The first pass
Passing football has its history in working-class Lancashire
Are Manchester City the greatest English team ever? The team’s unparalleled 18 league wins in a row has prompted the recent debate. Not only are City unforgivingly efficient, they are beautiful, too. Above all else, it is their passing that City are winning most praise for. Former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has imported the famed possession-based ‘tiki-taka’ style to the north-west, and his team are reaping the rewards.
But while most would trace the root of City’s current ethos to northern Spain, it is arguably just an idea from northern England returning home. It is in Lancashire that the pass was invented.
In 2007, Blackburn Rovers held Arsenal to their first domestic goalless draw at home since their to the Emirates Stadium with an unattractive defensive display in the FA Cup fifth round.
The lack of nil-nils was not because Arsenal were superior to everyone else, but because they did not balance their open, attacking football with an imperious defence. When Patrick Vieira left in 2005, the side lost a solidity that they have never quite regained. By the time Blackburn came to North London, they had become a bit ‘all fur coat and no knickers’.
Under manager Mark Hughes, Blackburn had gained a reputation for being physical, brutal and cynical. The Guardian nicknamed the club ‘Blackeye Rovers’. It was a no fur coat or knickers team. And in that match, it showed.
After the final whistle, a 19-year-old Cesc Fabregas approached Hughes.
“Did you play for Barcelona?” Fabregas asked him. “Yes,” Hughes told the lifelong Cúle. Fabregas looked dismissively over his shoulder at the pitch. “That wasn’t Barcelona football.” Hughes was furious.
Coming from a Catalonian, he understood the weight of the insult. Playing football ‘the Barcelona way’ is not just a footballing statement; it is a political one.
FC Barcelona represents a whole world outlook. The club represents the idea of a nation state of Catalonia, and fervent opposition to rightwing authoritarianism. When the fascist General Franco banned the red and yellow Catalonian flag, separatists flew the colours of FC Barcelona instead. Developing a footballing identity for the club was not just about the football: they adopted the motto “more than a club”.
The type of football Barça play now did not start with Guardiola becoming manager there almost 10 years ago. Much of it goes back decades, through Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal, Johann Cruyff, Carles Rexach and Luis Suárez (the first one). Young football talents are scouted throughout the world and brought to the revered La Masia academy — Cruyff’s brainchild — where they are taught how to play , and, importantly, think , ‘the Barcelona way’. They call the school the “cantera”, meaning “quarry”, because it is where they mine diamonds.
Fabregas himself is a La Masia graduate, having been signed up at the age of 10, and fellow Catalonian (and prominent supporter of independence) Guardiola was signed up as a child. Lionel Messi was brought over from his native Argentina to be enrolled at just 13.
There is a sense of quasi-religious fervour about La Masia’s ability to discover this special promise in children, and indoctrinate them with this FC Barcelona worldview. In his book Barça: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World, Graham Hunter describes Cruyff and Rexach’s role in shaping the current academy system as “missionary work”.
The pass plays an enormous role in Barça psychology. It is central to the education young boys receive at La Masia. This is what has filtered through at City: the players are told that when they feel they are in a goalscoring position, play another pass. That subversion — training the players to resist their natural inclination — is what turns a tactic into an ideology.
At the core of this ideology is still success. Beauty is not the aim; winning is. But they believe beauty is the best way to win.
You get some old-school football hacks who level the “possession is just a stat” criticism at Guardiola’s team. The 18 straight wins suggest that may be a little unfair.
The Arsenal team of 2007, on the other hand, was a bit like that. Not for nothing was “the problem with Arsenal is they always try and walk it in” gag written. When up against a well-drilled defensive team, as Rovers were, their response was to pass without purpose. In that February ’07 match, Blackburn goalkeeper Brad Friedel didn’t make a save until the final 10 minutes. Despite Fabregas’ jibe, I am not sure Arsenal were playing “Barcelona football” either.
Blackburn’s football history is a little less celebrated than Barcelona’s, but the town has had an important role in both the development and the export of the game, and many clues of that remain. Dynamo Kiev, the most successful club in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, still play in blue and white because it was founded by a Blackburn Rovers fan. Grasshopper Zürich, the most successful club in Switzerland, still plays in what is essentially a Rovers kit for the same reason.
