The Third Man
The change in the offside law in 1925 altered the game forever
“Without offside, there would be no football.”
13 June 1925, a Saturday, is not generally viewed as a particularly auspicious day in football history. It should be. It was a day on which the game took a significant step towards adopting the modern guise in which it has conquered the world.
Meeting in Paris, the International Board (IFAB) agreed to change the offside law. Until then an attacker had been offside unless there were at least three opponents between him and the opposing goal-line when the ball was passed to him. Henceforth, two defenders – usually a back and the goalkeeper – would be enough to play him onside, essentially as today.
The move was a reaction to the much-used defensive tactic known as the “one-back game”. This was a ploy whereby one full-back would hang deep in a covering position while the other would step up in an attempt to effect the offside trap. Some pairings had become so adept that interruptions in play multiplied to intolerable levels, with the action, such as it was, compressed into what Jonathan Wilson has described as “a narrow sliver either side of the halfway line”.
Football by this time had already achieved a dominant position in Britain’s popular culture and was starting to do the same elsewhere in Europe. With crowds of 50,000 or more flocking to big games on fine days, entertainment value was an issue. The notion of somehow liberalising the offside law had been under discussion since at least 1913. After a spell of post-war buoyancy, economic times were hard and getting harder: the 1925-26 football season would be followed immediately by the General Strike. It seems likely that one factor in persuading the conservative middle-aged men who ran the game finally to grasp the nettle of offside reform was the slide in attendances that had begun to set in. According to a table in Matthew Taylor’s book The Leaguers, top-tier attendances dropped about 17% to 10.4 million between 1921-22 and 1924-25.
The potential significance of the alteration – labelled “the daring experiment” by the Times – was grasped at once. The leading weekly sports newspaper Athletic News pronounced that “no more important change in the laws of play has been made since football became the ruling passion, in the winter, of the people.” CP Scott’s Manchester Guardian declared that “Nothing that a mere Parliament or a League of Nations is likely to do will come home to the masses who follow professional league football, or even the average schoolboy, so much as the news that the International Board has adopted the alteration of the offside rule.”
In intent, the amendment may be likened to rugby union’s decision more than four decades later to penalise direct kicking for touch from beyond the defending side’s twenty-five yard [now twenty-two metre] line. Both innovations were designed to reduce sterile play. With the new season little more than two months away, the change left little time for teams to get their tactical ducks in a row. Failure to do so might leave defences horribly exposed, like a Swedish motorist still trying to drive on the left after högertrafikomläggningen – the day in 1967 when the whole country switched to driving on the right.
The new season in Scotland kicked off two weeks earlier than England. As on Swedish roads, the changeover was remarkably orderly. Hibs lost 5-0 at Celtic one week and hammered Kilmarnock 8-0 the next. Overall, however, the super-prolific scoring some had predicted failed to materialise. The average number of goals per game in Division One on that first Saturday went up only to 3.7, compared with 3.1 throughout the 1924-25 season. What is more, games in a country known already, three years prior to the Wembley Wizards, for its close-passing, head-up, ball-on-the-deck style, as distinct from the virile athleticism that held sway south of the border, flowed much better. The Watchman, assigned by the Sunday Post to cover that rather one-sided fixture at Celtic Park, was pleased to report that, “For the first time I witnessed a senior football match in the course of which not a single free kick was necessary for offside.” Andrew Allan, a leading referee, pronounced the new law “one of the best ever made”.
We can probably assume that the nerves of administrators and defenders would have steadied somewhat in light of events in Scotland, as the start of the Football League season, on August 29, approached. Aston Villa, in any case, had other distractions. A period of what would today be described as “boardroom turmoil” had prompted the resignation in July of Fred Rinder, their long-serving chairman. Five days before Burnley were due at Villa Park to begin the season, Athletic News reported that control of the club was “still uncertain”.
