In Memory of Legal Backpasses (1863-1993)

There are some things from ancient football history that seem unthinkable now - playing without crossbars, goalkeepers going bare-handedpredominantly black football boots or decent commentators.

Barely two decades ago, it was permissible for a goalkeeper to handle a backpass. "To handle", in football-speak, meant to pick the ball up, clutch it longingly to the chest while scouring the expanses of the pitch in front, bounce it a couple of times and, finally, to boot it emphatically as far into the opposing half as humanly possible. And none of these fancy, out-to-the-side, flat-trajectory, counter-attack-launching kicks that are so fashionable now.

For many years, this defensive panic-button was only rarely abused. In the 1966 World Cup Final the ball remained sportingly in open play, despite the knackered England and West Germany helping to mythologise the Wembley turf in a jelly-legged extra time that looked more like closing time. England led 3-2, thanks to the eyesight of a linesman whose nationality escapes me, but Moore, Charlton and the tireless Alan Ball still dragged themselves forward.

Gradually, though, the game evidently became more cynical. The anti-football nadir was reached at the start of the 1990s, as Jonathan Wilson writes:

 'A general rethink about the laws of the game had been promoted by the negativity of the 1990 World Cup and, in particular one passage of play in the group match between the Republic of Ireland and Egypt in which the Irish keeper Packie Bonner held the ball for almost six minutes without releasing it.'
                                                                                                                        Jonathan Wilson - The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper
After more timewasting shenanigans during the climax of Euro '92, the International Football Association Board's new directive came into force. The game would change overnight, indisputably for the better, but there remains room for nostalgia for football's pre-watershed state. A rather niche piece of nostalgia, in this case, as we fondly remember the backpass.

Graeme Souness to Chris Woods, 1987

Before going on to hack his way through Steaua Bucharest in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1987/88, Souness was steering his Rangers side to safety in a tense first-round clash with Dynamo Kiev. After going down 1-0 in front of 100,000 in Kiev, Rangers stormed back at Ibrox to take a two-goal lead. With the clock ticking down, and Dynamo pressing for an away goal, Souness took the sting out of the game in quite brazen fashion. The Rangers fans had already, in the commentator's words, celebrated a backpass "as if they had scored a goal" as their player-manager received the ball, mid-way into the Dynamo half with thirty seconds left:

The pass from Davie Kirkwood, the turn from Souness, the look up and the carefully lofted ball over the top - it looks like a promising attack, until you realise that its Chris Woods on the end of it. Absolutely shameless.

Vinnie Jones to Dave Beasant, 1988

Seven seconds to sum up Bobby Gould's Wimbledon side. 

1-0 down to Watford in the FA Cup quarter-final at Plough Lane, with future backpass expert Brian Gayle having trudged down the tunnel for an early bath, Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones kicked off the second half in brutally simple fashion. All the way back to Dave Beasant, who wastes no time in punting the ball straight back where it came from. Ten-man Wimbledon came back to win 2-1, and the Crazy Gang would go on to shock the Culture Club in the final. It wasn't pretty, and neither was Brian Gayle.

Steve McMahon to Bruce Grobbelaar, 1989

Whichever way you slice this one - context, execution, arrogance, dramatic irony - it is the undeniable masterpiece of the backpassing genre. You know the story behind it - you could barely script it.

Steve McMahon, having sternly gestured to his Liverpool teammates that only one minute separated them from the league title, decided to run down a few seconds of it. Alan Hansen takes a free-kick short to McMahon, who has no interest in the Arsenal half. 

Keep watching the loop. Have you ever seen a player produce such a shimmy to get round an opponent in order to pass back to his own goalkeeper? The more you watch it, you start to convince yourself that McMahon is attacking the goal to our left, that he's slid Ian Rush through, one-on-one with John Lukic. In fact, Bruce Grobbelaar scoops it up, shares a gloriously pointless one-two with Gary Abblett, before punting it downfield anyway.

Exactly one minute later (one minute, Steve) Michael Thomas bundles his way through...

Klaus Augenthaler to Bodo Illgner, 1990

A grubby end to a filthy World Cup. Argentina, thanks in part to some pioneering work in the field of referee-haranguing, had already been reduced to ten men and conceded a late penalty, which the ambidextrous Andy Brehme had coolly despatched. 

With Maradona's men beaten, and ITV's Ron Atkinson laying into "the worst World Cup winning side ever", West Germany found a rancid cherry for their gamesmanship cake. 

As the world's TV audience began to switch off, Brehme casually passed to Klaus Augenthaler on the left. Faced with nine weary, resigned and aggrieved Argentinians and a veritable ocean of Stadio Olimpico space, the adventurous Augenthaler hesitated and turned back. And curled a glorious 40-yard through ball to the grateful hands of Bodo Illgner, clearly anxious to secure the first ever World Cup Final clean sheet.

"To win a World Cup with a team like this!", Atkinson sneered. FIFA took note, and started scribbling in their rule book.

Lee Dixon to David Seaman, 1991 

At the risk of getting all blooper compilation DVD on you, this piece would not be complete without a backpass-turned-own-goal. 

The Peter Enckelmans and Paul Robinsons of this post-1992 world deserve more sympathy. Before the lawmakers' intervention, there was a huge margin for error when attempting to return the ball to the sanctuary of your goalkeeper. To lob him immaculately from 25 yards, under no pressure whatsoever, requires something special. 
Ronnie Whelan's half-volleyed effort at Old Trafford in 1990 set the unenviable benchmark, but Lee Dixon would raise the bar a year later.

Coventry's Kevin Gallacher celebrates as if it was his own piece of impudence, while Dixon's teammate Andy Linighan seems to struggle to comprehend how this could have happened. David Seaman, meanwhile, would go on to experience more undignified, high-profile backpedalling at the hands of Nayim and Ronaldinho.

Gillingham defence to Scott Barrett, 1993

With the new rule finally in place, goalkeepers were forced into a hurried evolution. 

 'When the backpass law was introduced in 1992, it caused panic. Back then, any backpass drew an intake of breath, largely brought on by how uncomfortable most keepers looked with the ball trickling towards them and no option but to kick: would he slice it, would he whack it into the forward, would he miss it altogether?'
                                                                                                                   Jonathan Wilson - The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper
Clearly also struggling to adapt were lowly Gillingham. 

Having screwed a clearance from the first backpass, distressed goalkeeper Scott Barrett then had to deal with an inexplicable scissor-kicked follow-up effort from his centre-half, which he achieves quite heroically. 

The backpass rule remains an oddly under-regarded moment in the game's history. It's responsible for sweeper-keepers, for the the near-extinction of the agricultural centre-half and, in some part, for the relentless speed and intensity of football today. So, when you next hear a crowd applauding a routine header back to their goalkeeper, it's an instinctive echo from a not-yet-forgotten time when this was far from a formality

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