William Garbutt: Life of a Mister

Words by Chloe Beresford Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 20, 2018
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There was nothing unusual about being born as one of ten children into a working class household in 1883, and according to Ancestry.com, William Thomas Garbutt was the second-youngest. His parents Emily Elizabeth Garbutt (née Gleave) and Thomas Skeen Garbutt were blessed with seven girls before finally having three boys, William eventually becoming the middle of that trio.

However, what William did next was nothing short of remarkable. The boy from Northern England went on to enjoy a football career with Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Woolwich Arsenal, before a move to Italy would see him become a Coach, one from which the term “Il Mister” – still used today to describe team bosses – was first coined.

Furthermore, this man was born in a small suburb in the borough of Stockport named Hazel Grove, an area of 1.62 square miles and a current population of around 15,000, the very same place in which this author was born and grew up. His parents are listed on the records as buried in Norbury Parish Church, although the working class pair have no named gravestone.

In 1911, Garbutt’s marriage to Anna Maria Stewart was recorded in Manchester, and shortly afterwards he moved to Genoa, Italy, to work on the docks after his retirement from playing football. This, of any location on the peninsula, would be more like home, the Ligurian port city long-since holding a connection with England.

Indeed, in 1190 the Republic of Genoa granted the use of the flag with the St. George cross to the King of England, by way of payment of an annual tribute as a preventative measure against pirates. The team, still known today as Genoa Cricket and Football Club, was primarily founded by Englishmen in 1893 as a cricket and athletics club which also practiced football.

In 1897, a man named James Richardson Spensley brought the football operation into prominence, taking a team into the first Italian Championship in 1898. The reason why Garbutt was brought in as first-team Coach in 1912 – aged just 29 – is up for debate, but the man from Hazel Grove certainly had a positive impact.

Training regimes, tactics and physical fitness were all improved by a man who had the benefit of having played in his home country, the standards on the peninsula not yet up to the standard of the well-established English game. Hot showers, and paid transfers were all introduced in Italy by Garbutt, and his news of his work was spreading back in Blighty.

“A friend tells me he met Billy Garbutt, the ex-Woolwich and Blackburn outside right in Manchester the other day,” wrote the Evening Telegraph and Post on July 16th, 1913. “Garbutt is out at Genoa in charge of one of the clubs there, and he said he and his wife have no desire to leave.

“He says that the class of football out there is getting better every season, and that crowds of fifteen thousand are quite common.”

His spell with Genoa would last no less than 15 years, during which time he won the Italian league in 1915, 1923 and 1924, and even served a spell in France during the First World War. Indeed, the 1924 triumph was the last Scudetto ever won by Genoa, their English “Mister” well-remembered in the city to this day.

His reputation even led Italy boss Vittorio Pozzo to bring Garbutt on board to assist with the national team, the Azzurri knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the 1924 Paris Olympics under their tutelage.

Not only did he play a huge part in revolutionising Italian football, but in 1927 he was to also become the first ever manager of the newly-formed AS Roma, after several clubs in the capital merged to create the team we see today. He was in charge for just two years, but managed to win a Coppa CONI trophy for the club in addition to a third-place finish in the league.

He would then move on to Napoli and is credited with revolutionising the side, guiding them twice to a third-place finish in the 1932/33 and 1933/34 campaigns. Such an achievement was not repeated in Naples until 1965/66, the in-between years spent yo-yoing between Serie A and Serie B.

Review: Rory Smith’s Mister

The Coach’s love affair with Italy was soon to draw to a temporary close, however. In 1935, Benito Mussolini moved to colonise Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and sanctions on foreigners forced the Englishman to leave his adopted country.

“Garbutt has found that the Abyssinian war interferes with football,” wrote Birmingham newspaper Sports Argus in November 1935 as the boss moved to the San Mames, home of Athletic Bilbao in Spain. “He has managed big Italian clubs for more than ten years and this year was due to have taken charge of the Genoa club. Sanctions, however made matters rather difficult for Englishmen working in Italy, so he is understood to have accepted the Spanish offer.”

Somewhat unbelievably, he would win the Spanish Championship there, before returning to Italy again in 1937 after the league was halted and his position was once again precarious with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Garbutt again left a legacy after once again winning silverware, also promoting the young Ángel Zubieta to the first team, the 17-year-old going on to become the youngest ever to play for the Spanish national team at the time.

A brief stint at AC Milan followed, before a return to Genoa and another 11 seasons in charge before an exhausted Garbutt finally returned to England in 1951. World War Two in Italy had taken its toll on the Englishman, his British wife Anna tragically killed by Allied bombing.

No less than 17 Italian Patriots were murdered in 1945, back when Imola was still in German hands by the Fascist Black Brigade. Garbutt – living in Imola at the time under a false Italian name – was interviewed by the English press as he witnessed the incident, a horrific one for a man who had already lost his wife and was fearful of being killed himself.

“People who lived near the prison heard the murdered men screaming in their agony,” revealed the Coach to The Press and Journal on April 18th, 1945. “No-one could do anything but it chilled the blood. One word from anyone who knew me and I would have been among those unfortunates.”

As an Englishman in Italy during these troubled times, Garbutt was of course lucky to escape death. He returned to England with his story relatively unknown, but was said to have been called “the most important man in the history of Italian football” by Pozzo, a true compliment coming from the man who had won two World Cups with the Azzurri in 1934 and 1938.

The man knew for himself the incredible feats he had achieved, and it had all come from humble origins in the small suburb of Hazel Grove in Stockport.

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