The Names Heard Long Ago

How the Golden Age of Hungarian Soccer Shaped the Modern Game


By Jonathan Wilson

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The story of the vibrant and revolutionary soccer culture in Hungary that, on the eve of World War II, redefined the modern game and launched a new era.

In the early 1950s, the Hungarian side was unbeatable, winning the Olympic gold and thrashing England in the Match of the Century. Their legendary forward, Ferenc Puskás, was one of the game’s first international superstars. But as Jonathan Wilson reveals in The Names Heard Long Ago, this celebrated era was in fact the final act of the true golden age of Hungarian soccer.

In Budapest in the 1920s and 1930s, a new school of soccer emerged that became one of the most influential in the game’s history, shaped by brilliant players and coaches who brought mathematical rigor and imagination to the style of play. But with the onset of World War II, many were forced into exile, fleeing anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism.

Yet their legacy endured. Against the backdrop of economic and political turmoil between the wars, and in spite of extraordinary odds, Hungary taught the world to play.


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Many of the cities referred to here have undergone multiple changes of name, or are known by different names in different languages. Where there is a common English name I have used that; otherwise, unless there is good reason not to, I have gone with the name it is currently known by in the country where it is now located, providing the Hungarian alternative in parentheses.

With clubs, unless there is a commonly used English variant – e.g. Bayern Munich – I have used the local name, so FC Nürnberg are the team from Nuremberg and FC Hannover 96 play in Hanover.




The end is easy. Hungary ceased to be a great footballing power on 4 November 1956 as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian Uprising, prompting a wave of defections from which the national team has never fully recovered. There were some stirrings after that, it’s true, but it was nothing consistent, nothing compared to what it had been, nothing like that period between May 1950 and June 1954 when Hungary were unbeaten, when they won Olympic gold and thrashed England twice. That Aranycsapat – Golden Squad – itself appears in retrospect less an indication of the rude health of the Hungarian game than the final spasm of the true golden age of Hungarian football, a period of around a quarter of a century when, against a backdrop of seemingly perpetual economic and political turmoil, they taught the world to play.

Identifying the beginning is rather harder. The Communist version would have it that Hungarian football began its ascent in 1949 when, after the gradual Stalinist takeover and the formation of the People’s Republic of Hungary, clubs were nationalised and Gusztáv Sebes was appointed national coach. And while it is true that the focus of power at a couple of favoured clubs probably did help the development of the Aranycsapat in the short term, the longer-term consequences were rather less healthy, and the success of the programme that was instituted was possible only because there was such a fecund culture on which to draw. It’s only recently that the official version has begun to be challenged, that people have begun to reach back beyond the Soviet takeover, before the Second World War, and examine the hugely stimulating period when Hungary stood at the centre of the European game, sending out its emissaries to every corner of the footballing world.

So when did that age begin? Did it start in the autumn of 1914 with a knock at dawn on the door of a Vienna apartment occupied by the former Burnley and Bolton Wanderers forward Jimmy Hogan?

Or had it perhaps begun a decade earlier, when Spen Whittaker, the Burnley manager, responded dismissively to Hogan asking what he had done wrong in skying a chance high over the bar. ‘Just keep having a pop, lad,’ Whittaker said. ‘If you get one in ten you’re doing well.’ That wasn’t enough for Hogan, an intense and thoughtful player, possessed of an analytical mind and a thirst for self-improvement. There must, he reasoned, be more to it than luck. Had he been off balance? Had the position of his foot been wrong? From then on, he determined, he would dedicate himself to understanding technique. It was a decision that would lead him to a Viennese jail before the glorious flowering of his ideas not only in Austria and Hungary, but also in Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Sweden, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.

But the true beginning, perhaps, was even earlier than that, in 1894, when an ambitious 17-year-old clerk called Edward Shires abandoned his job at a typewriter factory in Manchester* and set off to make his fortune – and, as it turned out, shape the club whose players, more than any other, carried the Hungarian game around the world: MTK. ‘The island soon becomes small for an English merchant,’ he decided. ‘I said goodbye to Manchester and settled down in Vienna.’ The issue of just how and why Hogan had managed to extricate himself from wartime Vienna for the rather less stressful environment of Budapest, so that his expertise elevated Hungarian rather than Austrian football, is a mystery that for years had not been adequately explained. It is Shires, though, who holds the key.

