Lloyd Langman looks back at the 6 year period of Plymouth Argyle’s Hungarian invasion which now feels like a distant memory to Green Army fans. Lloyd is the owner of the TwoUnfortunates blog which is the place to go for all things Football League. You can follow him on Twitter here – @TwoUnfortunates
As a Plymouth Argyle supporter of some 20 years, my formative years were spent watching a combination of journeymen and untried teenagers flit between English professional football’s basement divisions. They’d come from far and wide, but nearly always shared in common a uselessness that would see them move on within a year or two before the next batch were ushered in on the cheap.
Around the turn of the century, though, things began to pick up. Under the tutelage of Paul Sturrock, a true team was established and two championship winning campaigns within three years put Argyle back in England’s second tier after a sustained period down in the lower leagues. Both promotions were achieved with sides made up largely of British and Irish-born players, together with a couple of Frenchmen, and that make-up was pretty much unchanged for the start of our first year back with West Ham, Leeds, et al..
The season started well with Argyle scoring early morale boosting victories against the likes of Sunderland and Nottingham Forest but momentum gradually trickled off and by January the Pilgrims were struggling. A couple of new faces arrived to arrest the slide, chief among them the Magyar Ákos Buzsáky, a little-known playmaker who’d been lining up for Porto’s ‘B’ side. Initially joining on loan after impressing manager Bobby Williamson (who himself had only been at the club for a matter of months after replacing a Southampton-bound Sturrock) on trial, it didn’t take long for Buzsáky to earn his green stripes. Offering skill, vision and creativity to what had, until then, been a largely workmanlike team, Buzsáky helped Argyle finish comfortably clear of relegation, and the season’s final home game saw supporters appeal to the directors’ box to sign him up permanently.
The board didn’t need to be told twice, and the former MTK Budapest player was brought back to the South West on a three-year contract. Another good, if unspectacular, season followed as we went about cementing our Championship status but it was a quiet year for Buzsáky. Suffering from injury throughout, his progress wasn’t much helped by the arrival of the stentorian Tony Pulis, who’d been brought in to clear up the mess that had begun to develop under an out-of-depth Williamson. Stability was the game’s name, and with defensive protectors preferred in the centre of midfield, Buzsáky was more often out of the team than in, making just 20 starts across the season.
However, as with the lifespan of our managers, Buzsáky’s time on the sideline was to be short-lived. Following Pulis’s defection to former employers Stoke just weeks after the end of the 2005-06 season, Ian Holloway came in and, favouring an attack-minded style, Buzsáky was back in the picture. Even if it took both Akos and the Pilgrims a while to get into their stride, it was a year to savour. Not only did Argyle once again improve on their final placing, but an FA Cup Quarter Final was reached, the Pilgrims unfortunate to go down 1-0 in front of the BBC cameras at home to Watford.
By then, Argyle’s ranks had swelled to include three Hungarians. Facilitated by a scouting link in the Schengen state, the Pilgrims were able to tap into what was a little-known network to other English clubs. Given that we were struggling to compete financially with our Championship counterparts, it seemed well-conceived, especially since Hungarians (and their wives) appeared more willing to relocate to the South West than our usual transfer targets. Many names would pass the lips of those in the know over the next few years, but the two Magyars that joined Argyle on loan in the January transfer window of 2007, Péter Halmosi and Krisztián Timár, would end up being the last to represent the club in this period of our history.
Halmosi, a slick but tough left winger who’d previously been linked with a move to Celtic, arrived from Debreceni VSC, while centre half Timár moved across from Ferencvárosi TC, perhaps the only Hungarian club that most Pilgrims supporters were (and still are) truly aware of. A flash-point came about within days of their arrival. Although Timár was left at home through illness, Halmosi made the long trip to Norwich and played his part in an eye-opening 3-1 victory, taking the corner that led to Argyle’s first goal. It was his countryman Buzsáky, however, that took the plaudits, curling in a brace of pitch-perfect free-kicks to send Pilgrims supporters doolally. It was, perhaps, the original Magyar’s high-point with the club, and it was no coincidence that it came at the same time as Argyle took on two of his compatriots. As he went on to touchingly say later on in the same season, their arrival eased the homesickness that had hitherto affected his mentality: “If I am injured or maybe sad after training, Peter and Krisztian can help me. I enjoy the city, I like the people.”
The next few months were golden, Halmosi gaining a reputation fast for his lolloping and productive runs down the left flank, while Timár gradually began to impose himself as the stopper of choice. Christened ‘the Beast’ within a few months of his arrival, Timár became a cult figure and Holloway’s decision to bring both players in permanently at the end of the term was an academic one. The season had finished marvelously, Argyle winning each of their last five games to secure a respectable 11th placed finish, and exciting things were expected from the side in 2007-08.
