Once upon a time, the Guinness Book of Records declared George Raynor as the most successful international manager of all time. The Englishman racked up the accolades during his decade abroad and even achieved a knighthood from King Gustav IV. But all he wanted was a chance to make his mark in his home country.
When he returned home to England after a decade mostly spent in Sweden, he expected the Football Association would be chomping at the bit to hire him as a manager. After all, nobody in the country had a CV like the coach who reached a World Cup final. Instead, there was nothing from the FA. The coach, who was one win away from lifting the most prestigious trophy in international football, became the manager at Skegness Town, a team of part-time footballers in the Midland League. Skegness is located along the coast of the North Sea, across the vast open waters from where Raynor achieved greatness in Sweden. One look at the horizon could remind him of his journey as a manager.
Raynor came to the Swedish national team job after the country’s Football Association received a recommendation from the secretary of the FA, Stanley Rous. Raynor had plied his trade in Iraq while training soldiers in the British Army. Rejected and ignored in England, Raynor set sail to implement innovative ideas that would be scoffed at by his peers at home. Sweden proved to be the ultimate sculpting clay, perfectly malleable for the Yorkshire-born coach to shape into his vision.
To build his system, Raynor knew that he needed time and commitment from his players and the Swedish selection committee; but as amateur footballers, the Swedish national players did not practice together frequently enough to develop new patterns of play. Raynor’s solution was to travel to each of the dozen clubs in the Allsvenskan, spending long periods of time in each town to train his players into new roles.
One of the new roles was the G-man, like a deep-lying centre-forward or a false-nine as we know in the modern game. Roaming around the pitch, the intent was to pull opponents out of positions to create holes to exploit. The plan worked against Switzerland’s resolute defence in Raynor’s first official match as the head coach, with Gunnar Gren on the left wing slicing through the Swiss and scoring four goals in a 7-2 victory.
Raynor continued to ride the wave of momentum and his team remained undefeated in his first ten games in charge, which included two 7-0 wins over their Finnish neighbours in 1946 and 1947. His first defeat came against his home country: England came away with a 4-2 victory at Highbury thanks to a Stan Mortensen hat trick. The loss sent Sweden into a momentary crisis and they also lost their next friendly game against the Dutch. Those two losses served as a wake-up call. Perhaps complacency had got the better of them during that long unbeaten run, but they bounced back to win their final friendly before the 1948 Olympics. As the torch was lit at the Empire Stadium in London a month later, the Swedes would bring their best form to the Olympic football tournament.
In the single-elimination bracket, Sweden strung together a succession of spectacular displays across London and the south coast of England. Gunnar Nordahl scored his first of seven goals in the tournament after just two minutes of their opening fixture, a 3-0 win over Austria at White Hart Lane.
Three days later the Swedes put up the biggest win of the Games, defeating South Korea 12-0 in the quarter-final at Selhurst Park. Nordahl bagged four while Nils Carlsson scored a hat-trick in the comprehensive win. A 4-2 victory over Denmark in the semi-finals put Sweden into the gold medal match against Yugoslavia. With 60,000 in attendance at Wembley, Nordahl and Gunnar Gren led their team to a spot at the top of a podium with a 3-1 win.
That 1948 win remains Sweden’s lone gold medal in an Olympic football tournament. It looked to be the beginning of an era, one in which yellow and blue would become synonymous with winning. The golden age began with a gold medal.
Sweden’s triumph in the Olympics caught the gaze of many an onlooker, mainly from Italy, where a number of clubs wanted to bring key members of the Sverige team to Serie A. Team officials had already made attempts to get to the players during the tournament and offers of cash and cars were made to Raynor, hoping he would convince his players to make the move abroad. The coach refused to allow access, but the allure of playing football professionally in another country proved to be too enticing for his players to turn down when the tournament was over.
Nordahl was the first to leave Sweden for AC Milan. Gren and Nils Liedholm soon followed him, forming the “Gre-No-Li” trio that dominated the Italian top division in the 1950s. Nordahl’s brothers, Knut and Bertil, also made moves to AS Roma and Atalanta respectively. Swedish talent would get to showcase its skills in front of a wider audience as more transfers were completed, but it gave Raynor a tough conundrum.
Sweden had a strict amateur-only policy when selecting players to represent their country. Those who moved away to play football professionally were now ineligible. Raynor had built the system, but he had no gears to get the machine running again. He effectively had to start over from scratch with new players. While winning the Olympics caused a mass exodus of players, the gold medal also left Sweden in a football frenzy. Skill development within schools was reworked and Raynor oversaw the laying of the groundwork for the whole country as it looked to develop young players to replace the stars that moved on.
With the help of local associations, Raynor received information and opinions on players from fellow coaches around the country. The sharing of ideas was encouraged, aiding Sweden’s selection committee in learning the best way to use new players and tactics. Eventually a new national side was born, along with a reserve side for promising youth who would in a few years potentially earn a place in the ‘A’ team.
