Obituary: Donald Howe, footballer, coach and manager

Born: 12 October, 1935, in Wolverhampton. Died: 23 December, 2015, aged 80.

Don Howe (left), footballer, coach and manager who saw notable success at Arsenal and West Brom. Picture: Getty Images
Don Howe (left), footballer, coach and manager who saw notable success at Arsenal and West Brom. Picture: Getty Images

With the death of Don Howe, English football has lost a truly innovative and pioneering coach. During a long and distinguished career, mostly associated with West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal, having played and managed both, and playing for England, he helped Arsenal win the “Double” in 1971, master-minded Wimbledon’s shock 1998 FA Cup win over Liverpool (pictured right, Howe with Terry Phelan and manager Bobby Gould) and worked with three England managers, including Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables; a near constant in a famously turbulent job.

As a player, the tall, blond Black Country defender was a revelation in an era when most defenders would not venture past the half-way line and relied on brute force. Howe, an attacking full-back versed in the art and craft of negating an opposing winger, was thoughtful and perceptive and had a knack of initiating positive attacks in and around the opposition’s penalty box; he would have excelled in the modern game.

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Over four decades, Howe worked with several generations of footballers and was known for his inspirational man-management and “sharing the players’ sadness, anger and excitement.” Free of ego, he was genuinely revered within the football community, among players, managers and coaches, and perhaps the ultimate tribute came from the club where it all began, West Brom, with the last line of their statement reading, “How English football could do with another Don Howe today.”

Born in the Springfield area of Wolverhampton in 1935, Donald Howe was educated at St Peter’s Collegiate (Secondary) School. His first breakthrough came, aged 17, when he secured his first professional contract with First Division West Bromwich Albion, making his debut at right-back three years later in the autumn of 1955. While playing 342 matches and scoring 17 goals for the club over 12 years, he also made his England debut, in a home international against Wales, at the age of 22. He went on to gain 23 international caps between 1957 and 1959, which included the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where he played every game and England narrowly lost out on a quarter-final place after defeat in a play-off against the Soviet Union. Shortly after, he lost his place to Blackpool’s Jimmy Armfield.

In April 1964, Billy Wright, former England captain and team-mate, by then Arsenal manager, persuaded Howe to switch clubs; he did and became the domestic game’s most expensive full-back, costing £42,000. After 70 league appearances as captain, in 1966 Howe broke his leg and never played in the first team again. Fortunately, his former England manager, Walter Winterbottom, had convinced him to prepare for such a time, and thus over the years Howe had completed his coaching badges at Lilleshall, the Football Association’s training centre in Shropshire.

Howe moved straight to the backroom staff at Arsenal, becoming chief coach under Bertie Mee, formerly an outstanding physiotherapist. With the departure of Dave Sexton in late 1967, Howe stepped up to the No 2 position and was an instrumental figure in Arsenal’s first silverware in 17 years, the European Fairs Cup in 1970. He then helped Arsenal secure the 1971 league and cup double – only the second time in the 20th century that the coveted double had been achieved. Former player and manager George Graham observed that Ar­senal’s triumph was “due to the organisation of Don”.

With success came opportunities and Howe was offered the manager’s job at West Brom. He had four seasons there, but his team were relegated from the First Division in his second campaign, and he failed to get them back up again. He was always philosophical about success and failure: “It’s the old story; if you win a football match, you’re a hero, if you lose, you’re a mug.”

He then worked briefly at Leeds Utd as coach under Armfield, before spending a year managing top Turkish side Galatasaray. In 1977, after an unhappy few years, he was lured back to Arsenal as head coach under his former Gunners team-mate Terry Neill. Over the next three seasons, Howe coached the team, and players like Liam Brady and David O’Leary, to three consecutive FA Cup finals between 1978 and 1980, but only won one, the extraordinary 3-2 victory over Man Utd. They also lost, on penalties, the 1980 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final to Valencia.

Howe was also working concurrently on a part-time basis as coach with England manager Ron Greenwood having been brought into stiffen a shaky defence for the 1982 World Cup; when Greenwood departed, his successor, Bobby Robson, retained him.

With top six finishes but no genuine title challenge, Howe replaced his friend at the Ar­senal helm and although Arsenal were always in the top half of the division, he resigned after three years amidst speculation that he was to replaced. A warm and generous character, while there, he helped nurture the likes of Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Niall Quinn and Martin Keown, who all became internationals.

After a brief sojourn with the Saudi Arabian national team, he returned to coaching in 1987 and joined Bobby Gould’s unfashionable “crazy gang”, Wimbledon, who were now a top flight club. Gould later admitted persuading Howe to coach at his club was akin to asking Miss World for a dance.

Howe devised the plan to defeat a far more talented Liverpool side in the famous 1988 FA Cup Final. The plan was to stifle Liverpool’s creative threats and prey on their slight vulnerability at set pieces. They focused on using Dennis Wise’s gifts with a dead ball, and Lawrie Sanchez headed in the decisive goal. Goalkeeper, Dave Beasant was also well-versed in John Aldridge’s penalty technique – it paid dividends as he saved his spot kick on the day.

Between 1989 and 1991, Howe managed First Division QPR before being replaced by Gerry Francis. However, more significantly, during this tenure, he was also an important part of Robson’s management team at the Italia 1990 World Cup finals, where England missed out on an appearance in the final only by virtue of losing a penalty shoot-out to West Germany. As many remember, like Gary Lineker, thanks partly to Howe’s input, it was England’s most successful tournament since they won the World Cup in 1966.

Howe returned to Wimbledon for another brief coaching spell in 1991, then led Coventry City as they escaped narrowly from relegation with the Premier League era on the horizon. With a few health problems developing, Howe made the conscious decision to stay in the capital spending part of the 1992-3 season coaching at Chelsea, but left after suffering heart problems.

In 1995, he decided to have one last hurrah after accepting Terry Venables’ offer to become England’s technical co-ordinator; he played an integral role in England reaching the semi-finals of Euro ‘96, where England again went down to Germany on penalties.

The following summer, he entered his third and final spell at Arsenal, joining as head youth-team coach, where he passed on his wisdom to a new generation of Gunners. After six successful seasons, he went into semi-retirement in 2003, aged 67, to become a coaching consultant.

In more recent years, he wrote a column in the Daily Telegraph called “Talking Tactics” and was generous with his time and advice to anyone seeking enlightenment from aspiring managers to journalists and supporters.

Sometimes accused of being dour, particularly as manager at Arsenal, Howe responded, “I’m a defending coach, not a defensive coach.”

Trusted and admired by all who knew him, he was described as “a man of the people and a prince among coaches”; one thing is certain, as a master strategist with great insight into the game, particularly in terms of defence, he was one of the best coaches Britain has ever produced.