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A Prodigal Son, A Forgotten Man: Why Andre Villas-Boas Belongs At Spurs

Welcome home. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Welcome home. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Getty Images

It's July 4th, and Tottenham Hotspur have a new man in charge: André de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas, Andre Villas-Boas, AVB, 34 year-old erstwhile managerial wunderkind.

By now, we know the stories. We know about a teenage Andre engaging Sir Bobby Robson in a neighborly debate in Porto. We know how Robson gave Villas-Boas his first job. We know about his tutelage under Jose Mourinho, first at Porto, then at Chelsea, and finally at Inter. We know about his success at Academica and perfect year at Porto. And, of course, we know about his torrid time at Chelsea, his impossible mandate, his failure to rangle the Terrys and Lampards and Drogbas, his prickliness with the press, and his eventual sacking. And we know where he is now. He's here. He's with us. And what I want to suggest now is that here - at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club - is exactly where he belongs. Andre Villas-Boas is heir to the throne of a forgotten man. He is the prodigal son of Arthur Rowe.

To be frank, Spurs fans don't talk much about Arthur Rowe. Most of Spurs' managerial fawning is directed toward Bill Nicholson, and rightly so. Nicholson lead the '61 "Super Spurs" side to the famous first double, directing what in some minds might have been one of the greatest sides in England in the 20th century. The names on that team are legend: Danny Blanchflower, Cliff Jones, Terry Dyson, Dave Mackay. And yet, it was Arthur Rowe that convinced Blanchflower to choose Tottenham over Arsenal when he left Aston Villa in 1955. (That tale is well told by Martin Cloake in his article, "A Very English Visionary," in Issue Four of Jonathan Wilson's The Blizzard.) More to the point - and just as importantly - it was Arthur Rowe who translated former Spurs gaffer Peter McWilliam's training ground practices into what would become known as the "push and run."

When Rowe took the helm at THFC, just a few years after World War II, the team had been mired in the lower divisions. Under Rowe, Spurs played a style of football that one reporter described as "all worked out in triangles and squares and when the mechanism of it clicks at speed...with every pass played to the last refined inch on a drenched surface, there is simply no defence against it" (Cloake 60). If that description rings familiar, it should; this was one of the first accounts of what would become known as "the Spurs way" of playing. This was thrown into even starker contrast by the rest of the English footballing world, home of the "route one" style, where teams lump the ball from the back toward waiting forwards. This style of play was epitomized, no less, by that lot down the road: Arsenal.

While the rest of England punted hopeful balls toward the attacking end, Arthur Rowe's Spurs teams were playing short, accurate passes, moving into space to better receive the ball and help keep possession. Rowe encouraged his players to "keep it simple, keep it accurate, keep it quick" (58). It was this style of play that won Spurs promotion to the First Division, and the next season, kept right on winning, eventually earning Tottenham Hotspur its first-ever English title.

In "A Truly English Visionary," Cloake notes that, before taking the job at Spurs, Arthur Rowe toured Hungary, lecturing as he went. In Hungary he found kindred spirits who were moving Continental football in a similar direction: towards an emphasis on possession, movement and accuracy. (This movement would result in the famous Hungarian World Cup side of 1954, a side, coincidentally, that beat England 7-1 in a pre-cup warm-up match in Budapest, which signaled, for many, the beginning of the decline of English dominance in football.) This brand of "coffee house football" pulled the focus away from grit, determination and directness and towards skill and thoughtful buildup play. Bill Nicholson's 1961 double-winning side would perfect Rowe's tactical vision. This was no mistake; as a Spurs player, Bill Nicholson cut his teeth under Arthur Rowe.

Here's where things get tricky. Rowe was never able to repeat his early success. He eventually suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, leading to electroshock therapy that, according to the reports of family members collected by Cloake, significantly lessened the man. Because he was retiring, reticent, seemingly unwilling to boast, and because one of his proteges would eventually shine so bright, Arthur Rowe isn't mentioned much in Spurs lore. He died in 1993, as Spurs were suffering through a particularly dark period in their history. He never had a testimonial match in his honor at White Hart Lane, a sleight felt deeply by some of his loved ones.

But the tactical genius of Arthur Rowe lived on; the concurrent growth of "push and run"-style football in England and on the Continent eventually made its way to Ajax where Rinus Michels would implement a system he called totaalvoetbal, or "Total Football," which had its roots in the passing and movement encouraged by Rowe and others on the continent, the same Ajax squad that would give rise to the first "total footballer": Johan Cruyff.

The rest reads like verses lifted out of Deuteronomy, a list of managers, players and coaching staff that went on to change world football and begat others to do the same: Cruyff, van Gaal, Robson, Mourinho, Guardiola, Rodgers, and yes, Villas-Boas. Which is why, when all the wreckage of the last year is discounted, and the worrying put to the side for a moment, it feels, at the base of things, a little bit right to have Andre Villas-Boas as head coach of Tottenham Hotspur. The lineage is mixed and mazy and the product of chance encounters, random meetings and a case of tactical convergent evolution, but a precocious soccer whiz has taken the reigns at Tottenham Hotspur, one of the places from whence his system of belief, if we can call it that, found its beginnings.

Arthur Rowe is, in a sporting sense, the ancestor of Andre Villas-Boas. His tactical genius helped pave the way for AVB and those who came before him. And now AVB has brought with him a style of play and organizational philosophy, with its high lines, emphasis on cycling the ball, short, accurate passes and attacking nous, traits that bears all the genetic markers of belonging in the same tree as Rowe's "push and run" sides. This return, such as it is, does not bring with it guarantees of success or glory. Far from it; whether you're for or against this appointment, we know there are no sure things in football, least of all managerial appointments. It could all go wrong. That said, I'm excited. I don't know if Andre Villas-Boas feels this way, but after the wilderness of the last few months, at least from this fan's point of view, his appointment to a position once held by Bill Nicholson and, before him, by the forgotten man - Arthur Rowe - has all the appearances of a prodigal son returning home.

Works Cited: Cloake, Martin. "A Very English Visionary: How the understated radicalism of Arthur Rowe defined Tottenham's style." The Blizzard. Issue 4. ed. Wilson, Jonathan. Sunderland: Blizzard Media Limited, March 2012.