The Hungarian Scouser

Posted by Rushian on February 14, 2005, 04:06:01 PM

You might recall a Champions League Qualifier between the Mancs and a team called Zalaegerszeg not so long ago. The Mancs won the home leg easily after playing a weakened team away, where they lost the game 1-0. Inconsequential in the scheme of things but there was one arl fella who drinks in our local in East London who was made up that night – Zalaegerszeg was his home town, a place he hadn’t seen since he left Hungary during the late ‘50s. They weren’t his team though, cos this was Old Joe and everyone knew which team Hungarian Joe supported. Old Joe supports Liverpool.

The details of how this came about are a bit patchy. He’d left Hungary like so many other lads of his generation as the Russian tanks were rolling in. He’d left everything behind to walk across the fields towards Austria, continued to move westwards like refugees through the ages and then fortuitously found himself eventually billeted in Birkenhead! It was a long way from the place he had left behind. Joe was a sportsman, he had competed in the Hungarian Army, in the fencing team, boxed (in and out of the ring by the sound of it) but he excelled as a footballer.

This was the golden age of Hungarian football. The cinemas had been full when the newsreels of England 3 Hungary 6 had been shown. Joe liked to remind people of the return match in Budapest that nobody talked about that had finished 7-1 to the home side (according to him the referee had blown 20 minutes early to save further embarrassment). This was the side of Puskas and Kosic, and Joe was able to reel off the names fifty years on at the drop of a hat. He had good reason to remember the Galloping Major. Joe was a member of the Honved Sporting Club, excelling in the fencing and boxing teams. He could have broken in to the Honved football team, he claimed, except that his position was the same as that of Ferenz Puskas, one of the greatest players who ever lived. He had trained with him though, and there were stories of playing in army boots on frozen pitches, of taking the ball off Puskas the odd time only to be given a strict talking to. As far as the Hungarian lads were concerned they were the greatest footballers in the world.

So when Young Joe was arriving on Merseyside from the East, a fella approached from the North to manage Liverpool Football Club. And Hungarian Joe was quick to recognize the qualities in the Scotsman as a football man with great pride and desire and a will to succeed and entertain. Joe was drawn to join the Koppites, and Shankly was their leader.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to watch the Reds go from the Second Division to the Cup Final and the semi-final of the European Cup. Most of us have someone from our childhood who used to tell us about the signing of Ron Yeats, the Reykjavic game…Inter Milan. Hungarian Joe was swept along as we all would have been. He threw himself into life as a Koppite and as a Scouser, marrying a local girl, Julie. He travelled to the Euro aways (those countries he was allowed to visit anyway, he was still officially classed as a refugee so eastern Europe was mostly out of bounds) and still launched into the odd chorus of “we are a happy band” and other obscure old songs when the mood took him. He’d found his home.

By now a proper adopted Scouser, Joe the Hungarian Chef did what so many of us do and went off looking for work. There wasn’t a town in the country that Joe had not spent some time in, it seemed. Mention anywhere and he could probably tell you where to get a good pint, a decent dinner and whether the barmaids were friendly. The information might be thirty years out of date, but you tended to believe he was probably right. It’s more fun to believe everything you hear from a character like Joe. And what wasn’t true probably should have been.

A few of us Reds arrived in London around the same time over the last five or six years and had settled on one particular pub for our games – it had the Saturday afternoon satellite games for a start and nobody gave us any bother even when there were a dozen of us seemingly taking the place over for some games. There was an arl fella in a Liverpool top who had got talking to one of the lads and pulled out a newspaper clipping from his blazer – it compared the achievements of Ferguson and Paisley (I think Fergie had just received his knighthood that week). He told us he had been a Red for longer than the lot of us put together, that he had lived in Liverpool before any of us had even been born and that he had stood on the Kop alongside our Dads and Granddads.

