The man they called Mister Garbutt

Edwardian-era Blackburn Rovers footballer William Garbutt’s passing 45 years ago went unremarked in his own country. But, as ANTON RIPPON writes, a new book records Mister Garbutt’s impact on Italian football

On September 16, 1911, William Garbutt’s life changed forever. That afternoon he lined up at outside-right for Blackburn Rovers against Notts County in the First Division. Until the previous year, when Rovers had paid Falkirk a club record £1,800 for the signature of Jock Simpson, Garbutt had been a first-team regular.

Now Simpson was injured and Garbutt hoped to stay in the side. It wasn’t to be. He beat the Notts left-back once too often and was the recipient of a leg-jarring foul that ended his career.

He was only 29 years old. What to do next? Nearly 100 years ago, most ex-professional footballers — if they were fortunate — went off to run pubs. But William Garbutt had other ideas. He accepted the manager’s job at Genoa.

And so began the most remarkable football story, a tale now told in William Garbutt — The Father of Italian Football. This being Italian football, there is at least one scandal between the pages.

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Born in Hazel Grove in January 1883, William Garbutt came from a very large family. Desperate to escape the dreary conditions of early 20th-century British working class life, he joined the Royal Artillery. Reading, then a Southern League club, spotted his potential as a footballer and he later played for Woolwich Arsenal before joining Blackburn in 1908.

Now, newly married to his pregnant girlfriend, Anna, he was off to Italy, the Athletic News of August 26, 1912, reporting dismissively “ …Garbutt … has gone coaching at Genoa.”

It is well documented that 19th-century British diplomats, clerks, factory workers and sailors founded many of today’s Italian football clubs. Genoa is no exception. Under the guidance of Dr James Richardson Spensley (goalkeeper of questionable ability, director and even referee) they won six Italian championships (as Genoa Football and Cricket Club) before their fortunes dipped dramatically after 1904.

By 1910, the club had built a new 25,000-capacity stadium. Now it needed a good team to go with it. First, though, it needed a good manager. Quite how the directors came to offer the job to William Garbutt is open to debate.

One version is that Vittorio Pozzo, who would manage Italy’s 1934 and 1938 World Cup-winning teams, recommended Garbutt after seeing him play while he was living in England. More likely, it was the brother of Genoa’s junior team coach, Irishman Thomas Coggins, who suggested him.

Whoever it was, they did Genoa — and Garbutt — a great service. The young man from Hazel Grove had a huge impact on the club. Under him, Genoa won the Italian League three times (1915, 1923, 1924).

He is still considered an icon in Genoese football circles and, so it is said, he is the reason why, to this day, Italian players call their manager “Mister” (an example of “foreign degeneracy”, according to the Fascists who, in 1926, wanted to ban non-Italian players and coaches).

During the First World War, Garbutt (pictured left with his Genoa players in 1920) had rejoined the army, serving in France and working his way up through the ranks to become an officer. Returning to Italy, he helped Pozzo with the Italian team that was knocked out at the quarter-final stage at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Then, after more success with Genoa, in 1927 he joined the newly formed AS Roma and guided them to a cup win in his first season. He moved to Napoli for six seasons, taking them to third in the league — the highest position they had ever enjoyed and one that they did not better for many years.

After moving to Spain in 1935, Garbutt saw Athletic Bilbao to the championship. But the following year, when the Spanish Civil War erupted, he returned to Italy, managing AC Milan before returning to Genoa.

He was not to escape war, however. When Italy joined the Axis powers in 1940, Garbutt, a British citizen, was interned by Mussolini’s Fascists and, in a cruel irony, Anna was killed during an Allied bombing. When the liberation came, Garbutt and his son, Stuart, who by sheer coincidence was serving with the Eighth Army in Italy, were briefly reunited. The son’s first question was to wonder why his mother was not present; it must have been the most awful of moments.

William Garbutt returned to England, but the Genoa club was starting up again. Who better to guide them once more? On September 22, 1946, Genoa met Bresica in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris (the Marassi, as it is known locally) and the crowd stood to applaud the now ageing Englishman, who saw his team win 4-0.

But there was to be no fairytale end for either Genoa or for William Garbutt. The side finished joint 10th, along with Inter, Lazio, and their newly formed city rivals, Sampdoria, who scored a league double over Genoa.

Italian football was about to be dominated by the great Torino side and in 1949, after agreeing, against his better judgment, to stay for one more season, Garbutt resigned. He was exhausted. He was 65. He was a sick man.

In 1951, he returned to England, a country in which he had lived for only one year (in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War) since 1912. So there was no fanfare welcome. Indeed, when he died, in Warwick in 1964, at the age of 81, although Italian newspapers covered his passing in detail, not one British newspaper carried an obituary.

And his story would have remained untold but for Paul Edgerton, whose interest was aroused when he read John Foot’s 2006 book, Calcio, History of Italian Football, and who then wanted to know more about this man called William Garbutt. Edgerton traced Garbutt’s adopted daughter, Maria, whose help proved invaluable as she made available family documents, letters and photographs.

Alas, Maria died two months before her adopted father’s meticulously researched and entertainingly written biography was published. She would have been proud of both the subject and the author.

William Garbutt — The Father of Italian Football by Paul Edgerton (SportsBooks Ltd, £7.99) Click here to order

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