Smash and Thunder
How a change of approach helped Newcastle cast off their chokers tag in the 1910 FA Cup final
Newcastle United 1 Barnsley 1, FA Cup final, Crystal Palace, 23 April 1910
In replay (Newcastle United 2 Barnsley 0, Goodison Park, 28 April 1910) Carr replaced Whitson
"Nothing is more irritating to the lover of the English game than the skilful but apparently purposeless game which Newcastle can play when they feel like it. Barnsley's reputation and abilities will preserve us from anything of that sort tomorrow. Newcastle dare not try it. They must play their strongest, most robust, and most open game if they are to compare with the typical Cup-Fighters they have to meet."
‘Athleo' in the Yorkshire Evening Telegraph and Star, 22 April 1910.
The complaints of sportswriters from more than 100 years ago can seem very familiar. In recent years critics have debated the wisdom of Arsène Wenger's dedication to an aesthetically pleasing passing game, portraying Arsenal as being all style and no substance, unable to handle more robust sides and the pressure of important games. Back in 1910, "Athleo" echoed similar doubts about the most skilful team of the Edwardian era, Newcastle United. They were famous for their ‘Scottish' short-passing game which had won the First Division in 1904-05, 1906-07 and 1908-09, and taken them to four FA Cup finals in five years. They were also famous for choking under pressure and losing the first three.
In previewing their fourth attempt against Barnsley in 1910, ‘Athleo' sounded dismissive but he was in fact picking up on a crucial weakness in the Newcastle side. For all its aestheticism and technique, Newcastle's style was fundamentally at risk when it faced determined and vigorous opponents such as "battling" Barnsley. And yet, Newcastle won the 1910 final, not by sticking rigidly to the "parlour football" that their players loved but by finally altering their style to adapt to the increasing competitiveness of English football.
Newcastle's story illustrates both that debates about short versus long ball in English football have a long heritage and that the Edwardian period was more tactically sophisticated than is often assumed. The great interwar Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who played in the 1900s, once wrote that "no attempt was made, shall we say, to organise victory." In fact, Newcastle and other teams organised themselves to play different versions of the 2-3-5 formation that was common in this period. In 1907 the Arsenal footballer Percy Sands observed that "one hears of the adoption of various combinations such as the open game, the short passing game, the triangular movement, the kick-and-rush method, the individual method, and so on."
Newcastle stood for the Scottish short-passing game, a preference that reflected a significant Caledonian influence on the club. Several of the directors, the club secretary and many of the first-team players were Scottish, supported by top-class English footballers, mainly from Tyneside but also from other parts of the country. Contemporary observers felt that English crowds preferred more direct styles of play but on Tyneside the opposite seems to have been true. One journalist writing in 1914 claimed that "the good folks who frequent St James' in such large numbers love scientific football with a deep affection which is certainly un-English. The kick-and-rush game is not considered the real thing in the neighbourhood of the Gallowgate."
The origins of the team's success though, were born in a moment of crisis. At the tail end of the 1902-03 season the club was facing relegation to the Second Division, a situation caused, in the words of one player, by "a policy of team selection which completely bewildered not only the supporters but the players themselves." At this time only a few early managers had the authority to pick the team and Newcastle were like the majority of clubs in that their directors picked the team. Admitting their own inexperience, the Newcastle directors made a momentous decision and asked three of the players to act as selectors.
This remarkable decision not only saved the team from relegation but also established a certain measure of autonomy for a group of talented and perceptive footballers. The three men selected by the directors — Jack Carr, Andy Aitkin and Colin Veitch — all had or would establish reputations as intelligent footballers. The 28-year-old Carr was a Geordie full-back with a reputation for clean passing and tackling. Aitkin was 24 but had already captained Scotland and would also captain Newcastle until his departure in 1906. His successor would be Veitch, then a 20-year-old reserve, who would go on to make 332 appearances for the Magpies. From a middle-class background, Veitch was an active socialist, a regular writer in the press and a prominent figure in the Players' Union. He also helped found the People's Theatre in Newcastle. These men took only 20 minutes to pick a team based around one simple policy. As Veitch explained, "we reintroduced the footballers and eliminated the purely pugnacious."
The hallmark of the team became its sound organisation and teamwork which stemmed from pre-match planning. According to Veitch, regular team meetings were called "for the development of method, tactics and general understanding." Similarly, a post-match discussion between Veitch, the goalkeeper James Lawrence, the full-back William McCracken and the half-back playmaker Peter McWilliam after a defeat at the hands of Notts County, who pioneered the offside trap, led to the team's adoption and perfection of the tactic. It later became synonymous with McCracken, whose mischievous and intelligent personality delighted in catching out opposing forwards and riling opposition crowds to the point that they threw oranges, coins and even pipes at him. As several players were at pains to point out, though, it needed the co-operation and mutual understanding of both the full-backs and the wing-halves to ensure that it was implemented properly.
