Bill McCracken: A master of defence

By Gavan Bergin

Bill McCracken was born in the Falls Road area of Belfast in 1883. As a boy, Bill was very good at football, and by the time he left secondary school he had gained a reputation as one of the best young players in Belfast.

In 1899, when he was sixteen, Bill was signed by Belfast Distillery FC and began playing for their second team, but by putting in consistently excellent defensive performances he quickly earned promotion to the first team.

He made his Irish League debut for Distillery against Cliftonville on December 25th 1900. He did so well in that first game that Linfield, the biggest club in the country, immediately  tried to buy him. Distillery refused to sell Bill and instead they signed him to a professional contract.

That was a deal that worked out extremely well. Bill anchored their defence for years to come and, in the 1900/01 season, his defensive brilliance was a major factor in the team’s success. They conceded only ten goals on their way to winning the Irish League championship. 

In the next few seasons, the team became a major force in Irish football and Bill matured into one of the best players in the country. After the 1902/03 season, when Distillery won the Irish League and the Irish Cup, several big clubs from England and Scotland were taking a serious interest in signing Bill.  

By the summer of 1903, he did indeed look ready to leave Irish football. At the age of twenty, he was already a masterful defender. He was big and strong, fast on the ground, dominant in the air and his reading of the game was superb. As well as all that, Bill was a fierce competitor with a reputation for never backing down from a confrontation. He had the knack of aggravating opposition players, officials and supporters. He was involved in plenty of incidents such as on-field fights, pitch invasions and abandoned games. 

None of that put off clubs who wanted Bill, and Distillery received persistent enquiries about his availability from Liverpool, Aston Villa, Rangers and Arsenal. However, Bill was a man who knew his own mind and was well aware of his worth as a player.

When he eventually left Distillery, it wasn’t to any of the clubs that had been after him for so long. In May 1904, he signed for Newcastle United. They were rumoured to have made under-the-table payments to get Bill to join them and there was quite a fuss made about the matter. It was big news in Belfast, and the Irish Football Association made enquiries about it, even checking Bill’s bank account for any suspicious lodgements. They found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the affair was the start of an uneasy relationship between Bill and the IFA.

Bill made his Newcastle debut against Woolwich Arsenal, on the 3rd of September 1904 and he played a storming first game, preventing the opposition from getting any chances in Newcastle’s 3-0 victory. He kept doing well for Newcastle, and their defence showed a marked improvement with him in the side, conceding thirty fewer goals than they had the previous season. That turned out to be a significant contributing factor to the team’s success, as Newcastle went on to win the League. They became champions of England in Bill’s first season with them.

Bill built on his good start in the black and white shirt, he  improved his tactical play and  became famous as an expert in the use of the offside trap. The Evening Herald said he was “the offside king, who perfected a trap which caught forwards like flies in a spider’s web. A couple of steps forward by McCracken, and all those attacking moves, so carefully thought out and executed by soccer’s artists, were simply reduced to nought.”

Bill became the key man in the team with the most effective defence in England, a defence which provided the rock-solid foundation for Newcastle as they went on to further success. They won the League again in 1907 and 1909, and then there was the FA Cup in 1910, which they won with an astonishing defensive record of a mere three goals conceded in the six matches they played on their way to the Final.  

Newcastle’s style of play was not popular with everyone. Bill copped plenty of abuse. He was booed, spat on and attacked by away supporters throughout the country. The startling effectiveness of the tactic was undeniable. It wasn’t long before other teams began to copy it. Eventually the offside ploy became widespread, the number of goals scored in the League dropped, the spectacle of the game was said to have been ruined.

According to a report in the Manchester Guardian, “by the mid 1920s several clubs, most notably Newcastle United with their full-back Bill McCracken, had become so obsessed with offside that games would be compressed into a narrow sliver either side of the halfway line. When Newcastle drew 0-0 at Bury in February 1925, it was the final straw. The football was boring, attendances were falling and the FA, for once, not only recognised that something needed to be done, but set about doing it. They changed the offside rule.”

Bill was not playing for Newcastle by then, but his contribution to the situation was recognised as being partially responsible for the change in the offside rule. He had retired after the 1923/24 season, having played 432 matches for Newcastle in his 20 seasons with the club. 

Bill had a long and eventful international career for Ireland, which started when he was nineteen. In his debut match he gave a flawless defensive performance to help Ireland to a 3-0 victory over Wales, on February 22nd 1902. He played regularly for the Irish team over the next few years, winning his seventh cap in the match against England at Middlesbrough, on February 25th 1905.  