Under the circumstances, the nightmare that overtook the blue and white-shirted Lancastrians was eye-poppingly unexpected, even allowing for the law change and their 19th-place finish in 1924-25. Inspired by the talismanic Billy Walker, Villa’s talented forwards were electric. Burnley were severely hampered by the withdrawal of Jack Hill, an all-action player who ended the season as England’s first-choice centre-half, after a clash of heads. But the home team were already 2-0 up by then. The final verdict was 10-0. The centre-forward Len Capewell, who had netted after 20 seconds, ended up with five, more than half his tally for the entire 1924-25 season. When George Stephenson, who had collided with Hill, notched the final goal, his head swathed in bandages, it summed up Burnley’s afternoon. “Might have been 20,” noted the Burnley News, gamely applying a humorous gloss on proceedings. “The wits remarked that Burnley would do better next innings.”
However traumatic this start to the season for the men from Turf Moor, the unusual double-figure score-line ensured that the offside law retained its topicality around whatever passed for water-coolers in inter-war England. It has remained a staple of pub bores and office banter ever since.
After this dream start, it was in a way surprising that, among a host of players quizzed by the press after their first experience of the new conditions, Frank Moss, the Villa captain, told the Observer they would “throw a severe strain on the defence”. More understandably, he also said that the change “must lead to prolific scoring”. Sam Wadsworth, rock of the defence of the champions Huddersfield Town had swiftly concluded that “defenders would have to be very speedy”.
That Midlands mauling marked the beginning of a remarkable white-knuckle season for Burnley, who changed two half-backs for their next game against Leicester and won 4-0. In 42 league games, they conceded 108 goals in total. They saved themselves from relegation with a 4-1 win over Cardiff on a sodden pitch on the season’s final day. They had plenty of scoring power themselves, as seen most strikingly in their other league visit to Birmingham, on April 10, when they crushed Birmingham City 7-1. As six of these goals were scored by Louis Page, a future England international, occupying the centre-forward’s berth for the first time, you might surmise that questionable selection may have been part of the problem. As with the Villa game, however, physical frailties and the absence of substitutes (about which more later) played a significant part, with a Birmingham player falling injured after just twelve minutes.
By the time jubilant Burnley fans swarmed onto the pitch in celebration of the team’s crucial last-match win over Cardiff, it was clear that the new law was here to stay. Traditionalists still fretted about it encouraging unimaginative kick-and-rush tactics, with balls belted upfield for fleet-footed forwards to chase. A changed offside regime, moreover, had done nothing to improve England, who finished rock bottom of the International Championship table, extending their title drought to 13 years. The reform had, however, resulted in a substantial reduction in free kicks and a 43% increase in the number of first division goals: 1703 against 1192 the previous season. The decline in attendances had also stopped, at least in the first division, and would not reassert itself until Depression hit in the 1930s.
Ted Harper of Blackburn Rovers topped the scoring charts with 43, better than a goal per game. His feat came in spite of not being selected for the first three matches and was insufficient to prevent Blackburn slumping to 22nd and last place in the league table by early February, though they subsequently rallied. Nor did Harper prove the answer to England’s centre-forward problem; neither he nor the team could score in their latest defeat by Scotland at Old Trafford in April.
Sunderland’s Dave Halliday, signed from Dundee, destined for Arsenal, lanky and determined, and Huddersfield’s George ‘Bomber’ Brown were not too far behind Harper with 38 and 35 goals respectively in a profitable season for front-men. This was also the year when the young Dixie Dean began to make a name for himself with Everton, notching 33 goals in 40 league and cup matches. Dean had forced his way into the first team by scoring seven for the reserves against Bradford City in early September in another 10-0 battering.
With the currency of the game devalued, the sort of scorelines that, in my childhood, would have had to be spelled out on the teleprinter were frequent. Sheffield United 11 Cardiff 2, Sunderland 7 Everton 3 (Sunderland trailed 3-2 on the hour), Bury 6 Manchester City 5 (on Christmas Day) and so on.
Manchester City, who experienced the most extraordinary helter-skelter season of all top-flight clubs, and possibly of their existence, were involved in more than their fair share of such encounters. In one remarkable two-day period in October, they walloped Burnley 8-3, then travelled to South Yorkshire and lost to Sheffield United by the same score. Like Burnley, their goals-conceded column in the League reached three figures, 100 exactly, but they also scored 89 – plus a further 31 in a remarkable FA Cup run that took them all the way to Wembley, whereupon they lost to Bolton Wanderers via David Jack’s goal.