Sweden won most of their games leading up to the 1950 FIFA World Cup, even during the transition period as young players were blooded in to be ready to travel to Brazil. Instead of Gre-No-Li leading the way, ‘Pal-Jep-Sko’ would take its place: Karl-Erik Palmér, Hasse Jeppson and Lennart Skoglund. These players and the rest of the World Cup squad were considerably younger than their Olympic counterparts as the average age of the team dropped by two years.
Overcoming an early goal conceded in the seventh minute, Sweden powered back to win the first group match at the 1950 World Cup against Italy. Their second match was a 2-2 draw with Paraguay and these results were good enough to send Raynor and his players into the final group with Spain, Uruguay and the hosts, Brazil. Sweden was knocked out of contention with a lopsided 7-1 loss to Brazil and a 3-2 defeat to Uruguay. Most of the world remembers Brazil’s heartbreaking loss in the gold-medal decider played in Rio de Janeiro, but Sweden was more focused on São Paulo and the consolation match played there against Spain. The young Swedish amateurs overcame Telmo Zarra and the Spanish attack to earn the bronze medal.
Two years later, Raynor had reassembled some veteran players to add to the new recruits for the challenge of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. His side reached the semi-final but was no match for the legendary Hungarian team that boasted the likes of Nándor Hidegkuti, Sándor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskás. Sweden bounced back from the 6-0 defeat to win another bronze medal when Ingvar Rydell and Gösta Löfgren bagged goals in the 2-0 victory over West Germany.
Raynor won plenty of silverware during his career as an international manager, but what made him and his Sweden team stand out was the ability to learn from past mistakes and make adjustments accordingly. Raynor was a meticulous manager who would study all players, his own and his opponents, to devise the ideal game plan.
Raynor recognized the influence Hidegkuti had in Hungary as he roamed around the pitch to create openings. For a 1953 friendly match played in Budapest, the coach solved the problem by instituting a zonal marking scheme where Hidegkuti would be marked in certain areas of the pitch but never followed to keep team shape intact. The powerhouse Hungarian forward line was stifled and Sweden came away with a 2-2 draw.
Of course Raynor loved to share his ideas, to teach while learning simultaneously. He met with the FA and Sir Walter Winterbottom to give them the key advice on how to overcome Hungary, but England ignored the warnings and continued to play their own brand of football. Hungary romped to a 6-3 win at Wembley.
Sweden failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup and like many of his star players, Raynor made the move to Serie A to coach Juventus and then Lazio. Following his time in Italy, Raynor had a short stint at Coventry City in 1956 before Sweden came calling once more. The 1958 World Cup would be hosted there and Raynor was viewed as the man capable of extracting the strong performance expected from a host nation team.
Raynor set out his plan to build his dream team. Travelling across the country like he had 10 years earlier, he gave all his players personal training plans and instructions on how to get fit for the tournament. To assemble the strongest possible team, Raynor convinced the Swedish FA to allow professional players back into the national setup. The three Nordahl brothers had retired, but Gren, Liedholm, Skoglund, and Kurt Hamrin made their return to the squad in time for the World Cup.
The Swedish team was fortunate to be placed in an easier group with Wales, Mexico and a weakened Hungary without Puskás and Kocsis. The hosts duly advanced to the knockout stage. Quick passing and bursts of acceleration into the spaces on the flanks earned Sweden a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union in the quarter-final: Hamrin knocked the ball past the wrong-footed goalkeeper for the opener and a pass was delicately laid off for Agne Simonsson to roll home the decisive second.
Sweden faced a tough test in the semi-final going up against the defending champions West Germany. The Germans took the lead, but Skoglund equalized 10 minutes later and the Swedes gained a huge advantage when Erich Juskowiak was sent off for a crunching tackle on Hamrin. Raynor’s team never looked back as Gren and Hamrin added two more goals to send the host nation into the final.
Raynor believed if his team was able to grab an early lead then it could hold on to win. Captain Liedholm managed to do that in the fourth minute, but the day belonged to a 17-year-old phenomena Pelé. Sweden finished the tournament as runners-up and this still represents their best-ever finish at a major football tournament.
Going from the World Cup to a part-time squad on Burgh Road, Skegness didn’t stop Raynor from implementing his usual coaching methods. The coach continued to keep dossiers on all his players, research that would help him identify the strengths and weaknesses of his team. Perhaps it was too intense for England. Maybe individual brilliance mattered more than foundation work.
Raynor and this iteration of the Swedish national team were years ahead of its time and possibilities would have been endless if he had access to the statistical analysis of the modern game. Rather than marvelling at his wonderful work, he tragically became a managerial outcast in England. But it was Raynor who managed to sneak in one final jab. The Skegness manager took a sabbatical to manage Sweden to a win over England at Wembley in 1959. Delivering yet another rare loss on home soil like the Hungarians did years ago, Raynor managed to uppercut the FA and Winterbottom in front of 72,000 fans.
If Raynor could stand on the sandy coastline of Skegness, he wouldn’t just be looking toward Sweden and Scandinavia. He would be looking at everything he won in a not-so-far-away land. And he’d stare across the distance proudly while wearing his yellow and blue Sverige tracksuit.