Glasgow, 1872: the birth of tiki-taka

Scotland can lay claim to having invented modern football, through a line that stretches from Queen’s Park in Victorian days to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

By Jonathan Wilson

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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They met England’s lop-sided 1-2-7 formation with a 2-2-6 and decided to try to pass their way around their opponents or, at the very least, to deny them possession
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In Scotland the much romanticised “pattern-weaving” approach spread, evangelised by Queen’s Park

When did football begin? There will be those who make claims for games played with a ball by the Chinese or Amazonian tribes several millennia ago, but realistically the game we know today had its origins in the mob game of medieval Britain, which around 150 years ago developed through the English public schools into something resembling modern football.

But the game had many forms, dependent on tradition and environment: those who grew up playing on vast muddy fields played a very different variant to those who played on tight flag-stoned cloisters. When pupils from different public schools got to university, they found every game had to be preceded by a discussion on which school’s rules to play under. In 1848, an attempt at drawing up a unified code was made at Cambridge University and those laws posted on Parker’s Piece, an area of open grassland in the centre of the city where sport is still played. Finally, in 1863, in a meeting at the Freemasons’ Arms between Covent Garden and Holborn in London, the Football Association was founded, drawing up a list of 12 laws that form the basis of the modern game.

Over the following couple of decades the laws underwent numerous revisions, instituting a crossbar and something approximating to our offside law. However perhaps the single biggest event that transformed the sport into the modern game of football was what happened at the West of Scotland Cricket ground in Partick on November 30, 1872. An unfancied Scotland side held England to a 0-0 draw in the first ever international fixture, but what was important was they way they did it. They passed the ball. Passing, the basis of the modern game, the key aspect of the great central stream of tactical thought, began as an expedient Scottish ploy to frustrate England.

The early game in England had largely been focused on dribbling because of the mentality reflected by Law Six, the forerunner of the offside law: “When a player has kicked the ball,” it stated, “anyone of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal-line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play…” Going backwards or sideways would have been subtlety too far for an English culture obsessed, as David Winner observes in his book Those Feet, with the notion that anything subtle was somehow unmanly. So players charged at opponents, as described by Geoffrey Green, the late football correspondent of The Times, quoting an unnamed writer of the 1870s in his history of the FA Cup: “A really first-class player … will never lose sight of the ball, at the same time keeping his attention employed in the spying out of any gaps in the enemy’s ranks, or any weak points in the defence, which may give him a favourable chance of arriving at the coveted goal. To see some players guide and steer a ball through a circle of opposing legs, turning and twisting as the occasion requires, is a sight not to be forgotten… Skill in dribbling … necessitates something more than a go-ahead, fearless, headlong onslaught of the enemy’s citadel; it requires an eye quick at discovering a weak point, and nous to calculate and decide the chances of a successful passage.”

Even after Law Six had been amended in 1866 to follow the convention pursued at Eton and permit a forward pass provided there were at least three members of the defensive team between its recipient and the opponent’s goal when the ball was played (that is, one more than the modern offside law), the dribbling game prevailed.

Or that’s how it was in England. When the Queen’s Park club, which soon became the game’s arbiter in Scotland, was established in 1867, the version of the offside law they adopted held that a player was infringing only if he were both beyond the penultimate man and in the final 15 yards of the pitch. That, clearly, was legislation far more conducive to passing than either the FA’s first offside law or its 1866 revision. Queen’s Park accepted the three-man variant when they joined the FA on November 9, 1870, but by then some idea of passing was already implanted. In Scotland the ball was there to be kicked, not merely dribbled, as H.N. Smith’s poem celebrating Queen’s Park’s victory over Hamilton Gymnasium in 1869 suggests:

The men are picked – the ball is kicked,

High in the air it bounds;

O’er many a head the ball is sped…

That may have simply referred to long clearances, which would certainly have been part of the English game at the time as well. More definitive evidence comes from the report Robert Smith, a Queen’s Park member and Scotland’s right-winger in that first international, gave back to his club after playing in the first of four matches arranged by Charles W Alcock, the secretary of the FA, between England and a team of London-based Scots that were the forerunners to proper internationals. “While the ball was in play,” he wrote, “the practice was to run or dribble the ball with the feet, instead of indulging in high or long balls.”

The England team Alcock brought to Scotland for the first international was physically much larger than their counterparts. Estimates vary, but there is general agreement that the English were at least a stone a man heavier on average than the Scots. In a running game, with players charging into each other, there could only realistically be one winner.

Queen’s Park provided every player on the Scotland side and, perhaps because they were a club side, they were able to devise specific tactics for the game. They met England’s lop-sided 1-2-7 formation with a 2-2-6 and decided to try to pass their way around their opponents or, at the very least, to deny them possession. “The Englishmen,” the report in the Herald said, “had all the advantage in respect of weight… and they also had the advantage in pace. The strong point with the home club was that they played excellently well together.”

