Wolves v Honved 1954

What first strikes you is the contrast in playing styles:

Somehow, Wolverhampton Wanderers come off as winners, proclaimed “the greatest in the world” by their manager Stan Cullis.

That might not have been true – Honved are clearly the better team and the better players, even in these limited, poorly-filmed highlights. But in many ways this is the most interesting match played in England in the 1950s.

Of course, the game is floodlit. The ground is packed, bearing out Herbert Chapman’s belief in evening football as a means of fighting off other forms of urban entertainment such as speedway and cinema. Floodlighting wouldn’t be permitted in league games until 1956, 78 years after it was first used at Bramall Lane and quarter of a century after proper floodlights were installed at Highbury. In that sense, this game reflects the peculiar tug of war in English football between the innovative and the stupid and scared.

And the game is between two European club sides. The European Cup wouldn’t start for another year, and the pre-War Mitropa Cup had been all but destroyed by 1939-45 – British clubs had ignored it anyway, having their own, longer-established, better-administered tournaments to attend.

Honved’s performance demonstrates that, for all the cross-fertilization that would come from European club competition, Europe had already taken the game beyond England. But their defeat preshadowed another feature of the 1955-1985 football scene: English clubs, unlike the English national team, were actually able to overcome their technical deficiencies enough to come out on top.

The English club scene was and is incredibly robust. The backwardness and conservatism of English football in general comes from having had seventy years of flourishing domestic competition and relatively little truly international football before the 1950s. But the strength of the clubs and leagues comes from that too.

England played Hungary twice at around this time, and lost both games very heavily – 7-1 in the second instance. Then, as now, English club football and English international football ran on quite different rails. Wolves might not have been the best side on the night, but they weren’t embarrassed as were England. Over the next thirty years, it would prove the case that the finest hour of English clubs would coincide with bewildering lack of success at international level.

Honved’s rise coincided with the rise of the Hungarian national side – unsurprisingly, because they were very much the same players in both cases. But the success of West German clubs in European competition accompanied their national team’s brightest period; likewise Holland.

There are contrary examples. France built the best international side in the world at the turn of the last decade, and its dying lights made it to another World Cup Final in 2006. French club football has never really challenged on the European stage. Spain’s clubs have had extraordinary spells of dominance, but their national team, like England’s, hasn’t translated that into success.

Sufficient to say that there is something very different about international football, and that mysterious factor has been at work from the very beginning of our modern era of club and country international football.

Factor, or factors?

The least part of it would appear to be management. France’s international dominance has had little to do with genius in the dugout. The man who “presided” over their 2006 success openly confessed to using astrology to help him select his squads. Brazil’s various managers have been a mixed bag, and have suffered from intense and often sinister government interference. Holland, Germany and Italy have had great managers in office, with superb track records, and have succeeded – but, with equally good men at the helm, have also suffered.

Taking the entire business seriously seems to help, at least some of the time. There’s never been any thinking in England at the national level about how to develop young talent. The focus here is not on how to raise the standard generally, but how to strengthen one’s own club, how to maintain club structures. Until the 1950s, the nature of English football – industrially-based, maximum-waged, working class – meant that the clubs could pick and choose from the millions of boys playing for small local sides; there was no need to develop talent particularly. The various biographies and autobiographies of this system’s greatest product – the England side of 1946-8 – are repetitive on this score: Matthews, Finney, Lawton, Wright, Ramsey and co. took their own development in hand, and were well aware that they were unusual in doing so.

Give national youth development over to Simon Clifford, and we’ll dominate European and international football for a generation, beginning only fifteen years from now (the 1990 World Cup was seventeen years ago). But we know how long English football is prepared to give Clifford: three months. What follows is from the Garforth Town website:

In the summer of 1997 Clifford borrowed £5,000 from his teachers union and flew to Brazil. Using Juninho’s contacts he met up with several former World Cup stars. “Brazil had won four World Cups. You’d have thought it would have been obvious to go there to learn how they did it, but I was the first person to do so.” Clifford was most impressed with the work ethic. “Brazilians play better than anyone else,” he concluded, “because they train harder than anyone else.

The trip resulted in the BBC documentary A Whole New Ball Game, which came to the attention of Glen Hoddle, England manager at the time, and his assistant John Gorman. The men asked to meet Clifford at a hotel on the outskirts of Leeds. “They wanted to get England playing like Brazil,” Clifford remembers. “I said you are better off starting with kids. They said we haven’t got kids, we’ve got this bloody team and we’re about five months away from the World Cup.

The exchange made Clifford realise that if anyone was going to get England playing like Brazil it was him.

It’s still him. (And, acting in his private capacity, he might yet do it. Although it’s far more likely that another European country will catch on to what he’s doing and run with it).

Moving on from that, another factor – and one we hear an encouraging amount about these days – is fear, performance anxiety. It’s been a feature of England performances for many years – those hair-raising Greenwood-era World Cup qualifying matches spring to mind. The psychological experience of playing for England – away from everything comfortable and familiar, in front of fans (some of whom hate your club and therefore you) who are playing out their own “Triumph of the Will” type fantasies, against teams for whom a game with England is the highlight of a career – is utterly different from that of even the highest reaches of the club game.

And there’s the question of what it all means. Brazil’s earliest successes came from a specific decision that football would be the medium of national projection, a decision taken at governmental level. English football fans are primarily concerned with their own club’s place in the world (thus that idea, held on to by about fifty clubs, that they “deserve” to be in the Premiership/”Europe” and “belong” there).

Team England only maintain their place in the world when they win. If they lose, then they are a drag on the national puissance. They are rarely or never in a position to add to it, and in that sense there is no purpose to the England team, nowhere for it to go.

Failure is the only option in a world that considers failure not to be an option. The message to the England team is: “we want you to win, we’ll hate you when you lose, and as a country we’re prepared to do nothing to help you along. Oh, and you have to worship us if we actually turn up to a game.”

It’s a peculiar situation for an England international: their success is both very important, and yet not important enough to take any serious behind-the-scenes action to help it out. Italy are just as apt to slaughter their national side, yet take football development entirely seriously (read a few issues of Gazzetto Dello Sport and compare it with an English paper with good football coverage like the Times or Telegraph. And remember too that Italy has a college devoted to training managers and has done for decades: our existing coaching courses, by comparison to theirs, are funny little things). Germany and Spain both have rather different ideas about national identity to ours, which has its impact on the psychological scenario their players find themselves in.

Almost all of this had yet to happen in 1954, but you can sense it trying to take shape on that mudbath of a pitch in the Black Country. The most interesting game of the 1950s: how rarely can you say about one match, that it has the entire future of the game within it?

The entire future of the game, excepting, of course, for the fact that the English won.

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