For all his many achievements as a player, referee and administrator (see part 9) Hugo Meisl will always be best known for his work as the manager of a quite incredible team. Meisl oversaw the evolution in Austrian football from taking sole charge of the national team in 1919, but it was in the early 1930s that the side established itself as a match for any in the world. It was with good reason that the Austrians became known as the “Wunderteam”.
In the years of football’s spread throughout Europe the Austrians were far from the forefront of the game’s expansion. First the Scandinavians (most notably the Danes) and then the Western Europeans pressed ahead in the race to catch up with the sport’s inventors. Yet by the time of the late 20s and early 30s, the Danubian school of Central Europe was at the vanguard of innovation within the game.
As influential as he was in the development of Austrian football, Meisl was not alone. In 1912 Meisl brought Jimmy Hogan, a former English professional, to Vienna and so began one of the most fruitful partnerships of early football history. Hogan was disaffected with the methods of training and preparation that were deeply ingrained within English football. He knew that if he was to find a more receptive audience for his ideas he would have to go and work abroad.
After Dordrecht, Hogan returned briefly to England to resume playing before moving to Vienna to work with Meisl. In Austria, Hogan and Meisl worked closely together to improve the standard of football but also to determine the best way of developing players. The pair shared a common vision of how football should best be played and the freedom afforded to Hogan allowed him to experiment with training techniques.
Hogan’s time in Vienna was cut short by WWI and by 1916 he found himself in Hungary with MTK who he formed into an exceptional side. Spells in Germany, France and Switzerland followed before in 1931 he returned to Vienna. In his absence Austrian football had altered immeasurably.
A draw for the national side with England in May 1930 had been the start of one of the greatest sequences in football history. Hungary were beaten 8-2, Switzerland 8-1, while Germany were defeated 6-0 in Berlin and 5-0 in Vienna. The result which really made the rest of Europe sit up though was the crushing 5-0 defeat of Scotland in May 1931. This was of course a Scotland team that had demolished England 5-1 at Wembley in 1928 with arguably the finest demonstration of the passing game ever seen to this point in history, yet they were comprehensively out-passed and out-played by the Austrians. The Scots were admittedly not at full strength, not selecting a single player from Rangers or Celtic (the great Davie Meiklejohn was a most notable absentee), but it still signalled a power shift in international football.
Striking as they were, these incredible results were not achieved by any form of revolution in the football played in Austria. The fundamentals that had been introduced by Hogan remained the basis for the style of play adopted by the Austrians, but by the early 1930s the technique had been perfected. Austria retained the pyramid 2-3-5 formation, but as with all the great teams they made movement an integral element to their game. When receiving the ball a player had a wealth of options available for him so that the “pass and move” style of play became simple. Such was the level of movement that the Wunderteam displayed that they came to be known as the “Danubian whirl”.
The rest of the team were exceptional in their own right, but they fitted more neatly into the narrowly defined roles of the day. Rudi Hiden was a supreme goalkeeper, up there with Zamora, Planicka and Combi as the finest of the age. Karl Sesta was an exceptional left-back, only rivalled by England’s Eddie Hapgood for a place in any world XI. Inside-left Anton Schall was a prolific goalscorer, but also a majestic passer with a fabulous variety to his art.
|Formations for England (above) v. Austria|
In the second-half the Austrians again took charge of the game with controlled spells of possession football. Six minutes after the restart Austria pulled a goal back as Sindelar and Schall exchanged passes before Karl Zischek, the outside-right, beat Harry Hibbs in the England goal. The crowd were in raptures as the visitors every move was greeted with cheers and applause for the way that the pulled the England defence from one side to the other. Austria thought they were level when Walter Nausch fired towards goal, only to be denied by the upright.
Yet despite their superiority Austria could not make their possession count, and soon after pulling one back they found themselves further behind. Eric Houghton, England’s outside-left, aimed a free-kick at goal but the cruel deflection off Karl Sesta took it away from Hiden and into the net. Austria rallied through the brilliant Matthias Sindelar, but David Jack’s clever pass put through Sammy Crooks to score and England were out of sight. A late goal from Zischek made the score 4-3, but Austria could not force another and went away bitterly disappointed at their defeat.
The English press was in no doubt about who had been the better team. The Austrians were commonly regarded as the moral victors, while England were lucky to have scraped a win from a game in which they had been utterly outplayed. The game was described by the Daily Herald as “a most disturbing victory – the kind that leaves one wondering how it happened and a sort of creepy feeling that we were successful by the kindness of some spirit of chance which will never be so good again.” England’s famous home record was under increasing threat.