On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by Gavrilo Princip. It was an assassination that plunged the world into panic – international tension that had been building up for years erupted into violence as one of the bloodiest wars that humanity has ever fought began. A century later, on 28 June 2014, thousands of miles away from the streets of Sarajevo, Brazil and Colombia recorded victories over Chile and Uruguay to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

These two events seem, on the face of it, totally unconnected, except that they happened to be the most prominent events occurring on the same day, a century apart. But in actual fact the assassination of the Austrian Archduke had a profound effect on how football is played today. So much has changed in a century of football that it would be wrong to identify any one moment as shaping the game more than any other – but if one were so inclined, the start of the First World War would be up there as one of the key moments.

In 1925 the International Football Association Board made a slight alteration to the offside law, intended to have a small effect on defensive play. The unforeseen results of the change actually served to revolutionise the entire sport. In the run-up to the change and in the years since this alteration has mostly been attributed to one man – Billy McCracken. In fact, it owes much more to the conflict that swept across Europe.

McCracken was, and to an extent still is, a somewhat mythical figure; a powerful full-back who defied the Ireland national team by refusing to play for them because the match fee was only half of that which the English players received, although he was later accepted back into the fold. Domestically he was a player with Newcastle United for over a decade during the club’s most successful era, at a time when they were famed for their defending. Add in the image of him as “the man who forced the rule change”and the legend grows still further.

During McCracken’s time at Newcastle he and Frank Hudspeth, it is claimed, became so good at the ‘one-back game’ that matches practically ground to a halt with stoppages1.

Indeed, the Irishman has become almost synonymous with the one-back game, such was his prowess. And thus, the story has it, the FA were forced into changing the offside law. It’s not hard to see why this is a tempting myth to maintain. McCracken was a legend of the game –a Daily Express poll in 1921 ranked him as the best full-back in the game. Even five years after he left Newcastle, the Express described him as a “professor of offside tactics”.  

How enticing then, both in the press at the time and for later commentators to single him out as the single significant actor in a move that would change the history of the game. Football fans, and perhaps football journalists even more so, love to do this. The cult of the personality lies beneath much of our sports writing but it rarely reflects reality. 

McCracken was merely one of many players exploiting the laws as they stood. Before the First World War, not only were other players doing it, but offside tactics weren’t seen as a problem, at least in England. When the Scottish FA proposed changing the offside law, as early as 1913, the English rejection was, according to the Scotsman “practically unanimous against the change, which would merely assist forwards not brainy enough to overcome the one-back game”.

However, in the years between 1913 and 1925, something changed and it is here that the war played its part. In reports on matches after 1919, a pattern emerges – the standard of attacking play appears to have plummeted. This is not surprising. With very little real football for four years and a distinct lack of training the tricky art of scoring goals suffered, even for those who never went to war.

But the war’s impact was far deeper than that. Players were urged to sign up to fight and professional footballers were used to encourage their club’s supporters to enlist. The Scottish league leaders Hearts sent at least eleven of their players, seven of whom were killed over the following four years, to the Edinburgh City Pals Battalion, which raised 1300 men in just six days with help from players from Falkirk, Hibernian and Raith Rovers. The idea that fans could serve alongside their footballing heroes was clearly attractive.

In England the response was less striking. The so-called Football Battalion, the 17th Middlesex, was established to encourage professionals to join up, but only 35 did so immediately out of a possible 5000. However, by March 1915, 122 professional footballers had joined the Battalion and the number of players who took part in some way or other would grow significantly once conscription came in a year later. 

Over the course of the war, the Football Battalion saw around 600 professional footballers pass through its ranks, while others of course served elsewhere – the Times reported as early as November 1918 that “not less than 2000 [footballers] are serving in various branches of his Majesty’s forces.”

Major Frank Buckley, the commander of the Battalion and a footballer himself, whose career was more or less ended by poison gas in 1917, suggested that five of every six players had their careers ended, through injury or death, by the war. Buckley, who would go on to manage Norwich, Blackpool and Wolves, probably overestimated, but the number was not insignificant. 

