The season that it rained goals

A simple, one-word rule change transformed football for ever. ANTON RIPPON looks back 84 years at its impact, and the tactical refinement introduced by Herbert Chapman

The next time Chelsea supporters champion John Terry as the best centre half in England, or Europe, or even the world — assuming that by then he hasn’t signed for Manchester City, in which case the more fickle among them might have changed their minds — they could perhaps consider the unpalatable fact that, had it not been for an Arsenal manager’s reaction to a change in the laws of football, then the role that Terry performs with such distinction week after week would probably not exist in the first place.

True, Terry, the man Jose Mourinho called his “perfect player”, would have been a huge success in any era, and certainly the sort of footballer who would have proved outstanding in the centre half’s role before it was altered so fundamentally.

But when it comes down to it, Terry excels in a position invented by a predecessor of Arsene Wenger. It was the changing of a single word that made all the difference, a seemingly minor alteration but one that reshaped the way football is played. In the short term it unleashed a torrent of goals. The longer outlook provoked the most fundamental tactical development the game has ever seen. It was the day, 84 years ago, when they changed the offside law.

Desperately searching for an antidote to the defensive sickness that was stifling football after the First World War, its rulers came up with a simple remedy. The result was astonishing. The cure did not just halt the decline, it revolutionised Britain’s national sport.

Football’s offside law which required at least three defenders to be between the last attacker and the goal at the moment the ball was played had been in force since the 1860s, and under that regulation full backs could afford to play much further upfield. By maintaining a diagonal line, an opposing forward had to be wary of getting behind the advanced full back, otherwise he would be offside.

By the 1920s, full backs had moved up almost to the halfway line, with one playing slightly behind the other. It was an offside trap which was easy to set and one that had been honed to perfection by men like Newcastle United’s Irish international defender Billy McCracken, regarded as the consummate expert when it came to catching opponents offside.

More significantly, it was threatening to kill the game as a spectator sport. Football was becoming monotonous because stoppages for offside had increased enormously. It was clear that legislation had to be introduced to counter the damage being caused by McCracken & Co’s Patent Offside Trap.

The answer, as it so often is, was simple: in 1925, following a suggestion by the Scottish FA, the law was changed so that now only two men were needed between the goal and the attacker to play him onside. The immediate result was a flood of goals as defenders failed to come to terms with this new-found freedom for forwards. The moment only two — not three — defenders were required to play a forward onside, for a season at least, football anarchy ruled.

From the opening day of 1925-26 to the end of that season, football rained goals. By the following April, the Football League had seen a staggering increase in the number scored. The First Division alone produced 1,703 — 511 up on the previous year — and, overall, 1,848 matches realised 6,373 goals, an increase of one-third on the season before.

Huddersfield Town had scored 69 goals and conceded 28 when they won a second consecutive League championship in 1924-25; in completing a hat-trick of titles, the Yorkshire club scored 92 but conceded 60. A team letting in 60 goals and still topping the table? Modern Chelsea fans will find that hard to imagine.

That 1925-26 season was littered with the most amazing scorelines: Aston Villa 10, Burnley 0; Birmingham 1, Burnley 7; Manchester City 8, Burnley 3; then, a week later, Sheffield United 8, Manchester City 3.

The Blades, the first division’s top scorers with 102, beat Cardiff City 11-2, but then lost 7-4 at Bury.

In one three-match spell, Bury beat Burnley 8-1, West Ham 4-1 and Manchester City 6-5. In the Third Division South, Plymouth Argyle beat Southend United 6-2 on the opening day of the season and went on to become the League’s leading scorers with 107, helped by a 5-5 draw with Crystal Palace.

In the Third Division North, Bradford Park Avenue, Rochdale and Chesterfield each topped a century of goals; Hartlepools United lost their opening game against Rochdale 6-0, but then beat Walsall 9-3. Unsurprisingly, individual records also fell.

Jimmy Cookson scored 44 for Chesterfield after being signed from Manchester City, who might have done better to keep him; they scored 89 goals but conceded 100 and were relegated after losing their final match 3-2, and missing a penalty. With 43 goals apiece, Blackburn’s Ted Harper and Bradford PA’s Ken McDonald also set new milestones. It was a truly remarkable football season.

The crucial area of vulnerability for defences lay in the centre of the field. The centre half then was a major link between attack and defence, the central man in a trio of half-backs. If full backs pushed up as in days of old, a forward could now position himself between them so that he was still onside, and had only to beat one man before having the goalkeeper at his mercy.

Under the new rule, full backs were faced with an almighty dilemma: if they played wide on the touchlines, then they left a huge gap in the middle; if they moved inside to narrow that gap, then wingers enjoyed yards of extra space to get down the flanks before swinging the ball over behind the defence.

The middle had to be closed up and the man given credit for doing that was Herbert Chapman, who, before moving to Arsenal, had just steered Huddersfield to those two consecutive League championships. Chapman’s reign at Highbury had hardly begun when the Gunners suffered a humiliating 7-0 defeat at Newcastle. The day was October 3, 1925, and it was a disaster that convinced the new man at Arsenal that he must shore up the middle of the defence.

Chapman moved centre half Joe Butler — like all his centre half brothers, Butler had hitherto enjoyed a versatile, attacking role — deep into defence, and dropped inside-forward Andy Neill, a pastry cook by trade, back to link up in midfield.

Two days after their hammering at Newcastle, Arsenal won 4-0 at West Ham. Chapman’s tactical theory was vindicated and the shape of the modern game was forming. From narrowly avoiding relegation the previous season, the Gunners finished runners-up to Huddersfield.

Butler was only a stop-gap for this new position of “stopper” centre half. Eventually, Herbie Roberts, from Oswestry (pictured left), made the position his own as Arsenal’s “Chapman Era”, with its FA Cup success and its own League championship hat-trick, got under way. By then, everyone had followed Arsenal’s lead. The old attacking centre half was dead; the soccer “policeman” — the man who stayed back to block the middle — was born.

It was the beginning of a line that led from the flame-haired Roberts, through the likes of Neil Franklin and Jack Charlton, and eventually to John Terry, currently, according to many, the leading exponent of the art invented by Herbert Chapman. And all thanks to the changing of that single word.

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