Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inverting the Pyramid

The grandfather of my former Pastor's wife played football for England.

William John "Billy" Wedlock (28 October 1880 – 25 January 1965), also known as "Fatty" or the "India Rubber Man", was a footballer who played for Bristol City in 1900–01 and from 1905 until his retirement in 1921. He was a centre-half whose his short and stout stature belied his natural talent. He won 26 England caps between 1907 and 1914,[1] his only rival for the centre-half position being Charlie Roberts of Manchester United, his opposite number in the 1909 FA Cup Final. The East End of Bristol City's ground at Ashton Gate is named the Wedlock Stand in his honour. Wedlock's pub (currently closed) opposite the ground was where he lived and worked for 43 years. He was born in Bedminster, south of the River Avon. He started playing football with Masonic Rovers before joining the Bristol City amateurs, who played as a branch called Arlington Rovers. When he did not make the transition to professional, he transferred to Gloucester County and then joined Aberdare in Wales. Only in 1905 did he return to Bristol City FC, where he stayed until 1921. During the 1905/06 season he won the second-division championship with the “Robins”, and during the following season even were English runner-up. “Billy” Wedlock made a late start, but upon his return became a mainstay right away and went on to become one of the best English centre-halves.

He made his full international début against Ireland on February 16, 1907, and then played for the English national team without a break until 1912. Up to 1914 he played a total of 26 full “A” internationals. Yet from the 1911/12 season onwards, he languished in the second division with his club. “Billy” Wedlock was an excellent centre half-back, outstanding both in attack and in defence. He was very elastic, and popularly known as “India Rubber Man”. Although he was not particularly tall, he had an amazing energy. He reached the Welsh Cup final with Aberdare in 1904 and 1905, and the English Cup final with Bristol City in 1909. When he concluded his active career at the age of 39, he was granted a licence to open a pub in the immediate vicinity of Ashton Gate, the stadium of his club.

What surprised me about this story was the fact that Billy Wedlock was only 5 foot three inches tall. Centre halves are usually six foot two or more. Their role is to be the stopper who prevents the big centre forward from scoring. It wasn't until I read this book, "Inverting the Pyramid" that I understood. It is written by Jonathan Wilson, the football corespondent of the Financial Times and it is a history of playing formations in football. It sounds incredibly boring, but it gives a fascinating insight into social history. I began watching football in 1948 and at that time everybody used the W-M formation developed by Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield and then Arsenal in the 1930s, but before that football had been developed as an attacking game with the teams lined up in the shape of a pyramid. In front of the goalkeeper were two full backs. In front of them were three half backs and in front of them five forwards. At that time the centre half was the play maker - like a quarter-back in American Football. What Chapman did was to withdraw the centre half to be a third defender, and he also withdrew the inside forwards to link with the two remaining half backs. This was the age of the tricky winger exemplified by Stanley Matthews.

My father was at the 1953 Cup Final when Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3. Known as Matthews' Final, it highlighted the skill of the right winger who danced along the right touchline mesmerizing the opposing full back and then sending a high cross over for centre forward Stan Mortenson to head into the net. I attended the Cup Final the following year when everybody expected the other great winger of the period, Tom Finney, to repeat Matthews' triumph. But it wasn't to be. Finney's Preston North End were beaten by West Bromwich Albion 3-2 with a winning goal in the last minute. Something remarkable had happened in the meantime. Hungary had beaten England 6-3 at Wembley in a match that spelled the end of W-M.

Hungary's formation relied on a withdrawn centre-forward with four attackers, but the key was fluidity. Players played for each other rather than for themselves. Even though the players were among the most skilled the world had yet seen, their success was how they moved when they didn't have the ball. Pass the ball the run into space was their watchword. They didn't have the physique of the English players but they had a system.

I'll leave you to read the book if you are interested, but the story is fascinating when seen as a Hegelian dialectic with each thesis met by antithesis and the synthesis becoming the new thesis.

The Brazilians and the Dutch both made their contribution and today we see Manchester United playing without any forwards but with two backs, two wing-backs and seven midfielders becoming world champions.

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