Jesse Carver: Juve’s Scouse Scudetto Hero

As a football player, Jesse Carver was somewhat unremarkable. In fact, his main claim to fame during his playing career was the length of his throw-in. In 1929, more than seventy years before Premiership footballer Rory Delap started terrorising defenders with his own powerful deliveries, the Liverpool-born youngster was already employing a similar tactic at Blackburn Rovers.

The fact that Carver made it as a professional footballer at all was a significant achievement: He lacked the pace and skill to be a forward and was told he was too short to be a conventional centre-back. However, the quietly-spoken scouser was not your typical player. His biggest attributes were his physicality (including his mighty throw-in) and his in-game intelligence. And as a result, he was able to forge himself a decent career as a top-level defender.

As a youngster growing up in Liverpool, Carver had always wanted to be a footballer but was well aware of his own limitations. He knew that if he didn’t make it, he would need a back-up plan, and a career in the police force seemed like a sensible choice. As it happened, he ended up fulfilling both roles.

After bagging an apprenticeship role at Blackburn, during which time he worked as an assistant groundsman, the Liverpudlian soon impressed club staff with his on-field ability. He may have lacked the flair and trickery that was so coveted at the time, but he brought his own style of play to the centre-back role. It was a style that proved so effective, he became a permanent fixture in the Rovers first team for the next six seasons.

In 1936, Blackburn received an enquiry from second division club Newcastle United and after some short negotiations; Carver was sold to the North East club for a fee of £2000. During his spell at the Toon, the defender helped them to achieve a fourth-place finish and made more than 70 appearances in the League and FA Cup before the Second World War brought his playing career to an abrupt and untimely end.

At this point in his life, Jesse Carver thought he would never be involved in football again and reverted back to his original plan B by enrolling in the police force. However, the war claimed the lives of many members of the European football community and once the conflict was over, there was a huge increase in demand for ex-professionals. For players like Carver, this represented an opportunity to resurrect their careers in the game that they loved.

Although he was too old to play again, he soon landed a role as assistant manager of Huddersfield Town, and it was during this time that his talent as a Coach was finally revealed. He had studied many different training methods and now had the chance to implement systems of his own. He ditched strenuous training regimes such as cross-country running and endless laps of the running track, and instead concentrated on small-sided games and close ball control. He also employed a four-man defensive line specifically designed to exploit the offside rule, and used a combination on man-to-man and zonal marking systems. The players responded, trained harder and became much more adept on the ball. They also maintained a high level of motivation as training sessions no longer felt like a chore.

In 1949, he secured his first managerial role at Dutch club RFC Xerxes and made such an impact that the Dutch Football Association soon enquired about his availability. After just one year in Holland, he was appointed as Coach of the Dutch national team and led the Oranje to the 1948 Olympic Games in London. After defeating Ireland in the preliminary round of the competition, Carver’s team were drawn against the host nation in the first round proper. A crowd of more than 20,000 packed into Highbury to watch a Great Britain team Coached by Matt Busby take on Carver’s men. After an enthralling 90 minutes that finished 3-3, the game was eventually settled in extra-time when Harold McIlvenny scored the decisive goal for England.

Despite the defeat, the Dutch football authorities saw enough evidence to suggest that the Englishman was the right man to take their team forward. Unfortunately for them, Carver was now a Coach in demand and was keen to land a job back in his home country; so when Millwall came calling in 1948, he jumped at the opportunity to move to London.

By this point, officials at Juventus had also become aware of Carver‘s pedigree but early enquires suggested that he was not keen on another move abroad. After spending a year at the London club, Carver was appointed as trainer of the England B team and gained his first insight into the inner workings of the FA. Whatever impression the FA gave him, it was not a positive one and shortly afterwards the Turin club were made aware of his willingness to engage in talks.

At the time, Italian football was still coming to terms with the effects of the 1949 Superga air disaster in which 18 Torino players had lost their lives. The legendary ‘Grande Torino’ side had won five titles in a row but suddenly, under tragic circumstances, the door was open for a new champion to be crowned.

