A rainy Sunday morning is a rainy Sunday morning wherever you are in the world and it certainly was a very rainy one in Budapest as I began the second day of our trip by rising as ridiculously early as ever, determined to chalk more football landmarks up while the girls enjoyed a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast in the apartment.
I set out with the intention of visiting the building site of the new Puskas Ferenc Stadium, at the same location as the famed old Nepstadion, and with a vague intention of heading out and meeting Tony Dawber at some stage to visit historic Honved in the district of Kispest, cradle of the Hungarian Golden Team of the 1950s
The new national stadium is due to open in 2019 with capacity for 69,000. The old Nep was renamed after the legendary “Galloping Major” in 2002.
Despite the downpours it was surely worth a look – with the rider that you are talking to a man here who used to take a packed lunch to watch Ewood under construction in his dinner hour.
But with bugger all open on a Sunday morning at 7.45am even the acquisition of a brolly looked most unlikely and I was well soaked by the time I got the 800 yards to our nearest Metro (underground) stop.
I got off at Keleti, one of the major Budapest railway stations and bought a Nezmetisport paper before getting the metro a few stops out out to Puskas Ferenc.
How I rejoiced when one of the little kiosks on the way actually sold brollies. A Chinese lady handed it to me for four quid or so and explained graphically how to open it up as if the downpour I was about to step back into would be the first such precipitation I’d ever seen in my life.
It might not have been but after 10 minutes in it, brolly or no brolly, I was ready for getting back into the warm and caught only a distant glimpse of the huge bowl where the Nep was housed.
There were 92,000 in what’s temporarily little more than a hollow full of cranes and trucks in 1954 when Hungary followed up their incredible 6-3 Wembley win by humiliating England 7-1 there; 68,000 when England more or less secured a 1982 World Cup spot by winning 3-1, one of Trevor Brooking’s brace of goals memorably lodging in the top stanchion. The six-figure mark was reached when Vasas played Austria Wien in a Mitropa Cup Final, a kind-of Hapsburg Empire nations forerunner of the Champions Cup.
But there was nothing really to see other than the adjacent and very impressive Laszlo Papp indoor arena (designed by the same architect who’s been entrusted with its new neighbour) so I made the return journey to our Erzsebet Korut apartment, damp and defeated, and Tony rang to suggest we’d go and seek out Honved if it ever slackened off outside later.
Studying Nemzisport, I was saddened to calculate that only 10,675 spectators in total had attended the six top division games the day before. Incredibly the 1593 at Ujpest had been the third best gate…2,950 at Mezokovesd Zsory v glamour visitors Ferencvaros the largest attendance,
Just 986 had watched Puskas Akademia host Vasas but a bit of further research revealed that the Akadamia, effectively a feeder/youth/reserve team for Videoton – not one of the Budapest sides remember – play in Felcsut, a swanky hamlet 25 miles from Szekesfehervar. On percentage of catchment attending it was perhaps the best gate of the lot – around half the population!
Many of the top division teams play in towns not much bigger than Great Harwood, Bamber Bridge or Clitheroe. Balmazujvaros has 18,000 inhabitants, Mezokovesd 16,905, Paks 19,833. Szombathely, Szekesfehervar, Diosgyori are all smaller than Blackburn while second city Debrecen has a population of just more than 200,000.
The weekend after I left the city, Fradi (Ferencvaros) had 19,000 at the Groupama against Debrecen but they are alone in attracting such turn-outs. The afternoon would reveal how far from glory days and big crowds one once-iconic club had been allowed to slip.
The weather much improved after lunchtime, I got a tram a short ride along to the district Tony and Liam were staying in and we took a metro to change for a tram to Kispest.
Like Ujpest, the township from which Honved emerged is a down-at-heel working class area compared to the splendour of central Budapest with its labyrinths of cafes, bars, restaurants and fancy shops on the flat Pest side facing the magnificent palaces and monuments on the hilly opposite bank of the Danube in Buda.
