Jimmy Hogan: the English pioneer who set Hungary up for greatness

Jimmy Hogan: the English pioneer who set Hungary up for greatness

GORE VIDAL ONCE WROTE: “Traitors who prevail are patriots; usurpers who succeed are divine emperors.” If this is the case, then Jimmy Hogan could be said to be the most divine, patriotic emperor to emerge from these shores, but the Lancashire-born son of a staunchly Roman Catholic Irishman would most likely not have felt comfortable with the epithet. Perhaps he would not even have taken notice, for he would have been concentrating all his mind onto the simplest of things – a football.

When discussing the history of English football, it is easy to lose focus amongst the debate over which managers deserve a place in the pantheon of greatness, but the one man who surely stands head and shoulders above the rest spent the majority of his life as a pariah in his own land. His relationship with the nature of the world game was guided by his visionary awareness of matters beyond Dover’s white cliffs, but in a dark twist of fate it was this very same outlook that both inspired the appreciation of his skills abroad and his ostracism in the green and pleasant land of his birth.

In the days of dizzying marketing that have cloaked us in £300,000-a-week salaries, thrust 154 live Premier League matches a season onto our screens and made room for 59 different nationalities in the sport’s richest league, it seems appropriate to look at a man who was way ahead of his time. For all the styles, philosophies and dynasties that have been built in the last century or so of football, one man is responsible for more than most, and his name is Jimmy Hogan.

His tale is one that encapsulates the battle between the ‘arrogant and insular’ early 20th century English, as they are still labelled on world governing body FIFA’s website, and the rest of continental Europe. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not subscribe to the belief that football should be played how it had been played since its inception; he was, first and foremost, a student, and a conscientious one at that. This led him on an endless quest to better himself and his tactics, never believing himself to be the finished product. Throughout his coaching career, he famously never asked anything of his players that he himself was unable to do, and to that end he sought answers to every question he was faced with.

For an extraordinary length of time, the best part of a century, any deviation from the 2-3-5 formation or the W-M championed by Herbert Chapman to great success at Arsenal was viewed with distrustful scrutiny by most of the English football community. It was, after all, a game that had been refined on English fields and had been spread to the rest of the world by Englishmen, so how could foreigners adapt more successfully than the inventors of the sport itself? They had been given the game, so they should damn well play by the rules and system of the game’s creators.

This is not to say Hogan was unique in his concerns. His understanding of the nature of the game and its inevitable worldwide development past the rigid strictures that had been imposed upon it in England was shared by many. CB Fry, the very embodiment of English amateur ideals, commented on the growing move towards withdrawing a half-back into the defensive line in 1897, but with a prescient caveat: “With regard to the shift of withdrawing a forward and putting an extra back, there is much to be said … but unless the players thus moved are versatile and capable of performing satisfactorily the duties of their altered positions it is certainly unwise to play a third back.”

Fry, who aside from playing for Southampton in an FA Cup final also represented his country at cricket, was a celebrated academic, writer, athlete and politician, and even held the world record at long jump, was not driven to explore the potential of preparing for the versatility he spoke of in football. Hogan, who was training to be a priest at the time Fry made his observation of the tactics of football, was. It would still be another year before he even took up football as a teenager with local club side Nelson, but his innate desire to improve himself saw him forge a moderate career as an inside forward.

After moving first to Rochdale and then to Burnley, Hogan began to grow restless in his search for an environment where he could thrive and espouse his burgeoning theories on the game. Jonathan Wilson describes the mentality that made him stand out in his seminal book on the evolution of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid. “His teammates nicknamed him ‘the Parson’ in recognition of his meticulous, almost ascetic disposition. At one point Hogan and his father devised a primitive exercise bike … on which he would cycle 30 miles a day until he realised that far from making him quicker, he was merely tightening his calf muscles.”

One of the curiosities of Hogan, and perhaps the quality that truly sets him aside a great football mind, is that he shared some facets of accepted contemporary wisdom but was crucially able to sift through what he considered necessary and supplemented this with his own theory. His appreciation of the advantages of physical preparation was at least shared by trainers of the time – his attempt to increase his speed is evidence enough of this – but the manner in which it was applied could not have differed more: “The ideal of effortless superiority may have belonged to the early amateurs but it carried over into the professional game. Training, as such, was frowned upon. Players were expected to run, perhaps even practise their sprints, but ball work was seen as unnecessary, possibly even deleterious.”

