BY BRIAN BENJAMIN
Tactics in football are always constantly evolving. From the WM formation right through to the tika taka that has brought a lot of success to Barcelona and the Spanish national team respectively, coaches are always looking to stay one step ahead of their rivals.
Passing within football is seen as the main ingredient in the game. The question is devising a style that suits your team best and over the years there have been many debates as to which tactic brings the best chance of success. Whether it is the short passing and possession-based game or the Charles Reep long ball style it has generally been agreed that organisation and passing the ball is integral to football.
In the early days of association football this was not the case. Dribbling the ball as far as possible towards the opponent’s goal and kicking the ball for someone to chase if they could get no further was how the game was played in its early years. This, it was deemed, was how football should be played as it displayed all the manly virtues of good honest pluck and endeavour.
Scotland was to shake this perception by introducing passing and in doing so invented the game that we know today. It was not done because it was aesthetically pleasing but to take advantage of the changes to the offside rule in 1867 which stated that a player was not offside providing that two opponents were between him and the goal.
This was a case of the Scots seeing an opportunity to use tactics to their advantage and was one of the major evolution changes in football as a result. Organisation and passing the ball to each other was seen as a far more effective and productive way of winning the game.
Queen’s Park adopted this new style quite easily and probably had the better players at the time to implement this new approach. It also helped that the club was more enthusiastic and looking at ways at honing this new organised way of playing football rather than relying on a team of individuals trying to dribble towards goal.
Richard Robinson who wrote Queen’s Park 150 year anniversary book stated that “Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays were fixed upon as the nights for play… Whoever selected the teams on practising nights had the power to place their men on the field, or appoint substitutes, and the players shall be bound to adhere to their instructions.”
This new passing style of Queen’s Park was already making people sit up and take notice. Many called it a “zig-zag,” approach due to the way the ball was passed quickly between the Queen’s Park team. In one match between Queen’s Park and Wanderers the Glasgow Herald not only commented on the neat passing style but gave an in-depth description of the passing between the Queen’s Park players.
More importantly for Queen’s Park it was to bring much success to the club who dominated Scottish football between 1874 and 1893 as they won the Scottish Cup ten times within this period. They were also finalists twice in 1884 and 1885 in the FA Cup when Scottish teams were invited to enter the competition. Blackburn Rovers were the team who beat Queen’s Park 2-1 and 2-0 respectively.
Although combination football, as it was called, was the adopted style amongst Scottish clubs it was to be an international match between Scotland and England in November 1872 that was meant to have caught the attention of the English who saw the benefits of a passing style.
Queen’s Park made up the majority of the first eleven, but it wasn’t just the familiarity between the players that persuaded the Scots to play a passing style. There was another tactical reason in the sense that they knew the English were bigger and stronger. If they tried to take on England at their game of dribbling and trying to use a physical approach, then there was a good chance that they would come out second best. Consequently, it was decided to adopt an organised passing style whereby they could control the game.
The game finished 0-0 but the Scottish passing style certainly drew attention from the English press. The London illustrated noted that “individual skill was generally on England’s side but did not play to each other so well as their opponents, who seem to be adept in passing the ball.”
Critics may have derided the Scottish way of playing the game as “unfootball like,” but it showed that tactics in football were already being developed with Scotland being the leaders in the field.
It stood to reason that the Scottish influence of combination football would infiltrate the English game, with Jonathan Wilson in Inverting The Pyramid pointing to two Scotland internationals in particular – Henry Renny-Tailyour and John Blackburn. Both were lieutenants in the British army and played for the Royal Engineers who took the Scottish style to Kent. A former Sheffield United player, W.E. Clegg, noted how the change in tactics led to Sheffield United being beaten quite badly.
Others like the Reverend Spencer Walker, who had returned as a Master to Lancing College, saw the benefits of combination football or in his words “turning a mere bally-rag team into a well-ordered team.” He delightedly noted the positive impact it had on his side after fixing positions for his players and instructing swift passing, and how it had baffled and bewildered their opponents. “They had a where do we come in look,” he observed as Walker’s team dominated proceedings.
The Scotch Professors
Although the benefits of passing were being noted, it was the rising professionalism of the English game that was to have more of an impact. With crowds and interest in football rising to huge heights, there were many ambitious clubs that wanted nothing but the best for their football team.
Scotland, therefore, was seen as fertile ground to recruit players who were not only noted for their ability, but also their tactical acumen. This, they felt, would increase their side’s chances of success with the hope that the Scots in the team would pass on their knowledge to their English counterparts which earned them the nickname ‘the Scotch Professors’. Advertisements were placed in Scottish newspapers that invited players to venture south and try out for a variety of clubs.
Many took up the opportunity with the likes of Scotland internationals Jimmy Douglas and Hugh McIntyre joining Blackburn Rovers with another James ‘Reddie’ Lang joining Wednesday. Of course, it was the financial incentive that led to many plying their trade in England which Lang duly noted years later when he admitted that he “had not gone down south to play for nothing.”
