As part of our ongoing WW1 series we continue our look at the state of play in the European game during the last full European football season leading up to the start of the Great War. Our previous posts outlined the clubs who would qualify for our imagined Champions League of 1913-14 and focused on the backstories of the ones who have fallen by the wayside over the past century.
This time we’re going to look in detail at the more familiar clubs who would have been genuine contenders to win the tournament and be crowned our 1914 champions of Europe. Retro-predicting an imaginary, hundred-year-old football competition is an inexact science of course, but based upon our research into the period we’ve managed to whittle down our starting 42 strong field to eight clubs; the ones we believe represent Europe’s elite clubs from this particular season a century ago.
It’s worth acknowledging straight away that the latter stages of such a competition were always likely to be dominated by British clubs. Scottish and English football represented the pinnacle of the world game in 1913 and it would be another decade before the influence of Hugo Meisl, Jimmy Hogan and the Danubian School in central Europe set the ball rolling for the rest of the continent to start catching up
Football in mainland Europe was technically competent in its earlier years, but in this pre-WWI time even the best continental outfits would struggle to match the fitness and discipline of the British sides. And at a time when tactical thinking was simplistic and broadly uniform across the board, the notion that a team could overcome stronger opponents through cunning use of strategy didn’t really exist. There was no parking the omnibus in 1913!
British dominance of the game was manifest at both international and club level. The Olympic football tournament was the closest in prestige and spirit that the game had to a World Cup back then and Great Britain had been gold medalists in both 1908 and 1912. European club football’s first cross-border tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, had debuted around this same time with both the 1910 and 1911 editions won by an English club. That the winning club was little West Auckland, and that this amateur club of coal miners from the Northern League easily saw off more celebrated foreign opposition like Juventus brought home the gulf in standards.
Which is not to suggest there weren’t powerful club teams in mainland Europe at the time; indeed we’re making the case that our last eight would feature sides from Italy, Germany, Hungary and Austria – half of the field alongside four teams from England and Scotland.
ENGLAND – Sunderland & Aston Villa
The previous season’s narrative in England had been all about two clubs: Sunderland edging out Aston Villa to take the title and Villa gaining some revenge by defeating the champions in the FA Cup Final. In truth, both clubs had enjoyed their finest years back in the 1890s and these 1913 successes would be isolated ones. The pair did boast some fine players, however.
Scots featured prominently for Sunderland in defence with Charles Thomson and in the middle of the park with Harry Low, but most of the star quality was English and playing in the forward positions. Club legend Henry Martin was a brilliant left-winger who provided many an accurate centre for the forwards George Holley and, perhaps the greatest of all English forwards of the pre and inter-war years, Charles Buchan. Sunderland’s defence of their 1913 title would be patchy and the Roker Park club finished the following season down in seventh place.
Aston Villa’s strength lay similarly in a very potent attack with plentiful goals flowing from the boots of Harry Hampton, Charlie Wallace, Clem Stephenson and the veteran Joe Bache. The following season Aston Villa would finish as runner-up in Division One again, albeit some distance behind champions Blackburn Rovers.
SCOTLAND – Rangers & Celtic
The all-pervasive dominance of the Old Firm was as strong a century ago as it is today. Rangers had just completed a hat-trick of titles under long-serving manager William Wilton and boasted a particularly strong team. Running the midfield was wing half Jimmy Gordon, while Willie Reid, James Bowie and Joe Hendry scored the goals – Hendry having been a particular revelation since his conversion from right back to forward. Another emerging young striker was Tommy Cairns who would start to make a name for himself during the 1913-14 season.
Their Scottish Cup wins of 1911 and 1912 aside, Celtic had played second fiddle to Rangers in the League over recent seasons. The competitive balance would shift to the east end of the city during the 1913-14 season though with the Parkhead side defeating Rangers in both League encounters on the road to winning the Double. Gifted Irish winger and club legend in the making Patsy Gallacher was their star man, while other talented young players like Peter Johnstone and Andy McAtee complemented long-time stalwarts like Young, McNair and McMenemy.
