain’t All Lavender,” a serialised autobiography he had written for the paper. Over the course of six or seven weeks, he explained not only where he had been and what he had done until that point – he was coaching at Spain, even then – but why he had done so, and offered a few choice thoughts on a number of pressing football issues from the day, too. Pentland’s name had been remembered, but his voice had been long forgotten. Here he was, speaking, his own story in his own words, from 100 years ago.
No, the greatest pleasure of all was a totally unexpected one. Each of those folders, each of those editions, is a little window through time, a privileged chance to see what football was thinking and feeling in its early years. Poring through all of those pages was always going to take a long time. It took much longer because there was so much else to be distracted by.
The adverts for cigarettes were expected; the adverts for doctors telling you how bad smoking was less so. The transfer gossip was rather more refined in its language, but no less fevered in its intent, than it is today. The pieces fretting over whether referees were up to scratch, or whether the offside law was too lenient, or whether defensive football was ruining the spectacle and whether the idea of fair play was dying: it was all so fascinatingly familiar.
The sensation, after a while, was that football has never really changed. Everything we talk about now, they were talking about then. It has always elicited the same emotions from those who adore it.
My favourite, though, the one I spent longest marvelling over, was a piece by Pentland himself on what football might look like 100 years from now: in 2021, in other words. At first glance, it was the stuff of science fiction: personalised Zeppelins, an audience on the moon.
Away from the fantasy, though, was a remarkable prescience: he wrote about a competition pitting the best of Europe against each other, three decades before anyone thought of the European Cup, and predicted all-seater stadia, with advertising rampant. He saw clearly, a century ago, what the game would become. In those folders, on those brittle and dry pages, his voice can be heard.
Mister: The Men Who Taught The World How To Beat England At Their Own Game is out now in hardback.