Arsenal legends fondly recall “best coach” Don Howe

Don Howe, Arsenal manager

Don Howe, Arsenal manager - Credit: EMPICS Sport

Frank McLintock tells the story so well. In 1967, Arsenal manager Bertie Mee had allowed his popular coach Dave Sexton to leave and the squad, led by McLintock, were mutinous.

His replacement, Don Howe, was having none of it.

“We all loved Dave so we sulked. But after 10 days – and I will never forget this – we were running around the red cinder track at Highbury when Don halted the session and tore a strip off the whole squad.

“He told us to ****ing snap out of it or ****ing leave! It jolted us back into reality. Don was as good, if not better, than Dave as a coach and as a man. And that’s saying something.”

Howe passed away last Wednesday, aged 80. His death hit the club – and football – harder than most.

England head coach Roy Hodgson described him as a coach of “my generation”. Howe was king of the coaches at a time when British football was blessed with many.

“The best coach in the world – not just England – the world,” added Paul Merson.

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Don’s playing career effectively ended on a crisp March day in 1966 against Blackpool at Highbury, after a sickening leg break.

As a coach, his passion and outstanding tactical intelligence was a major influence on the 1971 Double winning side. “The players loved him,” said McLintock.

He left for West Brom a year later but returned to Highbury via Galatasaray as Terry Neill’s No 2 in time for the 1979 FA Cup success, managing the club between 1984 and 1986 and developing young talent such as David Rocastle, Tony Adams, Niall Quinn and Martin Keown.

He was also a key member of England’s coaching team when the national side reached the semi finals of Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 – the national team’s best performances since 1966 (which he attended as a fan, throwing his crutches into the air when Geoff Hurst made it 4-2).

Don’s departure from Arsenal in March 1986 rankled, particularly the way the club courted Barcelona’s Terry Venables behind his back. Howe felt let down and a little humiliated – not that he would speak ill of the club he had grown to love.

“He held a normal press conference after a game – we had no inkling he was off – then as he walked out he whispered to me ‘I’m leaving’,” former football journalist Harry Harris told me. “Don was a great man – a great man, with great integrity and dignity. He showed it that day.”

Two years later, as former Gunner Bobby Gould’s No2, he helped guide Wimbledon to FA Cup success. He moved on to manage QPR and Coventry but returned to Arsenal in the mid ‘90s, leading the club’s young guns to FA Youth Cup wins in 2000 and 2001.

Steve Sidwell, Jay Simpson and Ashley Cole were just three of many who benefitted from his tutelage.

In his later years, I was fortunate enough to work closely with him on a column we wrote together for Arsenal. The hours I spent listening to his wise counsel were magical, his insights a revelation. And they were hours. Don never tired of talking football. We talked about our families, raising children, growing old, queues at Waitrose, the cost of his Sky TV package, cricket.

But it was mainly football. And it was a privilege.

His patriotism never dimmed: “We’ve got the best headers of the ball in the world – always have, always will,” he told me on the eve of the 2010 World Cup.

While his body was slowing down, it appeared his footballing brain would go on forever. But in recent years poor health saw him fall out of the public eye, spending his days at his Hertfordshire home with loving wife Pauline, making occasional trips to the club’s training ground.

I learned of his death just moments before speaking to Malcolm Macdonald, who enjoyed three highly productive years at Highbury before injury prematurely ended his career too in 1979.

“He was the best coach I ever worked with,” said an emotional Macdonald. “And you will hear that over and over again.”

Don was not just Arsenal to the core, he was football to the core.

His first club, West Bromwich Albion got it spot on: “How English football could do with another Don Howe today.”

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