Trying to bring success to Arsenal throughout the wilderness years of the late 1950s and 1960s was arguably the toughest managerial assignment in football. The former Arsenal goalkeeper George Swindin – who’d forged a fine reputation as an up-and-coming manager at lower-division Peterborough in the mid-1950s – took over at Highbury in 1958. He reflected, “I tried all sorts of new combinations on the pitch, and experimented with new systems, but I was always some way from the right mix.”

Swindin embraced the progressive tactics that were espoused by his assistant manager and first-team coach Ron Greenwood. A journeyman defender with Bradford Park Avenue, Brentford, Chelsea and Fulham, Greenwood subsequently coached at Eastbourne United and Oxford University and the England Youth team. In December 1957, he moved to Highbury, where he would later declare himself to be “utterly horrified with the pedestrian and backward nature of Arsenal’s training methods.”

For Greenwood – who was there at Wembley in November 1953 – the England v Hungary game proved an epiphany: “It showed beyond all doubt that football can be a game of beauty and intelligence, a lovely art as well as a muscular science.” In his 1984 autobiography Yours Sincerely, Greenwood – a Chelsea player at the time of the Wembley defeat – spoke of how he quickly became “entranced” by Hungary’s approach to the game. Whether it was Ferenc Puskás “flicking the ball up a couple of times, catching it with his instep and returning it to the [centre] spot” or the pace with which the Hungarians passed the ball – “They kept the ball on the ground and they fizzed it about” – Greenwood recalled shutting “everything else out and concentrating on the play”.

Most bewitching of all for Greenwood was Hungary’s remarkable exploitation of “space, how to make it and how to use it… The man with the ball always had good, simple alternatives and one reason for this was the fact that they were not hide-bound by numbers. Their players were free agents.” Greenwood pointed out that many teams attempted to copy Hungary’s use of triangular movements but, as he explained, this often proved an ineffective tactic because the triangles were static. Puskás and co deployed moving triangles, “so the size, angles and direction of their triangles were constantly changing”. Greenwood also noted that the Hungarians were adept at playing the ball to a marked man, “to give him the choice of pushing the ball back or trying to turn his opponent, something else we had not seen in those days.” 

Greenwood, whose coaching career lasted for over 25 years, later admitted that he’d “never witnessed any team, before or since, master the concept of space better than Hungary did that day.” Puskás “dictated the shape and pace of the game around him, and had an acute sense of the angles and distances on the pitch.” Kocsis, the Hungarian inside-right, “was brilliant in the air and had an almost other worldly sense of where others were on the pitch.” The midfield trio of Bozsik, Puskás and Hidegkuti were a formidable trio who “imposed themselves on a game, creating space, using it and promising to make the ball their personal possession.”

The defender remained captivated by the Magical Magyars for years afterwards, and devoted an entire chapter (entitled “Revelation”) to the England v Hungary game in his autobiography. He was obsessed by the concept of space, both in football and beyond. When he arrived at Highbury in late 1957, it had already been more than four years since Arsenal had last won a trophy. Greenwood accepted that he was none too popular with several of the players because the manager Jack Crayston gave him carte blanche to alter the training techniques and tinker with the team. He later suggested that his previous club Eastbourne was more technically advanced than the ailing Gunners. Arsenal, he claimed, were “set and stodgy in their playing ways”. The wing-halves Cliff Holton and Peter Goring had been banned from crossing the halfway line. The lively inside-forward Jimmy Bloomfield had been instructed to deliver long balls to the forwards. “It wasn’t playing to his strengths,” claimed Greenwood. He despaired at the brutal treatment meted out to the winger Joe Haverty in training sessions. “The club’s methods were unbelievably traditional. The past was always part of the present,” he admitted. “Long balls, square passing, not exploiting pace. It was monotonous. They were crippled by fear.” That was about to change, as Greenwood began to experiment with new routines. But not before he revealed to his new charges his fascination with the cosmos.

