Nat Lofthouse: The Lion of Vienna


Following the recent passing of one of the icons of 1950s English football, Nat Lofthouse, I thought it was an apt moment to look back at that famous ‘Lion of Vienna’ game in May 1952.

In the summer of 1952 England made a short tour to Europe including politically sensitive matches against Italy and Austria, both countries having assisted Nazi Germany during the Second World War. They were therefore entering enemy territory, so to speak. The developing Cold War was also a factor affecting the visit to Austria. Like Germany, Austria remained occupied by the four Allied Powers (Britain, United States, Soviet Union and France) with the capital cities of Berlin and Vienna also split into four. The game in May 1952 actually took place in the Soviet sector of Vienna, although with the situation less tense in Austria than in Germany, British troops were able to cross over to watch the match. The historian Percy Young summed up the situation regarding the two matches neatly: “In 1952 the atmosphere in both countries, where memories of recent misfortunes combined with a present sense of injustice and a zeal towards spiritual and national regeneration, was tense. As ever football matches were symbolic.”

The two nations were also very powerful in the football world. Austria had been one of the great Central European football nations in the 1930s and by 1951 the country had begun its recovery from the ravages of war and of 16 internationals played since November 1949 10 had been won and only 2 lost. Significant from England’s point of view was that the Austrians had defeated Scotland twice during this run and also achieved a 2-2 draw at Wembley. Italy had already won the World Cup on two occasions and football had made a rapid recovery following the ending of the war.

The Italy game was played on Sunday 18 May and was a brutal affair, ending in a 1-1 draw. One match report said that Lofthouse “left the field at the finish looking like a boxer who had gone a tough 15 rounds.” Other reports suggested he had produced a poor performance, firing him up for the following week’s game. The general opinion expressed in the press was that Austria were firm favourites to win, although the Daily Telegraph noted rather reassuringly that, “our players have by no means abandoned hope.”

For the first time in England’s history there was a significant away following in Continental Europe for a peacetime international. The game was played at the Praterstadion in Vienna’s Soviet Zone, with British troops being allocated some 1,400 tickets although many more obtained tickets through the black market and there was a substantial body of support in the crowd of 43,000. They made their presence felt with their red, white and blue rattles and chanting of E-N-G-L-A-N-D.

The match itself was a classic of its kind, pitting the powerful, physical English team against a technically proficient Austrian side which displayed steel and brute force when required.

The teams lined up as follows:

England: Merrick (Birmingham City); Ramsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Eckersley (Blackburn Rovers); Wright (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Froggatt (Portsmouth), Dickinson (Portsmouth); Finney (Preston North End), Sewell (Sheffield Wednesday), Lofthouse (Bolton Wanderers), Baily (Tottenham Hotspur), Elliott (Burnley)

Austria: Musil (Rapid); Roecki (Vienna), Happel (Rapid); Schleger (Austria Vienna), Ocwirk (Austria Vienna), T Brinek (Wacker); Melchior (Austria Vienna), Hanappi (Rapid), Dienst (Rapid), Huber (Austria Vienna), Haumner (Wacker)

Referee: G Caprani (Italy)

Austria wore white shirts with England in red. The game was played in cool, cloudy conditions with a slight breeze and intermittent rain. The first major incident came on 11 minutes when a shot from Melchior struck Eckersley on the arm, but the referee rejected appeals for a penalty and awarded a corner. Austria were on top in the opening 20 minutes, but England hit back, the ball moved neatly from Baily to Elliott and then Sewell who passed it to Lofthouse, unmarked on the right-hand side of the penalty area. He swivelled on his right foot and hammered a volley with his left to open the scoring. However, the lead lasted barely a minute. Froggatt was adjudged to have tripped Dienst on the edge of the penalty area and Huber equalised from the spot kick. Two more minutes passed and Jackie Sewell restored the lead, then Lofthouse headed against the bar. The home team were level before half time when the England defence opened up to allow Dienst to fire home past Merrick.