Shires was a popular member of the British community in Vienna. A photograph taken perhaps 10 or 20 years later shows him in a high-collared shirt, his hair sharply parted on the left, his narrow features a little small for his face which, combined with a slightly raised left eyebrow, gives him a sceptical air. He played tennis and cricket and became friendly with Harold William Gandon, who was a manager at the gasworks. When Gandon won the inaugural Austrian Open tennis tournament in Prague in 1894,* he returned with a challenge from the local football club, Regatta,* to put together a team to represent Vienna. Shires responded enthusiastically, placing an advertisement for the First Vienna Football Club in an expat newspaper. They received numerous positive responses, but also a complaint from the northern suburb of Hohe Warte advising them that the First Vienna Football Club already existed, having been founded by gardeners working on the estate belonging to Nathaniel Mayer von Rothschild, part of the great banking dynasty.* Shires merged his team with the Vienna Cricket Club, which had been founded two years earlier by British immigrants including Ernest Blyth, who owned the Stone & Blyth department store with his brother Eddie, and, in December 1894, set up a game against the Football Club, winning 4–0.* They went on to beat Regatta 2–1 in Prague. ‘They did beat us later in Vienna, but for that match they brought in two guest players from Berlin,’ Shires said. ‘The point is, now there was a connection between the two cities and this provided an opportunity for further development.’

That development was rapid. Clubs sprung up not only in Vienna and Prague but also in Budapest, which Shires first visited in 1897 as the Cricket Club beat BTC, the Budapesti Torna Club,* 2–0 at the Millenáris, the park that was the home of football in the city for years. It was redeveloped for the cycling world championship in 1928 and remained largely unchanged before finally being demolished in 2018. Shires was gifted enough to become captain of the Austria national side, but in 1904, he moved to Budapest because ‘my company needed someone to do business in the difficult Hungarian market’.

Shires was a representative of the Underwood typewriter company,* but he is generally credited with introducing table tennis to Austria and Hungary and at least part of his job seems to have been importing sports equipment. Naturally enough, having arrived in Budapest, Shires sought out a football club to play for and joined MTK. Magyar Testgyakorlók Köre, the Circle of Hungarian Fitness Activists, had been founded in a Budapest café in November 1888 by a mixture of aristocrats, Jewish businessmen and dissident members of an earlier club NTE – Nemzeti Torna Egylet, the National Athletic Club.*

Although MTK have always been seen as a Jewish club, the first president, Lajos Vermes, was a Christian,* and it was not in any sense exclusive – unlike Vivó és Atlétikai Club (VAC – Fencing and Athletic Club), which was established in 1903 by Lajos Dömény, a law student, as the sporting arm of the Zionist student organisation Makkabea. Like the far more famous and successful Hakoah in Vienna, it was inspired by the theories of Muscular Judaism promulgated by the physician and author Max Nordau and sought both to combat the stereotype that depicted Jews as physically weak and to promote Zionism; one of VAC’s founder members was Ármin Beregi, president of the Zionist Organisation of Hungary. Dömény had initially wanted to call the organisation the Jewish Athletic Club but that name was rejected for breaching regulations of the use of denominational names (Makabi Brno was similarly rejected when the name was first suggested in 1914, and there were no clubs with overtly Christian names). The name VAC was chosen because a composite of the initials could be shaped into a Star of David.*

At first MTK were dedicated to fencing and gymnastics but in 1901 they branched out into football. They took their place in the first division two years later and in 1904 won their first league title. Shires played eight games for them the following season as the businessman Alfréd Brüll took over as president, then, aged 28, with his health deteriorating, he took on a more administrative role and worked as a referee.

Backed by the wholesaler and sports manager Henrik Fodor, MTK won the title again in 1907–08, but in the years that followed found themselves unable to topple the might of Ferencváros. Founded 11 years after MTK (although their football section is a few months older than MTK’s), Ferencváros carried a vague sense of German ethnicity – their nickname, ‘Fradi’, is derived from Franzstadt, the German form of Ferencváros, the ninth district of Budapest. ‘At the beginning of the century,’ said the sociologist Miklós Hadas, although his work is far from universally accepted, ‘the concept and connotations of the “Fradi-heart” implied a sensitive, good-hearted, compassionate, enthusiastic petty bourgeoisie who felt Hungarian, as against the coldly calculating, business-like, alienated big bourgeoisie of foreign origin – MTK.’*

That may have been the image the clubs had, the one the majority of their fans felt they were expressing, but in practical terms the divide was far from concrete and the players tended to come from similar backgrounds. Between 1900 and 1930, for instance, a quarter of Ferencváros players were Jewish, as opposed to a little more than half of MTK players.*

By 1911, frustrated by MTK’s inability to end Ferencváros’s domination, Shires took radical action and strengthened the club with two imports from Britain. There was the English forward Joe Lane, who joined the club as an amateur in 1911, scored the only goal in the inaugural match at MTK’s Hungária körúti stadion,* a 1–0 win over Ferencváros on 31 March, and ended up signing professional terms with Sunderland, who had been impressed by him after playing MTK in a tour match in 1913. And, far more significantly, there was the Scottish manager John Tait Robertson.

