Welsh Football's Greatest Moments | Wales 4-2 England, 1938

“ENGLAND TROUNCED BY WALES”

One of the most infamous incidents in international football occurred in May 1938, when, under orders, the England team gave the Nazi salute prior to the friendly international against Germany in front of a 100,000 spectators in Berlin. This was a propaganda triumph for Hitler’s Germany but its football team had no answer to the skills of the English, who won convincingly by six goals to three. England could at least claim superiority on the football field and the English press considered its team, with its usual hyperbole, to be the finest in the world. However, a few months later and despite being referred to as ‘the best England team for years’, they were found wanting against Wales in a thrilling international played at Ninian Park, Cardiff, on 22 October 1938.

In many ways, the Welsh victory by 4-2 that day should not have been a great surprise. After all, Wales had already won the British Home International Championship on three occasions during the 1930s and often got the better of England. Indeed, this was the golden era of the Welsh international football team, with a record which has been matched only sporadically in more recent years.



During this period, Wales possessed outstanding players such as Fred Keenor, Cardiff’s captain in the 1927 FA Cup win, Jimmy Murphy, the future Wales manager, and Tommy Griffiths, a solid centre half who played Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Aston Villa. These had faded from the international scene by 1938 but, together with some experienced internationals, a crop of young players was emerging to take their place.

Wales’s success in the 1930s is all the more surprising considering that a severe economic depression had taken hold during this period, particularly in the industrial valleys of south Wales where unemployment was endemic. Welsh clubs struggled economically but not the international team.

The Players

All but one of those who played in 1938 was from south Wales, with most coming from the valleys and none from the conurbations of Cardiff and Swansea. The valleys' players had been poached from their localities by rich English clubs who recognised their abilities and commitment and were quick with their signing-on fees. However, it also meant that Welsh players were often not released by their clubs for international duty, a constant problem through the ages.

Of the players who took the field in Cardiff in 1938, both Dai Astley and Idris ‘Dai’ Hopkins came from Welsh-speaking families from Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, while Dai Richards and Bryn Jones also came from the Merthyr area. Before the game, the Daily Mirror journalist, John Thompson, noted: ‘Their early games among the stony slagheaps of the Merthyr Valley has made them all masters of ball control.’

Bryn Jones played for Arsenal, as did two others, Les Jones and Horace Cumner, both from Aberdare. Bill Whately (from Ebbw Vale), George Green (Barry), Billy Hughes (Carmarthen) and the goalkeeper, Roy John (Briton Ferry) made up the south Wales contingent. The only north Walian was T G (‘Tommy’) Jones who also came from an industrial area, Connah’s Quay on Deeside.

Of the more experienced players, Wales relied on the combative but skilful wing half, Dai Richards, who had played for eight seasons with Wolverhampton Wanderers but by 1938 was a Birmingham City player. The inside forwards were the captain Les Jones, a busy skilful player who had won a championship medal for Arsenal, and Bryn Jones, who had been signed by Arsenal in 1938 from Wolves for a then record fee of £14,000. Bryn Jones was undoubtedly the star of the team with his quicksilver feet and range of adroit passes. The centre-forward, Dai Astley, was a prolific goalscorer for Aston Villa and Derby County during the 1930s and averaged nearly a goal a game for Wales during this period. He was not, to use the modern parlance, a traditional target-man but rather a lean and skilful striker who had a powerful shot with both feet, as England had already discovered during two international defeats to Wales in 1933 and 1936.

Although from 1939, six of the 1938 team are in this picture

Less experienced was the industrious right half, George Green, who had played for Espaynol, the club based in Barcelona, for a season, but had returned to Charlton Athletic before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The Charlton team was the most successful of the London clubs during the 1938-39 season, coming third in the First Division. The week before the match against England, Green’s son tragically died, but he decided to play in the international, bringing his wife with him, believing that it would do her good, although she had no interest in football.

The three youngsters in the team were: twenty-year old Billy Hughes, a tall and skilful left back, who played for Birmingham City; Horace Cumner, who was believed by Arsenal to be still a teenager and consequently tried to prevent him from winning his first cap because they considered him to be too young, until it was revealed that he was in fact twenty; and 21 year old Tommy Jones who was winning only his second cap.

Cool but strong in his tackling and with the ability to carry the ball out of defence and pass accurately, Jones would have been at home with any modern football team. His club, Everton, would go on to win the First Division championship in season 1938-39. His immediate opponent for England was his fellow Evertonian, Tommy Lawton, one of the most productive goal-scoring centre-forwards of the day who was winning his first cap.

In his fascinating biography of Jones, The Prince of Centre-Halves (2017), the author Rob Sawyer quotes a report that in the days before the match: ‘…Lawton “promised” Jones that if they were both chosen he would pop in at least one goal against him, to which Jones jokingly replied that no centre-forward this season had scored against him, and Lawton wasn’t going to be the first to break the ice.’