He was in, and didn’t have to worry about buying himself any ale that night or many nights after. Many was the staybehind where a simple “Tell us about Peter Thompson, Joe.” was enough to start him off. “Oh Bloody Hell, what a player…”, “Was he better than Barnes, Joe?”, “Was he better than you?”…The fact is that there was always a Hungarian player who had been slightly better than all of them. But the Red shirt had made all our players heroes, Shankly’s heroes according to Joe. He came from a generation that will never know a better day than the Cup Final win in 1965 and never expected to either.

He’d seen it all, had Joe. He was the kind of fella who would spot the coach of the Yugoslav team and tell you he was a right dirty player for Belgrade as a left back and had once injured an Italian winger and Joe had never approved of that kind of thing. He was as much of a Red as you could care to meet. Despite having lived away from Liverpool for so long, it was a comforting sight to see an old-timer like Joe pick up a spare newspaper from on the bar, put on his specs and then throw away the paper in disgust when he realized he was holding the s*n. The man never had a bad word for anybody, even people he didn’t really like, and was the first one anyone would head to in order to dish out a bit of stick if we’d lost, or drawn or not played well. He loved his banter, did Joe, and could argue his corner with anyone at anytime if the subject was football. He’d seen too much to take it too seriously.

We don’t know exactly when Joe’s wife died as he never liked to talk about it, or how he had ended up in East London. He’d obviously had his ups and downs through the years. But he seemed quite settled by the time we appeared on the scene. He had his tidy little flat, mostly painted in red and white. He had his local where everyone knew him as Old Joe the Red. He had his own special order at the bar and his own spec for the games. He had plenty of mates calling in on him and his benefits were finally sorting themselves out.

He got a decent cheque through a few months ago and returned to Hungary for a few days until, overcome with emotion and reverie he clambered onto the first train out of Budapest to Western Europe and phoned us up from Bruges, of all places. A 74 year old man, he was legging it round Europe with his suitcase carrying on like a mad 19 year old. “I’m sound mate, it’s a long story, I’ll see you tomorrow for a pint.”, he said.

When he arrived back he stunned everyone by saying he had arranged a flatswap on the quiet and was moving to Liverpool. He was going home, he said. He was going to go the games every week, he was going to go down to Melwood now and then. He was going to get the Footie Echo and talk football with the lads down the pub. No amount of protest from his mates in Bow could dissuade him, although we recognised there was no point. There was even talk in the pub about a petition but the more you tell a Scouser not to do something...

Joe went up to Liverpool last week without telling anyone. He got talking to a fella who ran the newsagents near to where he was planning to move to in Speke, the lad made Joe a cup of tea and said he would be ‘sound as a pound’ and so that was Joe. When he got back down here it was all he could talk about, he was going to go back home.

Well, one of the lads phoned him on Saturday to tell him the Birmingham game was on and we’d all be there as usual for a good sesh and to watch the Reds, and Old Joe’s daughter answered the phone and told us the bad news. Hungarian Joe had passed away.

We’re not sure exactly how old he was, some say 71, some say 74. He must have been 74 though, as that’s when we won the Cup. He wouldn’t want to have been 71 and have us think of Charlie George, he’d have wanted us to think of Keegan…and Heighway…and his leader, Bill Shankly.

RIP Joszef Szabo, the Hungarian Scouser


We sing our songs with joy and pride,
Every time we watch our side,
In all the league we are top
We're members of the mighty Kop [mighty Kop]

Liverpool supporters we're a happy band (e aye addio)
That's because we're following the best team in the land.

We're leaving in the morning light,
Flying on a chartered plane,
By noon we'll be in Budapest,
By nine we'll know which team is best (team is best)

Hungarians may laugh and grin,
But wait till Roger bangs one in,
And St. John will make them frown,
We'll bring the iron curtain down (curtain down)

Their ghoulash may be up to scratch,
But that won't help them win the match,
When the winning goal brings down the house,
They'll all resort to eating scouse (eating scouse).

© smithdown 2005

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