When Did The Football World Catch Up With England?

There were those connected with Austrian football in the 1930s who thought they’d overtaken England long before 1953. Not long after Brideshead indeed – as though the poor, misconceived R101 airship took with it a footballing version of the Ashes as well as the cream of our idle aristocracy and our pioneering airmen. But that’s hard to prove. Without English sides in the Mitropa Cup, or at the three pre-War World Cups, we’re left with shaky evidence. And I know it’s a post-War novel: you know what I mean.

Nevertheless it would be satisfying if those Austrians were right. Not because they owed so much to an English coach, Jimmy Hogan, but because if they are wrong, we are left with 1950 or 1953 as likely catch-up dates. Neither of those years really convinces.

England bungled the 1950 World Cup. It didn’t help them or the other European sides that it took place on the other side of the world, at a time when travel was infinitely harder and rarer than it is now. But England chose their hotels and training facilities badly, were unprepared for the climate and then, after all that, suffered one of the game’s truly freak defeats against the USA.

In any event, this was a poor England team. The great post-War side that had swaggered its way around Europe two years before, one which has a strong claim to the title of best ever, had broken up. England were at the beginning of five years’ mediocrity, a period that ended only with Finney’s maturity and the arrival of the Busby Babes. The Englands of 1946-7 and 1955-8 would have shown a different side to our game.

1953 doesn’t work either. The great Hungarian team that won well at Wembley and then superbly the next year in Budapest were as much a freak in their own way as the 1950 Americans. If they taught England a footballing lesson, it was only one that they were teaching the rest of the world at the same time.

“Hungary” hadn’t learned to play like that – they just had a random inheritance of national talent, at an opportune moment, plus Jimmy Hogan to train it. After the shock of World Cup defeat in 1954, followed by diaspora in the wake of the ’56 Uprising, things were never the same again. The Nepstadion, new and grand in 1954, is now closed above its bottom tier for safety reasons. England, “overtaken,” can’t open its brand-new national stadium for safety reasons either, but the difference is moot.

So, were the Austrians right? Did Europe catch up with England between the Wars? Here are all of England’s non-Home Championship fixtures in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939, in reverse order:

