In 1990, a young manager outlawed his team from shooting from distance, insisted that they got the ball into the box as often as possible and made set-pieces a frightening weapon. He, like many other early pioneers are being ignored in discussions about the ‘statistics revolution’ in football. The reason is that his style of football is now unfashionable at the very least but also regarded as something that set English football back many decades. I refute this and would like to tell his story and others like it.
Twenty-one years ago, a small club from East Anglia went to the top of Division Two and remained there for a month. The prize for three Division Two clubs that season was a place in the inaugural Premier League and the preceding 22 months were the most remarkable in Cambridge United’s history.
This story begins on January 10, 1990 with the resignation of Cambridge United’s manager Chris Turner due to stress and overwork. His club stood 14th in Division Four but had reached the fourth round of the FA Cup when his assistant John Beck took over. Beck had played for QPR, Coventry City, Fulham and Bournemouth before finishing his career at Cambridge, playing his final match for the club at Hereford United in August 1989. Over the next 22 months, John Beck would become one of the most important football managers ever in getting the most out of limited resources.
Beck’s first few months in charge of United produced much success as he took his new team to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup – only the fourth Division Four team ever to achieve this – as well as to eventual promotion, via the play-offs, to Division Three. However he didn’t really impose the style he became infamous for at the time until the following season.
Even in those early days though, Beck’s methods were immediately successful and he became the first manager ever to win divisional manager of the month awards in both of his first two months at the helm. At that time, Beck was concentrating more on the physical fitness of his team than the way that they played on the pitch but he already had a solid defensive unit and old fashioned wingers as well as a tremendous striking partnership made up of John Taylor and Dion Dublin.
It was the 1990/1991 season though in which Beck’s tactical ideas began to truly take shape. It was rumoured at the time that he employed a statistician although the likelihood is that this probably meant that someone simply counted various aspects of the team’s play. All good ideas have a level of simplicity to them and Beck’s were no exception: the more times you get the ball into the box, the more likely you are to score. Balls played into the box from midfield are easier to defend so use wingers, get the ball to them quickly, get them to cross early and get bodies into the box to get on the end of those crosses.
Beck denied that his team played long ball football, claiming that they passed the ball over longer distances. However, there was no doubt that his players were asked to play balls over the top for his wingers, Lee Philpott and Michael Cheetham to run after. The two wide players were allowed to beat one man but only on his outside and were expected to get crosses in as early as possible. Cutting inside was likely to be rewarded with a substitution and players hitting long balls down the middle or shooting from distance also risked the same fate.
Like Sam Allardyce many years later, Beck recognised the importance of set-pieces and Cambridge were very dangerous from these situations with a number of threats present from corners and free kicks. They also turned throw-ins into an attacking weapon as two of their players were capable of hurling long throws into the box where Dublin would be ready to flick the ball on and cause chaos in the opposition defence.
These changes led to a season beginning inauspiciously ending with the Division Three championship and another appearance in the FA Cup quarter-finals. This will be the subject of the second part of this post which will appear in the coming days.