The likelihood is simply that shortly after a war in which a huge number of men between the ages of 16 and 40 had died the quality of player would have been diminished when football returned in peacetime. As with any skill-based pursuit, taking four years of training, development and performance out of a career is likely to reduce seriously the future level of performance. 

Even if players did keep up with the game during the four years, and returned home alive and uninjured, a lack of match practice meant that everything from fitness to technique, and with some even appetite for the game, had lessened. 

Those who had reached the peak of their game had lost the best years of performance, while those who were coming to what should have been of their careers in football had missed out on the key part of their development, the years which normally turn a player from a raw talent into an experienced professional.

A decline in skill levels was to be expected then. Lack of skill affected forwards far more than backs in the 1920s. Backs, usually uncompromising and unconcerned with tricky play, were, according to all contemporaries, simply less skilled. A drop in quality would affect them, but not nearly as much as forwards. 

But there was a still more significant change that the war brought about – the introduction of organisation. As Herbert Chapman, perhaps the greatest manager of the age, put it, “In my playing days no attempt was made, shall we say, to organise victory. The most that I remember was an occasional chat between, say, two men playing together on a wing…The day of haphazard football, when men went out to do their bit according to their own ideas, has gone. All teams now are highly organised.”

Everything had changed and, as Chapman himself recognised, it was the war that changed it. “You have talented, mostly young players – they need a general to lead them,” he told the Huddersfield Town board in 1921. Chapman, who had co-ordinated a munitions factory during the war with great success, implemented the lessons of specialisation, organisation and division of labour into his football teams.

He was not alone. Charlie Buchan, who helped Chapman tactically with the W-M formation at Arsenal, rose through the ranks during the war, took part in officer training and by the end held the rank of second lieutenant. 

Most strikingly, Major Buckley took his war-time experiences back to the training pitch. The England defender Stan Cullis, who played under Buckley at Wolves, explained that “his style of management in football was very similar to his attitude in the army. Major Buckley implanted into my mind the direct method of playing which did away with close inter-passing and square-ball play.”

Chapman, Buchan and Buckley (and there are many more) show clearly that those involved in the war came back with a changed outlook on football. A generation of men used to military organisation could be differently, and more effectively, organised on the pitch. 

Thus, rather than harming defensive play, the war actually led to the increased efficiency of defending while also draining the pool of attacking talent. With increased organisation and greater planning between players the one-back game, among other defensive ploys, became more successful. The number of stoppages rocketed and the media grew restless.

In February 1925 the Times had bemoaned “the general slowing up of the game through incessant, but necessary, whistle blowing, and the consequent exasperation both of players and spectators”, while the Manchester Guardian commented in the week the new rule passed that “there is nothing in professional football, except perhaps the applications of the rule about foul play, which checks the free run of the game so much as ‘offside’, and it is probably this, rather than the deliberate use of the device as a piece of tactics, that has led the authorities to make a change.”

Their complaints were not unreasonable – an FA Cup tie between Arsenal and West Ham in 1925 had contained 30 offside calls – one every three minutes. This was higher than the average, but not by much. This represents a marked rise, yet newspaper reports from the early 1920s make it clear that it was not the number of teams using the offside tactics but rather the efficiency of those teams that had changed. In other words, there is not much of an indication that the one-back game, a significant but minority tactic pre-war, became a majority tactic after it. What did change was how well that minority carried it out.

Thus football arrived at a rule change that would alter it forever. Following in its wake came the realisation that defending with only two backs was no longer possible and the result was the W-M formation. This innovation, which saw the introduction of a third back, paved the way for world football to become more defensively minded. A short-term spike in the number of goals ensued, but the long-term trend was downward.  

A game in which everyone played with two defensive players and five forwards has developed into one in which having no forwards at all is seen as a viable option, with four defenders the normal state of affairs. And the 1925 law change, it has been convincingly argued, is the starting point for that change.

100 years later, the game is unrecognisable – as any sport that survives a century must be. But so much of that change has grown out of the geopolitical events of 1914-1918. And that gunshot in Sarajevo.