The Match

A fine Autumn day greeted the 55,000 spectators who packed into Ninian Park on 22 October. This was at the time a record crowd for the stadium. For the first time, a special parking ground was set aside for the large numbers of cars which had brought fans from far and wide to Cardiff although the vast majority still travelled by train or coach.

Two different Pathé news clips of the game have survived and can be seen on YouTube:

 



Both show an excited crowd, with the young boys being passed to the front to see the match from the touchline, while several intrepid adults had climbed the Canton Stand and were perched precariously on the roof where, despite risking life and limb, they had a perfect view. Others got a better view by climbing the advertising billboards.

There was much singing in both Welsh and English prior to kick-off, but none of the crude chanting of more recent years, before the teams ran out to rapturous applause. Wales were wearing numbers on their shirts, possibly for the first time, but it appears the numbers did not correspond to the programme. The goalkeeper had no number and number 1 was worn by the right back Whately, centre-half T G Jones wore 4 and outside left Cumner wore 10. Whether this disorientated the English players is not known but it certainly confused the spectators.

Wales started brightly and scored the first goal after nine minutes when Astley collected a penetrating pass from Les Jones and fired the ball into the roof of the net. England equalised after 27 minutes when a Welsh defender was adjudged to have handled the ball in the penalty area and the referee, somewhat harshly, pointed to the spot. The kick was taken by Lawton who simply lashed the ball powerfully into the net.

Wales regained the lead six minutes later following a free kick by Whately. Hopkins leapt in front of the English defenders and it was claimed that his looping header beat Woodley the England goalkeeper who had left his line to try to punch the ball clear. The ‘commentator’ in one of the Pathé films mistakenly suggests that it was a goal for England, as the ball clearly came off the head of the England centre- half, Young. It was in fact an own goal. Certainly, 5 foot 6 inch Hopkins had made a nuisance of himself but it is certain that a disputed goals panel, had it existed in those days, would have denied him the honour.

Hopkins

Within minutes, England were level once more when Stanley Matthews, the most famous international of his day, broke clear and his mishit shot eluded John in the Welsh goal. Apart from this, the elusive winger Matthews, was kept relatively quiet throughout the game by the Welsh defence.

In the second half, with score at 2-2, Wales took control with two quick goals. Firstly, in the 61st minute, Bryn Jones was put through by a clever pass from Astley and he slipped the ball into the corner of the net, then, three minutes later (as reported in the press) ‘…Astley whose every move bore the hallmark of class received from Cumner swerved past an opponent, shook off two or three challenges, and shot Wales’s fourth goal. It was a wonder effort.’

England had no answer to these two goals and the final score was 4-2. According to ‘Citizen’ of the Western Mail, England were ‘…beaten, if not humiliated, by the traditional fervour and superior tactics, of the “Scarlet Brigade”.’

At the final whistle, many Welsh players collapsed from exhaustion but they soon disappeared to the dressing room in the face of a massive pitch invasion by delighted Welsh supporters.

The Welsh players on the whole had won their individual battles, and although Lawton had fulfilled his promise to Jones that he would score, his goal came from a penalty, and it was Jones who came out on top in the battle of the two Evertonians. During the game (as recorded in The Prince of Centre-Halves) Lawton recalled saying to Jones: ‘Blimey you’re a hard bugger’, to which Jones responded ‘What do you expect? Your shirt’s the wrong colour today.’


Jones could be proud of his sound display but, according to the press, two other players stood out: Dai Astley who, with an ‘electric display’, gave poor Alf Young, a stalwart defender in his day, such a torrid time that he was never chosen for England again. The other was Bryn Jones ’… whose brilliant scheming and deft passes drew the English defence time and again.’

The Daily Mirror’s correspondent was privy to the Welsh dressing room after the match and he reported of smiling faces and of Bryn Jones taking off his shirt and folding it ready to present it to the referee, Mr Hamilton of Belfast, who had asked for it after the match.

The match had been the culmination of a successful decade for the Welsh team. Although they were to slip up against Scotland, so that the championship was shared three ways in 1938-39, they had won the game that mattered most. The outlook was, however, bleak as Europe was plunged into another world war in September 1939. Friendly internationals were played during the war but it was another six years before the Home International Championship was resumed.

Only three of those who had played so magnificently in 1938 were still in the team by then: T G Jones, Billy Hughes and the veteran Bryn Jones. Cumner had suffered from severe burns while serving with Royal Marines and did not play to the same standard after the war; Dai Astley, now in his mid-thirties, played a season with F C Metz in France before taking on several coaching roles in Europe, including a season with Internazionale in Italy; Idris Hopkins also coached abroad with clubs in Scandinavia.

They had all played outstandingly for Wales in a memorable match which, it was reported, would ‘…surely go down in football history as one of their greatest successes ever.’

This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Gwyn Jenkins - you can follow Gwyn on Twitter @Machludwr

©Gwyn Jenkins
©The Football History Boys, 2021

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