If you ask any football fan to list the greatest national teams of all-time, the Holland team of the 1970’s will crop up more often than not. Likewise, the great Ajax team of the same era is often pointed to as one of the finest club sides in history. Whilst the Ajax team experienced great success, winning three consecutive European Cups, the Netherlands national team twice fell at the final hurdle, serving as losing finalists in both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup’s. However, success was never the barometer by which these two teams were measured, when they became enshrined in legend. It was the brand of football they played. The fluidity, technique and pace with which they played in a system whereby, in theory, no outfield player has a fixed role and all individuals are comfortable joining in multiple phases of play, which became known as ‘Total Football’.
The man largely credited with the invention of ‘Total Football’ is Rinus Michels, who managed both Ajax and the Netherlands for a number of years, with Johan Cruyff serving as his main exponent. The other major claim to the foundation of the theory is made by Hungarian coach, Gusztav Sebes, who managed the Magical Magyars, guiding Hungary to just one defeat in six years, coming in the 1954 World Cup final known as the ‘Miracle of Bern’. Sebes implemented a very flexible 2-3-3-2 and demanded that his team both attacked and defended as a unit, requiring players comfortable in carrying out both tasks.
In both of these eras, the early-mid 1950’s and 1970’s, these two sides could be considered the antithesis to the British approach to the game. In 1953 and 1954, England lost first 6-3 and later 7-1 to Hungary, playing the traditional WM formation. The flexibility of the Hungarians forwards and midfielders baffled the English, whose rigidity was ruthlessly exploited and the humiliation demanded a major rethink over domestic tactics. Similarly, when the world were marveling at the Dutch in 1974, England had failed to even qualify the tournament, as Sir Alf Ramsey persisted with the outdated 4-3-3 formation which had previously brought him such success.
The idea of the English as being behind the times and persisting with approach’s less focused on fluidity and technique is one which has been commonly held for over half a century, and still lingers today. This makes it all the more surprising that when one traces the origins of ‘Total Football’ in both Hungary and Holland, they were laid by Englishmen. Through the form of three men, namely; Jack Reynolds, Jimmy Hogan and Vic Buckingham, the British radically revolutionized the game, and whilst these three men are still celebrated on the continent, they are relatively unknown in the UK.
We will start with Jimmy Hogan, who was a former tobacco worker from Burnley, of Irish descent. Hogan had a respectable career as an inside forward, an FA Cup semi-final with Fulham in 1908 proving the highlight of his 11-year career. He moved quickly into management, the Netherlands national team job proving his first venture, at the age of just 28. He joined MTK Budapest in 1914, and it was here that Hogan began to refine his footballing philosophies, playing a vibrant style of football which sparked a national interest for the game throughout Hungary which had not been seen before.
When he returned to Britain in 1918 he was lambasted as a traitor for working abroad during the war, and he was soon on his way again. Hogan’s managerial career spanned 29 years and saw him manage teams in Holland, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, France and Britain. In Austria, he managed first Austria Vienna, before teaming up with Hugo Miesl to coach the Austrian ‘Wunderteam’ of the 1930’s, who rose to prominence with a style of play firmly based upon moving the ball quickly and accurately.
Unlike almost anyone before or after him, Hogan had a direct hand in two golden generations, and the success of the ‘Wunderteam’ in the 1930’s was succeeded by the success of the ‘Magical Magyars’ in the 1950’s. After the 6-3 defeat of England, Sandor Barcs, president of the Hungarian FA, told the press “Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football”. Marcs was not alone is his praise of Hogan, the Hungary manager, Gusztav Sebes went as far as to say, “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.”
Whilst Hogan’s contributions had a major influence right across the continent, there was another Brit of the same era, whose efforts were more solely focused in the country and city which would become so synonymous with ‘Total Football’ in the 1970’s. That man was Jack Reynolds. A year older than Hogan, and following an even more modest career, mostly in the second and third divisions with the likes of Grimsby, Watford and Gillingham (then New Brompton), Reynolds was to experience extraordinary success as a manager outside Britain.
After two years with St Gallen in Switzerland, Reynolds was set to become the Germany manager in 1914, but such a move was halted with the outbreak of the First World War. Instead, Reynolds joined Ajax, where he would go on to change the course of footballing history forever. Prior to his arrival, Ajax had never won the Eredivisie or the KNVB Cup, when he finally left, they had won the Eredivisie eight times and the KNVB Cup once. Reynolds spent 7 years in his first spell at Ajax, taking over the Netherlands national team in 1919 and leaving for Blauw Wit in 1925, for a 3 year break from the club.
In total, Reynolds spent 27 years as Ajax manager in three separate spells. Although he made the club successful for the first time in their history, his legacy extended far beyond silverware. Reynolds implementation of offensive and skillful play and a focus on youth has become ingrained in the culture of Ajax. Rinus Michels played under Reynolds for only a single season, the 1946/47 campaign, before Reynolds retired aged 56, but his influence upon the man who is credited as the pioneer of ‘Total Football’ is immense.
Twelve years after Reynolds left Ajax, Vic Buckingham took over as head coach. Unlike Hogan and Reynolds, Buckingham had quite an impressive playing career, spending his entire 14-year career with Tottenham as a wing-half, and losing his best 6 years to the war. Buckingham’s first managerial venture was with the combined Oxford and Cambridge students team, ‘Pegasus’. He guided the amateur outfit to victory in the 1951 Amateur Cup, where he garnered a reputation for playing with such an emphasis on possession that hadn’t been seen within the British game before.
His first major job came in 1953 with West Bromwich Albion, where he almost pulled off a historic double in 1954, when he won the FA Cup but the Baggies just missed out on the league title, finishing second. Supporters and the press were quick to draw focus on Buckingham’s alternative approach to the game, with The Observer noting that his West Brom side were the only team in England to resemble the style of play employed by the Hungarians as they romped home against England that same year.
He spent 6 years with the Albion, before joining Ajax in 1959. He won the league in his first season in Holland and the cup in his second, but moved back to England in 1961, joining Sheffield Wednesday. A fourth placed finish and a Fairs Cup quarter-final defeat to Barcelona was not deemed sufficient by the Wednesday board in his final season, and Buckingham returned to Ajax, where he would hand a young Johan Cruyff his debut in 1964. In 1970, he joined Barcelona, taking over a team lying in tenth place in La Liga. In two seasons he transformed the Catalan outfit, taking them to fourth in his first season and runners-up in his second, winning the Copa del Rey in the process. His successor at Barcelona was one Rinus Michels.
Hogan, Reynolds and Buckingham have all had immense influences upon the beautiful game. Their contribution across the continent can still be felt and is widely acknowledged, with the exception of in their home countries. Hogan and Buckingham have had their legacy somewhat tarnished in Britain, due to scandals of treachery and match fixing respectively. When one says that the true foundations for ‘Total Football’ were laid by these three men, it is not to detract from the mastery of Rinus Michels, Gusztav Sebes or Johan Cruyff, all of whom acknowledge the influence of their predecessors.
The British, for the most part, turned their noses up at Hogan and Reynolds over the turn of the century, at a time when the British game was far superior to the rest of the world. The English national team went unbeaten on home soil for 77 years between 1872 and 1949, but whilst the British game stood still, the rest of the world did not. Sandor Barcs spoke of the British attitude in 1993, commenting, “British football was isolated. They didn’t like the continental football. They felt themselves as the aristocrats of this game.” Whilst Jimmy Hogan recounted being scoffed at when he returned to Britain telling those in the game, “We are not aristocrats, we are not the best.”