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England’s Switzerland ‘54 – Different format, familiar outcome

In our latest trip down World Cup memory lane concerning England we put the spotlight on the 1954 tournament in Switzerland. The competition adopted a unique format, but as has happened so often since then England would fall in the quarter-finals…

The early 1950s represented a serious wake-up call for English football. A shock 1-0 defeat to the USA in the 1950 World Cup has been recalled many times over the decades, but it would for the most part at the time be written off as something of a fluke. But during the 1953-54 season there came two defeats that helped really hit home how good – or more to the point bad – England now were.

In November, Hungary became the first overseas side to beat England at Wembley and they did it in style with a 6-3 triumph. It was a public humiliation for England, one that arguably was felt more than the loss to USA. That defeat in 1950 had been out of sight, a long way from home and with the excuse of it being played in a very different climate. This game, by contrast, was on home soil in mid-season and covered far more substantially by the British media. England had been taken apart by the magnificent Magyars.

Any perception that it had simply been a case of England having an off-day and Hungary giving the performance of their lives would be eroded the following May when the sides met again in Budapest. It may not get recalled as much as the Wembley clash but it was even more embarrassing for Walter Winterbottom’s men as they were thrashed 7-1. England were not only beaten but ripped apart. Hungary could lay claim to being the best team in the world, a status they would look to officially seal at the forthcoming World Cup. If Englishmen had traditionally believed their side was the greatest, they were now left to accept the reality after a record defeat.

Just weeks later there would be a quantifiable way of determining England’s abilities as they headed to the World Cup. Switzerland may have not seemed the most obvious choice to stage only the fifth ever World Cup – and the third played in Europe – but their location and political neutrality counted in their favour less than a decade after the war. England had not adapted well to the elements in Brazil but now they were playing close to home, looking to put the last four years behind them and being glad to keep out of Hungary’s way.

There have been occasional deviations in the format of the World Cup over the years, but the basic structure of four teams in the first round group and playing each other has almost always been untouched. 1954 was the exception. The 16 sides would still be grouped into four sections, but the teams would only play two matches – the two seeds in each group playing the two unseeded teams only.

England were a seed and they were drawn out with Italy, with their opponents to be Belgium and hosts Switzerland. It was an all-European affair and there was no potential embarrassment awaiting England on the scale of that experienced when beaten by the USA four years earlier. But a failure to succeed against Belgium and Switzerland would certainly not be considered good enough and progression was the minimal target for Winterbottom’s men.

Goals, goals, goals

The first set of group matches at World Cups often produces tight contests, with sides afraid of suffering defeat. England would duly start with a draw in 1954, but it proved to be the antithesis of a cagey opener as they shared eight goals with Belgium.

If English football fans are asked to name famous players from the 1950s then four names likely to be put forward are Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright. The celebrated quartet all took their places in the side, with Wright captaining the team and the evergreen Matthews still regarded as a threat on the wing at 39. Also in the side were Manchester United’s Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, two players who became integral members of the team before the tragedy of Munich four years later.

They were joined in the side against Belgium by regular goalkeeper Gil Merrick, plus Ron Staniforth, Syd Owen, Jimmy Dickinson and Ivor Broadis, a man who unusually had served as a club manager before playing for England having been player-boss at Carlisle United from 1946 to 1949. While it may not have been the best England side ever, it still contained several stellar names and qualification had been comfortably achieved against fellow UK nations.

The match against Belgium confirmed England had the firepower to act as a danger to any opponent, but further emphasised their defensive vulnerability after the two nightmares against Hungary. The most recent meeting of the sides had produced a 5-0 home win for England two years earlier but it became clear as Pol Anoul put the Belgians ahead after five minutes that this was going to be far tougher. However, goals from Broadis and Lofthouse gave England an interval lead.

And when Broadis scored his second on 63 minutes, that looked to be that. But England allowed their opponents back into the game as Henri Coppens and Anoul both scored. After 90 minutes the game was level at 3-3 and, in a move that looks peculiar to modern eyes, extra-time would be played in a group game in a bid to find a winner.

Lofthouse struck immediately to regain England’s lead, only for Dickinson to head into his own net two minutes later. Although high scoring games were not uncommon at the time – the famous 1953 FA Cup final had finished 4-3 to Blackpool against Bolton Wanderers – there was still surprise that the goals had flowed so freely at both ends. Bob Ferrier wrote in the Daily Mirror: “It was the Crazy Gang and the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy – but it was not funny. Belgium drew 4-4 with England here tonight but they didn’t really win that point – England pencilled it up, tied it in neat red Belgian ribbon and made a gift of it as prim and pretty as any box of Swiss chocolates.”

