In a break from our usual royal historical fare, I thought I’d take advantage of the gap between podcast series to take a look at something completely different – (association) football. I inherited some cigarette cards from a grandfather who sadly died earlier this year which provide a charming insight into the tactics and appearance of football from a very different era. With the 2014-15 Premier League starting this weekend, what lessons could Mourinho, Wenger, Pellegrini and Van Gaal learn from eighty years ago?
Cigarettes and football doesn’t sound like an ideal combination but the cards were incredibly popular between the late nineteenth century and the Second World War. Cigarette packets would include trading cards, featuring a wide variety of subjects (sports, cards, military figures, etc.) which were hugely popular collectibles. This set was produced by Players, with the cards now stickers that could be put into a special album. This particular set was focused on explaining some of the key skills and tactics of the game, noting that while “the increasing popularity of Football on the Continent” (sadly for England this popularity continued!) had seen British professionals provide expert coaching abroad, “enthusiasts in England are generally left to their own resources”.
The album is very careful to cover the basics for a successful approach to football, starting with “How to kick”! To avoid “one of the commonest faults” in kicking the ball with the toe of the boot instead of with the instep, when swinging the leg forward “the toe should be pointed to the ground and pressed underneath the ball until the latter makes contact with the instep”. One might question whether this is slightly over-analysing a rather simple process and I fear that if this instruction were given to Wayne Rooney you would later find him scratching his head and looking in confusion from his foot to the ball! In modern football parlance, then, “get your foot over the ball, no toe-pokes!”
The cards then progress in complexity with some tips on how to control the ball while moving (dribbling). Apparently, dribbling with the inside of the foot “is not generally practised” despite being “the most expert style”, making it harder for the opponent to get the ball. Instead, “most players dribble or work the ball with the outside of the feet”. It sounds like the sight of a Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo dribbling with both sides of the feet would have been seen as some form of dark magic in the 1930s, but the cards also note that some players “seem to have the ball tied to their bootlaces”. This is achieved, they explain, by keeping the ball close to their feet, their head well forward and their body over the ball.
An alternative to dribbling with the ball is to let the ball run – rather than stopping the ball and then moving up the pitch, the player instead lets the ball travel past, turn and then run after it. This seems like a pretty standard approach for fast-flowing football but in 1934 this was considered “an outstanding feature of Scottish football”.
One of the most spectacular goals in football is for a player to swerve the ball into the top corner from distance. In 1934, however, such goals may have been written off as a fluke: “the ball sometimes swerves and ducks without any deliberate attempt on the part of the player to produce this change in its flight”! This was certainly what goalkeepers felt about the 2010 World Cup ball but the card does provide tips on how to achieve this outcome deliberately by “drawing the foot slightly across the ball as it comes into contact with it”. However, even with this technical insight the swerve shot “should only be tried as a last resort”!
In fairness, life is made much easier for modern footballers thanks to the quality of the ball (the 2010 ball notwithstanding!) In the 1930s, footballs were made out of rubber and tanned leather, with various panels stitched together. The drawback of this was that when the ball got wet it would absorb the water and become much heavier. As such, the cards caution that when heading the ball this should be done with the front of the head as using the top of the head is not only harder to control but also presents “a risk of concussion”. This was a genuine issue for footballers in this period, not just at the time but also with conditions later in life being attributed to heading the heavy balls. The modern balls are much lighter and easier to control, whereas most headers in the 1930s were apparently made “hurriedly and in a haphazard fashion”.
My favourite piece of advice shows a significant difference in approach between the two eras – the shoulder charge! Perhaps the most notorious aspect of modern football (besides the on-field dietary habits of Luis Suarez) is the tendency for players to fall over and roll on the ground as if they have just been assaulted by the Incredible Hulk when in reality they have merely been brushed very softly by a wayward foot or hand. Football in the 1930s would have been something of a shock for these players, however, with the “no physical contact” aspect of the game rather less prevalent. The cards note that while the shoulder charge “is not used to-day as much as formerly it is still permitted by the rules”. To execute the perfect (and legal) charge, lead with the shoulder (not the elbow) and avoid striking the player in the back. It continues: “The proper use of the charge is to knock a man off the ball, and so permit it to be taken from him”. To make the tactic even more sneaky, the card further advises that “if a charge can be made when he has one foot off the ground, it is almost certain to be successful”!
While some of the advice is probably best not replicated in the modern game, the likes of Jo Hart would still find plenty of sensible advice when it comes to goal-keeping. I particularly like the sympathetic tone with which a goal-keeper’s life is portrayed here: “Of all the plights of the goalkeeper, perhaps the worst is when he sees the centre-forward bringing the ball between the backs with no one to bar his way to goal” – in other words, the striker is through on goal in a one-on-one with the keeper! In fairness, with the goal-keepers wearing flat-caps and not having any gloves with which to handle those hard and heavy footballs, life probably was something of a plight! However, the advice contained here is very sound: move out quickly to cut down the angles for the forward through on goal; push the ball away to the side of goal when it can’t be caught; punch the ball away when it is unsafe to catch.
Finally, something that has not changed is the pressure of a penalty kick. Any England fan would consider this their particular footballing “plight” and the advice provided here could definitely have come in use over the last twenty-four years! For the person taking the kick, “the player should first make up his mind whether he intends to place the ball to the right or to the left of the goalkeeper”. This sounds like stating the obvious but when the pressure is on, the temptation to change your mind and second-guess yourself is often a cause for missing. When struck, the ball should be “driven low, a foot or so above the ground, and placed four or five feet from the goalkeeper”. Apparently, failure is usually due to “taking his eye off the ball”.
Goalkeepers are often said to have nothing to lose in a penalty shoot-out and this was certainly the case in 1934: “he has a poor chance of stopping the shot provided it is accurately made, but he should still make the attempt”. To give himself some kind of chance, the keeper should “stand lightly on his feet in a slightly bent position and ready to spring one way or the other”, playing close attention to the foot the penalty taker is using and the movement of the body. One change that makes life easier for today’s goalkeepers, however, is the ability to move before the penalty is taken (albeit not forwards). In 1934, the goalkeeper was to stay rooted to the spot until the ball had been kicked, at which point it would indeed be incredibly difficult to save any but the most errant kick. If England ever find themselves in a World Cup semi-final again and it all comes down to penalties, I think they’d be rather grateful if this rule could be given one last go!