While the offside trap was important in giving Newcastle a mean defensive record, another key factor was the role of Andy Aitkin in what the club historian Paul Joannou has identified as an early example of the third-back game. After making his debut as an 18-year-old forward, Aitkin became the team's regular centre-half in the 1899-1900 season and, apart from brief stints at left-back and right-half, played there until he left the club in 1907. Veitch would later praise Atikin for his influence at a "critical period" in the club's development.
He seems to have combined sitting between his two full-backs in the manner of a stopper centre-half with screening them in the manner of a defensive midfielder. His successor in 1910, the Scotland international William Low, described him as "a great defensive half-back… he played sometimes as a third back, knowing that a good defence was a great part of the battle, and that he was always in touch with his own men as well as the enemy." Similarly, if less enthusiastically, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle commented in 1905 on his "three-quarter back play, which, with sound backs behind him, has for long been unnecessary… Aitkin is only a third back." This defensive interpretation of the centre-half role changed to a more traditional attacking one when Colin Veitch took over from 1906 to 1909. He was a naturally attack-minded player and the same writer for the Chronicle wrote approvingly that "he is at the same time as good as a sixth forward."
Veitch's enthusiasm for attacking football, and the team's short-passing game as a whole, can be traced to the influence of the Scotland international RS McColl. Known as the ‘Prince of Forwards', he spent only three years at the club but had a huge impact. He showed an interest in assisting younger players during games and Veitch also benefited from rooming with him on away trips. Veitch wrote that, "I know what a lot I learnt in those half-hour talks before sleep. I absorbed more real football knowledge in those conversations than I could have gained in years of actual playing." Veitch never failed to acknowledge his debt to McColl for his instruction "both in the theoretical and the practical side of the game".
On the field, McColl shaped Newcastle's style by encouraging a pass-and-move policy. The team's playmaker and Scotland international left-half Peter McWilliam described McColl's game as "a masterly exhibition of skill and brainwork... He seemed to see several ‘moves' in one, just as in a game of draughts." Although Newcastle would replace McColl with more orthodox centre-forwards, this emphasis on short passes and interchanges was taken up by the team as a whole and in particular the wing half-backs who played what was called the ‘sixth-forward game'.
It was from these positions that the team's attacking rhythm was developed with the wing half-backs not only feeding the inside- and outside-forwards but interchanging and overlapping with them. This is revealed in a detailed description of Peter McWilliam's play by Veitch when he defended his colleague's attacking style in Athletic News in 1910. "You [McWilliam] are sometimes to be found wandering away across to the opposite wing on an attacking expedition," he wrote, "but are generally safe even in these tactics in that your knowledge of when and where to part with the ball leaves you sufficient time in which to return for business commencing on your own side of the field.
"I have often heard it said that you risk much by these proceedings, and that your side will be the loser some fine day. Rubbish! Your side gains by these introductions... as long as you have men alongside you who realise the necessity for ‘covering tactics', so that any one position is never filled by two men at any period of the game, your raids are beneficial. Your colleagues will understand the position, and if they don't, that is not your fault, but theirs, as it is quite time they did. The rule is quite elementary in football, but of the utmost importance."
This interchanging of positions was practised by many of other key figures in the team at the time. The outside-left George Wilson and the inside-left Alex ‘Sandy' Higgins (both Scotland internationals) often played one half in either position, while on the opposite flank the outside-right Jock Rutherford (an England international) and the inside-right James Howie (a Scotland international) played alongside the right half-back Alec Gardiner who "used to chase forward at either inside- or outside-right, while his colleagues used to make the openings" with the result that "opposing defenders never really knew at which apex of the triangle they really had Gardiner, Rutherford or Howie." For Veitch's understudy Bob Hewison, this part of their game was "the essence of pure football, the science and art of the pastime."
In addition to covering each other, all players including the forwards were expected to contribute to the defensive side of the game. Rutherford wrote that, "In the modern team which desires to achieve success, the forwards must be prepared to fall back and help their halves in tight corners, for the attacking party who requires waiting on throughout will find no permanent place in present-day football."
Contemporary critics were impressed by the approach and one report in 1909 of a 4-1 away win over Everton enthused over the defensive work of forwards who tracked back and tackled within their own area. "The great thing, the glorious thing, about Newcastle's play was their wonderful combination and co-operation," wrote Bruce Campbell of the Sheffield Telegraph and Star Sports Special.
