Formation Formation
(From Chaos to The Cross)

That football at its inception was much rougher and tougher, indeed more brutal, than it is today is without doubt. It was a game of punt and chase, barge and scrimmage, scrum and trample, with the solo dribble about the only artistic element within what was otherwise a maelstrom of force majeure. That this was so jumps from the page in match-descriptions of the time but it can also seen from formations, or lack of them, the way teams did or indeed at the beginning did not set up. 

Moreover, formations, or rather, initially, the development of and only then the changes in them, are also the best way we have to understand how subtlety and organisation began to infiltrate and to a certain degree calm the on-field chaos. But first some acknowledgements. Football came to and from England and its football has to be understood initially. The resource created at englandfootballonline.com is South of the Border simply without peer in this and many other respects. And then there came Scotland, where hours spent by enthusiasts, notably the London Hearts Supporters' Club,  have found and scanned myriad newspaper articles and other sources opening them to examination on a forensic scale. Thanks to each and all.

And so to the grist. Between 1870 and early 1872 a series of international matches were played between England and Scotland. They were under the auspices of the English FA, took place in London and were as artificial and they are now regarded unofficial. The Scottish team was in almost every case made up of players based in Southern England but with Scottish connections. In the five matches two of those on the fields of play were actually born North of the Border. And the formations used on the days were just as ad-hoc as the participants. In game one position-designations for both sides were partial. In game two England had three backs (B), Scotland a goalkeeper (G) and three backs. In game three both teams had a goalkeeper, a back and a half-back (HB) with the assumption that the other eight were forwards (F). In game four it was the same. Only in game five, which took place in February 1872, do we have complete designations, confirmation for both elevens of what we today would call 1-1-8.

February 1872

Both England and Scotland

G

B

HB

F - F - F - F ---- F - F - F - F

However, elsewhere some thought was being applied to this still relatively novel sport and the following month it showed itself. The FA Cup Final was played for the first time. Wanderers faced the Royal Engineers and won employing 1-1-8 but the vanquished soldiers, noted at the time for their "combination-play", lined up with two full-backs (FB) and a half-back, in other words 2-1-7, which was more defensive certainly and required some integration, i.e. "combination", of movement and even, whilst it was hardly the "passing-game" some measure of controlled "passing-on" of the ball to someone in the same team. But it was not definitive. Two years later the Royal Engineers also contested and lost an FA Cup Final but on that day would play 1-2-7.    

Royal Engineers

1872                                          1874

G                                                G

              FB   -   FB                                        FB                   

        HB                                       HB   -   HB

  F  -  F  -  F  -  F  -  F  -  F            F -  F  -  F  -  F  -  F  -  F

Meanwhile, that same, first 1872 FA Cup had also seen the participation of what was at the time really Scotland's only club, its doyen, Queen's Park (QP). It had reached the semi-final, had travelled to London to face the Wanderers, had matched them on the field in terms of score, 0-0, and seemingly in formation, 1-1-8, since nothing else was reported. However, QP could not finance the replay. The Wanderers then walked over and onwards into footballing history. But it had clearly also set Queen's Park, or at least the club in the form of its captain, Bob Gardner, thinking, for England, having accepted an invitation to play an international, now an "official" international, against Scotland in November 1872 in Glasgow, would both seemingly try and also be met very much by the unexpected. 

The much fancied England team stepped onto the field of play at Hamilton Crescent that day, St. Andrew's Day, not, as might have been expected, as a 1--1-8 but 1-1-1-7. It was almost as if it had reverted to rugby. The was not a full-back but a three-quarter behind the half-back and a fly-kick, a punting clearer of the ball in front. However, the Scotland team was more radical still. There were now just six forwards in front of two half-backs themselves in front of two full-backs in a Box-Four tasked with expanding in step in attack and retreating, still in step, under pressure. Defensive football had been invented. Furthermore, it stuck, at least North of the Border. When the next international took place in March 1873 the Box-Four was employed once more and would be by Scotland for the next fifteen seasons.

November 1872 

England

G

B

HB

Fly

F - F - F - F - F - F - F

Scotland

FB - FB

HB - HB

F  -  F  -  F---F  -  F  -  F

There is little doubt, even from the distance of one hundred and fifty years, that the combination of the QP FA Cup semi-final and the first, official international fired something in the sporting imagination in Scotland. Where in 1871 the country had at a stretch five clubs, in the course of 1872 sixteen more Seniors were added and in 1873 another thirty-nine. And amongst the newbies there was first equivocation or perhaps simple lack of understanding by players and Press alike and then clearly differences in what tactical example to follow. In a pre-match report in February 1873, so three months on from Hamilton Crescent, of a game between Southern and Granville the teams are named but there is no mention of how they would play. But by June that same year, when Eastern play Callander each team-sheet is given shape but both 2-1-7, like the Royal Engineers the previous season. But by October when again Callander take the field this time against Alexandra both line up as 2-2-6. And the same is true when next month Western play Rovers. And what makes this apparent unanimity all the more notable is that in March 1873 Scotland, playing that same formation, had actually lost to England in London, the English playing once more with a back a half-back and a fly but with the latter, the big boot, now not the first but in front of the goalie as the last line of resistance. The adoption was not with victory but despite loss.              

