Bela Guttman was hailed as a legend after guiding Benfica to two European Cup victories. So why on earth, just weeks after winning his second trophy, was he offered the manager’s role by Port Vale?
You may not have heard of Guttman before, but he was a trailblazing coach of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. He is one of the coaches credited with introducing the attacking 4-2-4 system and he also played a significant role in the development of legendary Portuguese player Eusebio. Guttman’s flamboyant style and outspokenness has often seen him compared to Jose Mourinho.
Guttman was born in 1899 and started his footballing career in Hungary. He played in two league title-winning seasons for MTK. However, as a Jew, he was concerned about the anti-semitic approach of Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy and moved to Austrian club Hakoah Vienna in 1922. He won yet another league title in Vienna but then moved to the United States for a spell. Whilst in the USA, he almost lost everything during the Wall Street crash.
Guttman also played six times for the Hungarian national side. Renowned as a player who spoke his mind, during one International tour he protested about the conditions of the team hotel – by hanging dead rats on the room doors.
He returned to Europe in 1932 and began his long coaching career winning the Hungarian league and cup double with Újpest FC. He was appointed manager of AC Milan in 1953 and true to his straight-talking character, when he was sacked in 1955, he told a press conference that “I have been sacked even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.”
In 1958, Guttman arrived in Portugal as manager of Porto. He took them to the league title (overhauling a five point lead) and then promptly jumped ship to Benfica. He quickly signed an unknown 19 year-old called Eusebio.
At Benfica, he didn’t shy away from controversy. On his arrival he sacked 20 players and with a team of youngsters, he won the league title during the next two seasons. In 1961, Benfica beat Barcelona 3-2 in the European Cup final and the following year, his side came from 2-0 down to beat Real Madrid 5-3.
And this is where Port Vale enters the story.
Shortly after winning the European Final against Real Madrid, Guttman approached the Benfica board for a payrise. He was turned down and promptly left the club. You would have imagined that after his recent success, Guttman would be a manager in demand but perhaps his controversial character preceded him because, as journalist Brian Glanville revealed in his articles for Italian newspaper Corriere Dello Sport, Guttman was only approached by one English club – then third division Port Vale.
Vale had just sacked manager Norman Low after a poor start to the 1962-63 season and were in the market for a replacement. It seems strange that Vale would be in the market for such an unusual managerial signing but there was a precedent for such a move.
The Valiants had watched on enviously as neighbours Stoke City had brought veteran Sir Stanley Matthews back to the Potteries. Prior to the Matthews signings, Vale were pulling in bigger gates than Stoke but with Sir Stan instantly adding six thousand to the Stoke gates, Vale were firmly back as the number two team in the Potteries.
The Valiants board decided something should be done. They also needed a marquee signing. Their initial target was Sir Tom Finney, the Preston winger who had retired two years earlier. But Finney turned the club down. You can read more about that episode through this OVF feature
After the move for Finney, it’s therefore no surprise that Vale should attempt an ambitious managerial signing. Appointing someone like European Cup winning Guttman would give them the big-name signing the club craved in its attempts to usurp its neighbours.
Sadly, their pursuit of Guttman was to no avail. As World Soccer magazine put it – “When hearing of his departure from Portugal 3rd division Port Vale wrote Guttmann a letter expressing their admiration for him and their desire for him to take the rudder. Sadly for them and English football he declined, or totally ignored the letter and headed to South America with his well stamped passport…”
Guttman took over the reigns at Uruguay side Peñarol while Vale turned to Freddie Steele, the manager of the legendary 1953-54 side to succeed the departed Norman Low.
Our thanks to Brian Smith whose email prompted the research and writing of this article
1.Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe – Anthony Clavane
2. World Soccer Magazine: Bela Guttman and the curse of Benfica