Jimmy Hogan: The Greatest Football Coach Ever?

By Ashley Hyne

This article is based on my biography of Jimmy Hogan, The Greatest Ever Football Coach? Published by Electric Blue Published, 2014. £9.99.

In July 1916, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sustained huge losses on the Western Front near the Somme River when seeking to gain territory against the German forces massed to the East of the battleground. Tactically, the British had determined that the best way for any forward advance would be to firstly traumatise the Germans through constant heavy bombardment and then, on the premise, that the Germans were decimated, for the BEF to simply walk in a straight-line across the wasteland and man the empty trenches.

The Plan was a disaster. The Germans had dug in and were therefore able to weather the storm of the repeat shelling and then when the bombing programme stopped they returned to man the machine guns. As the BEF troops scaled the walls of their trenches and walked across no-man’s land in a straight line, the Germans easily cut them down. That day, 1July 1916, was the deadliest day in British military history. Around 100,000 went over the tops of the trenches; 57,470 BEF troops were injured and 19,240 were killed.   

British soldiers, like footballers, in 1914 were geared to operate in straight lines. To attack the opponent’s goal you moved directly forward. This was a basic premise of the game. As a result there was almost a gentleman’s agreement between opponents. The attack would naturally dovetail with the defence. Hence why in the pre-1925 days the left half’s role was to mark the outside right on the wing and the left back’s role was to pick up either the inside right or the centre-forward depending on what type of attack was being staged.

Over on the continent this mentality was not ultimately followed. As the development of the game gained traction so the early British hegemony in coaching started to be challenged and alternative theories started to emerge. At MTK in Budapest, Willy Kertesz bemoaned the club’s appetite for constantly employing British coaches. Kertesz was of the mind that after the tactical primer of the club had been laid down by Jackie Tait Robertson, the rest of them should just go back to where they came from. And that included Jimmy Hogan. Kertesz had a point. Robertson did not subscribe to the predominant British tactic of adopting the ‘Scottish style’ of play but instead promoted the use of the ‘inside forward’ game.

The two styles of play were diametrically opposed. In the Scottish style, play was built up in a slow, deliberate fashion and involved the use of an outside forward to interlink with inside forwards and make his way to the corner flag before dropping a cross into the path of the centre-forward in the penalty area. In the inside forward game, Robertson adopted a different approach completely. There was no point sending the ball out to the wing if the purpose was to send the ball out to the wing. So Robertson felt that an advance could either be achieved through inter-passing between the three inside forwards or if the ball did get played out wide, the plan would be to return the ball as soon as possible. That latter aspect contained the germ by which Hungary defeated England 6-3 for it completely abnegated the conventional centre-forward attack so prevalent in Britain. The Hungarians after a time thought ‘if conventional attack is pointless find a different route to undermine your opponent’.

Just how influential Robertson was can be gauged by the fact that a move of his was employed by the Hungarian national side in the 1938 World Cup Final against Italy when Dr. Gyorgy Sarosi scored the goal that brought the game back to 3-2 with 20 minutes remaining. In that move, the ball is transferred from the centre of the field to the wing and the ball returned immediately to the far post where Sarosi is arriving on a blind side ride.

Now the purpose of Robertson’s approach was popularly taken up by the Hungarians of MTK because it tapped into a national ethic. And that was that to move forward one did not necessarily have to advance in a straight line. This is a concept which is still popular, apparently, in Hungarian Water Polo. A work colleague of mine, Balasz Haraszti explained that a common move in that game is to fake a forward advance then play the ball to the outside player forcing the defence to divert their attention away from blind side moves building on the opposite wing. The approach nullifies the nonsense in having a target man when he might otherwise be boxed up with man to man marking. In which case he may as well not be there and in some ways the Hungarian approach to the attack deliberately and purposefully removes him completely from the picture.   

Both the Austrians and Hungarians developed this approach in football and there is clear evidence that the idea of circumnavigating the centre of the field became the preferred method of play. I would recommend a quick review of the You Tube video which shows the play of the Austrians at Stamford Bridge during their international friendly with England in December 1932. There is a move there that is classically Robertson: one touch passing, the ball transferred from the Austrian half to the edge of the English defensive third and immediately switched out to the right wing, the outside forward advancing and playing a slide rule pass to a forward in the English goal area.

One would have thought that as the game became more complex and the pace of the game became accelerated that this type of move, of tricking the defence by playing the ball around the side of their Maginot Line, would become obsolete but nothing could be further from the truth. In November 1953, at Wembley Stadium, Hungary beat England 6-3. The goal which really twisted the British Lion’s tail that afternoon was a goal scored by Ferenc Puskas to make the score 3-1. In the biography of Hogan I set out how this goal was classic ‘third man theory’ but what is important to us is the way the goal is constructed. The Hungarians deliberately play a deep lying attack, moving the ball across the field from centre to the right. Since they are playing so deep, the English defence has to advance to chase the ball. That is because the purpose of the game is to win and gain possession of the ball. By doing that the English left a vast space down the left side of their defence. Boszik therefore plays a forward pass into that space so that Czibor, the outside left can now become the outside right. And so the trap is sprung: Hungary hoodwinked their opponents not through constant bombing missions at strategic targets or by walking forward in a straight line but through retreat. Classic Robertson theory.      

Ashley Hyne’s biography of Jimmy Hogan: The Greatest Football Coach Ever? can be purchased via the author’s page at Waterstones. Price £9.99