December 27, 2010

Review:The Anatomy of England: A history in ten matches

November 25 1953 is a date burnt into the memory of English football. A team including several of England's best ever players (Stanley Matthews at rightwing, Stan Mortenson at centre forward, Alf Ramsey and Billy Wright) were not merely defeated but were thrashed in the Autumn at Wembley. It was England's first ever defeat at home- a record that had stood for ninety years- and symbolised the ways in which the inventors of football had been left behind tactically and imaginatively. Harry Johnstone, the centrehalf from Blackpool, was unable to find the Hungarian centre forward who played very deep, Matthews was uninvolved until late in the game and his counter part on the left Robb, a school master whose pupils were in the crowd, was completely isolated. The Hungarian side led by Puskas simply left England in the dust, playing the game a way that had been antique twenty years before in a style that was prehistoric. Traditionally this game marked the moment at which England became an inferior side. Previous defeats in the World Cup (against America in 1950) or internationally (Spain in 1928) were ignored domestically or explained a way (dodgy food or heat) but Hungary had taken on and beaten England on a November day in London. Short of dragging the Europeans to Hull and feeding them chip butties for three days, there weren't many more English conditions and the English had been thrashed.

Jonathan Wilson's new book about the history of English football reflects on this and ten other games which have significantly influenced the way that the English have felt about their national game. Wilson's story both magnifies and diminishes games like that at Wembley in November 1953. It magnifies it because it is a story focused around separate matches. There is no denying that football is tied to specific moments: England and Hungary's battle in 1953 demonstrated something about English football. Harry Johnstone couldn't pick up his opponent because England were tactically behind the Hungarians. It also diminishes those games by illustrating how far they are part of a longer narrative, they are peaks in an overall story. England had been beaten before 1953 by foreign sides, in 1929 they were destroyed by Spain for example in the first of Wilson's games. The memory of English defeat though stretches back to the turn of the century with the Scottish sides of the 1900s who passed their way through English individualistic midfielders. Games reflect a longue duree, a history of the game which suddenly is revealed in individual instances. In that sense Wilson performs here the classic task of a historian: he takes isolated moments from the past and strings them together with a philosophical approach, he is both an antiquarian and a philosopher, a Coke and a Voltaire and hence becomes the combination an historian.

So what's the story? Wilson identifies two issues that English football has faced since the 1930s if not before. One is an addiction towards individualism. The greatest exponents of that individualism were the old fashioned wingers. The iconic moment for Matthews in Turin in 1948 was when he was remembered to have gone past a fullback, stopped the ball, taken out a comb and straightened his hair and then gone past the same fullback again. Its untrue but is a wonderful story to exemplify English individualism. Perhaps the greatest exponent of that theme was Paul Gascoigne, a player who could never be caught thinking, was as daft as a brush (and consequently put one in his sock) but for a couple of moments in 1990 and 1996 was a genius. The second aspect, tied to the first, was a reliance on effort over tactics. Ken Wolstoneholme cried out against Hungary that some good old fashioned tackling would sort out the Hungarians. He was the prototype for every football fan who ridicules Arsenal's ticcy taccy style and proclaims that Blackburn, Bolton and Stoke will sort them out by tackling hard. Again you can see the line through to the modern day, Kevin Keegan's England were the epitome of the all effort and no thought. Notice the double theme, whether the winger who stands a solitary genius or the growling centre half (think Dave Mackay holding Billy Bremner) the ideal is not to think. Jonathan Wilson casts English football as an unintellectual pursuit, occasionally wrestled into thinking about itself by a visionary (Ramsey in 66, Venables in 96) or by accident (Robson 90).

Within that macro story, Wilson does allow the celebration of individual generations. For example, he writes perceptively about the England Italy game of 1948. He argues that in that game, England played possibly her greatest ever forward line- Matthews on the right, Mortenson at inside forward, Lawton at centre forward, Mannion as the other inside forward and Finney on the left. The English beat the then world champions four nil in Turin. Wilson argues that this was in part due to the virtuosity on display. He blends through his matches the rise and fall of playing careers- by 1972 against Germany many of the players who had won the world cup especially Bobby Moore the captain were too old. During the 2000s, the golden generation both represented an amazing opportunity- Wilson identifies that players brought up at the same club have an instinctual understanding of where they need to accommodate each other and that generation included the Fergie Fledglings (Neville, Neville, Beckham, Butt, Scholes)- but were brought down by clumsy management (England lost Scholes their best player in 2004) and over expectation. This threading of the generations through the story fuses the tactical with the tale of talent. Football history is about judgement but its about the luck of producing great players at the same time and using them to win something: when a golden generation and tactical insight come together you get the Spanish success of 2008 and 2010.

