How the back-pass rule changed football in England almost overnight

Lewis’ latest piece for These Football Times looks at how outlawing the ability to pick up a back-pass in 1992 changed the English game for the better. 

Football is a simple game. Besides perhaps the offside rule, which may be complicated to an outsider who doesn’t watch the game, the rules are pretty self-explanatory. You learn these from the first moment you kick a football around your garden or schoolyard, and they transition into second nature fairly quickly.

Often, however, you may hear anecdotes of ancient football that seem unthinkable now, potentially via Alan Smith tediously explaining to you via commentary on a video game that we used to have square goal-posts, where a lot more bounced out than went in. Other unthinkable facets of the game may consist of goalkeepers playing without gloves, the absence of a crossbar, which enabled goals to be scored regardless of how high the ball was, and when throw-ins had to be done at right angles to the touchline similar to a rugby line-up.

When you think of these weird archaic rules of the game, your imagination probably paints a black and white picture in your head of butch working-class English men in their dark leather boots kicking around a tattered ball that looks like it weighs the same as a medicine ball.

One rule change dates back to just 1992, however: the introduction of the back-pass regulation. For the younger generation, imagining a game where goalkeepers are able to pick up back-passes probably decorates the mind with the aforementioned black and white pictures of bare-handed goalkeepers trotting around a goal made of three planks of square-edged timber. But no, football only moved on from this a quarter of a century ago.

But why fix what wasn’t broken? Why fix the beautiful game and change the laws so dramatically a century after it became popularised in a competitive sense.

Well, surprisingly, the whole game was in a languid state on the back of the 1990 World Cup and the 1992 European Championship, which Denmark won after not originally qualifying, given a chance when the former Yugoslavia were forced to withdraw. Also, while Italia 90 may be remembered for some iconic moments – Gazza’s tears, Maradona breaking Brazilian hearts, Roger Milla’s dancing – it was not one for the football purists, with an all-time low average of only 2.2 goals per game.

The outlawing changed the game for the better and was one of the key factors in driving the success of the Premier League. The game changed seemingly overnight – at least in England and, to an extent, Italy – but this leaves a place for nostalgia around this pre-watershed state.

Read | The origins of football: a game born of savagery

From here, there is only really one example to start with: Graeme Souness to Chris Woods in 1987. Still in his playing days – technically a player-manager – for Rangers, Souness received the ball midway into the Dynamo Kyiv half with seconds left on the clock. Nowadays, the prescribed method to see out a game would be to take the ball into the corner and keep it there until the referee blows his whistle.

Instead of this, Souness turned away from the defenders and played a 60-yard pass to his goalkeeper, Woods. The ‘keeper picked the ball up, strolled around his box for as long as he could, bounced it a couple of times for good luck, and launched it back down the other end for a big striker to feed off. Pop it into your search engines if you haven’t seen it, you won’t be let down.

The fact that Souness would later go on to manage Liverpool, who were one of the teams that suffered in the early years of the rule change, makes for a good irony, but the back-pass against Dynamo can only really be looked back on as the undeniable masterpiece of the back-passing genre.

This ancient tactic of pumping the ball back to your goalkeeper wasn’t all fine and dandy. You would often get strikers just lurking in what would be an offside position if his team had the ball, just anticipating a back-pass. Also, there were a few bloopers, none better so than Lee Dixon to David Seaman in 1991. The Arsenal defender turned and attempted a long pass to his goalkeeper, but miss-judged it and actually chipped his compatriot, scoring an owl goal.

The Dixon-Seaman blunder is probably best reserved for the classic goalkeeping blunder DVDs, but it paints a picture of the weird state of football at the time, especially in Britain.

For a century, football, in the main, ran on fair play. It was only really the late 1980s and early 90s that teams started to exploit rules and turn their tactics extremely negative. In one game at the 1990 World Cup, against Egypt in Palermo, Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner held the ball for almost six minutes without releasing it. The game ended goalless and many regard it as the most boring passage in World Cup history.

A general rethink of the laws of the game were promoted by these moments, which can only be described as odd, coupled with the negativity of the international tournaments of the early 1990s.

One of the last players to ever legally pick up a back-pass would have been the legendary Peter Schmeichel, who went on to be one of the best shot-stoppers the English game has ever seen. In the drab European Championship of 1992, his side quite literally back-passed their way to glory in the final. The great Dane gave this particular strand of gamesmanship a rousing send-off in the final against Germany as they completed their unexpected triumph.

