England. Scientifically better than Spain

Or so it was in 1931.  Here's a fantastic retrospective on 'the science of the long ball' from Nick Wright.

England 7 – 1 Spain. It’s hard to imagine such a scoreline. But then this was long before Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. The location was Highbury, North London, and the year was 1931, smack in the middle of the Great Depression.

Having triumphed 4-3 at the Estadio Metropolitano in Madrid in May 1929, Spain rocked up at Highbury as the only continental side to have achieved victory over England. The hosts, led in attack by the iconic Dixie Dean, responded in emphatic fashion.

Highbury had an official capacity of 55,000, but on 9th December 100,000 people flooded the streets surrounding the stadium in anticipation of the match. The Daily Sketch’s L.V. Manning depicted the chaos as police and ambulance men were hopelessly outnumbered:  “Where there should have been orderly queues outside the gates there were swirling mobs,” he wrote.

As the 2.15pm kick-off time drew nearer, the thousands still stranded outside the stadium were becoming increasingly agitated. In front of the Gillespie Road entrance, the crowd was so tightly packed that the gates collapsed under their weight. Those closest to the front spotted the opening and gleefully hurdled the wreckage without the need of a ticket.

The turmoil did not end at kick-off. “The touchlines at the Gillespie Road end of the ground looked like a battlefield,” continued Manning, referring to the dozens of injured spectators receiving treatment at the side of the pitch. At one point, England winger Ellis Rimmer had to tiptoe cautiously through the stretchers of wounded just to take a corner in front of the overloaded North Bank. “Fainting women were handed down over the heads of the crowd like human shuttlecocks,” added Manning.

On the pitch, England did nothing to ease the excitement as they found themselves two goals up after four minutes. John Smith - a 33-year-old inside-forward from South Shields - struck first with a 20-yard drive, before Everton’s Tommy Johnson added another a few minutes later. After 32 minutes, Smith collected Dixie Dean’s lay-off and smashed the ball in off the underside of the bar for his second.  England added a fourth two minutes after half-time through Derby County’s Sammy Crooks. Crooks, one of 17 children from a coalmining family in County Durham, then turned provider as Dean headed his cross home. Johnson and Crooks both completed their doubles before Basque striker Guillermo Gorostiza notched a late consolation for the visitors.

In goal for Spain, RCD Espanyol and Real Madrid legend Ricardo Zamora was making his 35th international appearance. When the sides had met two years previously in Madrid, the man referred to as El Divino had carried on playing despite breaking his sternum. In his trademark turtleneck jumper and flat cap, Zamora stepped out at Highbury with a reputation befitting his status as one of the highest paid players in Europe (he earned £30 per week). That reputation took a battering in North London. “All who went to watch had expected something better from Zamora,” rued the Daily Herald, England’s leading socialist newspaper.

For one reporter, Zamora’s performance bordered on the ridiculous: “He did not understand English rules,” wrote Hannen Swaffer on the Herald’s front page: “Once, when Dean charged him in possession, he so misinterpreted what ‘charging’ means that he nearly pulled off Dean’s trousers,” he quipped.

In reply, the beleaguered goalkeeper cited the playing conditions: “Outside the goals there was a mass of mud,” he said. “Every time I tried to jump I slipped. I felt sure that I could stop the first goal and when I failed I was so disheartened that I did not seem able to play properly after.” He was not alone in feeling deflated at Spain’s humiliation. Swaffer, continuing to poke fun at the visitors, wrote, “The crowd sympathised with Spain’s linesman, who, as the goals piled up against his side, stood in one place on the line, not running down with the players, as is the custom, but looking such a picture of smitten woe that the crowd could not help laughing.”

“Spain must have been placed in a rather false light by their victory over England in 1929,” reflected the Manchester Guardian, before asserting that goal scorer Gorostiza and half-back Francisco Gamborena were the only Spanish players of “international class”. The wet, muddy Highbury turf had not accommodated Spain’s fabled ‘tiki-taka’ and their short passing game had proved ineffective. “We are used to playing on good turf with plenty of spring,” pleaded Zamora, while in the Daily Sketch, Manning observed, “Their glaring weakness was that they knew nothing about the science of the long pass.”

Back in Spain, the press lamented a “catastrophic” defeat, and the crowds gathered in Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid greeted news of the scoreline with disbelief. Remarkably, Spain had lost by the same margin against Italy at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. It remains the heaviest defeat in their history.

Catalan daily, La Vanguardia - one of Spain’s longest-running newspapers – offered extensive and ‘exclusive’ analysis of the match. “England were absolutely dominant,” ran the sub-heading on 10th December. Like Ricardo Zamora, La Vanguardia attributed the result, in large part, to the Highbury playing surface: “The pitch was very soft. The conditions were detrimental to Spain, while hugely beneficial to England, whose players found it ideal.” A few days later, dejected football correspondent, Miguel Cabeza, wrote: “We are sorry for the great pain we have suffered in London.” He went on to bemoan the way in which the result may affect England’s already strained relationship with the rest of Europe: “After this result, the English will surely revert to regarding all that is continental with the same sneering attitude that was customary during Victorian times.”

In a match where Spain’s weaknesses had been so ruthlessly exposed, some bitterness was quite understandable, and the Highbury turf had indeed played a large part in their downfall. However, La Vanguardia also reserved praise for England’s defensive performance. Fullbacks Tom Cooper and Ernie Blenkinsop (who had been handed the captain’s armband) were singled out for their outstanding contributions, while there was a general acceptance of the effectiveness of England’s “scientific” approach to long passing.

The English FA’s promise of a third, deciding friendly match between the two nations never came to fruition, but that was probably in the best interest of both sides. England, who would remain unbeaten on home soil against continental opposition for another two decades, were granted time to bask in the glow of their victory, while Spain were left licking their wounds.

If you would like to read more from Nick, please visit his blog and follow him on Twitter @nicholaspwright

The 1930's offered an array of interesting footballing stories.  If you would like to read more on this era, we'd strongly recommend that you visit the excellent 'decade by decade' feature at The Equaliser.

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