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The death of a goalkeeper

February 7, 2010

Gil Merrick 1922-2010

Four days ago Gilbert Harold Merrick, better known as Gil, died aged 88. Merrick was a goalkeeper who spent his 21-year senior career with Birmingham City and went on to manage the club for four years after retiring as a player.

He is best remembered, though, for being the unfortunate man between the posts when Gusztáv Sebes’s Hungarian side turned up at Wembley for a friendly on 25 November 1953 and shattered the illusion, widely-held within England, that the nation responsible for creating football as we know it also boasted the best practitioners of the beautiful game.

‘The Match of the Century’, as it has come to be known, has been well-documented in several popular and tactical histories of the game. In particular, how forward Nándor Hidegkuti dropped deep to bamboozle the English defence, and the game’s significance in the tactical development of the world game, is superbly told in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid.

Hidegkuti was assisted in that game by players arguably more famous now: Ferenc Puskás’ achievements with Real Madrid naturally draw attention. So too, do Sándor Kocsis’ 11 goals in the 1954 World Cup.

Billy Wright and Ferenc Puskás lead out their teams in 1953

Yet it was Hidegkuti who scored a hat-trick in that Wembley game as Hungary triumphed 6-3, outshooting the hapless hosts 35-5. England’s main problem was their reticent marking: the Hungarian movement made marking by shirt numbers difficult – atr that point, the eleven on the pitch had readily defined positions and according numbers.

Merrick was the goalkeeper who had to retrieve the ball from the goal six times, and again the following year when England were humiliated 7-1 in Budapest – Hidegkuti, Puskás and Kocsis scoring five between them in what remains England’s worst defeat statistically.

The 6-3, though, was the match that ended England’s 52-year unbeaten home run to a side from outside Britain. The 100,000 at Wembley applauded the Magnificent Magyars off the pitch as English football was left to reflect on what Bobby Robson, in attendance as well as fellow future England manager Ron Greenwood, described memorably as: “All these fantastic players, they were men from Mars as far as we were concerned.”

Merrick went on to represent England at the 1954 World Cup, where they were defeated 4-2 by Uruguay in the quarter finals. Hungary, meanwhile, lost 3-2 to West Germany in the final after being 2-0 up within eight minutes. They had earlier demolished the Germans 8-3 in the group stages three days after brushing Korea aside 9-0.

The quarter-final defeat marked Merrick’s final appearance for England, but he went on to appear for his club in the 1956 FA Cup final defeat to Manchester City and 1957 semi-final loss to Manchester United.

He retired in 1960, aged 38, and became manager of The Blues, who he led to the 1963 League Cup final victory over Aston Villa. Disappointing league performances led to him handing the reins to Joe Mallett.

Merrick had a stand at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground named after him at the start of this season. He died, aged 88, on 3rd February 2010.

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