Sunday marks the 65th anniversary of the day England lost for the first time at Wembley to a team from beyond the British Isles, the consequence of calamitously underestimating a skilful Hungary side.
A small group of young players from Watford football club, shepherded by player-coach Johnny Paton, arrive at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, in the early afternoon of Wednesday 25 November 1953.
They are in good time for the 2.15pm kick-off of the match between England and Hungary, a game that Paton, a 30-year-old whose former clubs included Celtic and Chelsea, is particularly keen his charges should see. ‘Hungary are an exciting team,’ he tells them, ‘and you’re going to learn something about the game from them today.’
Others are less convinced. Charles Buchan, a former England player and one of the most respected commentators on the game, has written in the build-up to the match: ‘The clever ball-control and close passing of the Hungarians do not alarm me in any way.’
Buchan’s smugness reflects the insularity that pervades English football at this time, a mulish refusal to admir Hungary inspite of the evidence: unbeaten in 24 games, unofficially ranked number one in the world and holders of the Olympic title. They are damned by being foreign.
Paton is not so blinkered. Having seen more of the world than most footballers during his service in the RAF, which included playing a great deal of football overseas, he is well aware that antiquated coaching methods and tactical dogma among English clubs are a serious worry for the prospects of the domestic game.
With his professional playing career coming to an end he has acted on this concern by enrolling on the Football Association’s first coaching course at Lilleshall, one of the few initiatives that points towards a more enlightened future.
On this November afternoon Paton takes his unease with him to Wembley. He has no faith in the argument that because England have never lost at home against a team from outside the British Isles Hungary are heading for defeat.
It is impossisble to be sure but almost certainly Paton is at odds with most of the crowd of 100,000. He can tell from the banter that the majority of the crowd, informed only by views such as Buchan’s, are expecting to witness confirmation of English football’s superiority.
Only some of them have taken much notice of reports that Hungary will parade a new style of football. Those who have and are unimpressed are in good company. Billy Wright, the England captain, says afterwards: ‘We completely underestimated the advances Hungary had made.’
He also confesses he ridiculed Hungary after the two teams first came onto the Wembley pitch. He told teammate Stan Mortensen, ‘We should be all right here, Stan’, having observed the visitors wearing what looked more like shoes than boots. ‘They haven’t even got the proper kit.’
Outside the ground, people are paying the ticket touts good money to see Hungary put in their place: a tenner for the £2 10s. top-priced tickets and more than a pound for the cheapest ones sold originally for 3s. 6d.
Paton and his group have seats at one end, behind a goal. They watch the Hungary team warm up before kick-off not by dashing about but by juggling the ball. Paton pays special attention Ferenc Puskas. He notices that Hungary’s captain and emblematic star is all one-footed but reckons if he wanted to he could keep the ball up all day with his foot, head, knee and shoulder. Around him Paton senses the spectators’ awe at what they are watching – and the match hasn’t even started.
Puskas continues to demonstrate his trickery until Wright, his fellow captain, joins him in the centre circle to toss the coin. It is the first time the two men have met. Puskas, having been intricately working the ball with his left foot, signs off by nonchalantly transferring it to his thigh and letting it run down his shin on to the centre spot.
Wright says afterwards that when Puskas then gave him a charming, you’ve-been-warned smile he realised his earlier ridicule had been misjudged.
It is arguable that English football has never learned the lessons of that 6-3 drubbing by Hungary in 1953. They certainly didn’t in the short term, showing little inclination to change their ways in two defeats that followed soon afterwards: an even heavier thrashing by Hungary, 7-1, in a return friendly in Budapest and a 4-2 loss to Uruguay that eliminated them from the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.
The 1966 World Cup triumph was greeted at the time as a new dawn, but even this has become an ironic symbol of our continuing deficiencies. The English game is still admired for its commitment and endeavour, but neither of these dated virtues has done the nation much good in international tournaments, where technically superior sides have prospered.