Peter McWilliam

Peter McWilliam was born in 1879 on The Crown in Inverness. Aged one he was living with the family at 23, Argyle St., his birth-place in the Highland capital. At eleven, his father now a widower, they were staying at No. 13, whilst a certain Andy McCombie was at No. 49. That was before both would go on to play for the Crown's club, Inverness Thistle, Newcastle United and Scotland, once together, McCombie moving south in 1898 and McWilliam in 1902.  

But whilst Andy McCombie would remain at Newcastle as a coach on retirement from playing McWilliam' would have a managerial career that would take him to London, to two periods at Tottenham Hotspur, and to Middlesbrough and Arsenal in between, the former as manager, the latter as Chief Scout. And we would also claim his coaching ideas, despite a death in 1951, continue to this day via Amsterdam, Barcelona, even Munich and now Manchester.  

It might seem a tall order but if accepted it makes Peter McWilliam one of the most important football-thinker in the history of the game, but one who has hardly been recognised in his homeland. He is not, for example, yet an inductee in the SFA Hall of Fame, although change is always possible. And the justification for such change is as follows. McWilliam never played senior football in Scotland. From Inverness he was on his way to a trial at Sunderland, where McCombie was already in place. However, en route he stopped at Newcastle, where a sister was living, was invited to St. James's Park and instead signed by The Toon. There, as a left-half he was able to establish himself at a club with a Scottish secretary/manager, a largely Scots first team, a Scots trainer and with a Scottish style of play that would largely dominate the English league for the next decade. With him in the team over two hundred plus games it would win the league three times and reach the Cup Final four times, winning it once.         

However, Peter McWilliam was a left-half with a difference. The Newcastle system allowed him to roam between defence and attack across the pitch, reading the play and passing with unerring accuracy. And it was this same systematic, innovative and attentive approach to the game and beyond that he would take into coaching, after eight Scotland caps and a final injury sustained whilst captaining his national side. Yet arriving in 1912 at Spurs his start was again slow. 1914-15 saw relegation to the Second Division but almost immediately post-Great-War promotion back to the First was achieved in 1920 and the FA Cup won in 1921. This was the superficial success but behind it a far more enduring revolution was taking place. Tottenham sought and eventually with the "junior" club Northfleet United established a relationship that had the latter playing its football in the same style as the former. The quid pro quo was that the former supplied the latter with a steady stream of its best, young players. It meant that same style was played by not just the First and reserve teams at White Hart Lane but the same was being done by what was effectively Tottenham's youths, making them ready for the smoothest step-up  from nursery to top-flight.

That was to have two effects. The first was a flow of high-quality talent well-coached in what was a continuation of Newcastle's Scottish style of play with McWilliam extras. That flow would include Arthur Rowe, Spurs great manager of the 1950s, his eventual and still more successful successor, Bill Nicholson, plus Vic Buckingham and would even embrace a player, who had to retire early due to ill-health but would become a well-respected coach and then manager, Malcolm Allison, himself a Diasporan Scot. The second was the spread of Northfleet nursery principle abroad and its adaption there. In the 1920s the McWilliam player, Sid Castle and not Jack Reynolds, introduced it to Ajax Amsterdam and The Netherlands more generally. Vic Buckingham picked it up once more at Ajax in the 1960. He passed in on to Rinus Michels, the Ajax manager first to play Cruyff, and they one after another carried it to Barcelona, where Pep Guadiola was one of its several pupils and exceptional products. 

Yet Tottenham was not only club, where McWilliam would have a "subliminal" effect. It is said that Herbert Chapman, Arsenal's highly successful manager of the early 1930s, on his death in 1934 had indicated Peter McWilliam as the one to fill his shoes. It is also said that McWilliam did not want the whole job with the result that a compromise was reached. George Allison, a non-football-man, became Secretary. Joe Shaw and Tom Whittaker coached and Peter McWilliam, as a time when the playing-staff needed some rebuilding, was appointed Chief Scout, remaining in place before Tottenham drew him back after four seasons, in which the Highbury club with essentially a new team notably won exactly the same trophies, League and Cup, as Chapman had in the previous four.          

The outbreak of the Second World War would see the end of Peter McWilliam's second Tottenham term. On resumption of football he was in his early seventies and retired back to Redcar in Yorkshire, the home-town of his second wife, Florence, his first, his girl from Inverness, Isabella MacDonald, who he married in Newcastle in 1902, having died in 1904. And it would be in Kirkleatham by Redcar that he would die in 1Oth October 951. But he would at least have the satisfaction six months earlier of seeing his disciple, Arthur Rowe, who had been his player in 1939, in 1949 take over the managing of the club in the Second Division, win promotion that first season and then the First Division in May 1951 with the McWilliam's Push n' Run.     

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