This is a pretty convincing story: and Wilson makes his points well. The debate over how to fit Lampard and Gerrard into the same midfield is finely ridiculed. His discussion of the older more insular English football culture is brilliant. However one element is missing. When Matthews played, he played in a league where there were no foreign players and no foreign managers: the only foreign players you encountered were oddities (see Trautman, Bert) or Scottish or Irish. Since 1980 and probably since the World Cups of the seventies, through television and through the growth of football as a business, the entire game all over the world has become internationalised. Stephen Gerard for example has been managed for most of his career by a Frenchman and a Spaniard. Frank Lampard has worked since 2001 for an Italian (Ranieri), a Portuguese (Mourinho), an Isreali (Grant), a Brazilian (Scolari), a Dutchman (Hiddink) and another Italian (Ancellotti): it is in that period that all save one of his England caps were awarded. During his time at Chelsea Lampard's most frequent midfield partners have also been international. What you are seeing since 1990 and probably earlier too is a fusion of football cultures. Famously it took place at Arsenal in culinary terms: the new French manager Arsene Wenger refused to allow his squad to eat steak and chips, replacing them with pasta and vegetables. Wilson doesn't fit that into his story of English football nor does he speculate on how that internationalisation of football will leave national style.

The other thing that Wilson doesn't do as well is tie his story back into the story of England and football itself. Obviously the hubris of 1953 faded at almost the same time as Suez, but such a comparison is facile. The interesting questions about English football remain who goes, who plays and who pays and have the answers changed. The 1990s changed the spectators a lot: anecdote suggests more women and middle class people went (as the middle class expanded- another story- football may have been a way for the socially aspirant to retain their origins). Furthermore in terms of the wider history of football, was it necessary for England to lose its power? The magic of contemporary football glimmers with memories of different national styles- Brazil, Argentina, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Uruguay, Sweden, Hungary, Austria all have their proud football histories. Without the achievement of so many nations, would football be as popular? English decline was inevitable because of the size of its population relative to the rest of the world, but one wonders had it not happened- had England dominated as America does in its sports, would football have been so popular.

Wilson's book like all good books opens up further questions, but those questions go out from his matches out into the impact of football onto a wider world- a wider world of class tensions, national rivalries and ultimately the choice of individual humans to watch and play a global and not an English game.


James Hamilton said...

This is an extremely polite review, but reading between the lines, I think we are agreed on two things: (1)This is Wilson's worst book and a severe let-down (2) His publishers were demanding a book that might actually sell i.e. it's not altogether Wilson's fault. But it is a surprise to find him, of all people, doing something as lunkheaded as hanging a narrative around a set of ten matches. He can't possibly believe in what he's doing - surely?

There are a couple of things that I'd like to add about hubris and 1953.

The first is that, if you listen to Wolstenholme's entire 1953 commentary, you find him warning before the kickoff about the Hungarian's terrific football and great recent international record, and feeding that insight into a brief discourse about England's post-1948 international decline. He predicts a very difficult game indeed, and perhaps a clear defeat.

The second is, hubris by whom? It's actually very hard to find anyone writing in the 48-53 period who actually thought that England were the unbeatable kings of soccer. The hubris idea might be yet another of those untrue "facts" that hang around and hinder English football.

Both Matthews and Finney came back from England's very difficult 1950 World Cup well aware of how the country stood. Thereafter, Matthews had his own Brazilian-style light boots made for him, and both men, along with Walter Winterbottom, were keen to change the coaching culture in England. Sixty years on, it's yet to happen.

It's not often said, but the '53 side were a poor, interim England, a mixture of ageing and inadequate players similar to that available to Graham Taylor in the early '90s. Between 1955 and 1958, and between 1961 and 1963, England's international team were a match for anyone in Europe, if not South America, whereas the Hungarians, who got it all right up to 1954, sank back into relative mediocrity. 1953 was their only victory over England in England, and their last victory over England of any kind came in 1962. Since then, England have won 11 of 13 internationals and drawn the other two.

Nor was '53 Hungary's first victory over England. They beat us in 1934 too, the third continental side to do it in 5 years, following Spain (1929) and France (1931). The post Dixie Dean era...

"..the ideal is not to think." Yes, and I can't help wondering if this apparently most English of traits isn't actually used up by now, whether it hasn't become one of a number of ways in which English football isn't actually cut off from mainstream English life.

Gracchi said...

James you saw between my lines! Yes it is Wilson's weakest book- I did like some sections like the parts on the Spain England game and that on the game between Hungary and England. But its not as good as Inverting the Pyramid!

