Magyar magic at the bridge

By Dominic Bliss

 

In the days before UEFA club competition, the only opportunities for English clubs to pit themselves against the continent’s best came in the form of friendly matches. These games offered supporters and players alike the chance to witness different football cultures and they were given top billing at the box office, even when they were played mid-season.

So when Chelsea hosted Hungarian champions Red Banner in an exhibition match in December 1954, just a year after Hungary’s famous 6-3 dismantling of England at Wembley, the excitement surrounding Stamford Bridge was tangible.

The Hungarian national team, nicknamed the “Magical Magyars” by the British press, were considered the greatest side on the planet and the fact that they had lost in the World Cup Final earlier that year had done nothing to alter that view – after all, that shock 3-2 defeat to West Germany was their only loss in six years!

Quite simply, witnessing England so plainly humbled on their own turf – and subsequently thrashed 7-1 at the return match in Budapest – was enough to convince even the most ardent defender of British footballing superiority that a new force existed in the game.

There were six regular Hungary internationals in the Red Banner side that day, but the thought of seeing one player in particular had grown men sneaking out of work and schoolchildren playing truant in order to make their way to Stamford Bridge. Some of them still remember the excitement of that winter afternoon to this day.

“I wanted to see Hidegkuti,” recalls David Kostis, who now works in the Chelsea Museum. “He made a huge impression when Hungary beat England 6-3 at Wembley and I don’t think anyone had seen that kind of deep-lying centre-forward before.

“There were a few international players there that I wanted to see, but Hidegkuti was the big star man and I was really keen to see how he played.”

“They were on a high when they came over to play Chelsea in our championship season. I was so curious about it that I thought I’d relieve myself of school duty that day – much to my regret when my mum found out!

“I managed to bunk into the ground at the old scoreboard end as it was in those days. I was quite surprised at the amount of people that were there because there were no floodlights back then and it was being played in the afternoon. I thought: ‘Why aren’t all these people at work?’

“I would have been 10 at the time and I was right at the back, so I couldn’t see very well. But all these kind people passed me down to the front, where you could stand by the wall. I stood there, watching open-mouthed at this display.”

As he watched open-mouthed, Kostis can consider himself lucky to have bunked into the ground that day because the match tickets were twice the price of a league match, as Albert Sewell remembers.

“We doubled the prices of the tickets,” the former programme editor told us. “Red Banner carried quite a high fee in those days.

“The seats was normally six shillings, eight shillings, 10 shillings and 12 shillings but they were doubled, so the prices went up to 24 shillings for this game. It was three and six to stand on the terraces and the programme cost sixpence in old money.”

The attraction of Nandor Hidegkuti was manifold. He was quite simply an international superstar on the Fifties football scene after scoring a hat-trick in the Wembley humbling doled out to England in November 1953.

And the man who scored 265 times in 381 club appearances, as well as striking 39 international goals in 69 caps, added to his legend a week before Red Banner’s game at the Bridge, when he starred in his country’s 4-2 win over Scotland at Hampden Park.

The following day’s papers were crowing over Hidegkuti who, alongside Puskas and Kocsis, was the chief attraction for fans all over the world when the Hungarians were in town.

“It was like trying to shoulder-charge a shadow, grasp a handful of quicksilver, or embrace a cloud of smoke,” wrote the Daily Mirror’s Peter Wilson of the three inside-forwards.

“What a player that Hidegkuti is, a balding wraith with the reactions of a cheetah, the control of a juggler. Once he looked as though he had put in a perfect forward pass but, in fact, the ball was stiff under the sole of his boot and he was able to roll it back to the inevitable colleague who was positioned behind him.”

His quality was undeniable, but Hidegkuti would go down in history not just as another great footballer, but for his genius in recreating the role of the No.9. Many of his sides’ chances came about because either he or a team-mate played deeper than the rest of the forward line, almost as a cross between a centre-forward an attacking midfielder.

The innovator behind this deep-lying forward idea was not Hidegkuti, however, but Red Banner’s coach, Marton Bukovi, who created the role to suit his technically gifted, yet physically unimposing forwards. The tactic was implemented with such success by the Hungarian champions that it soon became one of the central tenets of the national team’s game.

“The centre-forward was having increasing difficulties with a marker around his neck. So the idea emerged to play the No.9 deeper where there was some space,” explained Hidegkuti, who was not actually the man in mind when the role was created.