In The Times, ‘Association Football Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) conveyed his frustration as he wrote: “So once more one must wipe away a tear for England on a foreign field. And this time it was a bitter tear, for after shaking that opening cloud off their shoulders, they dominated the central hour with some pure cultured football to take a lead that should have given them a worthy victory. Yet the end turned back to hold hands with the beginning, and England sadly threw away the palm that was in their grasp.”

Feeling the Berne

A World Cup in Europe should have posed limited difficulties for England in terms of climate. But when they took on the Swiss in Berne three days later there was intense heat and it took an inevitable toll on the match’s entertainment value. The hosts were in buoyant move after a shock win over Italy, while England would have to contend without the injured Lofthouse and Matthews. They were replaced by Dennis Wilshaw and Jimmy Mullen respectively, with Bill McGarry making his debut in place of Owen who had been criticised for his display against Belgium.

It would be Mullen’s final cap, despite joining the select group of England players to score at a World Cup when he broke the deadlock shortly before the break. Wilshaw, who was making only his second international appearance, justified his selection by wrapping up the victory on 69 minutes. England had secured top spot in the group and not until they overcame Ukraine at Euro 2012 would they again defeat a host nation at a major tournament.

But there wasn’t exactly euphoria over what had been achieved. Anybody who thinks criticism of England’s performances from the media is a modern trend might wish to check out some of the match reports from the 1954 World Cup.

Mirror man Ferrier acknowledged the victory but felt underwhelmed by what he’d seen. “But not yet can I report that England approach soccer greatness,” he wrote, as he compared the Swiss to “an average Second Division side” and expressed bemusement they had beaten the Italians. But Green in The Times went further, writing: “England, in a world sense, represent a Third Division side that has found its way into the last eight of the FA Cup.”

Some perspective could be gained when Switzerland again beat Italy in a play-off to decide who went through to the next round. England could feel contentment at winning the group, but they would face a tough quarter-final six days later.

Defensive despair

In another difference from today, the latter stages of the World Cup were not pre-drawn with the winners of one group playing the runners-up from another and so on. Instead this would be a random draw and England were paired with another group winner, Uruguay. To add to the stature of the South Americans, they were holders of the World Cup and had also lifted it the only other time they had taken part – as hosts in 1930. England had the chance to be the first nation ever to defeat Uruguay at a World Cup, but it wouldn’t be easy. The sides had met for the first time a year earlier, England losing 2-1 in Montevideo. During the group stage Uruguay had laid down a marker by thrashing Scotland 7-0.

Matthews and Lofthouse were back, with Mullen and Taylor missing out as Wilshaw stayed in attack. Sadly the frailties that had been visible against Belgium would resurface in the same stadium in Basle. Once more the sun shone and again England were exposed defensively. Carlos Borges put Uruguay ahead after five minutes, before Lofthouse again showed his prowess by equalising on 16 minutes with a composed finish. Yet England would trail at the break as Obdulio Varela converted with a long-range effort.

England’s hopes were fading and the situation grew worse five minutes into the second half as Juan Schiaffino doubled Uruguay’s lead by running through and beating Merrick. Finney gave England hope by pulling a goal back from close range, but the world champions had the last word as Javier Ambrois put the ball out of Merrick’s reach. It was a sad end to the Birmingham City goalkeeper’s England career, never being capped again after being a regular for three years.

In defeat there was at least positivity expressed by the watching scribes, as Green hailed the spirit shown by the players. He wrote: “Courage and temperament are precious qualities we possess beyond others, and if there are many matters of a technical and artistic nature that need attention in our game, at least one felt proud on this occasion to hear an international crowd on a foreign field roar for an English victory as no crowd has yet roared at Wembley.” Some of these sentiments could have been expressed about England far more recently than 1954…

But praise for their endeavour did not alter the fact England were out and it was the latest confirmation that they were not good enough to be considered among the world’s true elite. It looked almost inevitable that Hungary would claim the crown, but after beating Uruguay after extra-time in the semi-final they would surprisingly lose to West Germany in the final after being 2-0 up.

By then England were left to follow events from afar, with the only English involvement in the final being the presence of referee Bill Ling. The 1953-54 season had represented a serious reality check for the nation in terms of England’s abilities. As they departed Switzerland it was hard to ignore that England had conceded 15 goals in the last four matches. Even accounting for the more gung-ho nature of football back then, this was a very poor record that emphasised the side’s shortcomings.

And it would mark the start of something else – the familiarity of exiting the World Cup in the quarter-finals. The subsequent tournaments of 1962, 1970, 1986, 2002 and 2006, plus effectively 1982 (alternative format used), would all see it prove the round where England fell. Good enough to be among the best eight in the world, not good enough to be classed as one of the best four and certainly not the very best.

And as England headed home from Switzerland, the gap they would have to bridge to become the greatest had arguably never previously felt bigger.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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