England - March 1873 

G

Fly

B

HB - HB

F - F - F - F - F - F

As it happened the widespread Scottish club acceptance of the Scotland system was to be justified. In March 1874 in the third international, marshalled once more from the back by Gardner in goal, Scotland won despite the opposition trying yet another formation, 3-0-6-1, with a designated centre-forward (CF), three full-backs and no half-backs. The Scottish goals came down the centre and the left. The right- and centre-full-backs never played for England again with an interesting aside. That right full-back was not only named Ogilvie but had a Scottish mother.   

England - November 1874 

G

FB - FB - FB

F - F - F - F - F - F

CF

Yet still it seems England and English teams did or would not learn. In the 1875 FA Cup Final both teams, Royal Engineers in finally taking the trophy and Old Etonians, now played three full-back and no half-backs as a week earlier In the international so had England once more, whilst now tinkering up front. In fact 1875 had seen the achievement of a creditable home-draw. Indeed having twice been ahead perhaps should have prompted finally the settlement on an "English" style of play. But clearly it was not enough. In 1876 with a bit more forward-fiddling the home of football finally bit the bullet, itself adopting for first time the Box-Four defence of the Northern but persistantly victorious upstarts. 

England - March 1876 

G

FB - FB 

HB - HB

F - F - F ---------------------- F

CF - CF

However, it did not work or, in spite of every possibility to observe and learn, was not understood. Scotland, even for the first time without Gardner in goal, was from the thirty-fifth minute in cruise-control, three up, all coming down England's left, this in the year Wales joined the fray, playing Scotland and immediately using 2-2-6. And whilst there was perhaps explanation in the 1876 FA Cup Final played a week later, Wanderers, so often a weather-vane of English football thinking, in winning played the Scottish way, there was also obviously still a tension. In losing Old Etonians played with two half-backs but a single back a la Royal Engineers of two years previous.   

And that same tension would persist. The following year, 1877, England reinvented itself once more with three full-backs as in 1874 and 1875 but now with a half-back in front. Again it did not work, now even with a Scot, Bothwell-born John Bain, at centre-forward. Beaten this time 1-3 at home it was back to the drawing-board, just as for the first time now both teams in the FA Cup Final buried their teeth in the Scottish bullet.      

England - March 1877

G

FB - FB  - FB

HB 

F - F --------- F - F----------- F - F

This is not to say that tension and variation was strictly confined to South of the Border. In Scotland match reports in the years from 1872 show limited experimentation with alternative systems of play. In successfully beating John Bain's England Scotland is even reported by englandfootballonline as playing three half-backs, including both Charles Campbell and, for the first time, Tom Vallance in front of a single full-back. And there were changes in the pecking-order. QP for the first time did not win the Scottish Cup. Vallance's Rangers reached the final to be beaten by Vale of Leven, with The Vale clearly bringing something new to the game. Perhaps it was purely fitness. The Vale was a working-class team full of men, who in the main depended on hard, outdoor, physical labour for their livings. They could run all day. But there also seems to have been tactical variation with the forward pairings, initially seemingly horizontal, wing, centre, wing, but eventually, as The Vale would from 1877 take three Scottish Cups in succession, becoming vertical, or partially so, in a 2-2-3-3 cum 2-2-2-4.  

Scotland 1877

G

FB 

HB - HB - HB

F - F - F --- CF - CF ----------- F

 

Vale of Leven 1877-9

G

FB - FB

HB - HB

F ------- (F) ------- F

F ---- (F) --- F ---- F

And the result this time was unequivocal. All three Home Nations in their national teams in 1878 fielded six forwards in front of a Block-Four defence. It seemed it was job done. Certainly England in 1879 stuck rigidly to it with the only innovation being the replacement of undifferentiated wing-pairings with designated inside- and outside forwards on both flanks. 

England - March 1879

G

FB - FB

HB - HB

(OR -- IR) -- (CF -- CF) -- (IL -- OL)

But, as we all know, in football "job done" is never the case and the following year would, just as Scottish system seemed finally unchallengeable, see the emergence of an alternative that would within a decade force change. It is said to have begun in North Wales and, although it can be seen elsewhere and earlier, its consolidation can and should be given to Wrexham. It stemmed back to a player called John Price, a winner of twelve Welsh caps, a full-back converted to forward, who was said to be so pacey that he could cover the ground of two thus allowing one of the other forwards to drop back into a 2-3-5. At club level the Robins might have used it as early as 1878 and its adoption elsewhere was possibly rapid. Again at club level in the 1879 FA final both teams - Old Etonians and Clapham Rovers - are shown as having converted to it, although The Times's contemporary report of the match disagrees. Moreover, at international level Wales employed it for the first time in 1879 in the last match-up of the season, having previous stuck with the Block-Four. It was against Scotland with not an extra half-back inserted but Kynvett Crosse, the Ruabon centre-forward, dropping back to right-half (FHB). Moreover it did not go unnoticed, even North of the Border. Whilst it did not work with John Smith scoring twice from the left-wing in a 0-3 away victory, and was shelved at least for then, all three of the home nations reverting to 2-2-6 for all games in 1880, in March of that year when Rangers played Queen's Park in losing in the first round of the Scottish Cup the Gers at least lined up the Welsh way.

