THT_Relic(c)TheHardTackleTheHardTackle Relic’ is a semi-regular column which dusts off the pages of football history. It intends to walk you down memory lane and relive events, players and teams long forgotten. Today we revisit how an Englishman burst England’s bubble of footballing superiority. 

An Englishman brought his nation, the one that invented football, back on its feet in 1953. His name was James “Jimmy” Hogan and he was of Irish descent. Hogan was born in Lancashire in 1882, and in his playing career, represented Burnley, Fulham, Swindon and Bolton as a wide-forward. At that time, British football relied primarily on strength and physicality and on the Scottish model of passing: a lot of passing.

In training, ball-work was not given much importance; instead it was physical training – running, cycling etc – that was emphasized. The idea was that stamina would always prevail over skill, and that players would do better with the ball in the match, if they were hungry for it after being deprived of it. Hogan however, realized that technique was important in football and tactics and templates needed to be emphasized if clubs and nations wanted victories.

Once in a game, he failed to put the ball at the back of the net after having beaten all of his opponents successfully and having reached the box. After the game, he asked his coach what he should have done better. His coach simply asked him to keep trying and that the law of averages would eventually pay off. But Hogan was a perfectionist and he needed to know what he ought to have done to have been successful in the attempt. Perhaps as early as then, he realized that his analytical and tactical mind was better suited for coaching. He did credit that as the turning point, after which he began fathoming answers for himself and taking advice from other big players.

A pre-season trip with Bolton to the Netherlands made Hogan aware of the potential lying dormant in Europe. His side won 10-0 over a hapless native Dordrecht, but Hogan vowed that he would go back and teach those people to play properly. His friendship with referee James Howcroft resulted in him getting a chance to act on his words and still in his early 30s, he became the youngest British coach to take up a permanent position on the continent.

Jimmy Hogan

Jimmy Hogan

He was coaching in Austria when the First World War broke out. Austrian football pioneer Hugo Meisl got in touch with the Lancastrian through James Howcroft and upon analyzing the man and his approach to football, he immediately knew that this Englishman was special, that he didn’t care exclusively for physicality and strength. On the day war was declared he found himself woken at dawn and thrown into prison. He remained an internee for the duration of the war but he was allowed to go to Budapest, Hungary, where he worked with the MTK club. He taught them different tactics. His training focus also centered on making players comfortable with the ball. He asked the players to do step-overs and little twists and turns on the ball. He asked the players to make the ball do the work. He left for Britain as soon as he could after the war, but in his time, MTK were the domestic champions and his methods and ways stayed with the side, which basically went on to form the core of the national team that would develop into the great side of the 1950s.

After the war, Hogan had spells with Fulham and Aston Villa. But his primary impact on British football was of bringing the national side back to reality and asking them keep up with the evolution of tactics and style of play on the continent. This was because the great Hungarian team of 1953 defeated the English team 6-3. The defeat came as a huge crush as, until then, ever since recognized international matches began, England had never been beaten on home soil by a continental opponent. But how could England have beaten their opposition? The Hungarian team, also known as the  Magical Magyars at the time, were also unbeaten since May 1950, and had won the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

A crowd of over 100,000 had assembled at the Wembley Stadium on 25th November 1953 to watch the mighty Englishmen bring the ‘Golden Team’ to the ground. It was as early as the first minute when the home crowd got their first inkling that it wasn’t going to happen. The referee had barely blown the opening whistle, when Nandor Hidegkuti struck the ball sweetly at the back of the net. Gil Merrick, the England goalkeeper, could perhaps see the defenders ahead of him being badly caught out of position, stuck in their rigid ways, and the Hungary players moving the ball swiftly and intimidating them with their tricks. He perhaps also knew then that there was going to be considerable embarrassment for the inventors of football at the end of the remaining eighty nine minutes.