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To see out the game, Schmeichel would have his defenders lined up either side of him on the corners of the box, before passing to one of them. The defender would, without hesitation, immediately return the ball to the grateful hands of the white-haired goalkeeper, who will be remembered as the icon of that tournament. Schmeichel and co repeated this tediously to see the game out, but while Denmark celebrated, the governing overlords of football sat in despair at the state of the so-called beautiful game.

With the change came the beginning of a new era: the founding of the Premier League ahead of the 1992/93 season, a new era of English football that would go on to be much more than a division. Instead, it would become a multi-billion pound product that would attract rich investors and advertisers from around the world. But it needed to be an entertaining product, so changes were necessary.

Law 12, Section 2 was implemented into the Laws of the Game and this changed the Premier League for the better ahead of its inaugural campaign. A generation or two before the days of Pep Guardiola arriving on our shores and hunted a goalkeeper for his ability on the ball over his shot-stopping, ‘keepers were largely there just to keep clean sheets and hoof balls upfield.

The outlawing was greeted with pessimism from sections of the Premier League. “I don’t think this is going to enhance the game at all,” complained Arsenal boss George Graham. Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson felt the new ruling would be counterproductive and it would instead promote long-ball football. Wilkinson’s views were not necessarily wrong in the short term but it is telling that his Leeds side fell from champions to a meager 17th place in the inaugural Premier League campaign.

The rule change wasn’t designed to prevent negative tactics; it was introduced simply to add to the drama of the game and increase the entertainment. Football was too slow and fans had experienced one back-pass too many – the game was turning into a pedestrianised sport like cricket, with too many stoppages in play.

It was on 15 August 1992 that football changed dramatically in England, and it didn’t come without its fair share of comedy. Fans had seen tasters of what was to come in pre-season, notably when Manchester City goalkeeper Andy Dibble suffered a broken leg when hesitating with the ball at his feet.

The giants of the 1980s struggled in this post-normality state. Nottingham Forest were relegated in the first Premier League season, with Brian Clough’s style not adaptable to the newfound tempo of the game. Liverpool, the most successful team in the 1980s, also suffered.

Read | How Vienna’s coffee houses gave rise to a new era of intellectualism in football

However, nobody was troubled more than the goalkeepers. Ex-England goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson complained: “The new rule is making a mockery of my profession.” Goalkeepers, who had spent their whole life training to use their hands, now had to use their feet. Crazy – the idea of foot-ballers having to use their feet. But at the time, it was a new idea. Decades before the Edersons and Alissons of the Premier League, many goalkeepers frowned at the idea of using their feet. There were some exceptions, of course, but that’s often what they were – exceptions.

Despite all the early complaining, the back-pass rule change undeniably improved football, especially in England. It had teething problems, obviously, but after a year of adjustment, it helped the game flow better and it made football a more entertaining spectacle, one built for the TV packages and industry it has become.

Twenty-five years on from the change, the Premier League is now by far the most watched league in the world. The quality of football grows each season, overseas players come to the league to fulfill lifelong dreams, while the whole Sky Sports product is now a cinematic experience with a growing worldwide viewership.

The majority of coaches in the Premier League now insist on building from the back, adapting the principles of luminaries like Johan Cruyff. The revolutionary Dutch legend was a keen student of Gusztáv Sebes’ Hungary team of the 1950s, who was faithful to the idea that goalkeepers were the 11th man and football wasn’t a game of 10 outfielders. Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has sought to build on those examples, and in his record breaking Centurions season of 2017/18, his goalkeeper, Ederson, was a crucial factor.

Ederson wasn’t the first goalkeeper to play out from the back, nor is he the last, but 25 years on from the rule change, he will be cited as one of the pioneers of the modern art of goalkeeping in England, which stretches beyond the primary role of guarding the net.

Outlawing the handling of back-passes changed the game seemingly overnight and prevented teams from exploiting loopholes to see out games. It is wholly coincidental that the rule change arrived on the eve of the Premier League’s inaugural campaign, but it can be firmly stated as a causal reason for the rise of the best league in the world.

Previously attempted rule changes failed, such as to make penalty shoot-outs ice hockey styled with a 30 yard run and five seconds to score, but this change worked and it is one of the driving factors behind the excitement of the game in the 21st century. The more time the ball is in play, the more excitement we have, and the more we get to experience the great players the Premier League is populated with.

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