A Football Pioneer’s Unfashionable Opinions

Herbert Chapman’s still remembered as one of the game’s great innovators, an original without parallel in English football. Here’s a short list of just some of his ideas, few of which took root in his own time:

  • Floodlighting (actually, floodlighting was pioneered in England in 1878, but wasn’t persisted with: Chapman encountered it whilst on tour with Arsenal in Belgium in the 1930s and installed floodlighting at Highbury thereafter. He saw it as a means for football to compete with speedway and greyhound racing. The Football League didn’t permit floodlit games until the mid-1950s.
  • The white ball
  • Numbers on shirts – this to help players identify each other on the pitch (which rather devalues it, don’t you think? Players would already be able to recognise each other by sight, surely?)
  • The idea of a manager providing strategy and tactics, as opposed to players – as the supposed experts on playing – working it out between themselves
  • The W-M formation (co-authored with Charlie Buchan) as a means for dealing with the post-1925 change in the offside law) – this became the core formation in England until the 1960s
  • The provision of up to date medical facilities for players
  • Flying a team to matches

Up to this point, this post has accorded with what Herbert Butterfield would have termed the Whig view of history.. “the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”

It ain’t necessarily so. Some of Chapman’s other ideas are also worth revisiting, at least for the purposes of debate.

For instance, Chapman’s views on an absolutely fundamental part of modern football – the very league system that has spread to every playing country on the globe – were decidedly mixed. League systems, according to Chapman, compelled clubs to worry about the acquisition of points over the acquisition of skill. Leagues encouraged the primacy of the first team over the development of young players, and caused the premature blooding of those same young players. He admired the craftsmanship and skill of Scottish football, but saw that as in decline, a decline stemming from the introduction of promotion and relegation in the Scottish League in 1921.

There’s an obvious contrast there to the attitudes and expectations in rugby union and cricket, both of whom have introduced modern league systems in recent years with the idea of raising standards and skill.

What would happen, if league systems were dismantled – or if Chapman’s own tongue in cheek suggestion that all of the sides in the top division be relegated were adopted?

Bryon Butler reflects on life before the Football League:

..football was in a mess. The game had been adopted and refined by the universities, schools and officers’ messes of the country, international football was well established, the FA Cup was already a big favourite and professionalism had been legalized. But friendly fixtures were cancelled at will if the weather was poor or if transport presented a problem or if key players were injured. Games were often called off on Saturday mornings. Spectators would turn up at deserted grounds. Clubs with hefty wage bills sometimes found themselves without a game, and without income, for two or three weeks. Fixture cards were meaningless.

There are echoes here of the current debate on youth development. Young people should be concentrating on developing ball skills, not playing matches on oversize pitches surrounded by parents and teachers roaring at them to “knock it” – but if they weren’t allowed to play competitive football, would they bother at all?

Chapman may well be right – league systems could indeed suppress skill – but we’d have to suspend all of our leagues for twenty years to find out, and how many clubs would be left after that? However much skill league systems take out of the game – if they even do – we are compensated with games that mean something. This matters in a truly universal way. England “friendlies” are a lot of fun, especially when they turn into routs, as we saw against Hungary and Jamaica. But England v Argentina 1998 had me crouching under a pub bench in full view of the public, and I’ve never been able to watch the national team with equanimity ever since.

It’s competitive football we really love, isn’t it? And the moments of skill and glory that generates. I can admire skill on the training ground, but I wouldn’t pay to see it, and it won’t make me feel.

Youtube Versus Herbert Chapman. Whose side are you on?