ITALY – Pro Vercelli
The Piedmontese club ruthlessly dominated Italian football in these pre-War years. Pro Vercelli had been champions seven times since 1904 and the 1913 success was their third in a row. Runners-up Lazio had been crushed 6-0 in the Final, just as Venezia had been humiliated 13-0, that time over two legs, the season before.
Pro Vercelli’s main strength was in midfield with their ‘line of wonders’ featuring internationals Ara, Giuseppe Milano and Pietro Leone. With some Italian national teams featuring nine Pro Vercelli players in their starting line up, there was an abundance of internationals in other positions too – notably Felice Berardo in attack and Angelo Binaschi and Modesto Valle in defence.
The Italians make our last eight in part because they were a good team and in part because they were a notoriously aggressive one. That’s a quality we believe might have helped bridge the chasm to the more naturally physical British game, although of course there was always the risk that Pro Vercelli’s aggression could be sometimes poorly channelled and result in explosive loss of discipline. A touring Reading team had defeated the Italian champions 6-1 in a vicious 1913 friendly, the scoreline a consequence of the hosts dedicating their energies to settling ongoing vendettas all over the pitch rather than seeking footballing parity.
GERMANY – Holstein Kiel
Germany’s outstanding team of the era was probably Karlsruher FV who starred the brilliant Fuchs brothers and prolific strikers Fritz Förderer and Julius Hirsch. The German champions of 1913 were VfB Leipzig. Neither of these feature in our last eight as the former didn’t qualify for the tournament at all and we think the latter would have fallen short of the required level.
Instead we believe German hopes would be served best by the previous season’s runner-up, Holstein Kiel, because they were notably strengthened this year by the addition of the brilliant Danish striker Sophus Nielsen. Nielsen was Denmark’s outstanding player and famed for his trademark bandy legs which made his dribbling style so unpredictable for defenders – he was a forerunner of Garrincha in this respect.
His brother Carl was a decent footballer too and both were carpenters by trade, albeit unemployed ones in the summer of 1913. They decided to travel to Europe in search of work but only made it as far as Kiel in Schleswig. Here they met the chairman of the local football club whom Sophus knew from an earlier trip with Frem. The chairman provided Sophus and Carl with jobs as a master blacksmith and joiner respectively, on the condition that both would play football for Holstein Kiel. Sophus would prove to be quite a sensation in German football.
Holstein had a couple of fine German players in their ranks too: Georg Krogmann, a powerful midfielder who would be killed in the war and the defender Hans Reese who went on to become one of the world’s most eminent neurologists.
HUNGARY – Ferencvaros
In 1913 Hungarian football was not the European powerhouse it would become in subsequent decades, but the quality was respectable and the Ferencvaros team of that era is still lauded a century later as one of the greatest in the club’s distinguished history. The domestic dominance of that team was so absolute and the reputation of some of its players so strong that we think the Budapest giants would have been good enough to make our last eight.
Ferencvaros had been champions for five successive seasons and barely dropped a League point in the process of winning them. The shining star of the side was undoubtedly the great striker Imre Schlosser who remains the Hungarian League’s highest goalscorer to this day. In 1912 he had set another record likely to never be beaten when scoring 8 goals in Ferencvaros’s 11-3 win over III.Kerületi TVE.
More than capable support for Schlosser came from Sándor Bródy in defence, Zoltán Blum in midfield and the cult figure of obese left winger Gáspár Borbás.
AUSTRIA – Rapid Vienna
Our last Quarter Final stage team is Austrian and comes in the familiar guise of Rapid Vienna. Like their Habsburgian counterparts over the border in Budapest, Rapid gets the nod for being an outstanding side in a reasonable quality League. Already defending champions, Rapid were unbeaten in their march to the 1913 Austrian title and dropped only three points all season. Underpinning their team were internationals like goalkeeper Josef Kaltenbrunner, midfielder Joseph Brandstatter and forward Leopold Grundwad
And the winners of our imaginary tournament? Well, we think we’ve done well enough to pick a last eight. We’ll only be bold enough to suggest that the 1914 Champions of Europe would have likely originated from Glasgow, Birmingham or Sunderland.