Football: The lasting past masters

The Anniversary: 45 years ago the magical Magyars played in a way that changed the game
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The Independent Online
IT WAS the result that shook the world. England had been beaten before but not like this and not in their own backyard. The scoreline was England 3 Hungary 6, and if it was a false reflection of events at Wembley that day it was only because the visitors could have had more.

Nor was it merely the goals. On 25 November 1953 Hungary took the game to heights never before seen in Britain and left observers in no doubt that the place where the game was born had been left far behind in developing its strategies and finesse.

"It was the low point of my football career," said Jackie Sewell on the eve of the 45th anniversary of the seminal match. "But I was glad to be part of it because none of us had ever witnessed football like it. We knew we had been part of history and we knew we had to change."

Sewell, then the most expensive player in England at pounds 34,500, was inside- right and briefly offered the side a glimmer of hope. Hungary had taken the lead in the first minute when Nandor Hidegkuti received a pass from Ferenc Puskas outside the area, took a look, a touch and unfurled a quite lethal shot.

Sewell, now 71 and one of five members of England's side still living, equalised for England when he ran into space in the area and took Stan Mortenson's pass in his stride. But he knew even then that it was a meaningless and temporary parity.

"You could see in their faces that they didn't mind," he said. "They had come to attack and were perfectly confident doing it. They formed little triangles down the field, looked where they were passing and if they couldn't go one way turned and passed in another direction. We had trouble getting the ball."

Nobody had as much trouble as England's captain and defensive colossus Billy Wright. Hidegkuti restored the lead before Puskas ran on to the ball near the right side of England's area. In the years afterwards Wright always came clean about what happened next.

"Puskas controlled the ball with the sole of his left boot," he said on one of the countless occasions he was asked to describe the incident. "As I made a challenge he pulled the ball back like a man loading a shotgun and fired into the net all in one sweet movement while I was tackling thin air." The doyen of football writers then was Geoffrey Green of The Times and he wrote that Wright "flew into the tackle like a fire engine going in the wrong direction for the blaze".

Puskas made it four with a neat back-heel, Mortenson reduced the deficit before half-time, Sandor Bozcik scored Hungary's fifth and Hidegkuti made it six with another sublime goal, a volley from Puskas's lobbed pass. Alf Ramsey's late penalty for England could not diminish the novel and breathtaking nature of Hungary's performance.

While England - whose side also included the likes of Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Dickinson and the goalkeeper Gil Merrick - played the traditional 2-3-5 formation Hungary played in a unit of 4-4-2. Hidegkuti played as a deep-lying centre-forward, a creature hitherto unseen by England's defenders, who had no notion how to cope.

But it was not only about formation, it was about ball control and accurate passing all culminating in a readiness to shoot from all manner of angles. "It wasn't a case of underestimating them," said Sewell. "We knew they were Olympic champions and unbeaten for nearly 30 games. Walter Winterbottom, our manager, had been to watch them, but nobody could have been prepared for this. I never had to run so much on a football pitch without having the ball."

The result reverberated throughout the game (and meant so much, incidentally, that it is still the subject of player reunions, including another in Budapest this week). Hidegkuti recalled that the team went home via France where they were feted, and then travelled by train through Switzerland and Austria. "There were people at every railway station clapping us because of the sensation we had created."

As soon as the match finished it was clear that English football would have to alter its approach or be prepared to suffer regular defeats. The England players realised that whatever talents they possessed, they were still performing a primitive version of the game. Indeed, some might argue that we still are.