On 1953 I take your points and think you are right- the great hidden question that Wilson doesn't face is Munich- the names of Byrne, Taylor, Edwards, should have lit up the world cups of 1958 and 62 not to mention it should have been Duncan Edwards in 1966. I think the book gets much weaker as you get into the more modern era.

As to not thinking, I'm not convinced. There is the Peter Reid, Kevin Keegan tendency but I'm not sure that you could ever accuse Chapman or Clough of not thinking. It would have been interesting to read more from the players in the dressing room about the techniques and ideas of those who managed them.

Anonymous said...

I can, in fact, remember this match and the profound sense of shock that it caused throughout the country in 1953. Even worse was to follow when Hungary beat England 7-1 in Budapest the following year. It became immediately apparent that, in terms of skill and in tactics, sides like Hungary were far superior. All the newspapers were full for the ensuing months of suggestions about how England could catch up. We did have skilful players but a selection system that allowed amateur representatives of the clubs to pick our national side. There was relatively little coaching and training based on running rather than ball skills: some clubs believed that denying the players footballs during training made their players keener to have the ball during matches. However, clubs like Wolves and Manchester United did appreciate what had happened, hence their matches with Russian clubs like Dynamo Moscow in the case of Wolves and in the European Cup in that of Manchester United. Had it not been for the Munich air crash, it is possible that England's performances in the subsequent World Cups might have been better. Ramsey was the perfect manager for the World Cup of 1966 played in England but too conservative thereafter as the 1968European nations' championship showed. I ought to add in passing that the soccer defeat of 1953 was not really comparable to the Suez adventure of 1956 and its aftermath: if Eden had held his nerve when the American ultimatum was delivered for another 24 hours, the Suez canal would almost certainly have been in British and French hands in its entirety.

James Higham said...

Isn't it interesting that rugby promotes the opposite in England - stick to the game plan, the tactics and no individualism.

That makes England good on a heavy track where discipline is required but not so good when expansive play is required.

James Hamilton said...

Thank you Anonymous for a really interesting comment. Made me put my thinking cap back on!

It makes me wonder if there is a difference between full-on hubris - by which I mean people assuming that England were the Kings of Football before 1953, which I doubt very much (not after 1950, but if they'd said that in 1946-8, when England had perhaps their greatest ever team, it would not have been hubris but a thoroughly decent claim to make) -

a difference between hubris, and what Anonymous refers to - *shock*. Because 6-3 and 7-1 were, and are, unprecedented scorelines for England. England do not ship goals on that sort of scale. It would be a shock now, even knowing that we are low in the top 20 of footballing nations.

It's an interesting question: had England NOT played Hungary home and away, would any other result fill the psychological space those games occupy? Perhaps the West Germany and Holland defeats of the early and mid 70s? Take away the Magyars, and England's worst results are only by 4, something England themselves have inflicted on top European sides in living memory.

Anonymous said...

I think that English claims to pre-eminence in football were widely made before 1953 and equally widely believed in England even though we had suffered defeats at the hands of the home nations and abroad. What the loss to Hungary by 6 goals to 3 brought home so dramatically was that England's team was tactically inferior to a continental one and in terms of skill. I was going home on a bus from my school when I heard that England had scored three and conceded four goals, a scoreline that violated everything my father had told me and that I had read in the national newspapers about England's standing in the game. For weeks and months after then, the papers were full of soul-searching and unconvincing instant remedies. The best that could be said about England's 1958 and 1962 World Cup performances was that they were mediocre. It was not until 1965-66 that England had a decent team again. However, I still think that of 1970 was better still. The best teams I have ever seen were the Hungarians of 1954 and the Dutch of 1974, neither of which won their World Cups, but both were better by a small margin than the best Brazilian teams. England has, alas, not figured as a world-class team for almost four decades.

Gracchi said...

Most recent anon- I would disagree partly about 1958. I would argue that England's team at the World Cup was not that great- but that was a team minus its leading central defender Byrne, its leading centre forward Taylor and its best young prospect Edwards. James has some interesting reflections on that team here.

1990 unfortunately is clouded for me because it was my first proper world cup and I was only 9 when I watched it. 1996 I think we were briefly good against Holland- I don't think that should be underrated, its easy to forget how many good players that Dutch side had. In 1998 again we had one world class performance- the last one against Argentina where until Beckham's sending off my memory is that England played well. You could say the same about a couple of the Eriksson performances- and wonder what might have happened had Rooney not been injured against Portugal in 2004. I don't think we have ever had a team come togehter like the 66 team though and play that well for a long period of time since then.