Before he became a manager of England respected for his studious devotion to the game, Greenwood was a fine player – although things did not always go the way he would have wished.
It was the Christmas holiday 1951 when Brentford, ‘going great guns’ near the top of the Second Division, met Southampton at Griffin Park on an afternoon of filthy weather.
Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill were playing for Brentford that day, and so was Johnny Paton.
‘It was a heavy day. Raining,’ Paton says. ‘It was a terrible pitch, muddy, hardly any grass on it. We were drawing and it was just before halftime.
‘Southampton had an inside-right, Frank Dudley, who was a big fellow. Not a great player but dangerous, unpredictable. He got the ball in his own half and started running with it and I thought, “He’s too far away for me, I can’t chase him. He’s 30 yards away.” It was heavy mud and in any case it wasn’t my job.’
The problem was that it was no one else’s job either, the consequence of a system devised by Greenwood, later to become the England manager but at this point still playing for Brentford as a defender.
‘Ron, a great tactician, had evolved a system at Brentford known as the retreating defence,’ Paton says. ‘So no one went out and tackled big Dudley and he kept running with it, running with it, running with it. Then I think he must have shut his eyes and taken a big a swing at it. The ball flew into the net.’
In Paton’s estimation, the effect of Dudley’s blind swing at the ball has reverberated down the decades for Brentford FC. ‘We came in at halftime and I think that what happened next ruined Brentford football club right to the present day,’ he says.
Jackie Gibbons turned on Greenwood, holding him responsible, as captain and author of the retreating defence, for Dudley’s goal. ‘Why the hell didn’t someone go and tackle Dudley,’ Gibbons said. ‘Ron Greenwood, you’re the captain.’
Greenwood pointed out that it was thanks to the retreating defence that Brentford had one of the best defensive records in the League.
Paton kept his mouth shut, ‘but, unfortunately, poor old Jimmy Hill, who couldn’t resist giving his opinion, joined in and took Ron Greenwood’s side’.
‘You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t even come in for the team meetings on a Friday,’ Hill said, referring to the fact it was Greenwood who took charge of these meetings.
‘Shut up,’ Gibbons snapped at Hill.
Brentford lost 2-1 and that was the end of Hill and Greenwood as Brentford players. Hill moved to Fulham and Greenwood headed to Chelsea.
Not only that, Paton says, his memories still deeply etched, ‘we sank from near the top to down in the middle of the table [they ended up in tenth place] and the atmosphere at the club was never the same.
‘The next home match after Dudley’s goal – and I have a picture in my mind of this – I came running out of the tunnel before kick-off and passed Ron and Jimmy in their civvies. I’m not sure about Jimmy but Ron never kicked another ball for Brentford.
‘It’s almost unbelievable but the club never recovered from that defeat. You look at the history books and that was the highest up the Football League Brentford have ever got since their First Division peak in the late Thirties.’
Greenwood, though, was far from finished. He went on to play for Chelsea and Fulham before becoming the much-respected manager of West Ham United from 1961-74. At West Ham his role in developing the playing skills of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst were reckoned to have played a major part in England’s success at the 1966 World Cup.
Sixteen years later Greenwood himself was the manager when England reached the second round group games of the World Cup finals in Spain. They were eliminated at this stage despite not having lost a match.