Even at this early stage of his involvement in football, the divisions between the anachronistic Hogan and those around him were forming. In the modern game it seems incongruous that a player would beg a coach to offer more technical advice to advance his improvement, but a hundred years ago it was his inquisition into his own game that didn’t fit in with the atmosphere of the time. Wilson describes a revealing exchange when the young player approached his manager Spen Whittaker, concerned by missing the target after having beaten a few players, asking for advice. “Had the position of his foot been wrong? Had he been off-balance? Whittaker was dismissive, telling him to keep trying, that to score one out of ten was a decent return.

“Others would have shrugged off the incident, but perfectionist that he was, Hogan dwelt on it. ‘From that day I began to fathom things out for myself,’ he said. ‘I coupled this with taking advice from the truly great players. It was through my constant delving into matters that I became a coach in later life. It seemed the obvious thing, for I had coached myself as quite a young professional.'”

The beauty of football, as with many sports, is that the manner in which it is played can never be entirely controlled by any one influential figure or culture: that belongs entirely to those who play and coach. Ever since numbers were introduced to the back of shirts, right up until the 1950s, they were still used by English teams as the sole method of identifying their on-field opponents and plan their approach to them accordingly, expecting them to correspond quite rigidly to their precise role on the pitch. Delving into matters simply wasn’t done when Hogan made his modest living from football; if the status quo had served teams well enough up until that stage, there was no need – so common consensus dictated – to change it by questioning training methods and playing styles.

Like all great masterminds of the game, he drew inspiration to formulate his signature style, but the main difference between his and that of others is that it was not with a tangible person, team or even country that drove his theory. His relationship with football was forged not with the supporting cast of players or managers per se, but with what he interpreted the future of the game becoming, something of which only he was the master. To be able to explore this fully, he needed to escape the suffocating environment of his Lancashire homeland he found himself in.

The next move he made would be the first major step towards achieving his ambitions. Harry Bradshaw was by then in charge of Fulham but had come across Hogan at Burnley, and impressed by his approach to all aspects of the game, enticed the northerner to the capital to join his project. Bradshaw was a different manager to many around him in that he didn’t arrogantly profess to have a deep, unquestionable understanding of football; ironically, this was his advantage. His strengths lay in running the business, but when it came to overseeing the playing side of operations he took a step back and delegated the coaching to those who were proponents of his favoured style.

This style was ‘the Scottish game’. Since the first ever official international match between England and Scotland in 1872, battles between the two representative sides had been characterised not only by the results but by the philosophies they espoused. By the time an England XI took a side north of the border for the first encounter, the hosts were looking to expand their game in a way that their visitors had already successfully managed to. The FA Cup had been established the year before, and the Glasgow-based Queen’s Park had been invited to take part, but due to the distance they had to travel to fulfil their fixture obligations, they had to pull out of the competition after drawing their semi-final 0-0 against the eventual inaugural champions Wanderers.

Queen’s Park provided half of the team for that historic first match, and the familiarity of the players combined with their inferior physicality contributed to a vastly differing style of play to that of their opponents. Whereas individual dribbling out wide, direct physical confrontation in key areas and deep crosses into the goalmouth area were typical of English play, the Scots favoured a shorter passing game that made the ball do the work. This was considered a less entertaining method of playing by the self-appointed masters, as if it were a cowardly avoidance of noble, virile sport in the truest sense.

The fact that the match ended 0-0, and that the ensuing 15 annual matches produced only two England victories – both at home – showed where the talent and application lay. In what set the tone for the insularity that epitomised their attitude to the game, the English FA refused to concede that they needed to reassess their running of the sport at all levels. In fact, it was the advent of professionalism a decade later which brought about a drain of the finest Scottish players south of the border, levelling the results out but masking the deficiencies in the system employed on the pitch.

The steadfast refusal to adjust after the painfully clear example set for by the early Scottish teams had not gone unnoticed. The Scottish FA secretary Robert Livingstone was scathing in his assessment of England’s approach to the international series in the early 1880s, citing their selfish attitude to holding the ball individually without thought of the team’s success. “Their want of the understanding was rampant … they play each man for himself, ignoring his fellows … It is a style of play the consequences of which are suicidal … the consequences of which are the reverse of glorious.”

His delight is scarcely hidden beneath his words, and while he may have been slightly mistaken in the immediate effect of the style of play on English teams’ success, his point was certainly proven valid in the long term. It was this disparity between the efficiency and development of the two teams that Hogan could not have failed to notice in his formative years, and that framed his move down south to join Fulham. The freedom to better himself alongside his teammates and coaches, many of whom hailed from Scotland as was the increasingly common trend at the time south of the border, was a breath of fresh air.