In Fabregas’ native Spain, Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid both only lost their Rovers-inspired blue and white halves when the person they sent to England to pick up more Blackburn shirts for each club returned with Southampton kits instead. Atletico retain the blue shorts from the original kit to this day.
But global Blackburn couture isn’t the only thing the town gave to the beautiful game. More important is the FA Cup final of 1883, where the now-defunct team Blackburn Olympic beat the Old Etonians to become the first northern football club to win the competition, the first working class club to win the competition and — most importantly — the first team to win the cup by employing a revolutionary new tactic. It was called “passing”. You may have heard of it.
In David Goldblatt’s comprehensive history of the game, The Ball Is Round, he writes that Olympic and “other working-class teams of the Lancashire cotton belt were associated with the ‘alternation of long passing and vigorous rushes’” — essentially a rudimentary counter attack — while Old Etonians’ cup final victory over Blackburn Rovers in 1882 was “the last in which a predominantly dribbling side beat a predominantly passing side”.
The turning point that the 1883 final proved to be only a year later should not be understated. It gets its own match report in The Ball Is Round, and makes up the first chapter of Jim Murphy’s 10 Football Matches That Changed The World. In Jonathan Wilson’s history of football tactics, Inverting The Pyramid, he writes that the match was “the final flourish of the dribbling game” as it was superseded by passing.
Olympic were not the first to use passing — as well as fellow Lancastrian teams, Queen’s Park in Scotland were a notable passing side — but were the first to see real success by employing it as a tactic. Taking on a generally fitter, upper class side who employed a basic ‘kick-and-rush’ approach, Olympic players would knock the ball past their opponents to teammates who had more space, tiring the other team out: Wilson says that the Old Etonians were “unfamiliar” and unable to cope with Olympic’s approach of “hitting long, sweeping passes from wing to wing”. They won with a goal deep in extra time, after a ball from the right flank found Jimmy Costley in space on the left. It was not passing for beauty’s sake, but for winning’s. The Old Etonians were not outfought by their class inferiors, but outthought.
This, too, is political. To dare not to play the proper Etonian way was essentially a class rebellion. The Old Etonians looked down on passing as ungentlemanly and against the spirit of the game. The way they played was likely not that different from the how the uncultured Eton wall game looks: a sport in which decades literally go by without a point being scored.
Olympic, an XI of cotton weavers and plumbers, played as a team. Nothing could be achieved without the solidarity of the block. It rejected moments of individual brilliance in favour of collective action. Upon returning to Blackburn, the side was greeted with street celebrations and brass bands.
That match set a template for the game. It showed what could be achieved against the odds by the deployment of passing football. It caught on: the cup returned to Blackburn in the following three seasons, as Rovers became the only ever side to win the FA Cup three times in a row between 1884 and 1886, playing passing football. As the game was exported around the world over the following decades — including, as I’ve mentioned, by the blue-and-white clad Blackburnians — it did so with this new style of playing. The pass had won.
The omission of Olympic from any sort of common knowledge is also political. The club has not existed for over 100 years — the FA opted to only allow a single team from any town to join the inaugural Football League, and Rovers’ subsequent success meant that they were invited, and Olympic went bust — so it is easy to explain away why no one has heard of them.
Today, few people know what role Olympic played in the shaping of modern football. Even in the town itself, the side is remembered less than it ought to be. Their old ground, at Hole I’th Wall, now has a sixth form standing on the site. I went there, as did my siblings and dad, and thousands have played football on its enormous playing fields out back without knowing. Playing on the same turf without knowing what Olympic did there. Without knowing that this was not, technically, where the pass was born, but where the pass was won.
The erasure of working-class achievement from our shared, everyday knowledge is always political. While Olympic’s story remains in the history books, it is absent from our common consciousness. The elision of working-class innovation from our understanding of progress is an old problem — it is why Manchester’s People’s History Museum is so important — but when it comes to the working person’s game, it feels even worse. As money increasingly dominates the sport, not least with Man City, it is worth remembering.
Blackburn Rovers may not have been playing ‘Barcelona football’ in 2007 the way City are perhaps playing it now; but Barcelona only play ‘Blackburn football’ anyway.