The birth of tiki-taka – the replay

Was Jonathan Wilson correct to claim in Issue One of Nutmeg that the playing style made famous by Barcelona was born in Glasgow in 1872? There is evidence to suggest that he could be slightly wide of the mark.

By Iain Campbell Whittle

This article first appeared in Issue 5 which was published in September 2017.

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SCOTLAND'S DISTINCTIVE GAME HAD DEVELOPED OVER 40 YEARS BEFORE THE GREAT WAR. IT WAS BASED IN 2-3-5 BUT NOT THE PYRAMID. AT ITS CORE WAS THE CROSS AND IT WOULD CHANGE THE WAY THE GAME IS PLAYED RIGHT TO THE PRESENT DAY.

It is hard to challenge an author so highly regarded, not least by myself, for writing one of the definitive football books. But here goes… If you are interested in football and haven’t read Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, do so. It will inform and enlighten. But beware. It will do so with an English perspective inevitably blinkered by doubtless unintended but nevertheless inaccurate convention.

In these politically complicated times, it is perhaps time to suggest an alternative narrative; one that begins to unravel the Scottish from the British – English – game. And a good starting-point might be Wilson’s article ‘Glasgow, 1872: The Birth of Tiki-Taka’ in Issue Two of Nutmeg.

The term tiki-taka was first used around 2006 to describe Guardiola’s Barcelona. Its origins, then, are Catalan but the well from which its principles are drawn is Scots, although English and, especially, Dutch have carried some of the water. Scotland was, if not the birthplace, then the country of tiki-taka’s conception. But that happened neither in Glasgow nor in 1872.

 

TO BARCA, VIA AJAX, SPURS… AND NORTHFLEET?

Think tika-taka, see Xavi and Iniesta interchanging in midfield to supply Messi. All are products of Barcelona’s youth system, famed for the residential La Masia, which was a direct initiative of Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff had two mentors. One was his second manager at Ajax and then Barca, Rinus Michels, the other Vic Buckingham, who introduced the 17-year-old to the first team in his second stint at Ajax in season 1964-65. The Englishman, who had also coached the Dutch outfit from 1959 to 1961, was one of four famous products of another club, like Arthur Rowe, Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsay emerging as coaches from Tottenham Hotspur.

Buckingham, Rowe and Nicholson all spent time at Northfleet – now Ebbsfleet – which in 1924 agreed with Spurs to be its feeder club. The man who made it happen was Highland Scot, Peter McWilliam, arguably one of the most under-recognised figures in world football history.

Take his influence at White Hart Lane. Rowe credited to McWilliam’s training routines the push-and-run style with which he won the first division title in 1950. Nicholson then adopted and adapted it to claim eight major trophies in 16 years, including a famous double in 1960-61. But that way of playing was dying out, at least in Britain. In Holland, it was another matter.

In 1926, Englishman Sid Castle became Ajax manager. In a career disrupted by the Great War, he spent a season under McWilliam at Spurs in 1919-20, then Charlton and finally Chelsea. In two seasons at Ajax he restored first-team fortunes as well as only briefly-tried reserve and youth teams: an internal Northfleet, if you like.

When he left, both teams folded before the youth side was restored several years later in time for Buckingham arriving in Amsterdam in 1959. He immediately reinstated the reserve team and would do so again on his return in 1964, leaving a model his successor, Rinus Michels, would inherit, tinker with a little, but leave essentially alone for Cruyff when he took control two decades later. 

 

CALEDONIA TO CATALONIA

By 1969, Buckingham was beginning two-years as Barcelona’s manager. This was not today’s club, but one struggling in Franco’s Spain in the shadow of ‘preferred’ Real Madrid. Nevertheless, the Englishman again set to work establishing a youth team, upgraded from Barcelona Amateur. The following year, Barcelona Atletic was created as the reserve team and that structure was once more inherited by Michels on moving to Catalonia.

In 1973, Michels brought in Cruyff and the rise and rise of Barcelona began. Cruyff himself coached the team from 1988-1996, renamed the Amateur and Atletic teams as ‘C’ and ‘B’ and ensured the progression of young players such as Guardiola.

But all these Catalan roads lead back to McWilliam. The Invernesian joined Newcastle in 1902, becoming known as Peter the Great before retirement through injury. Two-footed he was left-half in a team that won the league three times and appeared in four FA Cup Finals between 1904-5 and 1910. He also won eight caps, captaining his country. However, McWilliam was only ‘notionally’ left-half. Like no other before him he had licence to wander, forward and left-to-right and back, in a series of teams renown for attacking yet also inventing the off-side trap.                                                                                                                

It was on retirement that McWilliam in 1912 had become Spurs manager. It was after the Great War he began to put his innovations into place. But he was not the first at Tottenham, who was Scots and innovative. Ayr-born John Cameron had joined the club in 1898 and left 1907. In 1901 he became the first ‘player-secretary’ to win the FA Cup, also the only time it has been won by a non-league club, and it was he who later became one of the main influences in Spain through a number of English managers who would work there after The Great War.                                                                                                                            

The most important of them was Fred Pentland. Between 1920 and 1935, he won La Liga in 1930 and 1931 with Athletic Bilbao and led them to runners-up spot the following two seasons. He also won the Copa del Rey four times with Athletic, and reached the final with Atletico Madrid. Furthermore, he helped coach Spain to the first-ever defeat of England by a non-British team and convinced Barcelona by example to change from an English-style to the one he had adopted under Cameron’s influence: the short-passing Scottish game.