Robertson was born in Dumbarton in 1877. A combative half-back, he played for Morton and Everton, won the Southern League in his single season with Southampton, and then returned to Scotland in 1899 where he was part of a Rangers side that won three successive championships. In 1905, as an international career that earned him 16 caps came to an end, he became Chelsea’s first-ever signing as they made him player-manager for their inaugural season.* Robertson also scored Chelsea’s first competitive goal, in a 1–0 win at Blackpool, as he led them to third in the table.

Chelsea were among the favourites for promotion the following season but something went awry. Robertson played in only three of the opening 12 games of the season and his frequent absences began to draw comment. When he failed to show for a board meeting on 6 November, the club secretary William Lewis demanded an explanation, while the directors decided that they should take over team selection.* Robertson resigned a week later but early the following month the chairman Claude Kirby received a letter from an H. Raucorn. ‘Dear Sir,’ it read. ‘Knowing that Mr J.T. Robertson was no longer an official of the Chelsea FC, I thought it my duty to inform you that he was in your office after 11pm last Thursday Nov 29th.’* What Robertson was doing there is unknown, but the following year he was named player-manager at Glossop, a position he held for two years. He was working as assistant manager of Manchester United when Shires got in touch. Persuading him to accept the job, Shires claimed, was his proudest achievement. ‘It was Robertson who did the most for developing football in Hungary,’ he said. ‘The Hungarians learned more from him in two years than they would have learned from somebody else in ten.’

That Robertson was a Scot was significant. From the first international in 1872, when a physically weaker Scotland side had surprisingly held England to a 0–0 draw through judicious use of coordinated passing, the game north of the border had eschewed the traditional dribbling game, focusing instead on the pass.* The success of the policy was seen in Scotland’s domination of the early years of their rivalry with England, and by the extraordinary influence of Scottish players and managers on the early years of the English league.* By the early 20th century there had been a general acceptance of the efficacy of passing, but the Scots were still regarded as the masters.

Robertson was not impressed by what he found in Budapest. ‘The mistake the players commit… is that they only use one foot,’ he said. ‘I think a player should be able to use both feet. The aerial game is very weak… The half line does not play well with the backs – when the backs lose the ball, the halves should be there to provide cover. The halves are not working together with the forward line either, and their shots are not good. [Sándor] Bródy [of Ferencváros] is clearly the best centre-half but it does not mean that he would be exceptional – I have not seen a really good centre-half in the whole league.’*

But as Shires had hoped, Robertson began to implement the Scottish passing game in Budapest. ‘Because of Robertson’s work,’ Shires said, ‘and the example set by Lane, the MTK style was created and MTK became a stronger and stronger opponent for Ferencváros to face…’ Many would suggest that MTK already had an image of themselves as a passing side before Robertson’s arrival, but even as he built on those foundations, Ferencváros won the title in 1911–12 and 1912–13, extending their streak to five in a row.

That summer, Robertson returned home, for reasons at which Shires only hinted. ‘It’s a pity that he wasn’t teetotal,’ Shires said in that 1933 interview – which may explain what happened in those final weeks at Chelsea. ‘If he had been, he could still be around now.’ The team he had built, though, ended Ferencváros’s domination and won the championship in 1913–14. War brought the temporary abandonment of the league and there were three half-length unofficial seasons played, the last of them won by MTK, before a full resumption in 1916–17. The foundations were in place and MTK were ready to ascend to much greater heights.



As a player, Jimmy Hogan’s lust for self-improvement did him limited good. After Burnley, he moved to Nelson, then Fulham, Swindon and Bolton. He was a decent professional, but no more. As a coach, it initially seemed his inquisitiveness and his pedagogic zeal would count against him; those were not characteristics much prized in English football in the early 20th century (or arguably since). He spent a year teaching Dutch students in Dordrecht but when he returned to England to rejoin Bolton as a player, Hogan must have wondered whether he had been right a decade earlier to defy his father’s wish for him to go into the priesthood.

Yet the Netherlands had shown him another way: players who learned in a classroom, who wanted to study the game. In 1912, he was given another chance to work with a foreign squad. After Austria had played poorly in a friendly against Hungary, their manager and the head of their football association, Hugo Meisl, who had been an early member of the Vienna Cricket Club, appealed to the referee, James Howcroft of Redcar, for advice on how best to prepare his side before the Stockholm Olympics. Howcroft recommended Hogan.