A rapid rise through the Southern League brought about a promotion to the Second Division, and an FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle in 1908, which turned out to be Hogan’s last match for the club. Injuries had forced him to the sidelines, and as swiftly as he had been brought in by Bradshaw he was offloaded to Swindon. Within a few months he had moved back to the north west with Bolton Wanderers, and despite his new club bouncing between the top two tiers during his time, it was during a pre-season tour to the Netherlands at the end of his first season that his second major break arrived.

After hammering a youthful Dordrecht side made up mostly of university students 10-0, Hogan was intrigued by the attitude of the downtrodden opposition. In them he saw a hunger, despite their unpolished raw talent, and felt an opportunity to test out his philosophy that had been gradually moulded over his decade or so as a player. A year later he received a tip-off from a friend – a successful referee who was often called to officiate abroad and had connections with many foreign administrators – that the same club that had suffered the huge trouncing the previous summer wanted a new coach, and one with connections to the British game at that.

Still only 28, Hogan was appointed, and found the players at his disposal eager to receive his wisdom. A professional approach to training was imposed on the largely amateur players with fitness, tactical instruction and ball work all highly prioritised. This was an age where the English still held an aura of natural authority, and his nationality alone earned him instant respect, but his clear understanding of a system that depended on communication and adaptability enhanced his progress. Heavy sessions of trekking cross-country were the norm for pre-season in England, but it was the last part of Hogan’s preparation that was most revolutionary.

Revolutionary is perhaps not quite the right word in the circumstances. For many decades, perceived wisdom in England dictated that the ball itself was best kept for match day itself to induce a hunger for it during games, but on the continent Hogan had a more or less blank page. The timing of his move was auspicious too, coming as it did between the still nascent stage of mainland Europe’s football development – which still contained a certain reverence for the birthplace of the game – and the increased introversion of England’s outlook.

Such was his success with the club side that he was invited to take charge of the national side in a match against Germany, which he won 2-1, providing a fitting denouement to his two-year contract. He returned to his homeland to continue pursuing a playing career, playing a part in helping Bolton to promotion, but the bug had been well and truly caught. It was the same referee acquaintance who had been instrumental in facilitating his Dutch adventure, James Howcroft, who again played the middle man by introducing him to the legendary Hugo Meisl.

Austrian football owed a huge debt to Meisl for his drive to establish a league system in the early 1920s, as well as a forerunner of continental competition in the Mitropa Cup which was contested by leading clubs from Central Europe. He was even instrumental in devising an international league competition between the nations that provided entrants for the Mitropa Cup. Fluent in Italian, the trained banker’s real passion lay in football, and he rose to prominence in his homeland by working for the Austrian FA as an administrator and eventually team manager.

His foresight was not limited to competitions. Despite his limited playing career, he held a deep fascination with the style with which the game was played, and while he was not himself the ideal perpetrator of coaching methodology, he knew what he liked and how to go about achieving it. He was in charge of the Austrian team for the 1912 Olympics, then the foremost international competition. The first clash between non-British European teams had only taken place nine years earlier, and the jury was still out in some areas of the continent to the enduring popularity of the game on an international level, but Meisl was determined to be a torchbearer.

After a 1-1 draw with Hungary in a warm up to the Olympics in Sweden, Meisl was so disappointed that he asked the referee what he should do to improve his team’s fortunes. The official intimated that he should look to employ a proper professional coach to instil higher standards in the preparation of his players. This advice turned out to be prophetic, as it indirectly led to the formation of one of the great international teams of all time. The man who dispensed the advice to Meisl happened to be a certain James Howcroft, and his recommendation was his friend Jimmy Hogan.

Here was a visionary whom Hogan was naturally drawn towards, but the attraction of the role was based not only on personnel. The atmosphere of football support was only rivalled in number in Britain during the inter-war period, with crowds of up to 50,000 attending games in Vienna, but the basis for this meteoric rise in interest was fuelled by the nature of the fans themselves. British and Austrian crowds differed in their respective demographic makeup on the terraces; the upper-class elite had run the formal game during the 19th century, but the mass appeal of football as an escape for the working class, coupled with the inevitable rise in professionalism, had altered the British, and in particular the English, landscape irrevocably.