Together with the three Hungarians, key cogs Marcel Seip, David Norris and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake had been coming along nicely, and the Pilgrims started strongly enough. By November, Argyle were looking like a force, snapping at the top-six, but, in a tale that’s been done to absolute death down in these parts, all was not well behind the scenes. With crowds plateauing and wages creeping up, Argyle’s finances were under pressure. Appropriately enough given the subject of this piece, it was Buzsáky that sounded the first warning sign, his sudden cut-price departure to QPR exposing the first skeleton.
It’s likely that several factors, most principally Argyle’s refusal to pay a fee to Buzsáky’s agent upon the signature of a new contract, led to the dynamo’s exit. But a precedent had been set; the club was prepared to let an important, maturing first-team player leave for a divisional rival in a year where it seemed set to challenge, and this decision precipitated the beginning of the end as far as our progress up the leagues was concerned. A series of high-profile departures from West Devon followed as manager Holloway jumped ship for a supposedly more ambitious Leicester, his bitterly felt abandonment compounded by an exodus of talent in the subsequent January transfer window.
The club, which has never recovered from those agonizing few months, was in turmoil and Paul Sturrock returned as manager in a vain attempt to rekindle the good times. Of the remaining players, Halmosi was left as Argyle’s brightest goalscoring threat and continued to perform well despite the upheaval all around him. Notching the only goal in a televised grudge match at Holloway’s Leicester, the southpaw carried himself exceptionally and, if his former teammate Buzsáky had been criticised for not turning it on frequently enough, Halmosi was lauded for his consistently strong performances up and down the flanks.
His progress didn’t go unnoticed, with Wigan and a host of Championship sides linked to the wide man at intervals, but to his credit Halmosi grafted right up to the end of the season, and many fans will remember his contribution to a particular tasty affair against fellow play-off chasers Watford in which the Magyar was injured, speckled with water by the Hornets’ kit-man, and controversially sent off as he laid prostrate on the turf. An almighty rumble ensued and, although we didn’t gain the three points that might have pushed us on to the top-six, a fully committed Halmosi had earned the Green Army’s affection. Even so, it was a rock-like Timár who was voted as the club’s Player of the Year before the final home match of the 2007–08 season. The Pilgrims had been gallant losers in the chase for a play-off spot, but, together with Halmosi, ‘the Beast’ had done his bit to keep our fading hopes alive until late on in campaign.
We hoped that Sturrock could bed down the side, and pull a few tricks here and there in order to generate some fresh momentum but the final game of the season at Wolves dealt another blow. Challenging George Elokobi in the air, Timár picked up an horrific injury as he clashed heads with the monstrous Thing. The seriousness was immediately obvious, and what was later diagnosed as a multiple fractured forehead would go on to change Timár’s relationship with the club. Unlike Halmosi, who moved on over the summer of 2008 for an ill-fated spell with Hull, Timár stayed on with the Pilgrims after agreeing a new three-year deal but, to everyone’s dismay, was never to be the same player.
Returning to the side on the opening day of 2008-09, Timár was bandaged up like Mr Bump but the dressings were only skin-deep and the season that followed was a frustrating one for our last-remaining Magyar, who’d lost his coordination and confidence. A succession of loan signings arrived to plug a Beast-sized hole, but Timár nevertheless stayed on, overlooking his fall from grace so as to pick up a generous-sized pay-packet. Little changed up until the expiration of his contract earlier this year, despite a well-documented effort to get fit ahead of the 2009-10 season (during which time fellow Hungarians Zoltán Szélesi and Dénes Rósa were strongly linked with moves), and the last two years of Timár’s time in Plymouth were disheartening, two successive relegations returning Argyle to the basement from which this tale began.
While ex-teammate Buzsáky was, inch-by-inch, helping to push QPR towards their eventual promotion to the Premier League, Timár suffered the ignominy of becoming something of a laughing stock. His confidence visibly shattered on his rare appearances from the bench, Timár was overlooked by a string of managers, but it was to his credit that he never spoke out or complained about the situation that had developed. Halmosi struggled on at Hull in a similar fashion, distrusted by manager Phil Brown not long after signing for the Tigers, and although the local media in Plymouth speculated several times on a glorious return, the alice-banded one never made it back and now plies once again for hometown side Szombathelyi Haladás. Timár, too, has returned to Hungary, banking on a contract with a top-flight club there.
The Pilgrims are left at the foot of the professional football pyramid in England, and it’s been difficult to feel anything but bile for all and sundry that have been involved in our downfall. The three Magyars of this piece each profited from the club, as a channel through which they were able to grow both financially and professionally, but as we prepare for a decade in the doldrums there’s no hard feelings that little, in the end, truly came of the relationship. At a time when few British players of equivalent talent would give us a second look, our window into Hungary’s talent pool yielded some especially good times, and these precious memories will help to sustain supporters’ passion during these challenging times. Many thanks, Akos, Péter and Krisztián; it was good fun.