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Rowe's "Push and Run" Team

The end of the Second World War saw Spurs stuck in the Second Division of the Football League. But a new era was about to begin, first under the managership of Arthur Rowe, and then under Bill Nicholson.

Arthur Rowe is credited with developing a revolutionary new tactical approach that was to get his team promoted and win their first league championship. The following article is excerpted from from Bernard Joy's book Soccer Tactics, first published in 1956.



Spurs’ ‘Push-and-Run'

THE FIRST TIME Arthur Rowe met his players after becoming manager of Tottenham Hotspur, he took them on the pitch for a demonstration. He asked Welsh international half-back Ron Burgess to take a throw-in and he stationed himself ten yards from the touchline. When the ball came, Rowe hit it first-time to Les Medley, who was a few yards up the wing.

'How long did it take?' Rowe asked the trainer, who was timing the movement. 'Two seconds,' came the reply.

Burgess repeated the throw and this time Rowe trapped the ball before pushing it as quickly as possible to Medley. ‘Four seconds’ called the trainer.

For the third throw, Rowe performed the normal reaction of a player, even in a fast- moving match. He trapped the ball with his 'good' foot, the right, tapped it forward with the left and used the right again to send it speeding to Medley. The operation took eight seconds.

Back in the dressing-room, with the players sitting around on the benches, Rowe asked one of them to walk briskly while being timed. In two seconds he reached five yards, in four he doubled the distance and the dressing-room was not big enough to measure the space he covered in eight seconds.

'Now put that in terms of running in a match,' Rowe told the team. 'If you hold the ball instead of moving it straightaway you give defenders all the time they need to mark your colleagues who have moved into the open spaces. Worse still, a team-mate will have time to run into position and then out again before the pass is made.’

The demonstration did more than anything to convert the Spurs players to Rowe's plan of simple, first- time football which keeps the movements flowing slickly and smoothly. ‘Push-and-run’ Rowe called his method, likening it to schoolboys in the playground, who hit the ball against the wall, dart round the opponent and collect the rebound. A colleague is used instead of the wall. Speed is the keynote even more than accuracy, because a dilatory pass which gives the opponent time to cover permits a smaller margin of error than one made quickly. Short passes are made instead of long because three passes of 15 yards are more likely to be performed perfectly than one of 45 yards.

The vital thing is the reaction of the kicker. After making the pass, he must move at once into a new position or else his partner will not be able to find him with the return. The whole team is thus linked together. A forward does not regard himself merely as a recipient of passes, but has to take up position within reach of the defence. And a defender does not leave the forwards to their own devices once he has cleared, but backs them up as ably as possible. 'Move the ball; move yourself’ and 'Make it simple; make it quick' were the slogans Rowe gave his players.

Tottenham Hotspur – the name has a ring of the knightly prowess and chivalry we associate with the border raids of the Mighty Ages. The club has ever had a dash and élan in their play and in 1901 they became the first club to bring the Cup back again to the South after it had become the monopoly of the professional teams. The classic grace and speed of Arthur Rowe's methods fitted the club like a glove, although we have to look for the reason not to the obscure past, but to the crowded streets of North London.

Spurs are possibly the wealthiest club in the British Isles, but they rarely enter the transfer market, preferring to find their own talent in the areas around, districts such as Edmonton, Hackney, Tottenham and Wood Green. Rowe himself comes from Tottenham and used to creep under the turnstiles when very young to see his idols play. Eddie Baily, Charlie Withers, Les Bennett, Les Medley, Tony Marchi, George Robb and Sonny Walters, to name but a few, were local players who joined the Juniors immediately after leaving school. Sometimes Spurs go further afield to bring a promising youngster on to the ground staff, like Ron Burgess and Billy Nicholson.

To men who learn their football in playgrounds and narrow streets, the short ground pass made at speed and the move into position, come as second nature. The good players who were already at White Hart Lane when Arthur Rowe took over, found simplicity and purpose in his methods and the cheeky aggression of the outlook appealed to their Cockney background. In Rowe's first season Spurs walked away with the Second Division Championship and they really reached peak form in the following autumn. On pitches made as greased lightning by morning rain, they stood as London's true champions, scorning clubs like Arsenal, Charlton and Chelsea, who rely on imported men. In three successive home games they met Stoke, Portsmouth, then the reigning Champions, and Newcastle and thrashed each, 6-1, 5-1 and 7-0.

The Newcastle match was an astonishing affair. Newcastle were then second and goalkeeper Jack Fairbrother had told me only the previous Wednesday, that they were very confident of victory. They had almost as much of the play as Spurs, but as they dribbled with the ball instead of passing quickly nearly all their shots were charged down. In contrast Spurs forwards were presented with open goals they could hardly miss. It was proof indeed of the worth of their tactics, and Spurs went on to win the Championship.

Thanks to the influence of new manager Vic Buckingham, the former Spurs left-back, who served under Arthur Rowe, West Bromwich went over to 'push-and- run' in 1953. In the first season they very nearly accomplished the double of Cup and League for the first time this century. They beat Preston in the Final at Wembley and were runners-up to Wolves in the League.