In Vienna, football would become not an escape from the grim realities of a working class life, but the focus of intense discussion without the fuel of alcohol. The game, in all its forms, was discussed over conversations around coffee tables in a way that could not possibly be conceived back home in Britain. The realisation that analysis and self-reflection were key to developing a unique style was borne out of a different birth of the sport: whereas Victorian England had developed a singular attitude that it must lead the game and instruct all who played it, pre-war Austria was free from the shackles of public school elitism. In essence, the public who swarmed to the game were desperate to absorb and learn about football – so they taught themselves.

This was the environment into which Hogan gleefully accepted a brief contract to work with leading clubs and the national team in the run-up to the Olympics. “To leave my dark, gloomy, industrial Lancashire for gay Vienna was just like stepping into paradise,” he remarked of the change, and while he may have been referring to the physical differences between the locations, he might as well have also been talking of the perfect symbiosis of ideologies. His insistence on the passing game that he admired married perfectly with the intentions of Meisl, and although they only won one match in the finals in Stockholm, his reputation had been secured.

Offered an extended deal to coach the national team full-time in preparation for the next Olympics while also coaching the city’s clubs, Hogan had finally found his niche after for so long being frustrated with his football life in England. Just when his paradise seemed to be falling into place, the advent of war sent him on a whole new path.

When he approached the British Consul for advice about the impending global conflict, he was initially told that it wasn’t necessary to make a swift departure from his new home with his wife and children. Before he could reassess his options, however, war had been declared and he was suddenly arrested as a foreign national in an enemy state. The intervention of British brothers and department store owners (whose marriages to Austrians spared them similar treatment) bailed him out, and they sheltered him while his family was evacuated back to Britain with the help of the American consul.

It was none too soon either; the next day he had been due to be sent to a concentration camp. Baron Dirstay, a Cambridge-educated vice-president of the Hungarian club MTK arranged for Hogan to become a coach at his club on the provision that he report to the police each day. Thrown into an alien environment without having seen his family for over a year, he once again had to adapt to not only a whole new language and football culture, but was tasked with building a squad that had been decimated by call-ups to fight. This was but a variation on a theme for Hogan – his favoured blank canvas on which he could delicately spray brushstroke after brushstroke of magic. “The great advantage which continental football has over British soccer,” Hogan was quoted as saying in Inverting the Pyramid, “is that boys are coached in the art of the game at a very young age.”

His impact was immediate as he won the 1916-1917 championship in his first full season, but a year later he raced back to be reunited with his family whom he hadn’t seen since their terrifying separation in Vienna four years earlier. While his connection to Budapest and Hungarian football was far from over, he wanted to settle down with his family and find employment back in his native England. The FA were handing out financial assistance to some of its members on their return from war, so Hogan arrived cap in hand hoping for a little startup cash.

What he hadn’t wagered on was the first clear example of his own country turning its back on him. Upon his request for aid, he was sneeringly told he had betrayed his country for not helping with the war effort. Apparently not finding a way to escape prison or the daily clutches of the Hungarian police were not sufficiently mitigating factors in his non-appearance in the trenches of Western Europe. This would be the most humiliating and insulting rejection Hogan would have to face, and coming from his own countrymen made it all the more astounding.

Was this humiliation really a product of his actions during the war? Or was it part of a mentality that refused to accept or acknowledge the value of foreign experience? Jeremy Paxman theories in his book The English that the mindset of the national psyche is inextricably linked to geography; an island is inherently bound to create a different attitude of mistrust to outsiders as historically there is less interaction between nations than those that form part of a larger land mass. Shakespeare had described how England saw itself in Richard II through the words of John of Gaunt:

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world;

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house.

The concept of insularity, of England being ‘built by Nature for herself’, of ‘this little world’, was still highly relevant in the early parts of the 20th century. This distrust of the outside tainted the view of European advancement in some eyes, and certainly contributed to Hogan’s treatment. His work abroad tainted him by association, and changed his status in the eyes of the FA – he was no longer a true Englishman to them, and therefore a traitor.

His only choice was to pack his bags and head to where he felt belonging: continental football. He coached in Switzerland alongside fellow English manager Teddy Duckworth, who would lead the national team to the final of the 1924 Olympics, and a return to the all-conquering MTK beckoned, before a most extraordinary proposal was sent his way.

