When Hungary won 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and so dispelled the lingering myth of English footballing superiority, their guest of honour was Jimmy Hogan, a former Burnley player who nearly became a priest but instead became the most influential coach in the history of the game. “We played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us,” said Gusztav Sebes, the coach of that great Hungary side. “When our football history is told, his name should be written in golden letters.”
But a vital part of that history is how Hogan got to Hungary in the first place, and the key figure in that story is another Englishman, Edward Shires, a typewriter salesman from Bollington near Macclesfield whose family story reads like an epic of 20th-century history.
As Hogan struggled with a knee injury and his playing career dwindled, he contemplated a move into coaching. There was little place for his inquisitiveness in English football, he knew, so he sought opportunities abroad. In 1914, he was offered a role preparing Austria for the 1916 Olympics. He had been in Vienna a couple of months when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. A month later, Britain was at war with Austro-Hungary.
Early one morning, police called at his Vienna apartment and arrested him as an enemy alien. Hogan was held for a few weeks in the Elisabeth Promenade prison before being released into house arrest, working as an odd-job man on the estate belonging to a pair of British brothers who owned a department store, Eddie and Ernest Blyth. He taught their children tennis and reported once a week to the police station.
His wife was allowed to return to Burnley in March 1915 but Hogan stayed on, becoming increasingly bored until, mysteriously, late in 1916 he was permitted to travel to Budapest. There, he was appointed coach of MTK, and ignited a football culture that would take Hungary to two World Cup finals and, through the diaspora of the 1920s and 30s, have a profound impact on how the game was played in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France, Yugoslavia and South America. Modern football is essentially Hungarian in origin.
But how Hogan had got from Vienna to Budapest had remained unclear until I chanced upon an interview given to the newspaper Nemzeti Sport in 1933 by Edward Shires who, it turned out, had done much to create the conditions in which Hogan thrived.
Shires was 17 and working as a clerk in a typewriter factory in Manchester when he decided to follow his father to Vienna, where he moved having been advised the damp of the north-west was bad for his lungs. A brother, Frank, left for Canada, signed up for the army at the outbreak of the war and was killed at Passchendaele. Edward’s two sisters went with him, travelling via Paris, where he met Ada, whom he soon married. His wedding photo shows him as a slim, clean-shaven man with a precise parting and an intense air.
In Vienna, Shires sold typewriters and began to import sporting goods; he is widely credited with having introduced table-tennis to Austro-Hungary. He also played cricket and tennis and became good friends with Harold Gandon, a manager at the gasworks, who in 1894 won the Austrian Open tennis championship in Prague (Bohemia then being part of the Austrian empire). He returned with a challenge from a local rowing club, Regatta, for a football match. Shires leapt to the task and organised a side that won 2-1 and then merged with the First Vienna Cricket Club. A team photograph from 1894 shows Shires is in the middle of the back row, a position that perhaps indicates his importance, while Gandon, a broad man with a luxuriant moustache, is denoted as the captain and, sitting at the opposite end of the second row is an “E Blyth”, although whether Eddie or Ernest is unclear.
Football boomed in Austro-Hungary and Shires was at the heart of it, captaining Austria on at least one occasion. In 1904, he moved to Budapest because “my company needed someone to do business in the difficult Hungarian market”. There he joined MTK, one of the two leading clubs, but health concerns curtailed his playing career and he became a referee and administrator. Frustrated by MTK’s inability to break the dominance of Ferencvaros, in 1911 he took radical action and persuaded John Tait Robertson, a hard-drinking Scot who had been player-manager of Chelsea, to take over as coach. Robertson began to hone MTK’s passing game before leaving abruptly in 1913. “It’s a pity that he wasn’t teetotal,” Shires said. The foundations, though, had been laid.
And, crucially, Shires had enough of a reputation for Hogan, frustrated under house arrest, to write to him for help. Shires saw an opportunity and persuaded the vice-president of MTK, the Cambridge-educated Baron Dirsztay, to appeal to the Austrian authorities. Late in 1916, Hogan arrived in Budapest to become coach of MTK.
Although Austria and Hungary were at war with Britain, the attitude to foreign nationals was very different. A letter from the US ambassador in Vienna to his counterpart in London suggests that, by May 1915, 75 of an estimated 1,286 British subjects had been interned in Austria, and only three of an estimated 512 in Hungary. Later, Shires was a signatory to a letter from the British community to the Hungarian authorities thanking them for their continued hospitality through the war, while Shires’s great-grandson Laszlo Mathe, now a Hungarian diplomat working in Slovenia, recalls a family story about a cockney woman who ran a pub in Budapest and continued to fly the union flag throughout.
For two years Hogan evangelised his vision of football, creating the technically adept, intelligent style that made MTK probably the best club team in the world at the time. After the armistice, though, amid the communist takeover and the Red Terror, he and Shires fled to the UK. After the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, both soon returned. Hogan pursued a peripatetic coaching career, but Shires remained through all the upheavals of the following decade.
By the late 20s, his business was failing. Mathe has a number of letters from English clubs rejecting his attempts to arrange tours. Shires contracted tuberculosis and began gambling heavily and, by the time he died in 1937, survived by Ada and four children, money was clearly tight. One son, Jack, worked at the British embassy and helped organise the evacuation of British citizens after Hungary allied with Nazi Germany. Fleeing south through Yugoslavia, he declined passage back to England, preferring to remain and fight with Montenegrin partisans. A daughter, Ethel, ended up on the last train out of Budapest, which headed east. She wound up in Tehran, where she married a British banker, Derrick Green. His job took him to Damascus, where he was killed in a bomb attack in 1947. Ethel returned immediately to London with their five-year-old daughter Rosemary, who now lives in Bognor Regis.
Another daughter, Frances, stayed, along with Churchill’s niece one of a tiny handful of British citizens who remained in Hungary through the war. From her are descended the 15 direct Hungarian descendants of Edward, while there are a further six in the UK. Their family history is extraordinary, driven by a characteristic late Victorian spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship – and along the way, they played a major role in creating Hungarian football, and thus the game as it is played today.