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On This Day (20 May 1909) — Sunderland shocked on first European Tour by football pioneer Dombi

This day 112 years ago, a goal by Richard “Dombi” Kohn, the meister who transformed Bayern München, FC Barcelona and Feyenoord in the 1930s, gave Vienna AC the first ever victory of an Austrian side over English opposition.

Richard “Dombi” Kohn scored the goal that beat the professionals of Sunderland AFC


Vienna Athletic Club: Krof, Fischer, Tekusch, Frey, Kwietek, Sturmer, Kohn, Studnicka, Fischera, Andres

Sunderland: Roose, Forster, Milton, Low, Thompson, Jarvie, Hogg, Holley, Brown, Bridgett, Mordue

In the years before the first World War, a trend emerged for the top English professional sides to embark upon end-of-season tours of central Europe in an effort to both proselytise and further commercialise the game - a trip abroad was almost always nice little earner for Brits back then.

Great Britain’s informal empire of ex-patriot engineers, financiers and industrialists, scattered around the continent’s trading ports and industrial centres, had introduced association football to factories, docksides and gentlemen’s sporting clubs alike at the end of the nineteenth-century, and in the early twentieth-century the newly commercialised clubs from working-class towns and cities across Britain made it their business - literally - to spread news of the game to their brethren across the Channel, whilst simultaneously underlining the British sense of superiority over our neighbours and imperial rivals.

After finishing third in the First Division, two places behind champions Newcastle United (despite having beaten our local rivals 9-1 away earlier in the season), Sunderland set off on an ambitious tour focused on the cosmopolitan cities of the failing Hapsburg Empire and Prussian Germany.

Although initially an upper-class pursuit, football was beginning to gain a modicum of popular appeal, and a nascent footballing culture began to emerge in the urban centres of Prague, Budapest and, most prominently, Vienna.

Football match. Prater. Vienna, second district. Hand-colored lantern slide. Around 1910.
Football match. Prater. Vienna, second district. Hand-colored lantern slide. Around 1910
Photo by Oesterreichsches Volkshochschularchiv/Imagno/Getty Images

The game was embraced by the Anglophile Viennese intellectual elites, as well as the Jewish and Bohemian commercial communities. In the under twenty years since the game’s introduction to the Austro-Hungarian empire, the city had developed a number of competing amateur football clubs and spawned Der Challenge Cup, an intra-empire competition modelled on the FA’s Challenge Cup.

Sunderland’s first two games on this tour were against Hungarian opposition in the form of Ferencvaros and MTK of Budapest, the Lads registering 3-2 and 2-1 victories on consecutive days, before the team the team arrived in Vienna and comfortably beat Germania Schwechat 5-0 two days later.

However, the next side in line for a lesson in the English game was to prove somewhat more difficult to school. Weiner AC (WAC), who had twice won Der Challenge Cup earlier in the decade, were certainly no pushovers and pulled off a groundbreaking victory.

The scoring started early, with forward Adolf Fischera netting after eight minutes, but Billy Hogg equalised for Sunderland after twenty minutes and it was level at half time. In the second half, the rigours of the travelling and frantic playing schedule began to catch up with Sunderland and they were shocked by a goal just before the hour mark from a 19 year old Jewish kid, Richard Kohn.

Sunderland were frustrated in their efforts to equalise, had a player sent off by Hungarian referee Ede Herczog in the closing stages, and lost the game 2-1. The Reuters’ snippet match report appeared in the British press a few days later described the spectators, estimated at around 3,000, as being “wildly enthusiastic at the victory of the Austrians over the English professionals, the first on record”.

It was indeed the first time this had happened, an event notable enough to be picked out for its importance in the epic history of the game, The Ball is Round, by David Goldblatt. And the Northern Daily Mail of 22nd May 1909 reported the reaction of the touring party to the shock result, which was blamed on the hard ground and scorching heat of the day.

It was later reported that Sunderland’s president, Councillor Taylor, found the opposition in Europe far harder than they had expected, indeed among the roughest the club had encountered. Former England international, Billy Bassett, writing in The Football Sports Special of the Yorkshire Telegraph & Star on 29th May, commented on the advances that were being made in European football.