For six weeks, Hogan worked in Vienna, developing his players’ technique and trying to persuade them to add more fruit and vegetables to their diet. In Sweden, Austria beat Germany 5–1 but then lost to the Netherlands to enter the consolation tournament, in which they beat Norway and Italy before losing in the final to Hungary. Hogan felt Austria should have done better, but that summer marked the start of a friendship with Meisl that would have a profound effect both on his career and on the history of football.

Struggling with a knee injury, Hogan knew the 1912–13 season would be his last as a player and began looking for further coaching opportunities abroad. In 1913, he applied for a job as manager of Germany and was one of 21 applicants interviewed by a German schoolteacher at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Hogan was the German football association’s preferred candidate and they wrote to Meisl asking for a reference. Meisl was appalled by the possibility of his friend working with a rival and offered Hogan a role preparing Austria for the 1916 Olympics. He accepted and the Germany job went instead to the former Derby forward Steve Bloomer, who was arguably the most famous English player there had been until Stanley Matthews.

Hogan moved with his wife, Evelyn, the daughter of the licensee of the Dragoon Hotel in Burnley, and his two young children, Joseph and Mary, to Austria. His first training session was something of a disappointment for the Austrian players, who found him difficult to understand and felt he focused too much on the basics. But Meisl was impressed and he and Hogan chatted long into the night about the game. Both were happy enough with the 2–3–5 formation that had been the basic template across Europe for three decades, but they felt football had become too rigid, positions too defined. Both felt that teams needed to encourage interplay and that the best way to do that was to focus on controlling the ball and simple, intelligent passing, rather than dribbling. Hogan always stressed the value of the long pass to unsettle opposing defences, provided it were well directed and not an aimless upfield punt. Although Meisl was a romantic, who saw a value in beauty for its own sake, Hogan was essentially a pragmatist: while instinctively inclined to the Scottish passing approach, he favoured a game based on possession not for how it looked but because he felt it was the best way to win football matches. ‘Sometimes I have been accused of being a “short passing” expert,’ Hogan wrote in 1954. ‘This is just ridiculous! Anybody who saw the Hungarian style or, to get nearer home, my grand Aston Villa side which won promotion and reached the semi-final of the Cup in 1938, must admit that we exploited the short pass, the cross pass, the through pass, the reverse pass – in fact any other kind of pass which enabled us to keep possession of the ball.’*

Hogan’s reputation soon grew and he began working with the national team twice a week, spending the rest of his time with Austria’s leading club sides. So in demand was he that he had to schedule his sessions with Vienna FC to begin at 5:30 in the morning. He was not merely a manager looking to win games, but a guru shaping the entire footballing vision of a nation. ‘This was a revelation,’ he said. ‘To leave my dark, gloomy industrial Lancashire for Gay Vienna was like stepping into paradise.’*

Or at least it was until a disaffected Bosnian Serb student called Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Within a month, Britain was at war with Austro-Hungary.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Evelyn Hogan answered the door. Austrian police pushed past her, burst into the bedroom and pulled Jimmy out of bed. He was taken to the local police station where he was questioned and then, as an enemy alien, sent to the Elizabeth Promenade prison where he was held, as he later described it, ‘with thieves and murderers’.*

A few days later, according to the account given to Norman Fox in his biography of Hogan, Evelyn was allowed to visit. She found her husband, a meticulous man who would never willingly have gone unshaven, sporting thick stubble, terrified by the comment of a guard that camps were being prepared and that he would be moved there as soon as they were ready.

‘My wife and children were frightened to death, and had to make a shift for themselves,’ Hogan told the Burnley Express after the war. ‘I eventually got out of this prison but the Austrian FA broke my contract and left us to starve. Our story of hardship is too long to relate in detail. Suffice it to say that the American Consul sent my wife to England in March 1915 and I was saved by two Englishmen who had obtained their freedom by giving £1,000 to the Austrian Red Cross.’*

Those Englishmen were the brothers Eddie and Ernest Blyth, the latter of whom had been a founder member of the Vienna Cricket Club. For several months, Hogan worked as an odd-job man on the Blyth brothers’ estate while teaching their children tennis, reporting regularly to the police station.

