Having suffered the ignominy of defeat in Barcelona at the hands of Spain in 1929, England were desperate to make amends when the two sides met in London in 1931. Spain were only the second team outside the Home Nations (after Belgium) afforded the chance to play an international on English soil, and hoped to do rather better that their predecessors who had twice been thrashed by a rampant England. Since their famous defeat in 1929 England had fallen again to Continental opposition, losing earlier in 1931 to France in Paris though they had not been able to field their first choice XI.
However, the new season had seen improved form for England. In the opening games of the Home Championship they had comprehensively defeated Ireland 6-2 in Belfast before easing past Wales at Anfield. England had also at last found a solution to the problems they faced in goal. Ever since the departure of the great Sam Hardy (who dominated the position from 1907-1920) England had tried a succession of men in goal, with nobody able to make the position his own. Harry Hibbs of Birmingham City had made his debut against Wales in 1929 and immediately showed that he was the man for the job. England’s long search for a goalkeeper was over.
Spain had continued their own impressive form since the victory over England. The intervening years had seen them pick up victories over Italy, Yugoslavia and Portugal, with just one defeat to Czechoslovakia in Prague to mar their record. They did though have to make some late adjustments to their team for the game at Highbury.
Right-back Ciriaco Errasti had established himself as the first choice right-back for Spain but he was ruled out and was replaced by Ramon Zabalo of Barcelona, a man born in South Shields in the North-East of England but of Catalan ancestry. This change broke up the club partnership between Errasti and Jacinto Quincoces who played together at Real Madrid, but Zabalo was a capable replacement. Arguably of greater significance was the loss of inside forward Luis Regueiro, also of Real Madrid, which prompted a reorganisation in the midfield with Leonardo Cilaurren coming into the team.
The greatest challenge that the Spaniards faced though was psychological. As Willy Meisl wrote in his “Soccer Revolution”, “What the English could not know was the incredible inferiority complex under which these early Continental sides laboured when they stepped on to a British football field. For them it was sacred soil. They were so over-awed they hardly dared to put a foot down. If they were hit by an early goal, let alone by a couple, their strained nerves were shattered and they were beaten before they had a chance to get going.”
Sadly for Spain exactly that happened. With only four minutes gone they already found themselves two down. Jack Smith of Portsmouth put England ahead almost immediately after kick-off from an Alfred Strange pass, while Tommy Johnson doubled the advantage minutes later with a tap in. Meanwhile, thousands were still locked outside a bursting Highbury, with a capacity of only 55,000 preventing many more enjoying the slaughter.
he Spaniards struggled to get to grips with either the pitch or the physicality of the England players. The turf at Highbury was soft from the rain and gave easily underfoot. Furthermore Spain didn’t seem accustomed to the direct style of the English side, while their lack of pressing allowed the home team to dictate play at will. When they did get the ball the Spanish attempted to dribble, but found themselves the targets of some hard tackling from the English half-backs.
England went further ahead before half-time when Smith rifled a powerful shot into the roof of the net after receiving the ball from Dixie Dean. Spain stood little chance of recovering, but they had found themselves in a similar position in 1929 and had come back to win. Could they repeat the feat?
Any faint hopes that remained among the Spaniards were soon extinguished in the second-half. Two minutes after the interval Ellis Rimmer’s cross was met by Sammy Crooks who floated the ball over the head of a stranded Zamora. Crooks was the stand out performer in the second-half with his relentless dribbling running the Spanish half-backs ragged. It was from a Crooks corner that Dean scored the fifth goal of the game and the Everton striker soon turned provider when he laid the ball off to Johnson for England’s sixth after a Spanish handball.
The real impact of the game was restore the façade of England’s invincibility. It was clear to the fans at home that the defeat of 1929 (as well as the loss against France earlier in the year) was an aberration, a fluke result caused by the heat and the absence of England’s best players. In reality the scoreline flattered the home team, and they benefitted significantly from the soft turf and wet conditions.
Where England won the game was in their experience in dealing with such conditions and a willingness to play to their strengths. While Spain attempted to stick to their natural game of passing and dribbling the English backs were content to pump the ball forward for the strikers to chase. The ease of the victory only reinforced the view that the English style of play was the only way to go. On the Continent however, new ideas were being embraced which would challenge the pre-eminence the game’s inventors still enjoyed.