Paper tigers

Cris Freddi recalls a narrow escape against Austria in 1932, when the 'man of paper' exposed the shakiness of England's supposed dominance over the Continental teams

The last time England had played a foreign country, almost exactly a year earlier, they’d thrashed Spain 7-1. Now the selectors decided it was no more Mr Nice Guy. Putting it another way, they were bricking it. With just cause, too. While Spain were a perfectly res­pectable side (the great Ricardo Zamora simply had a shocker in goal), Austria were something else. In a run of 13 unbeaten games, they’d hammered Scotland 5-0, Ger­many 6-0 and 5-0, Switzerland 8-1 and Hungary 8-2. 

England, meanwhile, had played twice that season, beating Ireland 1-0 at home and drawing 0-0 in Wales, scorelines that told the story and cost five forwards their international careers, including Dixie Dean. The entire half-back line was replaced – a sure sign, said the Sporting Chronicle, of “England’s nervousness over the team to meet Austria”.

You’d think this would have been dispelled by the start both teams made. Almost immediately, Hart’s long ball eventually found its way to the left of the Austrian goal, where the unmarked Hampson shot home. This is the only goal I can remember seeing on film, and it makes rather weird viewing. Hiden was well known as a keeper who came a long way off his line, so why does he stay put when the ball breaks to Hampson, giving him an easy finish? A simple case of the jitters? If so, he’d caught it from the rest of the team, who missed chances and struggled to make headway with their short passes.

When the recalled, crewcut Hampson scored again with a right-foot shot, that seemed to be that: England had never lost a two-goal lead. The referee and columnist George Wagstaffe Simmons seemed to have got it right in having “no hesitation in predicting a comfortable win for England”.

But there had already been warning signs. With the score still 1-0, Vogl ended a fine run on the left by missing the ball altogether when faced by the keeper. Then Sindelar let the ball go between his legs to dummy a def­ender, only to blast horribly wide. Towards the end of the first half, Austria’s famous com­bin­ation play was giving them an obvious edge. Above all, Sindelar was living up to the hype.

The Austrian was the nearest thing anyone could remember to the old England centre-forward GO Smith. Similar ability to make the play from slightly behind the other forwards, similar paleness and spare physique, in Sin­delar’s case accentuated by a high forehead and limp smile. There was always something a bit tragic about him. He gassed himself in mysterious circumstances in 1939, either because he was persecuted by the Nazis or over a woman. And it’s said that his football belonged to a gentler, vanished age. Der Papierene, the man made of paper.

But there’s nothing effete, as far as I can see, in film of his play. He looks sharp to the point of aggression, brushing a defender aside, sprinting in for a goal-scoring header. He scored 27 goals in 43 in­­ter­­nat­ionals, including hat-tricks against Ger­many and Hungary just prior to this game. Here he was “as elusive as an eel”, his “beautiful ground pass” sending Zischek in to make it 2-1.

With the England forwards baffled by Austria’s retreating defence, they now need­ed luck to stay ahead, getting it when Eric Houghton took a free-kick. Under a notorious Nigel Kennedy hairstyle was one of the hardest shots in the game. Get in the way of a Houghton special and you never played the violin again. The free-kick hit a defender (who was apparently still rubbing his head several minutes later) and wrongfooted Hiden.

Sindelar intervened again to end a “scintillating movement” with “the best shot of the match” from a typical run and cross by Vogl. At the back, Sesta was scary (a former wrest­ler) and Smistik a good enough attacking centre-half to cope with Hampson as well as feed his forwards. But Austria’s finishing let England off the hook. At the other end, Crooks showed them how to do it, hitting David Jack’s pass first time. Zischek’s header from a right-wing free-kick (one paper says a left-wing corner!) arrived too late. At the death, Vogl “shot hard and true” for once, only for Hibbs, off form but world class, to make another important save.

Every English paper admitted it was a great England escape. The new cap at left-half had a good game (as well as a tasty moniker: Errington Ridley Liddell Keen) and Blenkinsop held the defence together. But the forwards had a nightmare (four weren’t capped again, in­cluding Houghton, who was only 22, and Hampson) and the whole side was “even more disappointing than those which had played in the previous matches this season”.

Meanwhile, the visitors were praised to the skies. “Had the scores been reversed it would have been no more than the play of Austria deserved… the Austrians had nothing to learn from us in heading and ball control… all bril­liant in their own particular departments… There has been nothing better in this country for a long time.” Their style of play was helped by the pitch being in good nick (Spain had sunk into a classic English quagmire).

But if they were so earth-shatteringly good, how come they lost to such a disjointed side? Well, missed chances apart, they may have relied too much on that web of inter-passing. According to Simmons, when it broke down “there is no individual effort to carry on”. Others em­phasised their unwillingness to dribble.

England, on the other hand, were saved by exactly those moments of individual flair– and they’d recalled the players to provide them, which is what gives the match its main significance. For the first time ever, England picked their best available players against a team from abroad. To do that, they dropped the hugely overrated Dean, gave Billy Walker his first cap since 1927, kept Jack in the team after the rubbish against Wales, and retained the same goalkeeper and full-backs and Crooks on the right wing.

If it didn’t work, it was because picking the right players for a one-off isn’t the same as building a team, something Austria had been doing since Jimmy Hogan came in as national coach. Also, some of the recalled players were simply past it. Walker and Jack, two genuinely great inside-forwards of the 1920s, were now 33 and 35 respectively, and two of the half-backs weren’t much younger. They had just enough left in the tank to get away with it (“Without David Jack, I shudder to think what would have happened”) – but their time had gone.

England wanted to pick their best team because they had to admit the Continent had come up with a worthy challenger at last, something which would have puffed up Hugo Meisl’s chest no end. The Jewish banker turned national selector had always been a big fan of British football– hence the hiring of Hogan, a class act, as coach. The goalless draw with England in 1930 was a pointer to Austria’s pedigree, the 2-1 win in 1936 more of an Indian summer than any­thing. Here at Stamford Bridge his side were at their peak, congratulated in two separate match reports for blending the best of the English style and the classic Scottish short-passing game. “A clear case of Jack being as good as his master.” That is, nearly as good as David Jack.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month