The space race was well underway. The Soviets had launched Sputnik 1 in October 1957 and four months later the first US satellite, Explorer 1, blasted into orbit. Greenwood was captivated. Cliff Holton, who Greenwood claimed was “sarcastic”, recalls the new coach discussing (or at least trying to) with the players “the possibility of life on other planets, and how none of us knew what lay out there in space”. Holton admitted to giving Greenwood “short shrift” on the subject. Peter Goring remembered the future West Ham boss bringing in a copy of Time magazine and speaking of how “within 15 years, an American or a Russian will walk on the moon. Imagine that. Space travel will open up our minds.” But not the Arsenal players’ minds, it appeared. While Greenwood spoke of the need for a more “systematic and scientific approach to coaching”, and deplored “the lack of education and intellectual curiosity amongst British footballers”, Goring claimed Greenwood’s “head was slightly in the clouds, like he wasn’t fully on earth.” Ultimately, that proved to be his undoing at Highbury, but not before Arsenal’s players, initially at least, lapped up his training techniques.

With Jack Crayston clinging onto his job by his fingertips, Arsenal were trailing Manchester United 3-0 at half-time in February 1958, before Greenwood reminded his team at the break to put into practice the work they’d completed on overlapping runs in training. “The side had been quaking in their boots, and reverted to type against United, knocking the ball long, which was meat and drink for United defenders,” explained Greenwood. “I insisted that they turn this around at the break, and they did.” His players, delivering pinpoint crosses and ripping down the wings, rallied superbly, narrowly losing 5-4 in the Busby Babes’ last match before the Munich air crash. Jimmy Bloomfield, who went on to manage an aesthetically pleasing Leicester City side in the early 1970s, reckoned, “If you could bottle what Ron delivered at half-time that day, you’d have the perfect team talk; inspirational and tactically astute.”

Greenwood introduced one-touch and two-touch training sessions. He deployed the use of shadow play in games, whereby players were drilled in the shape and layout of the team – minus the ball. He worked with goalkeeper Jack Kelsey (it was initially Kelsey’s idea) on honing the traditional defensive wall at free-kicks. Kelsey advocated the wall standing on one side of the goal, while he covered the other side. It was a tactic which Arsenal used at the start of the 1958-59 campaign, before other teams cottoned on to it by getting a player to shape to take the kick, run over the ball and be played in by the next player. “We had to ditch it,” admitted Kelsey, “but we liked the fact that Ron gave it a go.” There were “moving triangle” passing sessions, doubtless inspired by the Hungarians, and Greenwood even used radios and walkie-talkies in an attempt to vary training techniques. In 1958–59, Arsenal finished a much-improved third. Although they were 11 points behind the champions Wolves, there was genuine optimism that they could launch a title assault during the following campaign and counter the rising threat of their north London neighbours Tottenham, who were becoming a potent force under Bill Nicholson. “Their game was wonderful; quick, intelligent and adaptable. Beautiful to watch. I felt that all teams should aspire to play in such a beautiful way as Tottenham,” said Greenwood years later.

In August 1959, both Swindin and Greenwood were interviewed in the Observer. The interview was headed, “Space the secret.” Their comments appeared to usher in a new and forward-thinking era in Arsenal’s tactics. “We’ve got to change or be left behind,” explained Swindin. “We’ve thrown away the defensive concept. To attract the public the game has got to be entertaining and in football, goals are entertainment.” Naturally, Greenwood went on to discuss the Arsenal players’ use of space. “The halves must be the springboard of all your attacks. They must use all the space between them and the forwards so that by moving the ball intelligently they can dominate the field.” Swindin waxed lyrical about his coach, claiming, “Before Ron went to Highbury, David Herd had no conception of blind-side runs, and now he can sit behind us in the stand and see the entire position for laying on a blind side run before it is set up.” Swindin insisted that Arsenal’s youth sides were playing “superb one-touch football” and that Arsenal had evolved into “a team of thinkers”. To summarise, Greenwood concluded, “The secret of football is space-creating and using it – give and go all the time – there’s no other way of keeping the ball and making progress. But it must happen in the player’s brain.”