Play became more fraught in the second half, The Guardian noting that the game became “scrappy and rather rough on both sides.” Desmond Hackett in the Daily Express went as far as to say, “they [Austria] came out for the second half ready to boot every English player in sight.” The game became littered with fouls, with England conceding 24 free kicks and the Austrians 19: totals which might seem inconsequential today but which were substantial for the 1950s.

The climax came just seven minutes from time. Merrick plucked a corner out of the air and threw a long swerving ball down the centre of the field. Finney touched it on to Lofthouse on the half way line. Lofthouse slipped past Ocwirk and ran with the ball at his feet, cheered to the rafters by the British contingent in the crowd. As the goalkeeper advanced the ball was propelled into the left hand corner of the net before the two collided. Lofthouse, semi-conscious, was carried off the field, but soon returned.

When the final whistle sounded there were amazing scenes as the England fans celebrated, with around 200 storming the pitch. Roy Peskett painted a vivid picture of the events for the Daily Mail:

A mass of cheering, khaki-clad British soldiers, many waving Union Jacks, surged slowly across the Prater Stadium in the Soviet sector here this evening. Dotted among them on the broad shoulders of the Dorsets, the Warwicks, the Signalmen, the Gunners, were England Soccer players, their unfamiliar red shirts looking like poppies in a field of corn as they were carried high in triumph to their dressing-room.

The unexpected win was against all odds, for the Austrians had dominated the game for the most part, gaining eight corners to England’s none, the team had suffered a physical battering in a hostile country and come out victorious. The climax led to outpourings of joy from the poetic Peskett: it was “the most momentous Soccer triumph ever to fall to a British side abroad …It was like the end of a schoolboy’s thriller story.” For Desmond Hackett in the Express, “It was a win that the Austrians said could never happen. To make that statement a fact they battered the England team with arms, legs and heads … Never again say that England has run out of the heart to fight. Not a man quit. Not a man came out without some bruise or scar.”

Lofthouse was proclaimed a hero by the English press: “Lofthouse scores two in soccer triumph.” (Daily Telegraph) “Lofthouse the hero of a great win in Vienna” (Daily Mirror); “Lofthouse crocked as he hits winner” (Daily Express).

Lofthouse’s performance in Vienna was a pivotal moment of his career, as Peter Wilson later reported in the Daily Express:

Until that day of glorious memory – May 26 1952 [sic] – in Vienna, when Lofthouse scored the two goals that beat “unbeatable” Austria, he was a man with a chip on his broad shoulder.

He resented the criticism of his England showings, wanted to leave Bolton because it was an unfashionable football address and weighed against his international future. But that winning goal seven minutes from the end of the Austria match, when Lofthouse tore through on his own and knocked himself out in scoring, changed the Lofthouse outlook …

His conduct on the field, his encouragement and unselfish play, his high degree of sportsmanship, his readiness to praise the efficiency of his opponents created in him the model footballer.”

After Vienna Nat never looked back. He went on to hit a record six goals in the inter league fixture with the Irish League in September 1952, he won both the Footballer of the Year title and an FA Cup runners-up medal in 1953, and finally a winners’ medal in 1958. Nat eventually retired as a result of an ankle injury, playing his last game against Birmingham City in December 1960. His final statistics show 255 goals from 452 Football League appearances for Bolton; his goals tally remains a club record some 50 years later, while he also held the England scoring record (jointly with Tom Finney) for some years until Jimmy Greaves came along.

Nat Lofthouse passed away at a Bolton nursing home on the evening of Saturday 15 January, three months after the death of another of his colleagues from that famous victory in Vienna, Eddie Baily. English football has lost one of the great figures of the post-war game.


2 Responses to “Nat Lofthouse: The Lion of Vienna”

  1. 1 Great article on the Soccer History blog – Nat Lofthouse: The Lion of Vienna May 1952 « footysphere
  2. 2 Tweets that mention Nat Lofthouse: The Lion of Vienna « SOCCER HISTORY MAGAZINE --

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