I am bound to say if Sunderland, who are the very embodiment of vigour and determination, find Continental teams too study for them, well then, Continental vigour must be pronounced indeed. When I played on the Continent, the players were not rough by any means, neither were they unduly gentle. ...The best way to put it would be to say that their methods were unconventional. I’m not altogether surprised at the defeat of even an English professional club on the Continent, because I knew the game would advance in many Continental headquarters pretty rapidly, because when you have almost unlimited vehemence and enthusiasm aroused, you are likely to bring about a state of which which will play havoc with the more or less stereotyped game which many professional elevens prefer to adopt...

Normal service was resumed on the rest of the tour, with Sunderland beating Deutscher FC Prague twice, Bayern München and finally the dominant amateur German team of the era, FC Nuremburg, 8-3, before Bob Kyle’s side journeyed back to England to prepare for the following season.

Young Kohn of AC Vienna, however, went on to win seven caps for Austria playing across several clubs in Vienna and Budapest, earning the Hungarian nickname Dombi or Little Dombi, meaning little eminence, along the way. Imperial rivalry between the European powers then intervened, not for the last time, in his career - the industrialised slaughter of the “Great” War effectively ending his international playing career in his mid-20s.

But Austrian and then Hungarian football would go from strength to strength as the Hapsburg’s territories gained independence after the horrific bloodletting, with their playing styles, training methods and tactics reshaping the stuffy old English game in the middle decades of the century, and whose legacy we see carried forward by modern coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and, yes, Lee Johnson.

Kohn transitioned from playing into coaching, moving from Hertha Berlin in the mid 1920s first to HŠK Građanski in Croatia and then to FC Barcelona for a year, where he won the Copa Del Rey with a 2-1 victory over Athletico Madrid in 1926, but left after failing to win the Campionat de Catalunya, ending Barça’s run of three consecutive titles.

Short stints at 1860 München and Mannheim then preceded two years at Bayern München, where he took complete control of the football operation as trainer, doctor and administrator and, under Jewish president Kurt Landauer, transformed it the upstart club from also-rans to German Champions in 1932, beating Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 in Nuremberg in front of 55,000 supporters.

The simultaneous rise of Adolf Hilter and Nazis, and the wave of antisemitic violence and oppression that followed the establishment of the Third Reich in 1933, put a premature end to the Die Rotten’s moment of flourishing. Both coach and president left Germany, with the Bavarian club, which now dominates the Bundesliga, purged of its many Jewish members, players and officials. Dombi is still venerated by Bayern fans today as the Meister who brought them their first ever silverware.

Kohn then went by a number of different names; Richard Dombi, John Little or Littles, Ricardo Domby, Jack Domby or Dumby, perhaps as a means on ensuring his safety. He initially returned to Barcelona for an unsuccessful second period in charge, with time in Switzerland at Grasshopper and Basel before he made his way to Rotterdam to join Feyenoord in 1935.

Dutch football was resolutely amateur yet competitive and with close links to the Jewish community in the Netherlands; he won the league in his first season and then again in 1937-38 but once again the spectre of the Nazis scuppered Kohn’s career and as the Second World War and occupation loomed in 1939.

Bundesliga, VfB Stuttgart - Bayern München Photo by Pressefoto Ulmer\ullstein bild via Getty Images

Little is known about how he survived in Nazi-occupied Europe; the Netherlands was particularly efficient in deporting its Jewish citizens to the death camps, with little more than 25 per cent of the pre-war population still alive once the allies liberated the low countries in 1944-45. However, Dombi returned to the club in 1951 for a season and then again in 1955 before he retired.

When he was at Feyenoord he became known as the Wunderdokter, he would prepare a special ointment made of paraffin and “rubber milk” that was heated to a scorching 80 degrees and applied to the injured limb or joint with tightly wrapped bandages, and left over night. The result - in defiance of any modern scientific explanation beyond the placebo effect - was reported to be almost universally successful, even being used as a lure for talented but injured players from rival clubs who, once magically fixed by the Wonder Doctor, signed on for Feyenoord.

Richard Kohn died in Rotterdam in 1963 aged 75 after a life in football that has not been forgotten by the supporters of the clubs he touched; the city of Rotterdam has a street named in honour of him. The romantic in me is tempted to speculate that Dombi’s experience in scoring that historic winner against Sunderland back in 1909, so early in his career and in the development of the Danubian Style that dominated Europe in the middle decades of the twentieth century, was formative, and played a small part in a big story of a little man who was a football giant.


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