Newcastle United, 1910

Football Pioneers: Billy McCracken

As part of an ongoing heritage project with De Montfort University, Dr Neil Carter, from the University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture, looks at Billy McCracken, whose pioneering use of the offside trap helped to bring about a change in the offside law.
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Billy McCracken (1883-1979) is Hull City’s second longest serving manager, in the post between February 1923 and May 1931.

Yet McCracken holds a greater claim to fame: that of a footballer who has caused a change in the Laws of the Game; in this case the offside law, which was introduced in England and Scotland in 1925/26.

Instead of three defenders having to stand between the goal and a player when the ball was played forward, there would now only be two.

After the First World War the ‘offside trap’ stifled the game. Goals dried up and the flow of the game was increasingly disrupted with up to 30 to 40 offside decisions the norm.

The impact of the change in the offside law was immediate and dramatic. There was a 42.3 per cent increase in goals scored in the First Division compared to the previous season. 

McCracken was not the original inventor of the offside trap – that ‘honour’ belonged to Notts County full-backs, Morley and Montgomery – but McCracken perfected it and led to other teams copying the tactic.

Ironically, he had retired from playing in 1923 so he never had the opportunity to counter the reform in the law on the pitch.

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Newcastle United, 1905
Newcastle United, 1905

A Newcastle United side containing Billy McCraken became Football League Champions at the end of the 1904/05 season.

Born in Belfast, he began his career with Belfast Distillery before joining Newcastle United in 1904. He enjoyed a long career at St. James’ Park, where he established a reputation as a quick-witted right-back with a superb tactical brain, hence his expert use of the offside trap.

He was part of a Newcastle team that won three championships and an FA Cup Final in 1910. He would have won more than his 15 caps for Ireland but for his complaints to the Irish FA over payments for international appearances.

He left Newcastle in 1923 to join Hull and briefly played, aged 40, for the Anlaby Road club (and winning his last international cap) before taking over as manager. Unsurprisingly perhaps McCracken’s teams gained a reputation for boring football due to their repeated use of the offside law.

Nevertheless, he guided the Tigers to the FA Cup Semi-Final in 1930. After defeating Plymouth, Blackpool, Manchester City and Newcastle (after a replay), Hull faced Arsenal at Elland Road in the last four.

Hull were then bottom of the Second Division – and would be relegated at the end of the season – but led 2-0 at half-time. A late equaliser denied Hull a place in the final and they eventually lost the replay 1-0 at Villa Park.

McCracken was sacked the following year. He later spent 12 years at Aldershot, which covered the war years and he was able to draw on some of the country’s finest players due to its proximity to the UK’s military headquarters. He continued working in football as a scout and was still doing so when he died in Hull aged nearly 96.

For more information about sports history at DMU, please click HERE.

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