The ability of left-half Ray Barlow to deliver a ground pass to the feet of a forward 40 yards away introduced a different element into the West Bromwich pattern. Whereas Spurs wafted across the field in delightful waves, West Bromwich were more staccato, using one or two violent thrusts forward to vary the rhythm.

These two sides have been likened to Moscow Dynamo, the champion side of Russia, against whom I played during their tour of 1945. While in fact Spurs and West Bromwich are the nearest approach to the pure Continental style in this country, there, is this difference. The Continentals make their pass to a space for a colleague to run on to it; the Englishmen make theirs straight to a man. The reason is that marking in League football is close behind the forward, with the result that the open spaces are in front. If the recipient goes smartly for the ball there is little chance of it being intercepted; and if he moves it at once a tackle cannot be made.

To use 'push-and-run' during a hectic Cup or League battle is not as easy as it sounds. Most professionals can pass a 'dead' ball with accuracy to a point 15 yards away, but it is a very different matter to move first-time a ball coming at alarming speed from one side into another direction, with a persistent opponent clamouring at your heels. There is also the temptation for even the fittest man to take a breather and so neglect the duty of taking up position. The tenseness of the occasion, too, may make a man neglect Arthur Rowe's advice, 'Don't kick the ball, pass it.' The idea, therefore that the style can be adopted easily by any club fails to give credit to the team spirit, courage, intelligence and ball skill which made Spurs and West Bromwich sweep through the best sides in the country.

'When we have the ball we aim to keep it,' is another slogan Arthur Rowe gave his players, and from it developed the constructive work of the defence, perhaps the most noticeable feature of the team. A big clearance which lands on the head of the opposing centre-half only makes a present of the ball to the enemy and so defenders were told to position themselves for a short pass in order to mount attacks from the very goalmouth. A throw from the goalkeeper can be the first step in another menacing move on the opponent's goal.

It is not difficult for a forward to think constructively the whole time, because he is far from goal. But the defender has to suppress his instinct for a hefty boot upfield during heavy pressure. The ability of defenders to play correct football has been a bigger factor in the successes of these two clubs than all the forward brilliance.

Constructive defence has often been heavily criticized. For example, just on time of the semi-final against Blackpool at Villa Park in 1953, Alf Ramsey, the Spurs right-back, slipped when trying to pass the ball to Ted Ditchburn and presented Jack Mudie with the winning goal. If the ball had been hit into touch or upfield, the goal would not have been lost. But that is not correct football by Tottenham standards. If Ramsey had been asked to abandon those standards for part of the game it is not unreasonable to expect that they would have disappeared for the whole period.

The cool, methodical use Ramsey made of the ball led to more goals being gained than conceded. I remember one in particular, for England against Argentina at Wembley in May 1951. It was late in the second half when we were desperately trying to equalize an early goal, which looked like enabling Argentina to be the first foreign nation to beat us on our own soil. Most of the England players were hitting the ball high and hard in a panic-stricken way into the penalty area, in the hope that Rugilio, the acrobatic goalkeeper, would make a mistake. In contrast, Ramsey trapped clearances deep in his own half, toyed with the ball and coolly invited a challenge before slipping it a few yards to a colleague. He not only calmed his team-mates but also drew opponents from the goalmouth, thus leaving more space for manoeuvre. Goals by Mortensen and Milburn in the last 15 minutes enabled us to snatch victory.

In their pioneer year, Spurs had well over a hundred corners before scoring from one. They tried long centres beyond the far post, ones that curl into goal, hard low crosses and short ones to the junction of the area and bye-line for a forward, usually Eddie Baily, to pick up. Finally, Sonny Walters raced across goal from the other wing to meet a head-high centre from Les Medley, and glanced it sideways into the net.

Here was a challenge Spurs could not ignore. One of their cardinal principles was that when they had the ball they aimed to keep it, yet at corners, when the rules gave them undisputed possession, more often than not they handed the ball over to the opposition. Under the guidance of Arthur Rowe the players devoted tactical talks and practice on the pitch to solving the problem, not only of corners, but also of those presented by similar circumstances, free kicks, goal-kicks, throws-in and the kick- off.

Easily their greatest success was with free kicks taken from the region of the halfway line. The winger on the opposite side of the field stationed himself innocuously on the touchline and ran in at top speed through the defensive line-up as the kick was taken. He was still onside, but if the timing was correct he broke into the open space in front of goal at the moment when the ball landed. If carried out with determination and speed, the manoeuvre is difficult to counter because defenders are caught on the turn by the sudden entry of the enemy into the covering near goal.

Even by converting free kicks Spurs were able to turn to practical account only a small percentage of the dead-ball kicks given to them. Their efforts were not wasted. The thought and care they put into solving these problems helped them in approaching their game as a whole. Even more important, Spurs encouraged other sides to believe that an intelligent application off the field, in practices and training, can bring a noticeable improvement on match days.


1. Bernard Joy (1956) Soccer Tactics, Phoenix Sports Books, London

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