Ireland’s record against England was appalling, eleven matches lost, conceding 71 goals and scoring only 5. The Freeman’s Journal reported on “drizzling rain and patches of snow” before the game. But the weather, at least, took a positive turn when the skies cleared around noon as the last of  the many thousands of fans arrived by rail, and a local brass band played a choice selection of English and Irish airs to accompany the two teams as they took the field, England wearing  their strip of white shirts and dark shorts, while Ireland were  in their traditional St Patrick’s blue jerseys and white shorts.  And then promptly at three o’clock, it was down to business when England, having won the toss, kicked off the match.”

The English players were superb from the start. Within the first couple of minutes they moved forward, getting close enough for a good long shot in on the Irish goalkeeper. Next, after a neat midfield move, an English attacker got a clear run on goal and raced free, looking certain to score, “when all of a sudden he was deprived by McCracken who got in a perfect interception and clearance”.  

Ireland tried to counter, but could make no headway as England kept coming on strong time and time again, allowing no breathing room. They were relentless in streaming forward in attack, “but every time they looked certain to make the breakthrough, Bill McCracken stood firm and he succeeded in keeping the Irish goal intact “ 

At half-time the score was 0-0, giving Ireland grounds for optimism. After two goals in the  first five minutes of the second half the score was 1-1 and the Irish side had a good opportunity to slay the ghosts of humiliations past. There was still plenty of hard work to be done before the game was safe.

Luckily for Ireland, they had the very man for the job, as Bill marshalled the backline with a display of resolve and defensive skill that repeatedly prevented England from getting through. Although time passed but slowly, inevitably it did pass. As the ninetieth minute eventually got nearer the scores remained level, and as the final seconds ticked down, Ireland held their nerve when the end came at last.

When the final whistle blew on a draw as sweet as any victory, there they stood: an Irish team undefeated on English soil. The next day’s edition of the Irish Times reported on “a fine performance by Ireland, and particularly by McCracken, the outstanding man in defence, who was cool, resourceful and clean-playing. Nothing got past him.”

After that outstanding performance Bill continued put in superb defensive displays for Ireland. In February 1907 he won his tenth international cap and, at the age of 24 he was all set to be the mainstay of the Irish defence for years to come. But money matters were again to cause problems between the IFA and Bill.

In February 1908, after he was selected for Ireland’s next match, against England in Belfast, Bill was talking with some Newcastle teammates who were also England internationals. He found out from them that England paid their players £10 each to play, while Irish players only got two guineas. When he learned this, Bill told the IFA that he would be happy to play for Ireland if he was paid the same amount as England paid their players. Bill didn’t play in that match, in fact he didn’t play international football again for more than ten years, after the IFA banned him from the Ireland team  .

It wasn’t until October 1919 that Bill played his long-delayed eleventh international. Although he was 36 years old, he was majestic in defence, helping Ireland to another superb draw with England. He stayed in the team for further four years before making his last international appearance for Ireland at the age of 40, against Scotland in March 1923.

Bill retired from playing that same year and went straight into a management job with Hull City. Over the next six years he made them one of the best defensive teams in the Second Division. The 1929/30 season was the most eventful during Bill’s spell in charge of Hull, as they had their best-ever run in the FA Cup, knocking out the champions of the Second and Third Divisions, Blackpool and Plymouth Argyle then eliminating First Division Manchester City on the way to a quarter-final tie against Newcastle United at St James’s Park.

Hull scrapped to a 1-0 win against Newcastle. In the replay they defended just like the boss when he was in his heyday, and got the one goal needed to send Newcastle packing from the competition.

In the semi-final, against Arsenal at Elland Road, Hull did well but only managed a 2–2 draw. The replay turned out to be a game too far. Arsenal got an extremely fortunate 1–0 win. Hull’s Cup dream was over. A year later, Bill left to manage Gateshead for the 1932/33 season. After that he managed Millwall from 1933 to 1936, then joined Aldershot, with whom he spent thirteen seasons before he finished with management in 1950.

Although he was 67 when he left the Aldershot job, Bill wasn’t ready to be pensioned off. He was hired by Newcastle as a scout, doing that job until 1958, when he began scouting for Watford. He finally did retire after his 88th birthday, in 1971.

Bill lived a long life. He died, at the age of 95, in 1979, inspiring many a reverent obituary-even though it had been over seventy years since he was showing the brilliance on the field that had stirred the senses of everyone who saw him play, whether they were on his side and hailing his defensive genius and tactical cunning, or in opposition and damning him as the dastardly destroyer of the beautiful game.

In his day they all knew Bill McCracken. Some called him ‘football’s arch-obstructionist’ and ‘the game’s Irish Mephistopheles’.

Here, we call him simply ‘Ireland’s greatest defender’.