The most extravagant scoreline in that Cup run, which also saw them run rings around the best team in the land, Huddersfield Town, came in an 11-4 demolition of Crystal Palace. So one-sided was this game, particularly in a first half which ended 7-0, that the Palace goalkeeper Billy Callender was carried off the field shoulder-high by appreciative spectators. Callender’s life ended tragically at the age of 29 some six years later when he was found hanged following the death of his fiancée from polio.
City’s eventful season ended in the dual misfortune of defeat at Wembley and relegation. While their rivals Burnley were engineering their great escape, managerless Manchester City were going down 3-2 at Newcastle, courtesy of a hat-trick by the great Hughie Gallacher, who had arrived earlier in the season from Airdrieonians as part of a startling – and expensive – exodus of Scottish talent. Poor Sam Austin missed a penalty that might have saved City, hitting it straight at the goalkeeper. Austin, “a player of moods” with “a long, raking stride”, had scored a few days earlier in an important 2-1 win over another fellow struggler, Leeds United. In a symptom of the amateurishness that still pervaded the game, the Leeds Mercury reported that play had to be halted in the second half when darkness fell prematurely leaving the players “mere ghosts from the stands”. Very fortunately, the light improved and after a six-minute cessation, play resumed and the match concluded. With 50,000 jammed into Maine Road, knowing that every point was vital, it is hard not to reflect that this lifting of the murk was most opportune. This was before the introduction of floodlights, of course, and it is worth recording that officials would decide routinely in midwinter to dispense with the half-time interval if they feared the light might give out before the end.
The Times had concluded as early as September 7 that the new law had changed everything. “The balance has swung completely over,” it thundered. “Previously, defenders, by their astuteness in exploiting the offside law to their own advantage, were able more than to hold their own. Now forwards are the masters of the situation.” The goalless draw was not extinct, however. The first of fifteen in the top flight came at Anfield on September 5. A Reds rearguard featuring the dependable Tommy Lucas and that peerless goalkeeper Elisha Scott had a lot to do with the scoreline – and with Liverpool’s comparatively sound defensive record throughout the season, which was bettered only by Wadsworth’s Huddersfield. The Hammers left-winger Jimmy Ruffell, impressive enough under the new conditions to be capped by England later in the season, was reported to have been flagged offside four times. Nor was the law change enough to prise open the Tyne-Wear derby. At this blank encounter at St James’ Park, indeed, the old warrior Frank Hudspeth, the Newcastle full-back who, in partnership with Billy McCracken, had turned the offside trap into an art form under the old regime, was “quite jubilant when once in the first half he cleverly forced an offside decision as in the old days.”
By the end of the season, after much suffering and much experimentation, defences had recovered a fraction of the ground that had been legislated away. The first division averaged 3.84 goals per game up to December 5 and 3.57 goals per game thereafter – still almost exactly a goal a game more than in 1924-25. Oldham Athletic were still able to run up eight in Division Two against Forest on the last day of the season. Sheffield United, meanwhile, despite an abysmal start, surpassed 100 league goals. The one hundredth, scored just before half-time in a comfortable 2-0 win over Manchester United, was netted by David Mercer.
When Athletic News in early April conducted an extensive poll on the impact of the change, the consensus was overwhelmingly positive. “No longer can defenders rely on a law to get out of a difficult situation,” commented Alderman H Cropper of Chesterfield approvingly, while Middlesbrough’s H Bamlett proclaimed himself “a convert”. He explained, “A forward can now concentrate – keep his eyes on the ball – whereas he had formerly to watch a back 40 yards away on the other side of the field, who did not tackle but stopped him by stepping forward.” With the game now noticeably quicker and punctuated by fewer stoppages, A Brook Hirst of Huddersfield predicted astutely that the change would “tend to shorten the career of a player by two or three years.”
So how did defences mitigate the tide that had threatened to overwhelm them? A whole series of factors, some tactical, some not, appear to have contributed towards moderation of the early season goal-rush. Their repertoire of new tricks undoubtedly included meting some of the rough stuff – and this in an era when football had about as much in common with Pep Guardiola’s conception of an acceptable level of physical contact as mud-wrestling has with chess.
