In 1953, the English believed themselves to be masters of the football universe. Arrogant and insular, they had declined to enter a team in the first three FIFA World Cups™ and considered their position as football’s pre-eminent power to be beyond dispute. The fact that they had never been beaten at home by continental opposition merely strengthened this sense of superiority, and when Hungary arrived in November of that year, they were viewed merely as the latest lambs to the slaughter.
What followed, of course, was a match that not only shattered English misconceptions, but changed the game forever. The record books show only that the visiting Magyars won 6-3, but it was the stylish and emphatic way in which the victory was achieved – with 35 shots to their hosts’ five – that was most significant. One English newspaper, The Times, summed up the feelings of all present under the headline: “A new conception of football”. "Here, indeed, did we attend, all 100,000 of us, the twilight of the gods," wrote their correspondent, Geoffrey Green.
Jackie Sewell, one of the England players that day, recalled with wonder facing a team he described as “easily the best I ever saw play football”. “Their movement was incredible,” he added. “They just passed around us all day long. They played little triangles, the give-and-go ones you see everyone trying to do now. But no-one did it back then - no-one I'd seen anyway.”
The whole, humiliating experience would have been galling enough for the English, but a post-match revelation from the Hungarians served to deepen their despair. Pressed by journalists for the secret behind the team’s revolutionary style of play, Sandor Barcs, president of the Hungarian FA, replied: “Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football.” Coach Gustav Sebes later added: “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters."
The Three Lions’ undoing, it transpired, had been brought about by one of their own; a man revered throughout continental Europe but whose views and methods had been sneered at in a country that considered itself all-knowing. England’s loss had been the gain of not only Hungary, but Austria, where Hogan forged with Hugo Meisl the great ‘Wunderteam’ of the 1930s, the Netherlands, Switzerland – whom he led to unprecedented successes – and Germany. Among his German disciples was Helmut Schon, the 1974 FIFA World Cup winner who described his former mentor at Dresdner SC as “the shining example of the coaching profession”. When Hogan passed away in 1974 aged 91, the DFB even lauded him as “the father of modern football in Germany”.
Back in England, those who weren’t asking “Jimmy who?” were questioning his patriotism. As Billy Wright, captain of the team beaten by Hungary, admitted: “There were people there that day who were of a mind to call him a traitor.” But Hogan had not turned his back on England; England had turned its back on him. As a young man, he had abandoned plans to become a priest to pursue a playing career at clubs such as Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, with whom he reached an FA Cup semi-final in 1908. While on a summer tour of the Netherlands, he was part of a Bolton side that thrashed local outfit Dordrecht, and vowed to return to return to “teach them how to play”. He proved good to his word.
By his early 30s, he was established as the Dutch side’s coach and, unlike in England – where strength and stamina were still considered all-important – Hogan had pupils ready to embrace his view that the future of football lay in passing, movement and ball control. Many, in fact, credit him as the true father of the ‘Total Football’ philosophy later introduced to the world by Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Co in the 1970s.
Emboldened by his success in the Netherlands, Hogan moved on to Austria to work with Meisl, although his football evangelising came to a temporary halt when – as an ‘enemy national’ in Vienna - he was jailed and later interned throughout the First World War. He returned to England once hostilities ended, but having been greeted frostily, he soon made his way back to continental Europe, taking charge of MTK Budapest. It was there that the seeds of Hungary’s future footballing identity were first planted, although Hogan’s nomadic streak quickly kicked in again, taking him to various Swiss and German clubs as well as Switzerland’s national team, all the while delivering lectures, imparting his tactical philosophy to clubs throughout Europe.
The worsening political situation in Germany during the 1930s resulted in Hogan returning to Austria, where he was reunited with Meisl and set about constructing the ‘Wunderteam’ whose stylish brand of football wowed everyone during the 1934 FIFA World Cup and the 1936 Olympics. He then carried his innovative message onwards to France and even into Africa, and it was only when he was well into his 50s that he finally returned to Britain, enjoying a brief stint with Fulham before becoming manager at Aston Villa.
Ron Atkinson, who was a youth player at Villa at the time, remembers the impact he made. “His coaching was revolutionary at that time,” said Atkinson, himself a former Villa and Manchester United manager. “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.”
Such was his unquenchable enthusiasm for the game that, as 1950 approached and his 70th birthday drew closer, Hogan was still out on the training ground, this time in Glasgow as a coach at Celtic. Among the players benefiting at that stage from his inimitable methods was a young Tommy Docherty. “Jimmy was a fantastic man,” he recalled. “I was amazed by his practical ability. Even as an old man he could still hit a bucket from 30 yards. His arrival at Celtic Park was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Docherty went on to enjoy a successful managerial career himself, taking charge of Chelsea, United and Scotland’s national team among several others. He also watched first-hand as the likes of Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Jock Stein worked their magic in the British game. So what is his view on Hogan and his place among these giants of the game? Docherty is unequivocal. “He was the finest coach the world had ever known.”