A master tactician hated by the fans

Share this article

Recent mention in this column of Sir Bobby Robson's long career brought to mind another Newcastle legend.

Bill McCracken, the subject of this caricature (right), enjoyed even greater longevity in the professional game.

He made his Football League debut in 1904 and was still scouting for Watford in his nineties in the mid-1970s.

What a span he covered, playing against Billy Meredith and Steve Bloomer, going on to manage Hull, Millwall, and Aldershot, and then discovering goalkeeping ace Pat Jennings.

McCracken won 16 caps for Ireland. It should have been many more but the selectors were not impressed when he said he expected an appearance fee commensurate with his ability.

Indeed, he often liked to play the rogue, claiming in a questionnaire that his favourite hobby was collecting benefits and his ambition to be King of Ireland.

However, McCracken's main claim to fame, or infamy if you prefer, is as one of the inventors of the offside trap.

Years before the negative play of the late 1960s, decades before Tony Adams and his Arsenal cohorts thrust arms skywards to appeal to the linesman, Newcastle perfected the system, which had first been developed at Notts County.

The players were booed up and down the country, often pelted with fruit and coins, but were not swayed.

As McCracken said in 1911 after some concerted barracking: "If they knew more about football than we do, there would be 50,000 players and 22 spectators."

Newcastle were too successful to take any notice, with three League titles between 1905 and 1909, and five appearances in the FA Cup Final from 1905-11.

There was a major difference in the offside law at the time.

Three defending players (usually including the goalkeeper), had to be between the first forward and the goal when the ball was passed forward by the attacking team.

Now the law requires that only two be in that space. So it was comparatively easy to frustrate the opposition.

One full-back pushed up, while the other dropped back as security. The trap was sprung just as it is now, but with much less risk for the defence.

The attacker was still not clean through on goal, even if he timed his run to beat a marker and avoided the linesman's flag.

The tactic was inevitably much copied.

By 1925, goals had dried up to such an extent that the Football Association agreed on the most important rule change of the 20th Century. With only two defenders now needed to play the attacker onside, there was a sudden avalanche of goals.

George Camsell scored 59 for Middlesbrough in 1926/7, only to be outdone by 'Dixie' Dean the season after. His famous tally of 60 goals in Division One, never approached since, is at least partly due to Bill McCracken, one of football's greatest characters.

By Hugh Hornby, Museum Curator