A light seems to have flashed on in the wake of a Cup tie in February between second division Clapton Orient and Gallacher’s Newcastle. The Londoners upset their opponents 2-0 and, in the words of the experienced Athletic News reporter known as Achates, achieved the “total eclipse of the much-boomed Scottish international centre”. Gallacher, whose exploits in his debut English season included scoring four Christmas-time goals in two games against Liverpool in the space of 24 hours, was marked out of the game by an uncompromising centre-half called John Townrow. Achates wrote that his mission was “quite plain. He had to keep the ball away from the visitor and though the manner in which he did this did not meet with approval from the referee, he succeeded in that mission. He took many risks in the unceremonious way he bowled Gallacher over, and was repeatedly penalised.” Gallacher, for his part, was “inclined to become querulous and finicky”.
One consequence of this, in a reflection, one suspects, of a degree of desperation among the selectors, was that Townrow was put straight in the England team for the impending international against Wales. (They lost.) Another, though it was not the first instance of foul play being used to meet an objective that might once have been achieved by judicious application of the offside trap, was an apparent increase in robust defending. More than 90 years on, we are probably beyond the point where corroborating statistics on this can be compiled. What we can say is that match reports for the remainder of the season alluded to rough play with increased frequency.
The nub of the matter for old school offside practitioners was that the new law took away their insurance policy. With the old three-man law, the trap could be sprung and there would still be a burly defender between the onrushing forward and the goalkeeper; now the keeper was on his own. Faced with a choice between a) compressing play by encouraging both full-backs to adopt a high line and b) instructing the centre-half, traditionally the team’s pivot, to lie deeper and be more defence-minded, most first-division teams plumped initially for the latter. Spurs’ excellent start, beginning with a 1-0 win over Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal, was attributed partly to the form of the centre-half Harry Skitt, who “adopted a position midway between his backs and darted left or right whenever danger threatened with amazing energy.” The Sunderland captain and centre-half Charlie Parker had concluded by the end of his side’s opening 3-1 win over Birmingham City that the “centre half-back may have to become a sort of third defender.” A few weeks later, he had become confirmed in this view, confiding that “defence is now my first consideration – though of course I advance in support when it seems safe to do so.”
By mid-September, however, Athletic News was pondering a curious state of affairs: notwithstanding the new law, both first and second division tables were headed by known offside specialists. “Last season West Ham United exploited the offside manoeuvre as freely as any club in the country,” it wrote. “The change seemed likely to hit them hard. Today, however, they are top of the League… with only one goal conceded to opponents in five games.” In the second tier, early pacesetters Hull City were managed by the aforementioned Billy McCracken, “the full-back who brought the offside system to perfection”. Hull’s defences had still to be breached at all. It did not last: West Ham ended the season in 18th place, after their key defender Billy Henderson strained a knee ligament; Hull could only manage 13th. However, as the season wore on, a growing number of teams – including success-stories such as Chapman’s Arsenal and the eventual second-division champions The Wednesday – reverted to offside play in spite of the increased risk. In this, they vindicated the impressively far-sighted view of the Clapton Orient goalkeeper Arthur Wood who told the Observer before August was out that when defenders got used to the new game, “they will cramp the play by keeping up with the halves and probably a new game will result in four half-backs with one full-back just behind them”.
With long balls out to the flanks or behind the back-line an increasingly popular ploy, height and heading ability were becoming ever more important attributes for the modern centre-half – even those who like Bury’s 6’2” Tom Bradshaw and Burnley’s 6’3” Jack Hill endeavoured still to make a full attacking contribution. Sam Cowan and Jimmy Seddon, who filled the role in the FA Cup final for Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers respectively, were cases in point. Cowan starred in September in a 1-1 draw with United in front of 66,000 at Maine Road in what was the first Manchester derby for four years. His “headwork was a feature of the match,” reported Athletic News. It was said that the 5’10½”, thirteen-stone Cowan was “able to head a ball as far as many a junior can kick it”. He was “monarch of the centre of the field” in what might have been a vital 4-3 win at Elland Road in December. Seddon, taller at 6’1½”, was said to be “ungainly and unattractive”, but was endowed with Vieira-esque snaking long legs. When Bolton thrashed Cowan’s City 5-1 on a frosty November day, he was “the rock on which most of City’s advances broke”.