There were many critics who lamented the way professionalism was creeping into football. Some even viewed Scottish players who took up the opportunity of playing in England as “traitorous wretches,” with some even being blacklisted in representing the national side. This, though, was blowing against the wind as the ban was repealed in 1893 with Scottish clubs now allowed to become professional. Football, like its tactics, was now moving on to the next stage with combination football becoming the way to play.
Preston North End was the first club to benefit from recruiting the best players from north of the border and employing a more Scottish way of playing that brought them the success of their early years. The Glaswegian, James McDade, was signed for Preston and not only was he regarded as one of their best players, but influential on how they played the game as a team.
With a more organised structure, Preston was one step ahead of their rivals. In the 1888-89 inaugural season of the Football League, Preston not only went through the season unbeaten – sealing the nickname “The Invincibles” – but also won the FA Cup sealing the first ever double with another record of not conceding a goal. The league was retained the following year with Preston quickly becoming a dominant force in the English game.
Other clubs upon seeing the success of the Lancashire club continued to recruit Scottish players and adopt the tactics that was considered the norm in Scotland. Sunderland for instance had nine Scottish players (which included John Auld and Johnny Campbell, who was the top scorer in the league for three seasons in a row) helped Sunderland win three league titles.
In 1892, the newly formed Liverpool Football Club saw signing Scottish players as a way of quickly establishing themselves amongst the elite. So much so that after fielding an entire eleven in their first game against Rotherham they were nicknamed the “team of Macs.”
Tom Watson – who had formerly managed Sunderland to their early league championship honours – was also responsible for Liverpool’s first two First Division titles in 1900/01 and 1905/06 respectively. Part of his philosophy was to recruit players from Scotland as he felt that they could easily adapt to the combination football that he wanted his team to play as well as feeling that their ability was more than value for money.
The signing of the Scottish defender Alex Raisbeck from Stoke in 1898 demonstrated this train of thought – he was purchased not just for his ability as a player but his footballing brain. “His directors had every confidence in his judgement, and fearlessly relied on his opinion on all matters relating to the players and the matches of the moment.” wrote the Liverpool Echo in 1924, fifteen years after he had left Liverpool.
There were, of course, complaints about the infiltration of Scottish players into the English game with the notable case of Upton Park who complained to the FA about the number of professional Scottish players within the line-up of their opposition, Preston North End. As a result, Preston were disqualified but this was more to do with the game becoming professional and the payments that were deemed to have been made. However, the incident inadvertently ensured that the game became recognised as professional when the following year such payments Preston had previously made were now legal.
The Scottish influence of how to play football was now becoming ingrained within the game as a whole. It had changed from the chaotic kicking game of early football matches to a more structured, organised game. Dribbling was still part of the game, but the team ethic now ruled. There was no more unruliness of eleven individuals running around and trying to dribble towards the opponent’s goal.
It was inevitable in the next stage of combination football that teams expected their players to adopt positions to ensure that there was structure in their play. Most clubs now favoured a 2-3-5 formation but there were still critics who felt it was a disgrace that defenders now had a role in the game. The Scottish Athletic Journal spoke of “its disgust of certain country clubs keeping two players twenty yards from their own goal.” However, with football clubs becoming successful using these tactics, it was another evolvutionary step to staying at the top.
Back then, as is the case now, coaches and players were always looking for the next advantage that would put them one step ahead of their rivals. So much so that the Arsenal centre-half Percy Sands in a 1907 article for the Sheffield Telegraph and Star Sports Special commented on whether “football was becoming more scientific?” In the piece he mused on the various thoughts and ideas of how football should be played. Whether it was the short passing game, the triangular movement, or the kick and rush style.
Tactics were discussed in the changing rooms prior to games with Tom Boyle, who captained both Burnley and Barnsley, commenting that the side with the best tactics will win the game. Any weaknesses in the opposition were to be exploited with players or play to be moved to that particular part of the field.
Scotland had led the way forward in making passing such an integral part of football as well as ensuring that there was organisation and a shape to the way they played the game.
As a result, combination football was the way to play with the 2-3-5 pyramid formation to be favoured for many years to come. There would be many variations of this system, most notably the Austrian Wunderteam, who played their centre forward in a more withdrawn system in the early 1930s which brought them success and credit.
Football tactics were constantly being assessed and scrutinised with the WM system introduced by Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman being the next major change. That change, like the Scottish passing style, was through an amendment in the offside rule in 1925 that reduced the number of opposition players needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two. Chapman used it to counter-attack the opposition quickly citing that the opposition was at its most vulnerable after losing possession. Arsenal were to benefit greatly from this tactic.
Tactics are constantly evolving from the push and run philosophy of Arthur Rowe’s Tottenham to Barcelona and Spain’s tiki taka. In the world of football, coaches are always looking to seek that extra edge whether through rule changes or simply using the players’ and exploiting any weaknesses that they may see in the tactics used by the opposition. The English public schools may have introduced the ‘modern’ game to the world, but it was the Scots who started the ‘big bang,’ in terms of using tactics and believing that passing and organisation was far more effective than the mass brawl and disorganisation of early association football.