The legend of Willy Garbutt

Name us ten English coaches that have acheived success outside of the UK.  Did you get Willy Garbutt?  Well done you.  Here's Sam Lee on a true football revolutionary.

You may know that Notts County influenced Juventus' choice of shirt colour over a century ago and you might be aware that several Italian clubs, AC Milan included, were founded by British expatriates.  You may not be so familiar with one particular Englishman though, who shaped football management in Italy and is revered in the country to this day.

Born in Stockport in 1883, William ‘Willy’ Garbutt enjoyed a modest playing career with Reading, Woolwich Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers before retiring injured at the age of 29, and finding his way to the dockyards of Genoa.

Just months after setting up camp in northern Italy, Willy was appointed manager of Genoa Cricket and Football Club. How the decision came about, nobody is quite sure. Some say that Vittorio Pozzo, who would later steer Italy to two World Cup triumphs, recommended him after witnessing his playing career in England, while the other, more likely account suggests that Genoa's youth coach, Irishman Thomas Coggins, pushed for his appointment. However, while doubt remains as to why Garbutt’s recruitment came to be, his influence and impact on Italian football can never be questioned.

Willy restructured Genoa’s training routines to focus on players' individual fitness and tactics. He even insisted on the installation of hot showers in the dressing rooms, unprecedented in the country.  Nicknamed 'Mister' by players because of his image as a typical upstanding English gentleman (Willy was rarely seen without his tobacco pipe, and even refereed some of his side's friendlies), he is responsible for the coining of a popular term; many Italians still use 'Mister' to refer to all coaches even to this day.

But Willy is not famous simply because of a few training methods and a smoking habit.  In 1915, he guided Genoa to their seventh Championship, their first for 11 years. Having won the final round of the northern region title, Genoa would have to play off against the winners from the south, but, due to the outbreak of World War 1, no opponent was provided. The title was officially awarded to Garbutt’s team in 1919 after the war ended.

It was certainly no fluke. After a brief post-conflict rebuilding period for the club (five Genoa players were killed in action, as well one of the 'Fathers of Italian Football', James Richardson Spensley, the club's founder), Willy secured back-to-back titles. In 1922/23, Genoa beat Lazio 6-1 over two legs, and a year in the 1923/24 season, Savoia were beaten 4-1.

The third of those titles, the last time the club has won one to this day, heralded the award of the scudetto patch. To be displayed on the victors' shirts for the duration of the following season, the patch, still in use to this day, is a small shield featuring the colours of the Italian flag.

Garbutt left Genoa in 1927, when he was offered the chance of moving to the capital. Not to work for Lazio, who his Genoa side had dismantled some years previously, but to become the first ever manager of AS Roma.

In his two years at the newly founded club, Garbutt guided them to the Coppa CONI, an early form of the Coppa Italia, by beating Modena 2-1 in a play-off after the initial two-legged final was drawn.

From there Garbutt moved to Napoli where he spent six years in charge. Although he did not deliver any silverware, he guided Partenopei to two successive third-placed Serie A finishes towards the end of his tenure, heights that the club would not experience again until the 1960s.

His magical touch had not waned, however, and neither was it limited to Italy. In 1935, Garbutt moved to Spain where he took charge of Athletic Bilbao. Again, he proved a big hit and guided Athletic Club to their fourth La Liga title in his first season in charge, as well as the fiercely contested Basque Cup. Due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, no football was played in the following season and Willy moved back to Italy in 1937.

Garbutt briefly managed AC Milan, but left after less than a season before moving back to Genoa, where he stayed for three years. In the decade since he left for Rome, the club had struggled and were even relegated. But in Willy's first season back in charge, with the club back in Serie A, he guided Genoa to a third-placed finish.

Again, his time as manager was cut short due to the outbreak of war. As a British citizen, Garbutt was exiled under Benito Mussolini's fascists. Tragically and ironically, he was not forced out of the country before an Allied bomb could kill his wife, Anna.

After a brief stay in England, Garbutt returned to his adopted homeland after the war, where Genoa were yet again rebuilding. The now ageing Willy opted to manage the club once more, and was warmly received by the home crowd in his first game back, a 4-0 win over Brescia.

But that would be one of very few highlights in Garbutt’s third spell in charge of the club. Genoa finished the 1946-47 season joint 10th with Lazio, Internazionale and newly formed rivals Sampdoria, who did the double over Genoa in their inaugural season. Despite being visibly sick and exhausted, Willy decided to stay on for another season at the age of 65. The best his side could muster was a 12th-placed finish.

He retired from football in 1948, and returned to England three years later. Having spent only one year in his native land since 1912, Garbutt returned as an unknown despite his high profile, trail-blazing career in Europe.

Indeed, when he died in Warwick in 1964 not one English newspaper carried an obituary, while the Italian press covered his passing in detail.

A true footballing revolutionary, one that shaped how football was played, coached and regarded in a country that went on to become one of the sport's major powers, Garbutt passed away in his native land with barely the flicker of an eyelid.

If you would like to read more on the life of Willy Garbutt, do try and get hold of Paul Edgerton's book which is available here.

You can follow Sam on Twitter @sammy_lee88