England however, struck back in the fifteenth minute through Jackie Sewell but the elation was short lived. Four time Pichichi award winner, the great Ferenc Puskás in his prime, along with Kocsis, Bozsik and Budai were giving the home team a miserable time and dragging players out of their position with their movement and swiftness. Five minutes later, Hidegkuti struck again and four minutes after that, the great Puskas also found the back of the net. Three minutes after his first, Puskas, who the England defenders were simply unable to deal with, scored again. Mortensen scored for England near the interval, but with a two goal advantage, Hungary knew they need not get worried and play their natural attacking game in the second half.

Minutes after the second half began, Hungary continued their dominance and Bozsik scored. Three minutes after that,  Hidegkuti completed his hat-trick courtesy a delightful volley. Alf Ramsey scored a consolation penalty for England later on in the game, but it wasn’t going to do anything to stop the scoreline from looking the way it was meant to.

The England attack, barring Stanley Matthews to a certain extent, looked incompetent when juxtaposed against Hungary’s. England till then, relied mainly on physicality and strength. They didn’t work on speed and ball control. They didn’t have techniques to be proud of. The WM formation, which is essentially a 3-2-2-3, was too rigid and the full backs and the half backs couldn’t keep up with the swift and flexible positional play of the Hungarians, which were as near perfect as one could hope to see.

The visitors brought a new vision of football to England as they lined up in a strange 4-2-4 formation and relied on first-time passing by players who were running hardest when they didn’t have the ball. The traditional Scottish way of playing, hitherto considered the best way by England, was all about passing, and centered solely on it. England didn’t fathom why you needed to run without the ball, why an attacker would need support and certainly did not have a bag full of tricks with them. They were too rigid about their formation as well. For example, a player operating on the flanks would not always cut inside to support the attacker if he had such an opportunity as well. Even the center half had to strictly mark the center forward, or the player with the number nine shirt, so in this case Harry Johnston found himself marking Hidegkuti. But Hidegkuti  was sitting deep as a false nine and Johnston was regularly caught out of position leaving the entire defence more vulnerable, and couldn’t deal with the other Hungarian attackers. The attack by the visitors was called  ‘the finest exhibition of attacking play that has been seen in an international match in Britain’.

Sir Bobby Robson told BBC One’s Football Focus.

“That one game alone changed our thinking. The way they played, their technical brilliance and expertise – our WM formation was kyboshed in 90 minutes of football. The game had a profound effect, not just on myself but on all of us. We thought we would demolish this team – England at Wembley, we are the masters, they are the pupils. It was absolutely the other way.”

Sitting in the stands, part of that huge home crowd was a 71-year-old, grey haired Englishman residing from Lancashire witnessing the perfection of the work he pioneered.  He was Jimmy Hogan and the thoughts that might have gone through his head were anybody’s guess.  He would have surely been proud of leaving the template of how to play football with the best team in the world, even if the rankings didn’t agree with it. His coaching methods were not valued at home, and the ones who did value it, metaphorically slapped the ones who didn’t. Shortly after the game ended, the president of the Hungarian Football Association, Sandor Barcs, said: “Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football”. He even said that he wanted to invite the man to watch football with him and other Hungarian officials, but insisted that they would invite him the next year when the reverse fixture would be played in Budapest (a match where England wanted to take their revenge, but lost 7-1)

The English FA were mortified. The team that humiliated them, and showed them their place had been the work of their own countryman? He was labelled a traitor by many officials. The English press, after discovering the fact that Hogan had shown Hungary how to play like they were doing the ‘waltz’, campaigned, to have him coach his own nation. But he was 71 at the time and naturally considered old. His contribution to the modern game is too vast to be written in an article. He died in 1974 at the age of 91, a man who Gusztav Sebes, coach of the Hungary Golden team later commented, “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters”.

*****

References:

  • Puskás on Puskás by Ferenc Puskas
  • The Guardian’s ‘Hungary’s Famous Victory’ published on Thursday 26 November, 1953 
  • Prophet or Traitor? by Norman Fox