But the brave new world at Highbury never came to fruition. Geoff Strong recalled, “Ron quickly became too hypothetical. On one occasion he was talking to us about rotating positions and being clever without the ball. It got very, very technical and there just wasn’t the quality of player to run with what Ron said. Players kept being switched around too. It was chaos. I turned to young Gerry Ward and asked him if he grasped what Ron was trying to teach us. ‘Not a bloody clue,’ came Gerry’s response. We switched off when he spoke in the end. We felt that he was trying change too much. It got awkward. One of the directors told me that Ron ‘wasn’t an Arsenal man’ and that his days were numbered.”

Greenwood, who also served as England Under-23 manager during his time at Highbury, delivered lectures on the use of space on the football pitch throughout the country, but more earthly concerns began to scupper his plans in N5. He labelled Swindin “… impetuous. George will say anything to the press to create a headline, whereas I’m far more wary of which journalists I speak to.” There were concerns over injuries. In the 1960-61 campaign, Swindin and Greenwood used 30 players in the League and FA Cup, an unwieldy number whatever the injury situation at the club.

There was also the knotty problem of moulding the squad to fit the new tactics. Swindin’s final throw of the dice had been to sign George Eastham from Newcastle in December 1960 for a whopping £47,500, but he lost the striker David Herd who, with an average strike rate of a goal every other game, was one of the best – if most underrated – players in the First Division. Herd exercised footballers’ newly earned right to depart at the end of their contracts and went to Manchester United.

Eastham turned down Arsenal’s £30 per week offer in late 1961 only for the Arsenal manager to cave in and offer an improved deal. Swindin struggled to control events both on and off the pitch. Days after Tottenham completed the Double in 1961, Greenwood went to West Ham as manager and a year later Swindin was dismissed. The final straw for Greenwood, it seemed, had been Arsenal’s parsimony when they tried to lure Denis Law from Huddersfield: “The kind of system that I was aiming for at Arsenal required the purchase of top players, who were willing to think through the issues, and the board decided to be frugal and conservative when they could have landed Denis. It’s a decision they came to regret.”

So was this another in a catalogue of missed opportunities at Arsenal, a club with a historical penchant for advocating retrenchment and caution when a more expansive approach could have paid dividends? Swindin certainly felt aggrieved at the board’s reactive approach to a more monied era in the game, and failure to embrace a new approach on the playing side. “Ron and I wanted a more attractive game, more like Tottenham’s. Whenever I approached the board about signing new players who could play that style, they weren’t interested. They felt that sticking to tried and tested Arsenal methods was the way. One director told me, ‘Don’t take too much notice of what Tottenham are doing, George. We’ll do things the Arsenal way.’ They were bloody-minded about it.” 

Swindin himself claimed that Greenwood was “probably too technical for the average footballer at Arsenal back then,” but Greenwood’s tactical nous (Geoff Hurst later claimed that “Ron’s ideas on the game, in particular on passing and movement, were a revelation to us and turned us into a highly attractive team”) and insistence that his players exploited space on the football pitch to its maximum served West Ham United – and indirectly England – well in the mid-1960s. Many of the training ideas he espoused at Highbury were met with a far more receptive ear in East London as the Hammers won both the FA and Cup-Winners’ Cups.

In contrast, the sixties never swung at all for Arsenal, and the club went from bad to worse under Billy Wright. It wasn’t until the arrival of Dave Sexton at Highbury in 1966 as a coach under the new manager Bertie Mee that the club began to lay down the tactical blueprint of the pressing game and zonal marking which suited the group of players they had at the time and, crucially, fitted better with the club ethos of defensive solidity and tradition. Don Howe would later adapt Sexton’s system to great success as Arsenal won the Fairs Cup in 1970 (a year after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon – Greenwood was out by four years in his prediction) and the Double in 1971.

Arsenal’s dismal decade which preceded their short burst of glory could have taken an entirely different course if Ron Greenwood’s fascination with space exploration (in all its guises) had been treated in a rather more enlightened manner both among players and directors at Highbury in the early 1960s.