When George Raynor 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 the World Cup final.
Once upon a time, the Guinness Book of Records declared Raynor as the most successful international manager of all time. The Englishman racked up the accolades during his decade abroad and even achieved knighthood from King Gustav IV. But all he wanted was a chance to do the same in his home country.
Instead, there was nothing from the FA. The coach, who was one win away from lifting the most prestigious trophy of international football, became the manager at Skegness Town, a team of part-time footballers in the Midland League.
Perhaps coincidentally poetic, Skegness is located along the coast of the North Sea. And across the vast open waters is where Raynor achieved greatness in Sweden. One look at the horizon could remind him of his journey as a manager.
Raynor’s coaching career was put into the limelight when he joined the Swedish National Team. Raynor came to the job after the Swedish Football Association received a recommendation from the secretary of the Football Association in England, 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. Club coaches nowadays can take a season or longer to get things going, like Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. But as amateur footballers, the Swedish National Team did not practice together frequently enough develop new patterns of play. Raynor’s solution was to travel to each of the 12 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 of the modern day. 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 with four goals in the 7-2 victory.
Raynor continued to ride the momentum, going undefeated in his first 10 games 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 with a Stan Mortensen hat trick at Highbury, sending Sweden into a momentary crisis after losing their next friendly against the Dutch.
The two losses served to be a wake-up call for Sweden. Perhaps complacency got the better of them during their 10-match unbeaten run, but they bounced back to win their final friendly before the Olympics. As the torch was lit at the Empire Stadium a month later, the Swedes would bring out their fiery best and unleash it at the Games that were held in London.
In the single-elimination bracket, Sweden strung together a spectacular display across London and the south coast of England. Two minutes into their first match, Gunnar Nordahl scored his first of seven goals in the tournament. The Swedes started off on the right foot with a 3-0 clean sheet over Austria at White Hart Lane.
Three days later, Sweden put up the highest goal tally of the Games, defeating South Korea 12-0 in the quarter-final. Nordahl bagged four while Nils Carlsson scored a hat-trick in the dominating win at Selhurst Park. A 4-2 victory over Denmark in the semifinals pushed Sweden to 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.
Although not every country at the Games fielded their strongest possible squad, the 1948 Olympics remains as Sweden’s lone gold medal in a major tournament. Nevertheless, it looked to be the beginning of an era, one where yellow and blue would become synonymous with winning in the next decade. The golden age began with a gold medal.
Sweden’s triumph in the Olympics caught the gaze of a few onlookers, mainly from Italy. Professional clubs from the country’s top division wanted to bring key pieces of Sverige to bolster Serie A.
Team officials already made attempts to get to the players during the tournament. Offers of cash and cars were made to Raynor, hoping he would convince his players to make the move abroad. The coach refused, but the allure of playing the beautiful game professionally in another country proved to be too enticing to turn down.
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 their skills in front of a wider audience as more transfers were completed, but it left Raynor in a tough conundrum.
Sweden had a strict amateur-only policy when selecting players to represent the 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 were reworked. Raynor oversaw the laying of the groundwork for the whole country as they 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 in 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 had to be 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, Lennart Skoglund, and the rest of the World Cup squad were considerably younger than their Olympic counterparts as the average age of the team was lowered by two years.
Overcoming an early goal conceded in the seventh minute, Sweden powered back to win the first group match against Italy. Their second match was a 2-2 draw to Paraguay, but the results were enough to send Raynor and his players into the final group with Spain, Uruguay, and the hosts, Brazil.
Sweden were knocked out of championship 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 São Paulo hosted the consolation match between Sweden and Spain. The young amateurs overcame Telmo Zarra and the Spanish attack to earn the bronze medal.
Two years later, Raynor had assembled some of his veteran players with new recruits to take on the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. They reached the semifinal, but they were no match for the legendary Hungarian team that boasted the likes of Nándor Hidegkuti, Sándor Kocsis, and Ferenc Puskás. They 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 a lot 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 to adjust 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 their shape intact. Hungary was stifled from their usual powerhouse attack as Sweden held them to a 2-2 draw.
Of course, Raynor loved to share his ideas, to teach while learning simultaneously. He met with the English FA and Sir Walter Winterbottom to give them the key advice to overcome Hungary. However, England ignored the warnings and continued to play their brand of football. Ultimately, this led to England’s first international loss on home soil.
Sweden failed to qualify for the 1954 World Cup. Like the rest of his star players, Raynor made the move to Serie A to coach Juventus and Lazio.
Following his time in Italy, Raynor had a short stint at Coventry City in 1956 before Sweden came calling back for him. The 1958 World Cup would be hosted by the Swedes, and they needed Raynor back to put forth a strong performance.
Immediately, Raynor set out his plan to build his dream team. Travelling across the country like he did 10 years ago, he gave all his players personal training plans and instructions to get fit for the big occasion.
To achieve 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.
Sweden were fortunate to be placed in an easier group with Wales, Mexico, and a weakened Hungary without Puskás and Kocsis. The hosts finished at the top of their group to enter the knockout stage.
Quick passing and bursts of acceleration into the gaps on the flanks earned Sweden a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union in the quarter-final. Hamrin had his cross deflected toward his head as he knocked the ball past the wrong-footed goalkeeper, and a pass was delicately laid off for Agne Simonsson to roll home for the dagger.
Sweden faced a tough test in the semi-final, going up against the defending champions of 1954, West Germany. The Germans took the lead, but Skoglund equalized 10 minutes later with a shot toward the far post. The Swedes gained a huge advantage when Erich Juskowiak was sent off for a crunching tackle on Hamrin. Sweden never looked back as Gren and Hamrin added two more goals to send the host country to the final.
Raynor believed if his team were able to grab an early lead, they would be able to take the big prize home in the end. Captain Liedholm managed to do that in the fourth minute, but the day belonged to a 17-year-old phenom who famously went by the name of Pelé. The Brazilian legend became the youngest player to score in a World Cup final. The end of Sweden’s era marked the beginning of another. Sweden finished the tournament as runners-up, still their best finish at a major football event.
Going from the World Cup to a part-time squad on Burgh Road didn’t stop Raynor from using his usual methods of coaching. Like in Sweden, the coach kept 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 a foundation.
Raynor and this iteration of the Swedish National Team were half a century ahead of its time. Possibilities would be endless if he had access to the statistical analysis of the modern game. Perhaps Raynor would fit in well with types like Marcelo Bielsa who gave a PowerPoint presentation on what he and his team scouted about Derby County.
Rather than marvelling at his wonderful work, he tragically became an 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.