24 May 1939, Romania 0 – England 2 at Stadionul ANEF, Bucharest, Friendly.
18 May 1939, Yugoslavia 2 – England 1 at BSK (Beogradski Sport Klub) Stadion, Belgrade, Friendly.
13 May 1939, Italy 2 – England 2 at Stadio San Siro, Milan, Friendly.
09 Nov 1938, England 4 – Norway 0 at St James’ Park, Newcastle, Friendly.
26 Oct 1938, England 3 – FIFA European Select 0 at Highbury, London, Friendly.
26 May 1938, France 2 – England 4 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
21 May 1938, Switzerland 2 – England 1 at Hardturm, Zurich, Friendly.
14 May 1938, Germany 3 – England 6 at Olympiastadion, Berlin, Friendly.
01 Dec 1937, England 5 – Czechoslovakia 4 at White Hart Lane, London, Friendly.
20 May 1937, Finland 0 – England 8 at Pallokenttä, Helsinki, Friendly.
17 May 1937, Sweden 0 – England 4 at Råsundastadion, Stockholm, Friendly.
14 May 1937, Norway 0 – England 6 at Ullevaal Stadion, Oslo, Friendly.
02 Dec 1936, England 6 – Hungary 2 at Highbury, London, Friendly.
09 May 1936, Belgium 3 – England 2 at Stade du Heysel, Brussels, Friendly.
06 May 1936, Austria 2 – England 1 at Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Vienna, Friendly.
04 Dec 1935, England 3 – Germany 0 at White Hart Lane, London, Friendly.
18 May 1935, Holland 0 – England 1 at Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, Friendly.
14 Nov 1934, England 3 – Italy 2 at Highbury, London, Friendly.
16 May 1934, Czechoslovakia 2 – England 1 at Letná Stadion, Prague, Friendly.
10 May 1934, Hungary 2 – England 1 at Nepstadion, Budapest, Friendly.
06 Dec 1933, England 4 – France 1 at White Hart Lane, London, Friendly.
29 May 1933, Switzerland 0 – England 4 at Sportplatz Neufeld, Berne, Friendly.
13 May 1933, Italy 1 – England 1 at Stadio Nazionale del PNF, Rome, Friendly.
07 Dec 1932, England 4 – Austria 3 at Stamford Bridge, London, Friendly.
09 Dec 1931, England 7 – Spain 1 at Highbury, London, Friendly.
16 May 1931, Belgium 1 – England 4 at Oscar Bossaert Stadion, Brussels, Friendly.
14 May 1931, France 5 – England 2 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
14 May 1930, Austria 0 – England 0 at Hohe Warte Stadion, Vienna, Friendly.
10 May 1930, Germany 3 – England 3 at Grunewald Stadion, Berlin, Friendly.
15 May 1929, Spain 4 – England 3 at Estadio Metropolitano, Madrid, Friendly.
11 May 1929, Belgium 1 – England 5 at Parc Duden, Brussels, Friendly.
09 May 1929, France 1 – England 4 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
19 May 1928, Belgium 1 – England 3 at Olympic Stadium, Antwerp, Friendly.
17 May 1928, France 1 – England 5 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
26 May 1927, France 0 – England 6 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
21 May 1927, Luxembourg 2 – England 5 at Jeunesse Stadium, Luxembourg City, Friendly.
11 May 1927, Belgium 1 – England 9 at Oscar Bossaert Stadion, Brussels, Friendly.
24 May 1926, Belgium 3 – England 5 at Olympic Stadium, Antwerp, Friendly.
21 May 1925, France 2 – England 3 at Colombes, Paris, Friendly.
08 Dec 1924, England 4 – Belgium 0 at The Hawthorns, West Bromich, Friendly.
17 May 1924, France 1 – England 3 at Stade Pershing, Paris, Friendly.
01 Nov 1923, Belgium 2 – England 2 at Bosuil Stadion, Antwerp, Friendly.
24 May 1923, Sweden 1 – England 3 at Råsundastadion, Stockholm, Friendly.
21 May 1923, Sweden 2 – England 4 at Råsundastadion, Stockholm, Friendly.
10 May 1923, France 1 – England 4 at Stade Pershing, Paris, Friendly.
19 Mar 1923, England 6 – Belgium 1 at Highbury, London, Friendly.
21 May 1921, Belgium 0 – England 2 at Oscar Bossaert Stadion, Brussels, Friendly.

For the most part, these are matches against Great War allies played in May after the end of the domestic season. As such, England did not take them quite as seriously as they might games against Scotland, for example, and the drinking stories from overseas tours are legion. Nor did the best players always tour. Far from it. And that makes for poor evidence. Although one has to say that the Football Association were hardly trying to provide it.

Some of those tours were gruelling affairs. England’s first defeat against continental opposition – albeit continental opposition coached by an Englishman – came at the end of a journey that had taken them across France, Belgium and Spain in six days, including three matches.

Even without the best players, England teams were hardly consistent affairs at this point in time. A long and tedious haul through the players’ records in the 1920s reveals teams made up of 2,3, and 4-cap men. England careers were short and capricious then, as an England cap was a reward for playing service and not a means to a further end as it is now.

Things pick up, however, in 1927 and 1928, largely thanks to 16-cap Dixie Dean, who, when not putting away 60 in a league season for Everton, found time to score 13 goals in 6 matches against continental opposition.

Dean’s England career ended when he was aged only 25, as a result of his outspokenness. So he was absent when England came up against the Austrian Wunderteam of Meisl and Hogan. After a 0-0 draw in 1930 in one of those post-season tours, a more serious match took place at Stamford Bridge in 1932, which England “won” 4-3.

Here’s how The Times summarized the game:

The honours of the game went largely to the Austrian team. Their play undoubtedly was better than most people had expected. Their speed and their combination were quite as good as those of the best English teams. The English team was even more disappointing than those which had played in the previous international matches this season. They failed in just those matters in which the Austrians excelled – speed and combination. Most of the players are now too old for such matches and cannot keep pace with faster and younger players. They did not play well to one another. Too many were apt to wait for the ball to come to them and would not go out to get it for themselves.

Freemantle’s History of Football has extensive clips of the Wunderteam – who beat Scotland 5-0 in the same year as the Stamford Bridge game, also claiming victims in Germany (5-0 and 6-0), Hungary (8-2) and Switzerland (8-1). And the whole of the second half at Stamford Bridge is available in some particularly rich, warm, clear film on Google TV Beta.