As we disembarked from the tram there were no cafes or bars open among the modest houses and certainly no fancy shops. Indeed there was virtually nobody bar the three of us knocking about.
Honved were arguably, unofficial world club champions or something very near to it in the post-war, pre-European Cup era.
Floodlit friendlies around Europe involving them as well as tours by another highly-regarded side, Moscow Dynamo, fired up the appetite for continental club competition. English champions Wolves attracted 55,000 to Molyneux and beat them 3-2 in a 1954 thriller broadcast live on BBC TV – even more of a rarity than floodlights at the time.
Seven of the Hungarians who started the 6-3 game were Honved players but their bloom was cruelly cut down by the events of November 1956.
Honved literally means “defenders of the homeland” and they were the Army team in the first post-war Communist years. The likes of Puskas, Zoltan Czibor and Joszef Bozsic were drafted but any soldiering they were expected to do occupied minimal time as their duty and purpose in life was to bring honours and glory to the Hungarian military.
When the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush an uprising against communism they were out of the country after playing Bilbao in the first leg of a European Cup tie. Some of the side – Puskas, Czibor and Sandor Kocsis among them – decided not to return and continued their careers elsewhere.
Hungarian football’s Golden Age was shunting to a halt just as Rock’n’Roll’s was gathering steam.
Today, the Bozsic Joszef Stadion, across a rusty set of railtracks after you alight from the single-track tram which brings workers to the local offices and takes shoppers and revellers to the city, bears few indicators of past glory.
We drank in the ambience from just inside the gates across the adjacent training pitch, as near as the polite but dutiful steward would allow us to the bowl-like, but much-reduced in capacity, ground itself which had one main stand and the rest mainly uncovered seats.
It seemed a little sad that such modest yet storied surroundings now house the most paltry of crowds.
Tony Dawber reflects: “My dad and his mates would wax lyrical about Finney, Douglas and McIlroy.
“But if you asked about foreign teams, Moscow Dynamo and Honved were always the first ones mentioned, so a personal pilgrimage to legendary Honved was a must.
“As we rode a near deserted tram through a faded industrial suburb of Budapest on a bright but breezy autumn Sunday afternoon, my head was filled with images of grainy footage and photos from the 1940s and 1950s showing Honved taking apart the world’s best.
“And as we approached the tiny windswept terminus by the stadium gates, you could almost sense the ghosts of Puskas and Kocsis, who both grew up in tiny, crowded apartments overlooking the stadium.
“Today it’s neat but modest and usually houses crowds which just about struggle into four figures, but the weight of history and past glories still hang in the air.
“I could have stood there all afternoon just soaking up the atmosphere.”
Tony’s right – I got the kind of ghostly chill I once felt walking by Lords Cricket Ground in the silent still of early-hours London when I imagined I heard a ripple of applause. You felt the presence of long-passed players and fans from decades past when Honved was their and the nation’s pride and joy.
When I told the friendly steward:”You have a very famous history,” he grinned but ruefully.
“But Honved now….team not so very good, very bad” he said with all the honesty he could muster.
Around the corner, looking for a better view, we chanced upon a cemetery with a row of busy florists stalls selling wreaths and bunches to a constant stream of visitors. Hungary is very big on families respecting and acknowledging their dead.
It seemed like a metaphor for the weight of bygone times tangible in the air.
We walked back across the tumbleweed railtrack and reboarded the tram, driven by the same blonde lady, beauty a little faded now, in shades and I stayed on to meet the girls at the Hard Rock Cafe in town as Tony and Liam went for a look round Ferencvaros.
It had all seemed a little surreal, like a passage in a melancholy film that could have been sentimentally soundtracked by Tom Waits at his most tender and nostalgic.
We all reconvened later for a lovely evening of chat and drinks with Peterjon. Tony was going home the following day but there was a little more for me to do in my Hungarian football odyssey with an unexpected and poignant twist to come…..
Jim Wilkinson, Blue-Eyed Boy
This lovely piece by Tomasz Mortimer imagines what might have been for Hungarian football had the 1956 uprising been quelled.