For all their tactical sophistication though, Newcastle had one fatal flaw. They could be knocked out of games by opponents who were able to disrupt their passing rhythm and prevent them from dominating possession. This could be done either by playing a more open, long-passing game or by close marking and aggressive tackling.
As the Scottish short-passing game developed in the 1880s and 1890s, a counterpart called the open-wing game emerged in England. It seems that West Bromwich Albion pioneered this style in the 1890s when financial restrictions meant they were forced to sign more local English players. The Scotland international Andrew Wilson described how the emphasis was on quicker and more direct passes "with long passes from the centre to the wings, and from the inside men of one wing to the flankers of the other." Its particular virtue was that, "If you put the ball about like this the defenders don't know where to have you. They can smother forwards who stick to the ball, but when it is turned this way and that, with speed, they are in a quandary."
While Newcastle must have faced and vanquished this tactic on numerous occasions in the league, it proved too much for them in the 1905 FA Cup Final. Chasing the double, Newcastle arrived at the Crystal Palace as favourites but found themselves easily outclassed on the day, losing 2-0 to Aston Villa. Villa had themselves been famous for short-passing in the 1890s before moving to the open-wing game. Football Chat was struck by the contrasting methods of the two teams. "On the one hand," its report read, "we had the Newcastle method, the exclusively short inside style which could not rise above a pass of half a dozen yards, and the open wing-to-wing work, with the crashing forward concentration of the inside Villa trio."
Although many of the Newcastle players were nervous and underperformed, something that would reoccur to the point that the players were described as suffering from ‘Palicitis', they were also beaten by an inability to adapt. Football Chat argued that "Newcastle could not get out of their fatal close passing tactics" while Villa's passing "baffled the Newcastle defenders at every turn… it was almost pitiable to witness the drifting of such a fine team to inevitable defeat."
This pattern was to be repeated on several more occasions before Newcastle adapted their style. In 1907 they suffered an embarrassing home defeat to Crystal Palace of the Southern League in an FA Cup first-round tie. The core of the Palace team was composed of north-eastern footballers, several of whom had been in Newcastle's reserves. Their knowledge of their former teammates helps to explain their tactics. Athletic News noted that Palace's "methods were obviously preconceived, for the half-backs and backs grimly worried the opposition forwards and they not only played right on top of them, thus frustrating the development of their dangerous combinations, but they cleverly challenged their rivals for honours in clean, incisive footwork."
Crystal Palace's tactics were also part of a growing trend towards more aggressive and, to a degree, tactically defensive play in Cup football. At a time when Cup-ties brought important additional revenue, a good Cup run could have an important impact on a struggling club's finances. This led to smaller clubs compensating for their inferior playing ability by emphasising force, power and results over technique and aestheticism. The FA Councillor Alfred Gibson commented in 1912 that "to a certain extent brawn takes the place of brain... never-flagging, never-failing energy, dash, pace, pluck... these are the qualities that win Cup-ties." When Newcastle met second-division Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1908 Cup final it was these qualities that helped the latter to an unexpected 3-1 victory. Wolves fielded a trio of bustling half-backs including the Reverend KRG Hunt, who was an enthusiastic exponent of the shoulder-charge. Newcastle dominated possession for the first 20 minutes but, after falling behind to a long-range goal from Hunt, they were overwhelmed by their more aggressive opponents. Yet again, it was strength and bustle that denied Newcastle the Cup.
Newcastle's initial reaction to the defeat was to persist with their short-passing game and it still proved highly effective, taking them to their third championship success and an FA Cup semi-final in 1909. The following year, though, they made two key changes. The first was to switch Colin Veitch from centre-half to right-half to replace Alec Gardiner. In his place came William Low from Aberdeen. He was described by the Sheffield Telegraph and Star Sports Special as "one of the supreme spoilers of centre-forward work" and Andy Aitkin noted that "he doesn't get down the field with his forwards, but hangs back to some extent to keep the opposite side's forwards within reach. He is really great as a defender." Aitkin went onto describe how Low's deeper deployment allowed the two full-backs to mark the opposing wing-forwards, leaving the inside-forwards to the Newcastle wing-halves.
The second and more striking adjustment was the adoption of a version of the open-wing game. Peter McWilliam explained before the final that "this season we have been playing a slightly different game than is our wont, combining the necessary forcing Cup-tie game with that of the finer points."
