Wembley, Hungary, 1953…these magic words are making a return as November 25 approaches. In a guest post, Prof. Dil Porter of DeMontfort University was speaking to George Robb in 2001 to interview him about the match and what it meant for England.
Beaten by Foreigners
As the 25th November approaches we are being reminded of the afternoon at Wembley, more than sixty years earlier, when Hungary became the first team from outside the British Isles to inflict a home defeat on England. I choose my words carefully. Eire (now the Republic of Ireland) had already beaten England 2-0 at Goodison Park, the home of Everton FC, in 1949, though the English stubbornly refused to regard the Irish as ‘foreign’, perhaps because so many of the Irish team that day were playing for English clubs.
No-one could deny that the Hungarians were ‘foreign’. Hungary had never been a part of Britain’s Empire. Hungarians didn’t speak English and they didn’t play cricket. Moreover, Hungary was a satellite of the Soviet Union and thus behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, a mysterious place fraught with danger as far as the English were concerned. After an English businessman had been arrested for spying in Budapest a few years earlier the Economist suggested that ‘normal conduct of business activities behind the Iron Curtain is now virtually impossible’.
Business as usual for England’s national side meant winning home matches against foreign opposition, though they had been run close on a number of occasions. In the end the comprehensive nature of the defeat and the tactical and technical superiority of the Hungarians that left a lasting impression that something important had happened. On the day after the match the News Chronicle carried a photograph of Gyula Grosics, Hungary’s goalkeeper, celebrating by ‘walking’ on his hands. ‘NOW THE WORLD IS REALLY UPSIDE DOWN!’, was the accompanying headline.
But what was it like to have played in this momentous match? I was fortunate, in 2001, to have an opportunity to interview George Robb, called up to play on the left wing for England after an injury to Tom Finney. Robb had a distinguished career. He was capped 18 times for England’s amateur team and played for Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics before turning professional and making 200 appearances for Tottenham Hotspur during the 1950s. What was sometimes referred to in the press as ‘The Match of the Century’ was his only full international appearance.
‘We’d go out and do a bit of training’
George was a part-time professional, combining his football career with teaching in a North London school. When he was contacted and invited to join the England squad at short notice, he ‘had to go and get permission to get a day off school and so on’. The demands of the English League programme dictated that even a match of this importance was scheduled for a Wednesday afternoon.
Having completed these formalities he joined manager Walter Winterbottom and the other selected players at Hendon Hall a day or so before the match. As far as he could remember England’s preparations were low key: ‘So we just turned up there, and Walter would give us a talk and we’d go out and do a bit of training, just a few basic moves and so on … but very little as far as I was concerned, very little really’. It now seems an odd way to have prepared for a prestige friendly against a side widely recognized as one of the best in the world, who had trained and played together for some years.
In one sense, George was better prepared than his team-mates. He had watched the Hungarians win the Olympic tournament at Helsinki. ‘Whether they were amateurs or pros’, he reflected, ‘they were a really good side, and we went along to see them in the final … and obviously they were a class outfit’. He also felt that the ‘push and run’ football favoured by Tottenham at the time was not dissimilar to the way in which Puskas & Co liked to play. ‘I don’t mean to say that the Hungarians copied it from Tottenham … but certainly Tottenham and the Hungarian side played the same kind of thing … short, accurate passing, you didn’t hang on to it too long, you moved it around’. We should not forget that there were some progressive coaches in English football in 1953 and Arthur Rowe, Robb’s boss at Spurs, was one of them.
‘We’re up against it here’
The England team had an unsettled appearance. Only five of the side that had played against Northern Ireland two weeks earlier lined up against Hungary. But George felt that he knew what was required of him. As a winger he expected to get ‘clobbered a few times’; it came with the job and he was there to play his natural game: ‘And playing out on the wing … they’d be giving you the ball and you’d run it down and get it across. So there wasn’t much to it, not like a wing-half or a centre-half where you were absolutely a lynchpin’.
Hidegkuti scored in the first minute for Hungary who dominated the game from the start. Though England equalized, the visitors added three more goals before half-time, going in 4-2 up. I asked George what was said in the England dressing-room at the interval.
Well, Walter Winterbottom … not much he could say. He couldn’t say “You’re not trying”. He was just saying we’ve got to pick up on this player, well certainly Puskas … somebody must go back and pick up Hidegkuti because he’s the mainspring, let’s put pressure on, you know, the general things that coaches always say. I mean you hear it every time … It’s all good stuff and it needs putting into your mind again but on this occasion we obviously felt, we’re up against it here but we continued to battle on.
As George recalled, the home side were always chasing the game. This may help to explain the six goals conceded. It was important ‘to try to get something back and that possibly left ourselves open again at the back’. He acknowledged throughout, however, that England had been outplayed by a much better side. When I suggested that England should have got more credit for the three goals they did score, he responded reflectively:
… but, I mean, 6-3, it’s a walloping therefore you shouldn’t. If you’re a country of the standard of football that we allegedly had gained and taught the rest of the world, we shouldn’t have been beaten by a side at home by that score. But you’ve then got to say that Hungary were a very, very good side and they possibly caught us on a bad day and I don’t think we quite had the team work that they had. We weren’t united as a team in the same way as they were, and they’d come though success after success.
‘It brought everyone down to earth’
Though the result was a shock to English complacency the response seems to have been relatively restrained by modern standards. We should be careful not to view international football in 1953 as if it was the same as it is now. In England, beating the Australians at cricket to win back the Ashes in the summer probably meant more to most people than losing at home to Hungary on a Wednesday afternoon in November.
By the following Saturday even the most devoted follower of the English game was probably more preoccupied with the performance of his local favourites rather than the shortcomings of the national side, especially as so few people had seen the match live. The second half had been televised but relatively few people had access to television at the time.
Had there been any changes in the approach to the game in England after its top players had been taught such a lesson by the new masters? George recalled that it ‘stayed much the same’, though there was eventually more emphasis on honing individual skills and developing passing movements. Maybe the English were learning that they would have to work harder to maintain the leading position in the world game that they had previously taken for granted.
George Robb died in 2011. He was a nice man, as generous with his time as with the credit he gave to his opponents. He deserves the last word:
I think it only brought everyone down to earth … that we still had a bit to do, that you couldn’t afford to stand still, and that other countries were making greater strides than we were … We viewed the Hungarian performances as extremely good and something we’ve got to work up to. We’d always led the way hadn’t we?
For the full version of my interview with George Robb see Sport in History, vol. 23 (2), Winter 2003-04, pp.61-67