Wales - April 1879

G

FB - FB

FHB - HB - HB

OR -- IR -----CF --- IL ---- OL

However, 1881 was to see, as both Scotland and England did as before, Wales apparently reverting, albeit only in part. Against England Crosse partnered Price in a forward line of six in front of the Block-Four but against Scotland 2-3-5 seems to have been retained. But it was with a twist. All three of the half-backs were just that (BHB). No forward had dropped back. And it was that distinction, which actually marks not a second coming of a generalised 2-3-5 but the definitive arrival of "The Pyramid", actually a misnomer, since it is inverted like a Top, to the international stage. 

The Pyramid

G

FB - FB

BHB - BHB - BHB

OR -- IR -----CF --- IL ---- OL

 

But still there was churn. In Scotland by 1882 teams in Edinburgh can be seen to be trying the Welsh alternative. And it would be that same season when Wales would seemingly make their move to it totally. As Ireland joined the other home nations and lined up as England, when Wales took on the same at home they did it with The Pyramid, as they did too away against Scotland. Yet once more there was hesitation. In 1883 for Wales against Scotland it was the new formation, whilst against England it was the old. Only in 1884 was nettle finally grasped. On 17th March against England Jones, Williams and Griffiths were the three half-backs. Twelve days later it was Hughes, Burke and Jones versus Scotland. Ireland might too have played the same against Scotland, as did for the first time England against the Scots, with bizarrely a Gaelic-speaking Scot, albeit Indian-born, Stuart McCrae, in the centre of the English three, and then against the Welsh.

In fact it would be two more seasons, i.e. 1886, before, with the exception of Scotland, The Pyramid became ubiquitous in international football. For some reason in 1885 against Ireland England reverted to the Box-Four. Scotland's contribution to change was, several years after the other Home Nations, finally the adoption of designation of inside- and outside forwards with the possibility of recognition of the reality of an attacking-line in the form of a parallelogram, perhaps even, to be mathematically precise as inside-forwards were moved in slightly, an isosceles trapezoid. 

Scotland 1886

G                                                       G

   FB   -    FB                                        FB   -    FB

                     HB   -   HB                                      HB   -    HB                  

                            IR           -           IL                               IR      -        IL                             

  OR     -   CF   -     OL                        OR    -   CF    -    OL

At this point examination of Press reports shows how complete had become the take-over by The Pyramid of the football not only of the East of Scotland but the West also. In fact there was really only one club that was resisting. In losing the 1886 Scottish Cup Final it, Renton, had played 2-2-6 or rather its decade-old development, 2-2-3-3 but since then there had been evolution. On reaching the final once more in 1888 it and opponents, Cambuslang, appeared to have accepted Pyramidal inevitability. The latter certainly had and would lose the game 5-1. But Renton had in fact stepped back to Price and Crosse at Wrexham and then taken a stride of its own, one that was to prove revolutionary. A forward, this time an inside forward, James Kelly, had been dropped back but not as a half-back so not 2-3-5. The Box-Four was retained with Kelly playing certainly centrally. Yet, it was not in but in front of the half-back line in a 2-2-1-5.

Renton 1888

G

FB   -   FB

HB   -   HB

SCH

IR         -         IL

OR     -   CF   -     OL

Thus it was that on 4th February 1888 the mid-field was seen to have been invented with the result that in March Scotland would probably remain with The Pyramid in the international against a 2-3-5 Wales, would attempt to introduce the Renton system against a once more 2-3-5 England and lose at home 0-5, with the, shall we say, older players not understanding the new system, and switch back to The Pyramid versus Ireland. Then Renton with its system would in May first take the Glasgow Merchants Cup for the third successive year and win "The World Championship". To do so it, as Scottish Cup holder, would defeat the English FA Cup holders, West Bromwich Albion, 4-1. Moreover, it would then go on to beat Preston North End, which had been the FA Cup runners-up and would be the Double winner at the end of the next season. 

The effect could not have been greater. Celtic F.C. had been formed in 1887. It played its first game at the very end of May 1888. James Kelly, plus Neilly McCallum also of Renton, were in its line-up. The two joined the Glasgow club definitively in the summer taking the Renton system with them to not completely instantaneous but growing success. Moreover, the observably successful, new system itself was rapidly be duplicated elsewhere. It would become the norm North of the Border, increasingly south of it as it was imported in the minds and feet of a flood of Scots becoming professionals in the new English league and surprisingly rapidly anywhere where emigrating Scots took their game with the Scottish centre-half, the not defensive but attacking, Scottish centre-half, its fulcrum. He would be the pivot, as in response full-backs widened and inside-forwards narrowed, of The Cross, the formation used by Scots teams from national to local level, at home and abroad, for the next generation and a half and the one which still remains the basis of much modern football thinking.  

The Cross  

G

FB      -      FB

HB  -  HB

SCH

 IR      -      IL

OR     -   CF   -     OL

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