“At wing-half in the [Red Banner] side was a fine attacking player with very accurate distribution: Peter Palotas. Peter had never had a hard shot, but he was never expected to score goals, and though he wore the No.9 shirt, he continued to play his natural game. Positioning himself in midfield, Peter collected passes from his defence, and simply kept his wingers and inside-forwards well supplied with passes.

“With Palotas withdrawing from centre-forward his play clashed with that of the wing-halves, so inevitably one was withdrawn to play a tight defensive game, while the other linked with Palotas as midfield foragers.”

The phenomenon was entirely unorthodox in Britain at a time when the centre-forward was expected to be a target man, a spearhead for the team. It was considered completely unacceptable by most spectators and coaches for the team’s main goal threat to be dropping deep and making the play – he should be in the box.

Roy Bentley, who wore the corresponding shirt for Chelsea, was considered one of the more free-thinking forwards of his generation for his diverting runs into channels, but ultimately he was a centre-forward, pure and simple. His versatility did mean, though, that the crowds at the Bridge were as open-minded as any on these shores to the idea of a mobile frontman. Here, in the shape of Red Banner’s forward line, was an opportunity to see the pioneers of one of the most successful football innovations to date in action.

With Hidegkuti and Palotas both lining up for the visitors at the Bridge, it was actually the latter who donned the No.9 and therefore took up the roving forward’s role. Hidegkuti, having drawn the crowds for his prowess in the position, played instead at inside-right and opened the scoring with a perfectly placed glancing header after a typically neat attacking move by the Hungarians.

The goal was set up by the new, post-World Cup hope of Hungarian football, Karoly Sandor, a right-winger who may not have gone down in history but who was certainly making waves at the time. As a vaguely comical report in the Daily Mirror, comparisons with Stanley Matthews may have been premature.

“He is rated a “Matthews” with the ball (impossible), in speed (impossible) and effectiveness (again impossible),” came the cynical analysis, apparently written without having seen Sandor in action.

Chelsea refused to be overawed by the opening goal and the silky move that had led to it. With the likes of Derek Saunders – a sort of prototype Claude Makelele – and no-nonsense full-back, Stan Willemse, in the side, it was never going to be easy to pass around this side of champions-to-be.

The scoreline was turned around to 2-1 in the home side’s favour. Both goals for Ted Drake’s side – scored by Bentley and Les Stubbs – came from a combination of hard pressing and determined following up as the Red Banner backline looked ponderous in their own penalty area.

Furthermore, Frank Blunstone, the youthful Chelsea left-winger, was causing all sorts of havoc with the ball at his feet and Bentley, as ever, proved a handful for the stand-offish Red Banner defence. The Magyar technicians were providing the silk but the steel of Chelsea proved a match for them in the end.

Perhaps the best goal of the four was the equalising effort for the visitors, scored by the deep-lying centre-forward, Palotas, who arrived to put the finishing touch to a zig-zagging, two-touch passing move with a side-footed finish into the top-corner. His team had dominated the second-half, fighting back from a goal down with quick passing combinations and clever off-the-ball movement. Three missed penalties – two of them by Chelsea – left both teams feeling they could have pulled off a memorable victory, but the draw left egos unbruised. Ferenc Puskas may not have been on the pitch but Chelsea could still argue they had done what England’s national team failed to do on two occasions: they had stood up to the threat of the great Hidegkuti and come out undefeated.

 

15.12.1954, Stamford Bridge

Attendance: 40,452

Chelsea 2 Red Banner 2

Scorers: Roy Bentley, Les Stubbs (Chelsea); Nandor Hidegkuti, Peter Palotas (Red Banner)

Chelsea: Bill Robertson, John Harris, Stan Willemse, Ken Armstrong, Ron Greenwood, Derek Saunders, Eric Parsons, Johnnie McNichol, Roy Bentley (c), Les Stubbs, Frank Blunstone

Red Banner: Karoly Olah, Jozsef Kovacs, Janos Borzsey, Mihaly Lantos, Istvan Kovacs, Jozsef Zakarias, Karoly Sandor, Nandor Hidegkuti (c), Peter Palotas, Szolnok (Karasz), Mihaly Toth

 

Click image to play video. 

 

This article which first appeared in Chelsea magazine.