GEORGE CAMSELL : Goal machine

In 1925 a panel gathered to debate a possible method of stopping the decline in the number of goals being scored and lower the amount of stoppages in a game. The tweak they agreed on that day immediately started a glut of high-speed attacking beyond the greatest expectations of those gathered at the meeting, an increase of forward play that culminated six years later in a still-unbeaten 3.7 goals being scored in the average league game and Aston Villa alone scoring 128. For all their attacking prowess Villa still came second – Arsenal, finished champions with 127 goals.

Although Billy Pease, Billy Birrell, Owen Williams and Jacky Carr created countless chances for George Camsell during the 1926-27 season, his goals were also created in that meeting, where the Football Association debated two proposed changes to the offside rule.

One proposal, that lines should be drawn 40 yards from each goal beyond which no player could be offside, was suggested by the Scottish FA and rejected. A second involved reducing from three to two the number of defenders who needed to be between an attacking player and the goal in order for them not to be offside was agreed, and the game was transformed.

The problem was that teams had discovered a flaw in the previous rule and created something known as “the one-back dodge”, whereby one of the half-backs would run forward, leaving every opposing attacker offside and one defender still in reserve in case the referee mistakenly waved play on.

FA president Charles Clegg said, “The fans decided that the one-back dodge was depriving them of the sport they had paid to see – and depriving them by a trick, not by skill, This has been remedied and the game, as a whole, is reaping the benefit.”

In the 1924-25 season, the last under the old rules, the average First Division match contained 2.58 goals (and in the Football League it was 2.52), which everyone agreed was not enough. The change made an immediate difference: between September 1924 and September 1925 the average number of goals in the First Division rose from 2.59 a game to 3.85, in the Second Division from 2.51 to 3.43, in the Third Division South from 2.17 to 3.51 and in the Third Division North from 2.51 to 3.76. In September 1924 there had been 54 goalless draws across the Football League; in September 1925 there were 11. And not only were there more goals, there were fewer stoppages.
It proved a busy time for football statisticians as goalscoring records were being rewritten. The mark for the most league goals scored by a player in a season was set first by Joe Smith of Bolton, with 38 in 1920-21, then by David Brown of Darlington with 39 in 1924-25, then Jimmy Cookson of Chesterfield with 44 in 1925-26, by the time Camsell reached 59 the following year, and Everton’s Dixie Dean with 60 the year after that.

In 90 seasons since Dean set his mark nobody has got within five goals of it, and it is nearly 60 years since anyone – Peterborough’s Terry Bly, with 52 in the Fourth Division in 1960-61 – got within 10.

the Times wrote in 1927, after Camsell had smashed Cookson’s record with three months to spare, “The new offside rule has, of course, made scoring a good deal easier than before but Camsell’s feat is a remarkable one. It is a common belief that something more than skill is required today, that strong physical power must be added to craft. But while football is a game for the strong man, skill still has its reward, as has been seen in the case of Middlesbrough. Not only has Camsell created a new ‘record’ but the team as a whole promise to obtain more goals this season than have ever before been gained. Their football has always been a delight, and in these days when force threatens to take the place of craft it is good that they should have been so handsomely rewarded.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Middlesbrough’s season was the way it started: while they ended up winning the Second Division at a canter they lost their first three matches and drew the fourth, scoring only one goal in those four games combined, and in mid-September sat miserably at the foot of the table. Then, centre-forward, Jimmy McClelland, was injured, and a young and largely unheralded reserve with only three first-team goals to his name was called up to replace him.

Camsell did not score in his first game but he did score in his next – and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that. From his first appearance of the season on 18 September to the day he broke the scoring record in late February his scoring tally in league games was: 0 2 1 1 3 0 1 1 1 4 1 4 1 2 4 5 2 3 0 1 2 3 1 2 2.

The new offside law opened up the game for fleet-footed forwards and although Camsell was certainly one of those he was a great deal more besides. Middlesbrough had bought him from Durham City in October 1925, his form having been so good that, according to the Lancashire Evening Post: “A crowd of football officials almost wore out the doorstep at Durham’s ground.” The Derby Daily Telegraph, whose coverage of the entire Second Division was excellent, wrote the following month: “Borough are quite satisfied that they have picked up a player who will develop into something out of the ordinary, but recognise that he is young yet.” His development did not take long.Within a few years Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman had converted Herbie Roberts, a reserve half-back, into the first centre-half to deal with these onrushing strikers, developing the WM formation. The tactic was widely adopted, after which many of these prolific pacemen were discovered suddenly to be a bit useless. Not so Camsell, who continued playing, and scoring, for another decade. He exceeded 30 goals in his first, second, third, fourth, fifth and 10th seasons in the first team, and played until he was 40. He continued to wear Boro’s colours during the second world war.

A Times writer recorded in the win over Man City :

“There was nothing particularly thrilling about any of his goals except the last. The first I thought was decidedly offside, but there was no doubt about any of the rest and the one with which he completed his solo was a gem – the result of a glorious run nearly half the length of the field, in which he tricked Cookson by consummate footwork, and then a left-foot shot that would have beaten any goalkeeper. It was really the only goal he scored with a shot, for three were little more than taps from close quarters, and the fourth was headed through.”

A couple of months later Camsell revealed the secrets of his success, which he said had as a foundation the “free and confident use of both feet”.

“The discovery we have made at Middlesbrough is this: the new offside law gives forwards a greater chance of scoring goals. Which is the right way to seize it? Our way is to keep the ball to toe, to play penetrative football down the centre of the field, and to vary the procedure by a flash to the wings. Wherever possible the outside forwards go ahead, draw in towards goal, and carry on till they have drawn the defender and can give me a backward ground pass. That is goalscoring made easy. The centre from the wing, in comparison, is a haphazard method. It may reach one of your men or it may not.“My goal secrets? Get off the mark quickly, go all out for goal when the chance comes, and do not be discouraged by shots that go wide. Keep on trying. Have faith in yourself, and never be afraid of ‘having a go’ for goal.”


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