Otherwise occupied

When Holland visited Hudderfield in 1946, they met one of England's best ever teams. But, says Cris Freddi, the result also had more to do with the experiences of the two countries during the war

Like England, the Dutch had started their postwar schedule with a glut of goals, winning their first two matches 6-2 – but no one was unduly fooled. Strictly amateur, with no great international pedigree, a football that hadn’t survived the war as well as Eng­land’s – there was nothing false about Holland’s pre-match modesty.

George Hardwick later remembered coming up to take a penalty. “We were beating Holland 8-0 and I hadn’t the guts to score with it. I just knocked it at the goalkeeper. I thought, ‘Oh no, no, no, we’ve got eight.’ I hadn’t the heart to go for nine.” Let’s call it an old man’s memory playing tricks. England were 5-1 up, not 8-0 – and this was dapper George’s only chance of ever scoring for England. Not that it mattered: a minute later Finney made it 6-1 at half-time.

According to contemporary accounts, in the second half England brought their wingers into the game more “but this plan did not work so effectively” and “much of the play was scrappy”. Eventually Carter shot the seventh and Lawton scored his fourth from a free-kick, but it should have been stopped on points. Only one of the Dutch players looked the part, Faas Wilkes, who’d scored nine goals in Holland’s three matches since the war. But although “he dribbled brilliantly, the others were unable to profit from his good work”. One of them, Dräger, even played in a hairnet.

A genuine mismatch then – so why is it significant? Partly because it was typical of its time: England unbeatable at home against continental teams that looked good enough on the ball “until they reached the shooting positions”. And even Holland’s ball skills didn’t fit the pre-war Danubian blueprint: “They were scarcely up to English Second Division standards.”

The Dutch system was an antique. Their centre-half began in defence, but ventured upfield as soon as England’s goals began to go in, leaving Lawton free. Ted Drake had fed off attacking centre-halves before the war; if Lawton had been on top form now, “even more goals would have resulted”. Nowa­days Vermeer would have been subbed. As it was, this was his only international.

Then there’s the old chestnut of the pitch, which was about the colour of one. Although the Huddersfield Examiner quoted one of the England team as saying “We have not played on a better pitch”, I think that’s a journalist’s invention (it was the first England game staged in the town). After heavy rain in the morning, “Holland did not appear to like the slippery and heavy ground”.

Finally, it was worth having a look at a team that’s regarded as probably the best England ever put out. I don’t have too much of an arg­ument with that. There’s a danger of remembering Swift more for his personality than his goalkeeping, but it was world class (he gave “a cool display” here). And Franklin, though slightly off form against Holland, was the classiest centre-half England ever had.

The forwards, even without Stanley Matthews, were the stuff of dewy-eyed rem­iniscence: Lawton the ultimate centre-for­ward, Finney a class act outside World Cups, Carter simply England’s greatest goalscoring playmaker. He and the almost equally bril­liant Mannion “controlled the game with their passing” and Paauwe, an old warhorse by now, couldn’t stop them. Like Smit, another 35-year-old who had played against England in 1935, he wasn’t capped again.

But there’s always a but. I’m simply not sure how good this England team was. Against a team with a decent defensive system, even a lesser side like Swit­zerland, they lost 1-0 later that season, a result that ended Carter’s international career. And although it’s said they lost their best years to the war, I think the war made their reputation. The main reason I wanted to look at this match is because it was between two countries who had two very different wars.

Relatively speaking, the Dutch didn’t have to suffer too much bombing of civilian targets. A 15-minute assault on Rotterdam in 1940 saw to that. Then, with no Channel as a barrier, the Wehrmacht used Holland’s good roads to take that flat country in days. It’s pretty crass claiming one form of wartime suffering is worse than another, still more that the results can be seen in football matches, but I’m going to try it anyway: occupation does things to you that a blitz can’t.

There’s apparently some debate now as to how much hardship the Dutch actually put up with under the Nazis, which I find hard to understand. Of the 140,000 Jews in Holland, 105,000 were transported to Sobibor and Auschwitz. But the rest of the population didn’t get off particularly lightly either. If Britain had its air raids, Hitler’s last-ditch desperation in the last years of the war made “Fortress Holland” the scene of intense fighting (Maastricht, Arnhem). No shortage of civilian casualties.

But whereas a bombardment unites people in suf­fering, occupation gets under the skin and splits you up. When you don’t know who’s a sympathiser and who’s an informer, when members of your local Nazi party are placed in positions of authority, when the Het Verzet resistance has to forge ration books to feed the 300,000 people hiding in their own country, this does corrosive stuff to your self-esteem and fighting spirit. People who lived through the blitz won’t believe it, but I’ll go along with my old man, who survived the various invasions of Italy: the English don’t know the meaning of freedom because they’ve never had it taken away.

At the end, Hitler stripped Holland bare. From Rotterdam alone, in two days in Nov­ember 1944, 50,000 men were transported to Germany. To try to break a strike, the Nazis stopped supplies of food and fuel reaching towns in western Holland, which left the popultion scavenging for coal and eating tulip bulbs. In the winter of 1944, 16,000 died of cold and starvation, a higher percentage than anything over here.

Compared with this, the England players had had it easy. While Lawton and co were playing exhibition matches for the troops and thrashing ersatz Scotland teams 8-0, Hol­land’s goalkeeper Kraak was a member of the resistance movement in Ijmuiden and Van der Linden had to leave his country to fight with the Canadian army. While England were able to keep the best players together, who knows how many of the next Dutch generation died in a war fought on their own soil? In the light of this, their goals at Leeds Road were worth five of anybody else’s. Sentimental, per­haps, but I say it’s excusable.

Holland had to wait two more years for their first postwar sporting glory, Fanny Blankers-Koen winning four gold medals at the London Ol­ympics. In the meantime, three minutes from the end of his international career, Kick Smit took Wilkes’s pass and scored Holland’s second goal to give them a 10-8 win. A last moment of defiance against the big battalions.

From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month