By contrast, in the new conditions, speed was a more prized asset for centre-forwards, who could expect more often to enjoy clear runs on goal without having to barge the last defender out of the way. Accordingly, as time wore on, a number of teams tried out wingers to spearhead their attack. At Spurs, the South Africa-born Frank Osborne was a spectacular success in the central role, the supremely rapid Frank McPherson rather less so at Manchester United, while Louis Page’s extraordinary entrée as attacking leader for Burnley has already been mentioned. Huddersfield occasionally played their star Scottish right-winger Alex Jackson there before signing Cowdenbeath’s scoring ace William Devlin before deadline day. Aston Villa experimented with the winger Dickie York down the middle as their season wound down to a respectable sixth-place finish.
Though the deeper-lying centre-halves would often man-mark the opposing centre-forward, this was not invariably the case. Charles Buchan, whose close-season transfer from Sunderland was one of season’s other main talking points, not least because of an innovative £100-a-goal clause in the deal, has left an account of how Arsenal determined their strategy, in the wake of a 7-0 thumping at the hands of Newcastle. The role of the deep-lying centre-half that they would adopt, he wrote, was “not to be a ‘policeman’ to the opposing centre-forward”. Instead, “he was given a beat of a certain area bordering the penalty line, which he was to guard. The other defenders were to arrange themselves around him according to the direction of play. It was,” he went on, “the beginning of Arsenal’s ‘defence-in-depth’ policy, brought to almost perfection by later teams.” I am not sure we can rely on every detail of Buchan’s account. He describes how Hughie Gallacher was among those who “made holes in our defensive plan” in Arsenal’s mauling on Tyneside. Yet that happened on October 3 and Gallacher did not make his Magpies debut until December. Nonetheless, there seems no reason to doubt the gist of Buchan’s story. The Wednesday’s centre-half Frank Froggatt appears to have been no fan of man-marking either, not troubling to “metaphorically have his hand on the shoulder” of the opposing centre-forward, as it was put in one match report.
With the erstwhile pivots moving deeper, there quickly developed an issue with cohesion – how to maintain adequate communication with the five-man forward unit of the classic 2-3-5 formation? This was still posing problems a year later, as the Times observed two months into the 1926-27 season: “It is not unusual to see a gap of 20 or more yards between half-backs and forwards and, in such conditions, there must inevitably be a lack of combination between the two sections of the team.”
The more thoughtful sides had worked out a solution well before this, however, with Arsenal, once again, in the vanguard. The answer, in essence, was to move another player deeper. As Buchan recalled, “I said I not only wanted a defensive centre-half, but also a roving inside-forward, like a fly-half in rugby, to act as a link between attack and defence. He was to take up such positions in midfield that any defender would be able to give him the ball without the chance of an opponent intercepting it.” The Gunners began by entrusting this role to a reserve-team player called Andy Neil. The Scot was prominent as Chapman’s men charged to the top of the table by mid-season, being described as “as full of tricks as a monkey” in a 3-2 win at Blackburn. But a rash of injuries caused the North Londoners to go off the boil and Neil was transferred back to Brighton in March.
Quite a number of teams adopted this tactic, or something similar, during the autumn, often entrusting the part to their most creative player. Athletic News’s Harricus wrote of Newcastle as early as September 12 that their “forwards took up what I might term the “M” formation”. Other inside-forwards reported to be lying deep included Harry Chambers of Liverpool, Blackburn’s Syd Puddefoot, Billy Gillespie at Sheffield United and the great Clem Stephenson, skipper of the then two-time champions Huddersfield Town. Of Stephenson, who won his one England cap in 1924, it was written that “no player for many years past has possessed in greater degree the ability to get the best from players alongside.” In somewhat different vein, Thomas Smith and Charlie Rennox, the inside-forwards of Manchester United, then a hard-working newly-promoted team with no real stars, were said to be willing to “fetch and carry until they drop”.
It should not be assumed that all teams left three or four men upfield at all times, irrespective of circumstances. When Liverpool got a goal back against Huddersfield with 20 minutes to play, the Yorkshiremen “deemed it prudent to strengthen the defence” to protect their 2-1 lead, the left-winger WH ‘Billy’ Smith being moved to a midfield position. That same March week, Cardiff built up a 2-1 lead at Leicester with 10 men after their outside-left George McLachlan suffered a broken leg. As soon as their second goal went in, forwards Len Davies and Hughie Ferguson “dropped back among the half-backs”, leaving two up front and “a phalanx of eight men in or near the Cardiff penalty area”. They duly held out to take the two points then awarded for a win.
