World Cup Football: A game made stagnant by tradition

ENGLAND AT THE WORLD CUP 1954 Switzerland; POOL 4 England 4 Belgium 4 (aet) England 2 Switzerland 0 QUARTER-FINALS W Germany 2 Yugoslavia 0 Austria 7 Switzerland 5 Uruguay 4 England 2 Hungary 4 Brazil 2 SEMI-FINALS W Germany 6 Austria 1 Hungary 4 Uruguay 2 FINAL W Germany 3 Hungary 2Ken Jones talked to Tom Finney about a campaign weakened before it had started by two demoralising defeats to Hungary
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IT DIDN'T seem fair, some said facetiously, that England should have to face Hungary again just six months after a 6-3 thumping at Wembley and just before the 1954 World Cup finals. "They were a bit special," Tom Finney chuckled.

Now Sir Tom, the gifted winger Bill Shankly described as "gizzly strong'' missed the Wembley slaughter through injury but he was back for the return in Budapest. Another rout, this time 7-1, the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, in head-holding despair on the touchline. "Didn't do much for our confidence I can tell you,'' Finney, now 76, added.

Finney can laugh about it now but he remembers the gloom in England's dressing- room. He remembers, too, what one of England's selectors (it would be another nine years before Alf Ramsey took away their ludicrous power) said solemnly before the match - "the Hungarians are very worried about you. Remember they have not seen half our players, and they don't fancy their chances.''

Finney caught Ivor Broadis's wink and heard him whisper, "Who does he think he's kidding. If the Hungarians are worrying, what about us?''

Hungary, the 1952 Olympic champions and now World Cup favourites, the team of Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Josef Boscik and Sandor Koscis, ripped England apart, giving the best exhibition of teamwork Finney had ever seen. "We couldn't live with them,'' he said.

Coming on top of a 1-0 defeat by Yugoslavia in Belgrade that could easily have been much worse, Hungary's superiority triggered off suggestions that England should do the decent thing and withdraw from the finals in Switzerland.

After all, nothing much had come from the 1950 debacle or the loss of England's unbeaten home record. In a tradition-bound Football League the thinking remained stagnant. "Put the Hungarians in our game, week in, week out, and, I'm telling you, it would be a different story,'' one manager sneered.

Finney had returned from service in Italy during the Second World War to figure brilliantly in a powerful England team. "I think if the first post-war World Cup had come a couple of years sooner we would have been in with a real chance,'" he said. "Unfortunately it came a little too late for players like Raich Carter, Tommy Lawton, Frank Swift and George Hardwick who would have been outstanding in any company.''

If wary of the Football Association's stern secretary, Stanley Rous (later to be knighted and made Fifa president), and mindful of Winterbottom's problems, senior football writers of the day question England's approach to international football.

Finney held them blameless. "The players and the press got on pretty well in those days, much better than they appear to do now, and we could understand the criticism. Walter Winterbottom put in a lot of hard work and knew as much about international football as anyone, but we weren't going anywhere.''

Opportunities for Winterbottom to work with his players were scarce, training get-togethers unheard of. "There was nothing like the amount of internationals we have now,'' Finney said. England played just once between the defeats by Hungary, a 4-2 victory over Scotland at Hampden Park. "Most of our matches at that time were against the other home countries,'' Finney added, "so we didn't often come up against different ways of playing.''

Fifa kept to a mini-league system for the 1954 finals but could not resist a little tinkering. Two teams in each group were seeded and would play only the two non-seeds.

England began their programme with a draw against Belgium in Basle. Level 3-3 at the end of ordinary time, they drew 4-4, a result which meant that their goalkeeper Gil Merrick had given away 20 goals in five matches. "It wasn't fair to make Gil entirely responsible,'' Finney said, "but people were looking for scapegoats and he was an easy target. We just didn't defend very well.''

At least England had showed enough sense to include Stanley Matthews. And for the next match, against Switzerland in Berne, they at last found themselves a centre-half. Although Billy Wright had become established as one of the leading figures in English football, captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers and the national team, he was only an average wing-half.

Syd Owen, the latest to be tried as a replacement for the irreplaceable Franklin, had been through such a torrid time that Winterbottom had to find a centre-half from the men he had available. Influenced by the spring that enabled Wright, who was only 5ft 8in, to outjump much taller forwards, Winterbottom turned to his captain. "Billy went on to be one of the best in the position,'' Finney said. "For such a shortish chap he was very good in the air and not many got the better of him on the ground.''

Defeating Switzerland 2-0, England went forward to meet Uruguay in the quarter-finals. "We played well,'' Finney said, "but not well enough. Uruguay were simply to good for us.''

Blamed for three of the goals, Merrick's international career was over. For Finney there would be another World Cup, his third. And another disappointment.