Prophet or traitor? How the mastermind behind the Magyars became an outcast in his homeland

The 50th anniversary of the Magic Magyars match beckons. Norman Fox pays homage to an unrecognised pioneer
Click to follow
The Independent Football

With the memorable exception of 1966 when Alf Ramsey inspired an unremarkable but highly motivated England to win the World Cup, the birthplace of organised football has consistently failed to make a serious impact on the global game. The recent European Championship qualifying draw in Turkey showed commendable spirit but little real artistry or imagination. That has been the story for much of the last 50 years.

On 25 November, 1953, a crowd of 100,000 peered through the Wembley murk to see England fall to their first home defeat by Continental opposition. Hungary's victory was bad enough, a humiliating 6-3, but the margin in skill with the ball could be measured in decades. Those were the decades in which a little Lancastrian, Jimmy Hogan, had been coaching abroad and constantly warning that football in his homeland was about to be overtaken by the more technically proficient sides he had long been teaching. Hungarian players had appreciated and benefited from his instruction even before the First World War and at the end of the triumph in London the visiting delegation dedicated the victory to him. Their association's president, Sandor Barcs, said: "He taught us everything we know about football."

Over the years occasional references to Hogan in football's literature have suggested that on that salient day he sat with the VIPs in the Royal Box. In reality the 70-year-old, who was still coaching Aston Villa's junior players, organised a coach trip for them to see the game. He said they would witness something out of the ordinary, by which they thought he meant that England would demolish the Hungarians, as did most of the Press of the time.

Hogan had long tried to convince English administrators that their football had gone backwards. Ball skills, he said, had been lost in kick and rush. The Football Association's detached, superior attitude meant that they failed to recognise "the shining example of the coaching profession" as the West German team manager Helmut Schoen later described him. In his youth Schoen had been coached by Hogan at Dresden FC.

Hogan's presence at Wembley made England's defeat doubly embarrassing. The England captain, Billy Wright, never one to exaggerate, said: "There were people there that day who were of a mind to call him a traitor." It was not for the first time.

In a remarkable life which had begun as one of 11 children born to Irish parents who moved to Lancashire to find work in the cotton mills of the 1880s, Hogan honed a natural aptitude for skilful football that nevertheless led to only a comparatively modest career with Burnley, Bolton, Swindon and Fulham, where he came under the influence of an artistic group of Scottish players. He formed the opinion that by and large English football failed to promote ball skills and had no trust in those players who mastered them. It was true then and remained so.

In the early part of the last century he went with Bolton on a summer tour of Holland where they overwhelmed Dordrecht. He promised himself that one day he would go back and teach them technique. He kept his vow and in his early thirties became the youngest English coach ever to work full-time on the Continent, starting at Dordrecht. His reputation both as a teacher (his favourite description of how he thought the game should be played was "on-the-carpet football") spread throughout the Continent.

He was talking about a form of Total Football generations before the Dutch and Germans of the Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer era; he encouraged correct diets, persuaded cynical senior professionals to get together before games in what is now called "bonding", and whereas in England the cloth-capped "trainers" continued to insist that a player deprived of the ball all week would be all the more hungry for it on a Saturday, he made sure that almost all training was done with one.

His work took him to Austria, where in partnership with Hugo Meisl he created the foundation of the great "Wunderteam" who astounded England with their skill at Stamford Bridge in 1932 when losing by only 4-3. Then to Hungary where his inspirational work spawned the "Magic Magyars" who beat England. He worked in France, Germany and even Africa where in the 1930s he predicted that one day "these players will shock the world with their skill". But in addition to coaching thousands of players and discovering talented ones on local parks, his life was an adventure.

Shortly before the start of the First World War he was coaching in Austria but was told there was no need to worry about returning home to England. It was poor advice. On the opening day of war he was arrested and thrown into prison. He was released but interned, working as a gardener, odd job man and tennis coach (he was of national standard himself) for two British businessmen who were married to Austrians. On his return to Britain he was almost destitute but heard that football people who had fallen on hard times could apply to the FA for a benefit of £200. He went along but the secretary, Frederick Wall, offered him only a pair of khaki socks. "We gave these to the boys in the War and they were very grateful," he told Hogan. The clear message was "traitor".

A few years before the Second World War began he had to get out of Germany quickly and escaped into France with his family's life savings sewn into his plus fours. On his return to England he managed Aston Villa and Fulham and was the subject of a Press campaign to be made England manager after the 1953 débâcle. But at heart he remained a coach of rare influence. Tommy Docherty, whom he taught at Celtic, said: "It was in the days of Charlie Tully and players like that and they looked upon coaching as a bit of a joke. But Jimmy was a fantastic man. I was amazed by his practical ability. Even as an old man he could still hit a bucket from 30 yards. He was a very religious Roman Catholic, he never swore. His arrival at Celtic Park was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Equally, Ron Atkinson, who was a junior player at Villa, said: "His coaching was revolutionary at the time. We did everything with the ball, which was foreign to coaching in those days. You talk about people being ahead of their time, well he was certainly that. People called him Uncle Jimmy. You always looked forward to being in his group. I can't remember him ever once raising his voice but he got all of the respect." The great Irish winger Peter McParland recalls that Hogan carried on coaching at Villa Park until he was 76 and "even at that age he could do anything with the ball except make it talk".

Hogan died in 1974 aged 91. Tributes poured in from all over the Continent but in England his achievements remained largely unrecognised.

'Prophet or Traitor?' by Norman Fox is published by The Parrs Wood Press at £9.95 (Tel: 0161 226 446). You also can purchase the book from Independent Books Direct (0870 800 1122).