To some extent, the events of 1931-2, including England’s close shave, have the look of another but earlier Hungary. The Continent throws up a freakishly good team that creates mayhem wherever it goes, then everything fades away from it while England march on pretty much where they were. But this Austria kept on until the Anschluss: no 2-3 year wonders they.

What about Italy and Germany?

England drew in Rome in 1933 against the Italian team who would win the following year’s World Cup. Italy’s triumph at the World Cup was controversial, but their team, augmented with Argentines, were genuinely talented. England showed up with an astonishingly inexperienced team even by their recent standards – only 3 of the eleven players had more than one cap prior to the match. Herbert Chapman travelled with the team, and lost the key to the dressing room. A draw is scarcely discreditable in such circumstances. To our players, Rome must have seemed like a foreign country.

In November of the next year, the teams met again in what is still remembered – really remembered, which is unusual for a pre-War international, and we’ll be coming to the other one! – as the Battle of Highbury. Englandstats.com describe the game thus:

7 Arsenal players appeared which is still a record at full international level. The game was played in heavy fog and rain and the game wasn’t much better. Luisito Monti had his leg broken tackling Ted Drake directly after kickoff and the remaining 10 Italians took it on themselves to knock lumps out England. Carlo Ceresoli brought down Drake in the area in the 1st minute but he saved Eric Brook’s penalty. 2 minutes later Brook was on the score sheet and after 12 minutes Italy were three down. Soon afterward Edris Hapgood had his nose broken and had to leave the field for fifteen minutes, Brook broke his arm, Raymond Bowden had an ankle injury, John Barker his hand strapped, Drake, a nasty gash on the leg and a few other assorted injuries and brusings to other players. ALL BEFORE HALFTIME!
Hapgood later remarked “It was the dirtiest match I’ve ever played in.”

Clearly, then, there is “catching up with England”, and there is “catching up with England”. Most of the famous English names in that account were on their second or third caps, but, this time, for most of them there’d be many more to come. This was a bad match, but the beginning of another good England team. The Italian World Champions lost to Chapman’s babes, in that sense.

That other remembered match came on the 14th May 1938, and was watched by, among others, Sir Neville Henderson, the UK’s ambassador to Germany. What would he have seen? According to The Times,

..the best British team that ever came to the Continent…immediately made a good impression by raising their arms in the German salute..

Opinions differ and stories vary about just how reluctant that salute was. Stanley Matthews, who played brilliantly that day, recalled seeing one solitary Union Jack hung up by some lonely English fans amongst the sea of swastikas, pointing it out to his team mates. In such an alien and threatening environment, an England team asked to behave in ways they might not have fully understood, could take some comfort from one familiar flag.

The match was one-sided, Germany (the opponents, of course) being flattered not merely by their three goals but by the mere six they conceded. They played in front of 105,000 people, in front of manager, Sepp Herberger, who would survive the Second World War somehow and win West Germany’s first World Cup 16 years later. Only Matthews of that excellent England team would still be around for that.

This is only a brief incursion into a big subject. I’m struck by three things.

  1. From about 1930 on, Europe has always been capable of producing brilliant sides. But it’s not always been the most consistent countries from which those sides come. Austria, Hungary and Holland represent the peaks of European football, but not the steady achievers. In fact, the only two steady achievers, when it comes to that, are Italy and Germany, neither of whom play much part in the “catching of England”. We were Germany’s big hoodoo until 1972, and not for nothing. Italy didn’t beat us until 1973. No one suggests that England kept their superiority into the “Life On Mars” period. One good team does not amount to a continent catching up.
  2. England’s teams go through peaks and troughs too. I wonder if the Magyars would have had such fun against the 46-47 England, or the 55-58 England, or the 1961 England, or the 1970 side? We’ll never know, but it’s harsh to judge a nation’s standing on one of their worst teams.
  3. The Wunderteam and the ’53 Hungarians showed a different kind of football from England, and that is genuinely significant. It’s their priorities – teamwork, speed, ball skills – not England’s – that have marked the best international teams ever since. It’s not so much a matter of catching up as one of their inventing the autobahn whilst we tinker with the Kingston by-pass.
  4. What’s missing from this is, of course, South America. That’s a function of England’s absence from the World Cups of 1930, 1934 and 1938. For a future post, then. For now, this, with appropriate music for a change:

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