During his brief stint in Austria before the war, he had contributed to a 5-1 demolition of Germany, and his influence had not gone unnoticed. In fact, before he had been formally signed up to an extended offer to remain in Vienna, the German FA had made an attempt to bring him into their fold as early as 1912 before he had even turned 30. Fortunately for Hugo Meisl, he was persuaded to stay and instil a love for a wondrous style that became synonymous with the Wunderteam.

This time Hogan was offered work in a country that had been at war with his own less than a decade earlier. As BundesligaFanatic reports, his duties would involve touring the country giving lectures to collected dignitaries, players and coaches in the hope that he could inspire and coach an entire philosophy onto the footballing community. If nothing else, Hogan loved a challenge, especially one without precedent, so despite speaking minimal German but being required to deliver his talks in the native tongue, he accepted.

Since his coaching philosophy was in fact relatively simple, his new employers were not overly impressed. They felt they weren’t getting value for money; what they needed was an alternative method of showing how valuable the simplest of skill sets could be if trained and honed to perfection. At one such talk, he sensed a growing dissatisfaction with his inability to communicate directly with his audience – he had shakily translated his speeches previously – so he decided to demonstrate himself how intense ball control could empower almost any player with stunning ability.

After demonstrating near-perfect accuracy with both feet, his audience were captivated, and his demonstrations began to garner a huge following. His deal with the German FA was a success, as he convinced them that technique of simple actions needed to be refined if his system of more fluid interchangeability were to come to fruition. What he really wanted, though, was to have a direct and lasting impact on the development of players, so he took up a position at Dresdner SC where he found a club willing to buy into his way of thinking.

His leadership and drive to promote youth were matched by his team’s efforts as they won both the Gauliga Saxony championship and the Central German Championship in each of his three seasons. Before his arrival at the club in an official capacity, he had spotted a supremely talented young inside forward by the name of Richard Hofmann while travelling across the country, who would become one of the jewels in his crown. He had given him a training program to adhere to, promising him that he would become an international if he followed his instructions; two years later he had made his debut for Die Mannschaft where he would go on to score 24 goals in only 25 appearances, including a hat-trick against England in 1930.

Another bright star in the Dresdner constellation was the future German legend Helmut Schön, a 6″4″ 17-year-old. After nurturing his playing talent that would be cut short – like many others – by the Second World War, Hogan would survive to see his pupil manage his country to European Championship glory but would pass away months before the 1974 World Cup was added to his trophy cabinet.

The darkening political climate persuaded Hogan to make a swift exit for fear of a repeat of his Vienna arrest nearly 20 years earlier, with his daughter sewing their entire family savings in cash into the hem of her father’s trousers to escape border control seizing their limited assets. Further coaching stints in France, Switzerland and Austria followed before he was finally employed by a club as a manager in his own country to moderate success before hostilities broke out in 1939. The most poignant moment of his career was still to come when he had passed into his eighth decade.

One of the most seminal moments in England’s footballing education came in 1953 with the famous Magical Magyars and their wonderfully executed 6-3 destruction of England at Wembley, the first nation from outside the British Isles to defeat the hosts on their home soil. The tactical innovations that Gusztáv Sebes implemented that night by ignoring the rigid positions as dictated by the W-M formation made a complete mockery of the arrogant assumption that Hungary were the underdogs, mere flashy foreigners who would be taught a lesson in how football should really be played.

Not just the concept of being fluid and adaptable within a system, but the necessity of being technically proficient enough to carry out the different tasks of various positions, were inspired by Hogan and his work before the war. To be found out tactically is one thing; to ignore the need to adapt is another. But to so ignominiously refuse to even recognise the true father of the superior system, especially when he was born in the same land, is little short of disgraceful. And yet it was left to Jimmy Hogan’s adopted countrymen, not his countrymen of birth, to laud his pivotal influence: “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us,” said Sebes. “When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.”

The genius of Jimmy Hogan lies not in his uniqueness alone, but in his phenomenal awareness of himself and his environment. He recognised when he needed to find pastures new, and trifling matters such as language and culture shocks were but a mere speed bump to him. Like all true greats he had a signature style; technically brilliant, adaptable and alert players that fit a system. He directly had a hand in not just forming two of the world’s finest ever international teams – Austria’s Wunderteam and Hungary’s Magical Magyars – but in inspiring them, while his influence across the continent was surely the major influence in a third, Hollands Totaalvoetbal. He worked in six foreign countries at a time when air travel was uncommon to say the least, and escaped the clutches of political arrest. And all the while in the face of rejection from his own people.

Traitor or patriot? Usurper or divine emperor? I think by now you know the answer.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

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