It's often said that football has gone soft. However Philip Cornwall not only approves of that but believes the whole history of the game has been one of taming the back line

A brisk walk from The Valley is the home of a rugby side often known simply as Club. But while they are hardly giants of any game now and have never played Charlton Athletic, Blackheath’s role in the his­tory of rugby and also football is a crucial one – had they not stood up for the rights of defenders, who knows what either game would be like today.

When the original 1863 meetings to codify the various versions of the rules of the game in a unified set of laws were held, Blackheath were there – and so was broad support for people carrying the ball. Quite where we would have ended up had Blackheath not taken a stand is difficult to know. With rugby? With American foot­ball? Perhaps something akin to Gaelic football, with its combination of kicking and handling?

But when people talk about football going soft in the past 30 years they should remember where it start­ed out. Blackheath walked out of the nascent FA not over handling but because the new body wanted to outlaw kicking opponents off the ball and tripping, known respectively as hacking and hacking over. Blackheath’s representative said that this “would do away with all the courage and pluck from the game and I will be bound over to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice”. (It would take 133 years before Arsenal put that idea into action.)

It was only when Blackheath and others had taken their stand in favour of violence that the majority of those remaining agreed to restrict handling. And so, fairly quickly, football became a game recognisable to us today, though one in which defenders had substantial advantages over their modern counterparts. Only kicking off the ball was outlawed; tackling the man in possession could be literally full blooded.

Football continued to accurately reflect its roots, alongside games happy to dismiss punch-ups as high spirits, for a century and more. The second earliest memory I have of going to football is of standing next to my dad on the river side at Buckingham Town and reasoning that opposing players were kicking our No 7 because he was the best player, and that as Roger Barrett was wearing No 7 and Kevin Keegan wore No 7, therefore No 7 must always be the best player. By their scars shall ye know them. Though sadly no footage survives of the United Counties League Div­ision Two, there is plenty of evi­dence of the brutality of 1970s defending available. One iconic event that is still quite widely seen is the 1970 FA Cup final, in which Leeds United and Chelsea contested – fought – two epic matches. What is remarkable is how little com­ment the nature of the tackling attracted. Of course this applied to midfielders and forwards, too – they couldn’t afford to be unwilling or unable to stand up for themselves. But the leniency granted in this area was of greatest benefit to the defensively minded.

This is not to say that defenders were uniformly interested in man rather than ball; simply that there was the possibility of playing that way that just doesn’t exist today. The same year as that FA Cup Final came some of the most famous clean tackling in the game’s history. Videos hailing great players routinely show defenders’ rare goals rather than the tackling that earned them a place on the team sheet. The prime exception is Bobby Moore, who since his death has been memorialised as much by his clean ball-winning performance against Brazil in 1970 as his role as a 1966 World Cup winner. Little is made, for instance, of the fact that Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick goal came from a pass by his captain, while the shirt he wore in 1970 has just sold at auction for £60,000.

Moore seems to have been an exception; Ron Harris is still making money from his talent for ignoring the ball in favour of the man, popping up on Sky Sports News to explain how much tougher players were in his day. Though it pains one to say so, he has a point. A hard man of whatever position such as Harris himself or Tommy Smith, Jack Charlton, Nobby Stiles, Billy Bremner et al was a more formidable opponent than his modern equivalent – though in large part because the rules have been altered beyond recognition. There is also an argument that fans miss blood-and-thunder tackling – and no doubt some fans of a certain age do. What Harris and other doom-mongers fail to acknowledge is just how popular the cleaned-up game is.

What limits the defender now is to a great extent just the requirement to play the ball before the man. Barely a decade ago Steve Bould was able to base his entire game on playing through the back of opposing strikers; today he would be sent off without fail by half-time unless he changed tack. Crucially, too, intention was taken out of the laws on foul play: what mattered was what you did, not why, though plenty of players, fans and pundits seem stuck in the past on this, using “I/he went for the ball” as a defence when it is now irrelevant. The laws even ban “excessive force”, though that requires a difficult judgment call for the referee.

There are other changes, some of them in physique, as has been considered earlier in this series: “Big Dave Watson” – Sunderland and Man City of the 1970s, not his Evertonian namesake – stood just 5ft 11.5in, even with that half an inch not average for a centre-back today. Defenders have to cope with an array of line-ups, too, as coaches tinker: my primary school team still played 2-3-5, but latterly you could find that reversed as well as, more commonly, 4-4-2. Formations are really a separate subject, of course, but 2-3-5 is worth a moment because for a long time you only needed the full-backs to play an offside trap – so even here the laws are a crucial driver. Forwards needed three op­ponents, the goalkeeper and two others, closer to the goal than them, until 1925; the change to just two in total contributed to the revision of defensive tactics, with the innovation of the stopper centre-half.

Offside remained the same for the next 70 or so years; new generations of centre-halves, latterly centre-backs, were born with one arm raised to attract the midwife’s attention. But as with foul play, the law makers have been busy in the past de­cade, in part thanks to the law of un­intended consequences. The change in the back-pass law made life harder for de­fenders, but also created a new prob­lem for the attacking side: any forward harrying a goalkeeper was likely to be flagged as he ran back, should his team win the ball after a clearance. This for­ced a reassessment of the clauses re­garding “interfering with play or an opponent” and suddenly those raised arms were of dramatically less use, especially once attackers were allowed to be level and given the benefit of the doubt.

What that means, of course, is that while watching the man defenders must concentrate on playing the ball – just as the changes in the laws on foul play demand, too. The difficulty of legally dispossessing opponents means that when you have the ball, you cannot afford to casually give it away – Row Z defending still has its place but the modern defender needs ever-improved ball skills.

Though you hesitate to hold him up as a role model for anything, Rio Ferdinand epitomises what is now required. In his last season at Leeds United he failed to pick up a single domestic booking, and not just because he forgot. We are seeing the end of the process that Blackheath’s stand began 141 years ago: we are turning defenders into footballers.

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month