‘The Match of the Century’, it became known as.
It was a game that marked the end of an era and the end of an illusion. And England never saw it coming. “We didn’t know about Puskas,” recalled Sir Bobby Robson, who was 20 years old and among the spectators at Wembley. “None of the Hungarian players meant anything to us. We thought we would demolish this team. England at Wembley; we were the masters, they were the pupils.”
The headlines on 25 November 1953 – ‘Hard Tackling The Way To Beat Hungary’; ‘Hungary’s Fancy Stuff Won’t Beat England’ – summed up England’s view of itself, of ‘the continentals’ and of the game as a whole. By the following day, the tone had changed. The Times led on ‘A new conception of football’, with correspondent Geoffrey Green writing: “Here, indeed, did we attend, all 100,000 of us, the twilight of the gods.”
The scoreline – England 3, Hungary 6 – would have been astounding enough in itself. But it was the manner of the Magyars’ victory and their evident technical and tactical superiority that established this game as a watershed moment in the sport’s evolution.
One of the humiliated England players spoke of having “learned more about tactics from Hungary’s lesson than in years of involvement with football”. The future Sir Alf Ramsey was not alone. Indeed, the visitors’ masterclass of fluidity and flair was described by the great Rinus Michels as having “laid the groundwork” for the ‘Total Football’ philosophy he would later champion.
Its impact would also be felt closer to home. Among the spectators that November afternoon were two young men who would become fixated on implementing the revelatory lessons learned. The journey from the slopes of Wembley to a bench in Lisbon would take another 14 years, but a shared fascination with Hungary’s dismantling of England was one of many things that Jock Stein and Sean Fallon held in common.
“It opened our eyes,” Fallon said in his authorised biography, Sean Fallon: Celtic’s Iron Man. “The Hungarians changed everything, both in terms of their system and the way they played the game. It was all about skill on the ball and movement off the ball.
“You look at how much work the Lisbon Lions did off the ball, creating space – all those ideas came from watching teams like Hungary and the great Brazil and Real Madrid sides that came later. We knew that we couldn’t copy those teams completely – you have to bring your own characteristics. But you could see in those games what these teams were doing right that the others weren’t, and it helped form our opinions on the way we wanted Celtic to play. That Hungary team, they were special. We could have sat and watched them all day.”
A recording of the match was quickly obtained by Stein, and remained a prized possession. Fallon, meanwhile, devoted his entire newspaper column to the Magyars, lauding them for bringing about “a further burst forward in football evolution”. The article cited three principal areas – “greater speed”, “greater accuracy of the pass” and “team movement” – in which the Irishman saw the “improved continental game” as having left British football behind.
“What is the moral of this?” he concluded. “Surely we have to learn not to be satisfied by our present performances, but to always strive to do things faster, and by training and coaching to do them more accurately. And we must remember, forever, that it is the intelligent play of the man not on the ball that makes the man on the ball a better player, and makes 11 individuals into a real team.”
Contained within those words lay a thinly-veiled message for his team-mates. These principles were, after all, not new to Fallon. They had been imparted to him three years earlier when he joined Celtic, and the coach conveying the message had been the same man responsible for educating the Magyars.
Jimmy Hogan had been appointed in response to the club’s brush with relegation in 1948, and arrived with a cv like no other. The Hungarians at Wembley spoke of this little man from Lancashire having “taught us everything we know about football”, and he enjoyed similar status in Austria, where he forged the great ‘Wunderteam’ of the 1930s with Hugo Meisl, and in the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. Helmut Schon, who led the Germans to victory in the 1974 World Cup, described Hogan as “the shining example of the coaching profession”. The DFB said he had been “the father of modern football in Germany”.
Whether it was in promoting a style of play based on passing, movement, control and teamwork, in stressing the importance of training with a ball – a revolutionary concept at the time – or in addressing players’ diet, Hogan was decades ahead of his time.
Having been guided by Scottish players at Fulham, and as a devout Catholic, he said that joining Celtic “felt like coming home”. But Hogan admitted in this same early interview to having detected scepticism among certain players, “as if each and every one was saying ‘what can this old codger show us?’ ” His suspicions were well founded.
“Some of the more experienced lads didn’t buy into what Jimmy was trying to teach us, mainly because they felt they didn’t need to be taught,” said Fallon. “There was a lot of that attitude at the time – players thinking they knew all there was to know – and it was a shame, because Jimmy had so much experience to pass on. The fact he’d coached in so many different countries made him an amazing man to listen to, and I was hungry to learn. It was a pity I didn’t get more time to work with him.”
Fallon, in fact, spent barely a few months under the tutelage of this unappreciated giant, who had long since quietly departed by the time Stein arrived late in 1951. But the same players who had sneered at Hogan’s pioneering methods would be there at Wembley, having been dispatched by chairman Bob Kelly to broaden their football horizons, and saw then what their former coach had been getting at.
Later, they would read the quote from Magyars’ coach Gustav Sebes: “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.” But by the time the penny dropped, it was too late. Celtic’s senior pros, as smug and complacent as Hungary’s ill-prepared English hosts, had wasted a golden opportunity.
Yet through the legacy of his work in Budapest, and that epochal Match of the Century, Hogan’s influence would still be felt. His gift to Celtic was to start Stein and Fallon dreaming. The journey towards a team of which the great man would have been rightly proud began 60 years ago today.
Article first published in The Herald on 25 November 2013