A 0-0 draw seemed to prove the efficacy of Scotland’s method. Queen’s Park, certainly, were convinced and their isolation – they were able to find just three opponents in 1871-72, which was what prompted them to join the English FA – meant their idiosyncrasies became more pronounced. Playing practice games among themselves, the passing game was effectively hot-housed, free from the irksome obstacle of bona fide opponents. “In these games,’ Richard Robinson wrote in his 1920 history of Queen’s Park, “the dribbling and passing … which raised the Scottish game to the level of fine art, were developed. Dribbling was a characteristic of English play, and it was not until very much later that the Southerners came to see that the principles laid down in the Queen’s Park method of transference of the ball, accompanied by strong backing up, were those that got the most out of the team. Combination was the chief characteristic of Queen’s Park’s play. These essentials struck Mr CW Alcock and in one of his earlier Football Annuals formed the keynote for a eulogium on Scottish players, accompanied by earnest dissertations advocating the immediate adoption by English players of the methods which had brought the game to such a high state of proficiency north of the Tweed.”

Alcock, in truth, was nowhere near as convinced as that, reflected a general English scepticism about passing. Although he was intrigued by the “combination game”, he expressed doubt in that annual of 1879 as to whether “a wholesale system of passing pays”.

In Scotland, though, the much romanticised “pattern-weaving” approach spread, evangelised by Queen’s Park. The southward spread of the passing game can also be attributed to Scots, most notably Henry Renny-Tailyour and John Blackburn, who played for Scotland in their victory over England in the second international. Both were lieutenants in the army and both played their club football for the Royal Engineers, carrying the Scottish style with them to Kent. “The Royal Engineers were the first football team to introduce the ‘combination’ style of play,” W.E. Clegg, a former Sheffield player, wrote in the Sheffield Independent in 1930. “Formerly the matches Sheffield played with them were won by us, but we were very much surprised that between one season and another they had considered ‘military’ football tactics” with the result that Sheffield was badly beaten by the new conditions of play.”

Through the 1880s, passing took hold. The Old Carthusians side that beat the Old Etonians 3-0 in the 1881 FA Cup final was noted for its combinations, particularly those between EMF Prinsep and EH Parry, while the following year the Old Etonian goal that saw off Blackburn Rovers, the first northern side to reach the final, stemmed, Green wrote in his history of the FA Cup, from “a long dribble and cross-pass” from ATB Dunn that set up WH Anderson. Once professionalism had been legalised in English football in 1885, and power switched to the northern cities, passing was instilled. Many areas of the north had had their own versions of the offside law anyway, and so hadn’t conformed to the pure dribbling of the public schools and the south, and once winning rather than playing the game in the ‘right’ way was prioritised, so the most effective way of playing naturally came to the fore – and that, evidently, was passing.

In Scotland, this had been acknowledged for years. “Take any club that has come to the front,” the columnist ‘Silas Marner’ wrote in the Scottish Umpire in August 1884, “and the onward strides will be found to date from the hour when the rough and tumble gave place to swift accurate passing and attending to the leather rather than the degraded desire merely to coup an opponent.”

It was a spring that would bubble into one of the great rivers of tactical evolution. In 1901, RS McColl – or Toffee Bob was he was nicknamed because of the chain of newsagents he ran with his brother – left Queen’s Park, which had remained amateur, to turn profession with Newcastle United. He took the pass and move ideal with him and Newcastle were transformed form a direct team to a possession side. In 1912 the wing-half Peter McWilliam, having suffered a career-ending injury, left the club to become manager at Tottenham.

He promoted the same passing principles there, not only among the first team but almost among the reserves and the youth sides, even buying the non-league side Northfleet Town to use as a nursery side. Although McWilliam left in 1927, when Middlesbrough made him the best-paid manager in the game, he returned in 1938 to reap the benefits of the philosophy he had instilled, inheriting a side that included Arthur Rowe, Bill Nicholson and Vic Buckingham.

Rowe went on to lead Spurs to promotion and then the title while Nicholson took them to the double. Buckingham remains West Brom’s longest-serving manager. He left the Hawthorns for Ajax, returned to England with Sheffield Wednesday and then went back to Ajax in 1964. There he found players eager to put his pass-and-move ideas into practice. He gave a debut to Johan Cruyff and prepared the ground for Rinus Michels before moving to Fulham.

After a brief stint in Cyprus at Ethnikos, he took charge at Barcelona in 1970 and began to instil the ethos that Michels, succeeding him again, would bring to full fruition. It was Michels, of course, who inspired Cruyff, and Cruyff who plucked Pep Guardiola from the youth team to give him his debut. It is no coincidence that the last two Englishmen to manage Barcelona are also of that line: Bobby Robson was heavily influenced by Buckingham at West Brom and Terry Venables played under Nicholson at Tottenham.

The modern Barcelona and tiki-taka, which has had a profound influence on how football is played, is the most recent iteration of a proud tradition stretching back through Ajax to Tottenham to Newcastle to Queen’s Park. Modern football looks as it does because of a tactical decision taken in Glasgow in 1872.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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