 

‘PARKING THE BUS’ IN 1872

Scotland’s distinctive game had developed over the 40 years before The Great War. It was based on 2-3-5 but not, as adopted in England from Welsh origins, The Pyramid. At its core was The Cross and, not for the first time in terms of Scots innovation, it would change the way the game has been played to the present day.

The Cross had emerged around 1888 at Renton with James Kelly. It had at its own core a distributive, attacking centre-half positioned between but in advance of the other two half-backs.  It reached a zenith – not the beginning but already half-way to tika-taka – with Alex Raisbeck, in front of Andy Aitken to his right and McWilliam his left.

However, The Cross also included four other inherited elements. The first and oldest was the active keeper; the second was narrow half-backs, which would make the advanced centre-half necessary. Both elements were introduced in the first ever International in 1872. The third element was wider full-backs and the fourth, in contrast to The Pyramid, was the convention of half-backs marking inside-forwards and full-backs wingers.

However, none of that would have made any difference had it not been for the second essential element of tika-taka after movement: accurate passing.

When football began, passing was not valued as a skill, with the game mainly about the big boot and scrimmage, dribbling and tackling. Attack too was the essence of the game for two decades in England, but not in Scotland. Robert Gardner, the major figure in the early years of the Scottish game as a goalkeeper, administrator and tactician, had chosen the first Scotland-England game in 1872 as the moment specifically to orga nise his team from back to front and not vice-versa. He had studied the opponents, doctored the pitch, and decided to ‘park the bus’. It worked, Scotland earning a goalless draw thanks to a box-four defence, which compressed under pressure and expanded on the counter.

With the box-four came both narrow half-backs and full-backs. However, the full-backs appeared to widen during the “scientific” era of the Scottish game between 1880 and 1888, perhaps a natural product of the box-four. It makes sense for full-backs, firstly, to mark the most advanced of the opposition, the wingers, and secondly to push out to do so. It, in turn, led to the development of the sweeping-keeper in an era when goalies could handle the ball anywhere in their own halves. However, “scientific” football would not have been possible but for the emergence of basic inter-play, the notion of “pairings”, the working-together of and quick, accurate passing between initially winger and inside-forward. It meant both had now to be marked and with full-backs marking wingers it left the inside-forwards to the two half-backs.

Queen’s Park had been not just the first Scottish club, but also the great, early propagandist for and the dominant team in football north of the border in its first four years. Yet for all that the style it played showed little evidence of pairing or passing. That was to change in 1876 but not at Hampden Park.

At that time, with no league, the Scottish Cup had since its foundation in 1874 been the only major competition. Queen’s Park won it for the first three years. Then for three years Alexandria’s Vale of Leven claimed the silverware. Success might have come earlier were it not for an objection in 1874 to captain, John Ferguson, who that year had become the club’s first international. It was argued that he, also a noted shinty-player, was professional in a strictly amateur sport. However, it had been as a runner not a footballer. Regardless, Vale of Leven took umbrage and resigned from the competition before facing Clydesdale in a home replay. Had they won that tie, they would have faced Queen’s Park in the semi-finals, but instead it was Clydesdale that lost by a single goal in a second replay. Ultimately, it would be Queen’s Park who would go on to beat Renton in the Final, their opponents having beaten Dumbarton in the other semi.

Renton is a mile and half from Alexandria. Dumbarton is two in the opposite direction. All three teams had been formed in the months following a demonstration match by Queen’s Park beside the River Leven in late 1872. All three in contrast to the middle-class and military backgrounds of the Glasgow clubs were from a rapidly industrialising area, its working-class populations drawn firstly, like Ferguson’s parents, from the Highlands to the North and West, from Perthshire and later, like Kelly’s, from Ireland.

They brought with them their ancient, sporting traditions: shinty, the Ba’ Game, hurling and Gaelic football, each with their own established tactics. Indeed, after winning the Scottish Cup in 1877, 1878 and 1879, Vale of Leven – knocked out by Dumbarton in the first round in 1880 – concentrated to its other game, shinty, with its passing, pairings and positional interchange. It entered and won its foremost trophy of the time, the Glasgow Celtic Society Cup.

And it was in that period, with the obvious possibility of cross-fertilisation between shinty and footba’, that team-sheets began to highlight ‘pairings’: players in attack at first, then in defence working together and soon chosen internationally from the same club for their ability to ‘combine’ on the pitch. It was also as press reports began to mention passing as the preferred style. With both came interchange, movement of men and ball, the essence of tiki-taka, not from the pioneering Glasgow bourgeoisie but half a decade later and the working-men of Leven Vale.

So was that the origin of Tiki-Taka? Neither in Glasgow nor in 1872?

This article first appeared in Issue 5 which was published in September 2017.

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