A century on, the chronology is a little hard to piece together. The Habsburg Empire, attempting to conduct the war honourably, reported all prisoners to the International Red Cross in Geneva. Sure enough, in a document* written in a mix of French and German, Hogan is recorded as an ‘anglais’ of ‘33 ans’, his profession given as ‘Fussballtrainer’ who is ‘confiné a Wien’. The document is handwritten and unfortunately is not dated. Hogan turned 33 on 16 October 1915, which only makes sense when the technical difference between ‘confiné’ and ‘interné’ is considered. Confinement was used for enemy aliens who were not considered a serious threat and essentially meant they were restricted to one part of the country and had to sign in at a police station.

It’s likely that Hogan was ‘confined’ – that is, released from jail and working for the Blyths – from late 1914. The implication of his interview in the Burnley Express is that he had been let out of prison by the time his pregnant wife returned home in March 1915. She gave birth to their third child, George Frank, in Haslingden, Lancashire, that summer, which suggests Hogan had been released by, at the very latest, December 1914.*

A letter from the Austrian Ministry of Interior to the provincial governor of Lower Austria dated 23 July 1914,* makes clear that measures to restrict freedom of movement and place suspect foreigners under police surveillance were enacted almost as soon as war had been declared and on 18 August 1914, 95 enemy aliens were arrested in Lower Austria and interned at Schloss Karlstein. Those interned at that stage, though, tended to be Russian rather than French or British, people of whom there was a reasonable suspicion they might be spies or who held political views that were considered dangerous. It was only in November, after the Germans had rounded up 4,000 British men, and in response to the detention of Austro-Hungarians in Britain, that there was an order in Austria to round up Britons ‘whose continued residency or employment in our lands is a matter of luxury only’, rather than being considered a ‘necessity’.*

In that Burnley Express interview, Hogan said he ‘was allowed to continue working for a time’ after war was declared, which perhaps fits with the November date but, if that is when he was picked up, he was held for slightly less than the two months suggested by Fox on the basis of interviews with Hogan’s family.

Even the November arrests were relatively small-scale. In May 1915, the US ambassador in Vienna, Frederic C. Penfield, stated in a letter to his counterpart in London, Walter Hines Page, that only 75 out of an estimated 1286 British subjects had been interned in Austria, and only three out of an estimated 512 British subjects in Hungary.* In that sense, Hogan was unfortunate to be picked up at all – particularly given that the work he was doing was for the benefit of Austria – and the subsequent leniency with which he was treated was in keeping with the general policy. That is not to say, though, that life was easy for Hogan even after he had been released from prison. Like many of those similarly confined within Austria, he found himself essentially trapped without any income and was fortunate that he had the Blyths to support him.

Hogan, Shires explained, ‘wrote to me from captivity asking for help’.* Shires approached Brüll, who by then had gained international recognition as a sports administrator, not only in football but in swimming and wrestling, and he, supported by the Cambridge-educated Hungarian nobleman Baron Dirsztay, a vice-president of MTK, interceded with the Viennese authorities. According to the champion sculler W.A. Berry,* Brüll was ‘one of the biggest-hearted men living’, who made it his mission to help out any Englishman in trouble, but he must also have recognised an opportunity that couldn’t be missed. Either way, Hogan arrived in Budapest late in 1916. He felt instantly at home, describing Budapest as ‘the most beautiful city in Europe’.

The Budapest into which Hogan was thrust was, despite the war, a bustling, modern capital. Hungary had been granted internal independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867 and Budapest in its current form had been created six years later by the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda, sparking a programme of urban renewal, much of it funded by Jewish capital, unease at which hinted at a fault line that ran through Hungarian society.

Independence had brought the abolition of laws that denied Jews full political and civil rights and in 1892 the Diet (the Hungarian legislature) had passed a bill recognising Judaism as ‘an accepted religion’. By 1899, there were 170,000 Jews living in Budapest, around a quarter of the total population. Only Warsaw had a larger Jewish population. According to the historian and ethnographer Raphael Patai,* in that half century leading up to the First World War, Jews had never felt so at home in Hungary. That acceptance was seen clearly in the way an 1890s statue of Miklós Toldi, a 14th-century Magyar warrior and Hungarian hero, was modelled on David Müller, a Jewish gymnast of the late 1880s and one of the founder members of MTK.


On Sale
Sep 17, 2019
Page Count
400 pages
Bold Type Books

Jonathan Wilson

About the Author

Jonathan Wilson is the author of eight books, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named NSC Football Book of the Year in 2009 and won the Premio Antonio Ghirelli prize as Italian soccer book of the year in 2013. His books Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football; The Anatomy of England; and The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper were shortlisted for the NSC award in 2007, 2011, and 2013. Wilson is the founder and editor of the soccer quarterly the Blizzard, writes for the Guardian, FoxSoccer, and Sports Illustrated, and is a columnist for World Soccer. He was voted Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation in 2012.

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