Juve President Gianni Agnelli made the Englishman an offer he could not refuse, and the following season, football fans in Italy witnessed a new style of attacking play which included a man-to-man marking system and the use of a four-man defensive line. The season was not without its hiccups, most notably, a 7-1 home defeat to Milan that was described by the press as a “nightmare” bad enough to send a working man to the “asylum.” However, over the course of the season the experimental defensive tactics paid off and Juve finished the campaign with the joint-lowest goals against tally. At the other end of the pitch, Danish player John Hansen combined with club legend Giampiero Boniperti to produce a total of 49 goals as Carver led Juve to their first Serie A title in 15 years.

During the end-of-season celebrations, the jubilant players lifted the Englishman triumphantly onto their shoulders and carried him round the pitch. The longest title drought in the club’s history was over and it appeared that the Bianconeri finally had a new hero to worship; however, their joy would be short-lived. Carver made some disparaging off-the-record comments about the club directors that were subsequently leaked to the press. His bosses wasted no time in wielding their authority and the man who delivered the title was sent packing.

After this setback, Carver returned to England and enjoyed a successful spell as the Coach of West Bromwich Albion. Despite his success in the Midlands, he was not offered a long-term contract and decided to take up an offer to return to Italy. This time, his destination was Serie B where he was tasked with helping A.C. Marzotto avoid relegation to the third tier. The appointment was a success and the club avoided the drop by beating Siracusa on the final day of the season. In the same division, fellow English Coach Edmund Crawford did not fare so well – his Livorno team were relegated from the second tier after finishing in 16th place.

The following year, the man from Merseyside returned to Turin to work as a Technical Director at Torino. At the time, the club was still going through a rebuilding process and Carver’s job was to help Coach Oberdan Ussello maintain the club’s top-flight status.  A strong finish to the season helped to secure an impressive tenth-place finish for the beleaguered Il Toro.

Jesse Carver’s success in Italy and his forward-thinking coaching methods eventually led to a big-money contract with recently-promoted Roma. During his spell in the capital, Carver helped to re-establish the Giallorossi as a force to be reckoned with, and in 1954-55, he led them to a second-place finish in the league. By this time, Carver was on a salary of over £500 a week (around £10,000 in today’s money) and was also paid many performance-related bonuses. He and his wife moved into a luxury apartment in the exclusive Via Archemedes area and regularly rubbed shoulders with film stars, politicians and royalty.

With his stock at an all-time high, Carver was approached by England to take over from Walter Winterbottom as the national team manager. It was believed at the time that an FA committee were picking the team and that the manager had little to no say in proceedings. Carver had already had a brief encounter with the FA when he led the England B team in 1949 and wasted no time in turning the job down.

His decision to snub England became even more controversial when it was revealed that he had already agreed a deal to take over at third division Coventry City. Unfortunately, his second spell in the Midlands did not go as well as the first and Carver was soon looking for a way out. By the turn of New Year 1956, he had negotiated the terms of his release from Coventry, and he and his wife were on a plane back to Italy. They had spent just six months back in the UK.

Back in Rome, the English journeyman was offered a role as Technical Director at Lazio, and eventually took over as Head Coach following the departure of Luigi Ferrero. In his short spell in charge, he led them to a respectable third-place league finish. His club-hopping habits continued the following year when Inter President Angelo Moratti persuaded Carver to take over at the Milan club. Unfortunately, he could only guide them to ninth in the league and was dully dismissed.

Meanwhile back in England, new Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson was aware of Carver’s coaching skills and offered him a role at White Hart Lane. Spurs were struggling at the time and Nicholson hoped a new style of play might help them to improve. Unfortunately, the two did not see eye-to-eye and Nicholson admitted later that he had “made a boob.” Carver was released and soon made his way back to Italy.

His final two years in Italy were also disappointing. First, he was sacked by Genoa in 1960 after a 6-2 defeat to Juventus left the club languishing in the relegation zone.  After that, he returned to Lazio as a Technical Director halfway through the 1960-61 season but was unable to help Coach Enrique Flamini prevent the clubs first relegation in their history. Of course fans at his old club Roma thanked him for the part he played in their rival’s downfall.

Carver did win one more piece of silverware in his career when he led Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia to Cyprus Cup glory in 1963. He coached them briefly again in 1969-70 before retiring from the game altogether. After spending time in Italy, Portugal and the USA, Jesse Carver eventually settled in Bournemouth on the South Coast of England where he remained until his death at the age of 93.

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01