By the run-up to Christmas, the offside trap was well and truly back in business, as more teams concluded, as Airdrieonians’ Jock McDougall had it, that “the centre-half who forms his plan on the basis of having to yield ground is courting disaster.” Chapman’s Arsenal were at the heart of the revival. When a 2-0 win over Sunderland brought them a fifth consecutive victory and took them to the top of the table, Alec Mackie – destined eventually to be ousted by Tom Parker – was said by Achates to have “exploited the offside tactics so thoroughly that at times one imagined we were back in the old days”. Buchan, inevitably, scored one of the goals. On January 2, in the return fixture with Spurs, there were seven offsides in 35 minutes. Later that month at Anfield, “the exploitation of offside tactics by Mackie and [Bob] John was at times exasperating”. Athletic News’s Junius reports “more than a score” of such stoppages, with the Liverpool forwards “pulled up in the proportion of at least 5:1.” The home side nevertheless won 3-0.
Burnley, Notts County, Spurs and Aston Villa were among others who sought to adapt the offside trap to the new circumstances. Villa used it to good effect to control the dangerous Gallacher in a 2-2 draw at St James’ Park.
In the second division, effective offside play helped deliver promotion back to the top tier for Sheffield United’s local rivals The Wednesday. The risk now attached to deploying the tactic was underlined, however, when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by New Brighton. According to Athletic News, “During the second half especially, the Wednesday backs reverted to the expedient of throwing their opponents offside, both backs lying well forward.” They duly won “a dozen or more” free-kicks. But disaster struck when a speculative New Brighton pass was deflected by a Wednesday player, rendering the recipient onside.
As this suggests, the ruse required skill and a little luck to be worth adopting under the new law. Some experiments failed spectacularly. When the Athletic News editor Ivan Sharpe went to Old Trafford for the season’s second Manchester derby, he was surprised to see Jack Silcock, United’s normally ultra-dependable back, lining up with the half-backs. He was not surprised by the disaster which ensued. “The one-back game simply invites trouble, especially as in this case, when the back who stays at home is inexperienced and not reliable,” he wrote. “Manchester United asked for trouble and it arrived with a capital T.” Result: United 1 City 6.
The high defensive line deployed by some teams encouraged the very occasional glimpse of another tactical innovation with resonance today: the sweeper-keeper. In a similar way, the fondness in England for the long-ball game utilising width seems to have been instrumental in encouraging wingers, such as Huddersfield’s Jackson, more often to drift into the box in anticipation of crosses from the opposite flank to finish off.
Even for defences who contrived to perform proficiently under the new circumstances, there was one uncontrollable factor likely to stretch even the best teams to breaking-point: injury. Substitutes would not be permitted in the Football League for a further four decades, so when serious injury struck, teams were confronted with the prospect of plotting a course to the final whistle while at a numerical disadvantage or with the crocked player dispatched pathetically to shiver on the wing. A significant number of matches – I would estimate one or two per Saturday programme in the first division – were so affected. It could be argued, indeed, that the increased pace of the game and reduction in the number of stoppages may even have increased the frequency with which match-ending injuries were incurred.
Under the old law, the offside trap afforded the 10 men a means of damage limitation; this became more difficult under the new regime, since one slip, resulting in a clear run on goal, might well mean the game was up. This issue was highlighted eloquently towards the end of the season by the Birmingham City player George Liddell, a trained teacher. “Under the old offside law,” he wrote, “it was possible for the injured player’s side to overcome their handicap by the adoption of what was called the ‘one back’ game. Under present conditions, to rely upon a similar resort is practically impossible, and the consequence is many games have been won and lost through players being injured. Birmingham alone have lost four games this season when winning goals in each case have been added after players have left the field hurt… So why not adopt the idea of playing substitutes? If any player has been incapacitated during the first half-hour during any game, substitutes, I think, should be allowed.” Birmingham, indeed, had rotten luck with injuries, a contributing factor probably in their slide to 14th place in the final table, down from eighth the year before. In their 5-1 derby defeat by West Bromwich Albion, the hard-tackling half-back Jimmy Cringan was hurt when the scores were level. He came back on and played out the game on the right wing. However, his teammate Ernie Islip then collapsed with a split cartilage, reducing the side in effect to nine players.