The most notable example of this came in their third-round home tie with Blackburn Rovers, then one of the leading teams in the country. The tie of the round drew the country's pre-eminent sportswriter James Catton. He wrote with evident amazement that, "I cannot recall a match in which I have seen Newcastle play such a strategic game. Most of us have been inclined to regard the Tynesiders as wedded to short passing, to frittering away opportunities in front of goal and to exaggerate the importance of elegance at the cost of sheer effectiveness... But the Novocastrians adopted long passes. They kept the ball on the move with first time punts, and they swung it from wing to wing without unnecessary finesse - the goal being the destination."
Newcastle's change of heart could not have been better timed, as their opponents in the 1910 Cup final were the epitome of a Cup-fighting side. Although Barnsley were a small Second Division team obliged to develop and sell on promising young players to pay the bills, they were in their own way as tactically-minded as Newcastle. The emphasis of their play however, was on defence, rather than attack.
A key influence on the team was their trainer William Norman. An ex-army physical instructor, he not only made Barnsley one of the fittest sides in the country but also helped shape their tactics, with team talks a regular part of their preparations. James Catton approvingly noted that, "Norman is more than a physical-culture man. He talks football to his men, he impresses upon them that the ball must be their first objective, and he discusses tactics. He is a firm believer in the half-backs playing close up to the opposing forwards and giving them little room in which to work."
Barnsley's man-marking was often remarked upon by critics and the artist for the Liverpool Echo's Football Edition even referred to the wing-half George Utley as "PC Utley" after Barnsley beat Everton in the semi-final.
Barnsley's methods also contrasted with Newcastle's defensive deployment by sticking to the convention of using wing-halves to mark the opposing wingers and for full-backs to mark the inside-forwards.
Allied to this was an early manifestation of a counter-attacking policy. The Barnsley captain Tommy Boyle explained in 1914 to readers of the Sheffield Telegraph Sports Special that they reinforced an already strong defence by bringing one or both of the inside-forwards back. "By this method," he said, "we often tired the other fellows out; they became somewhat disheartened because their attack yielded nothing tangible and the minute they relaxed their efforts was our opportunity. Then we would set our forwards going, and try to get a goal or two out of our tired opponents."
Here Boyle anticipates Herbert Chapman's argument that the most vulnerable time for a team was when an attack had broken down and their game plan sought to exploit this. The 1910 Cup final then, while seeing both teams line up in apparently similar 2-3-5 formations, actually provided two very different and contrasting tactical arrangements and styles.
On the day, despite all their failures in the past and their knowledge of Barnsley's tactics, Newcastle apparently could not resist one final attempt to play in their traditional style. In the opening stages they had a lot of the ball but failed to create any real chances and in the 37th minute Barnsley struck, their Geordie centre-forward George Lillycrop getting the goal. Barnsley seemed to have the game sewn up until Newcastle switched to their opponents' style midway through the second half. For "Olympian" in the Yorkshire Weekly Record the "decisive change of tactics which saved and almost won the game... was the most remarkable thing I have seen in a big tie... They smashed and thundered in a fashion which I have never seen Newcastle United emulate for a decade."
With seven minutes left Newcastle won a free kick. Taken quickly, it was swung in for Rutherford to head home in controversial circumstances, with Barnsley players and the Yorkshire newspapers claiming for years to come that it was offside.
Newcastle had just escaped another embarrassing defeat and in a post-match interview in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Veitch was rather tight-lipped. In contrast Thomas Boyle was eager to contrast the two team's style and their relative merits. "We meant to play right on top of the ball all the time, and I think we succeeded," he said. "But there was this difference between the teams. We went in for good, plain football — the kind of football that is likely to win matches. Our opponents went in for elaborate footwork, and I don't think it paid them."
Privately, Veitch probably agreed and in the replay at Goodison Park, Newcastle sought to change their style from the start. In his Thomson's Weekly News column Veitch explained that Barnsley started in familiar style. "Again we found our opponents depended almost exclusively upon these bustling methods, with the ball mostly floating about in the air," he wrote. "Now, we decided to start the replay at a similar fast pace as we finished with at the Palace, but above all, the ball had to be brought to earth, and the football to take place on the ground."
On a wet and muddy pitch Newcastle finally managed to blend speed, power and skill. According to James Catton the ball gained weight that allowed them to keep it down and have about 75 per cent of the play, combining the best of the short and open game. Close dribbling, which allowed the Newcastle players to show off their superior footwork, was combined with the forwards building upon long passes from the half-back line.
The only reason for the goalless first half was the tendency of the Newcastle forwards to try and walk the ball into the goal. It couldn't last though and Newcastle opened the scoring with the centre-forward Albert Shepherd pouncing on a through ball to run between the Barnsley full-backs to slot home. Twenty minutes from time Shepherd scored again after converting the first penalty given in an FA Cup Final.
A change of approach had won Newcastle the one honour that eluded them.