Manchester: The City Years

Les McDowall

Les McDowall

Born: India, 25th October 1912 Died: 18th August 1991

1st June 1950 - 1st May 1963

It’s not entirely clear who took the lead role in managing the Blues between the end of Thomson’s reign and the beginning of Les McDowall’s period in charge. It’s possible that secretary Wilf Wild may have taken on additional responsibility, and this may have impacted on his health as he passed away in December 1950, and that members of the coaching staff, most notably former 30s stars Fred Tilson, Lawrie Barnett and Dick Neilson, carried out the bulk of training and tactical planning until McDowall arrived in June 1950 following City’s relegation to the old Division Two.

McDowall had been a skillfull wing-half during his City playing career of the late 1930s and the immediate post-war period, and his knowledge of both the Club and its approach to the game helped him to revitalise the Blues.

Interestingly, McDowall’s life could have turned out very different had it not been for the depression of the early 1930s. He was born in India in 1912, the son of a Scottish missionary, and trained as a draughtsman. He went on to work at a shipyard but during the depression he became unemployed. To keep himself occupied he helped to form a football team called Glenryan Thistle while looking for work. This period was a very difficult one for him but, by chance, his life was to change completely when he was spotted by a Sunderland scout and offered a playing contract. From then on, football became his employment, although he did return to his original profession for a while during the war.

By the time he arrived as City manager in 1950 he was well known for his hard-work and organisational skills as a player, and had enjoyed a brief spell as Wrexham’s player-manager. Over the course of the following thirteen years his achievements as a player would be eclipsed by his Maine Road managerial career.

One of his first signings was inspirational – Roy Paul. Paul proved to be one of football’s greatest captains and McDowall had beaten many other clubs, including Arsenal, to sign the Swansea wing-half.

At the end of McDowall’s first season the Paul inspired Blues had achieved promotion, and the following season he added Ivor Broadis and Don Revie to the squad as the Blues became a quality side.

Around this time McDowall became very famous for his tactical awareness – perhaps it was as a result of his attention to detail as a draughtsman - and he worked with his backroom staff to instigate various playing formations. The most famous of these involved a deep-lying centre-forward and was christened the "Revie Plan" after the player who played that role in the first team. As a result of that tactic City enjoyed two Wembley appearances, winning the Cup in an entertaining manner in 1956.

Despite the success some players felt McDowall was too remote from the day to day involvement with the players. Football was going through a change at this point and some managers, most notably Matt Busby at United; Stan Cullis at Wolves; and Joe Mercer at Sheffield United; were spending more time on the training pitch than their predecessors. McDowall was very much from the old school and felt that training was a job for his coaches, working under his overall control. Throughout football at this point the team captains had a great deal of involvement in team affairs and took on some of the responsibilities modern day managers and coaches perform. As City captain Roy Paul would have had more to do with McDowall than most players. Paul felt his manager was a fairly quiet figure, but he also recognised that when he spoke he did so in a measured way and always uttered sense. Midway through the 1956 final his advice to his players was simple: “Keep the ball down and keep it moving. If it’s in the air bring it down and use it. Keep them running and keep possession as much as you can.” Simple, but according to Paul, this was effective advice.

Regardless of his approach, McDowall brought great success and excitement to City during the fifties and he actually managed the Blues for more League seasons than any other City manager. He also had the respect of his players, and as a former player, he worked exceptionally hard to help restore pride and bring back the glory days to Maine Road.

Unfortunately, as football moved into the 1960s McDowall’s style was no longer appropriate for a major, glamourous side. Rather than challenge for the title it seemed as if City were destined to struggle. Some great players did arrive, but when Denis Law was sold in 1960 the writing was on the wall. Not since Tommy Johnson thrity years earlier had the Blues sold one of its brightest stars and, as with Johnson’s departure, supporters started to question the overall direction of the Club.

The early sixties were not great for McDowall’s men and with football changing it was necessary for the City directorate to replace McDowall with a man with a fresh outlook. Relegation in May 1963 ended McDowall's City career, but he still felt he had much to offer. He became Oldham Athletic manager the following month, however two years later, as Oldham were heading for relegation from Division Three, he was dismissed. He left football at this point.

Les McDowall’s position in City’s history is a significant one. He was a good player and a great manager. He restored pride at a time when the odds were stacked firmly against the Blues, and his tactical innovations entertained the crowd. He was a great manager at a time when tactical play increased in importance, and as a traditional office-bound leader he was excellent.

All history and statistical material has been produced based on the research and writing of Manchester football historian Gary James ( It is maintained by Ric Turner & Gary James. All text remains the copyright of the original contributors.

Gary's book, Manchester - the City Years: Tracing the Story of Manchester City from the 1860s to the Modern Day, is available to order on Amazon.