In another injury-related hard luck story, Wales lost their centre-half Fred Keenor within five minutes of the start of their home international clash with Scotland. The team reorganised and held out heroically against the class act of international football for nearly seventy minutes. With nothing to be gained from a plucky 1-0 defeat, they then switched to one at the back – and promptly conceded two more goals.
If injuries were a factor in keeping the goals-per-game average high, there was another imponderable without which the end-season first division goal tally might have approached 2000: the highly variable English weather. The winter of 1925-26 threw just about everything at the national game, including a cold snap running almost unbroken from mid-November to mid-January. It is worth mentioning in passing that wretched weather took a toll on attendances too.
Surfaces as hard as flint were not generally deemed sufficient grounds for postponement, though when clods of frozen mud or snow were left littering the surface, the authorities did occasionally admit defeat. Though the treacherous underfoot conditions accounted for the odd goal here and there – Manchester United defender Silcock was “stuck in the snow unable to move” for one Arsenal score – they actually tended to moderate the overall goal flow by taking all pace out of the game and making the ball “as lively as a piece of mercury” according to one evocative image. West Brom won one match largely through their choice of footwear – boots with rubber bars as opposed to the shortened studs worn by their opponents. “Albion were as sure-footed as a denizen of the mountains,” reported Athletic News, “compared with the sliding spread-eagled men of Newcastle.”
The freezing conditions left a hangover, since the measures used to combat them often had repercussions later in the season. At White Hart Lane, 3000 trusses of straw were placed on the pitch, covering it to a depth of about two feet. Others used sand; 50 tons were said to have been put down at Bramall Lane. Ivan Sharpe put his finger on the problem while enduring a drab goalless draw between Blackburn – Ted Harper and all – and Leicester City. “For the cart-loads of sand that were spread on football grounds during the recent period of frost-bound pitches, there will be a penalty to pay,” he wrote. “At Ewood Park, the sand deadened the ball and clogged the footsteps of the players.” Huddersfield’s attempts to bring artificial heat to bear also had negative consequences. Visiting on Boxing Day, Sharpe reported: “The grass had disappeared,” adding: “It resembled the aftermath of the cattle show.” Even by April, the situation was evidently little-improved. “Eighty-six braziers were burning on the ground of the champions when winter came,” he wrote, in florid mode. “And as they burnt up some of the nature in the soil, about eighty-six blades of grass now strive to persuade the visitors that this is the turf of the Colne Valley, where the cricketers come from.” The winter weather was also a factor in stemming the goal tide in Scotland. “Worse conditions than those which prevailed at Aberdeen could not be imagined,” wrote one reporter in February. “Half a gale blew from the sea and the pitch was sodden from the incessant rain of 24 hours.” The result? Aberdeen 0 Dundee 0.
That, then, is the story of the 1925-26 season. For the race to adapt to a major law change with limited preparation time and the consequent spate of experimentation, there may never have been another quite like it, before or since. And yet, here’s the thing: in terms of outcomes, remarkably little changed. The teams which were successful under the old regime, by and large, were successful under the new.
This goes well beyond Huddersfield’s feat in shrugging off the departure of Chapman, their managerial genius, to complete an unprecedented hat-trick of league titles. Bolton Wanderers lifted the FA Cup with no fewer than ten of the players who had won the 1923 ‘White Horse’ final. In Scotland, Airdrieonians finished runners-up for the fourth consecutive season, although this time it was Celtic, not Rangers, who pipped them. Still more remarkably, Plymouth Argyle were runners-up in Division Three South for a fifth consecutive season. It happened yet again the following year. They finally obtained promotion in 1929-30. One team, of course, did achieve a marked improvement: Chapman’s Arsenal, who jumped from 20th spot the previous season to second. But this too can be classified as an example of continuity, not change: if broadly the same teams prospered under both laws, so too did the same managers.