Great Football League Teams 32: Tottenham Hotspur 1949-50
It somehow feels appropriate that this article is appearing in the week after Spurs’ 5-2 bubble bursting against Arsenal. For supporters who have traditionally had to rely more on the past to supply the “glory, glory” than the present, this season has been a bit of a trial for Spurs fans (bear with me, please). There has been something unsettling about the way that Harry Redknapp’s team have steamrollered supposedly lesser sides. Games that should have exposed Spurs’ Achilles’ heel have been brushed aside with a combination of pace and resilience that had stalwarts wondering if this can be the same set of players and coaches who have presided over dispiriting 0-1 defeats to Wolves and Wigan at home last year. Even the traditional unsticking on the proverbial wet Tuesday (actually a sunny Sunday) in Stoke came with a sense of injustice that was, for once, justified.
Just when hope that there would be no St. Totteringham’s Day in 2012 began to turn to expectation, along came Sunday’s tactical, temperamental and technical brain-fart to set legs a-quiver once again. So, as a dog returns to his vomit, so does the Spurs fan return to the past, looking for reassurance that playing exciting football, winning league titles, and being Tottenham Hotspur Football Club are not mutually exclusive.
My first thought, when thinking of Spurs’ best Football League seasons, was to profile the 1977-78 team that gained promotion back to the First Division after relegation the year before. That team included Ralph Coates, Steve Perryman and Glenn Hoddle, and bore the bones of the side that was to boast Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa the following year. However, Hoddle aside, that team hasn’t gone down particularly well in the collective memory of the season ticket holders I polled: ‘workmanlike’ was probably the most complimentary phrase used.
So it is that, to my shame as a Spurs fan, I rather stumbled on one of the most innovative and exciting teams in the club’s – and arguably the Football League’s – history: Arthur Rowe’s 1949–50 Second Division champions. Rowe, who had made over 200 appearances at centre-half for the club in the 1930s, joined an underachieving team that had failed to gain promotion in three previous seasons under former Arsenal striker Joe Hulme’s guidance. Rowe’s coaching career had begun in 1939, and after a four year stint as manager at Chelmsford City he took the reins in May 1949.
Fascinatingly, Rowe had spent some time coaching in Hungary before returning to England joining the army in 1939. Perhaps it was in Budapest where he developed the tactic of the “wall pass” or “push and run” system, where a player, on passing the ball to a team mate, immediately runs into space to take the first time return ball. It’s testament to the system that this technique has become so ingrained into football at every level of the game (except, perhaps, for England Internationals), that it’s lost its original nomenclature.
The Hungary link is tantalising, as it’s not clear (from my research anyway, and I would love to hear more about this) whether Rowe had the idea for “push and run” himself and took it to Hungary, or whether he discovered it already being developed there and applied it. This is significant of course, because the poster children for “push and run” are the Magical Magyars of the 1950s – rightly one of the most celebrated teams in football history. It’s clear what Rowe’s family think: Graham Rowe, Arthur’s son, wrote to the Financial Times in 2006, saying that Rowe’s Spurs teams had been playing the same short passing game that the Hungarians showed off at Wembley in 1953 since 1949. “The Hungarians did not “invent” the beautiful version of the game,” said Rowe Jr “If anyone “invented” it, it was my father” .
Whatever the provenance of the tactic, Spurs certainly profited from using it, winning the Second Division at a canter.
Rowe’s only major addition to the side for the 1949-50 season was fullback Alf Ramsey, purchased for £21,000 from Southampton. By contrast the more celebrated double winning side of 1960-61 was assembled at far greater expense, even allowing for the inflation of intervening years. Ramsey lent solidity, accurate passing and calm penalty taking to a team not under-stocked with talent; it is to Rowe’s credit, and evidence for the effectiveness of the system, that he managed to transform what was largely the same side that had finished 5th in 1948-49 into league winners with five games to spare.
However, Ramsey was by no means the only star: the squad (such as it was a squad: 11 players made over 35 league appearances, with the seven other players used averaging less than 4 games each) also included inside forward Eddie Baily, who won 9 England caps (and scored 5 goals), Les Medley, whose 18 goals from left wing were emblematic of the fluidity of “push and run” , and powerful centre forward Len Duquemin, whose industry made up for a comparative lack of flair, but which was perfectly suited to a system that required constant movement.
The team’s fulcrum was Ron Burgess, who was a tireless left half known for his willingness to attack and, like Duquemin, for his energy. It’s significant that so many of Rowe’s team have been characterised for their calmness, their energy, and their dynamism. Compared to contemporary tactics, “push and run” demanded almost constant movement and switching of positions, especially in attack. Gourmands of the modern game have been by the sleek interchanging of Barcelona’s midfield positions between Iniesta, Xavi, Messi et al – if only English football had embedded Rowe’s system at a fundamental level, we might not now be trying to reprogramme 60 years of imagined long-ball heritage.
Spurs’ new style of play proved irresistible – they started the season with a pair of 4-1 victories against Brentford and Plymouth, and embarked on a 23 game unbeaten run between 3rd September and 28th February, including a 5-0 thrashing of Bradford City and a 7-0 demolition of Sheffield United. Home gates approached, and often exceeded 60,000. The title was secured against Preston, whereupon the team put their feet up, losing 4 of 5 in the run in. Largely the same team then won the First Division at the first attempt.
The legacy of the 1949-50 team is hard to underestimate, regardless of whether Arthur Rowe invented, or adopted “push and run”. It laid a key foundation stone in Spurs’ identity, committing (some cynics would say condemning) the team to exciting, attacking football. It’s no coincidence that that season also brought together a team that contained a remarkable collection of future managerial talent: as well as Ramsey and Burgess, it also featured Bill Nicholson, arguably Spurs’ best ever. Back to back titles confirmed that beautiful football could be allied to success, and Spurs. Here’s hoping it’s still true.
*I’m indebted to Bob Goodwin’s fantastic “Spurs: A Complete Record” for much of the information in this piece.