Harry Betmead: from centre half to centre back

Cod Almighty | Article

by Gordon Wilson

13 October 2020

In the 1920s and 1930s, centre halves began to retreat from midfield to become defenders. Town were among the pioneers of the trend. Gordon considers why, almost a century on, our language has still not caught up

Harry BetmeadIn 1934 Grimsby Town were fashionably and controversially innovative in their formation as they won promotion to Division One; and one of their greatest stars was among the pioneers of what was still a relatively new position in the game.

The Mariners marched into Division One as Champions with four games to play, but that championship was claimed in a stuttering display of dangerous defensive tactics that brought them under heavy and sustained pressure for much of the game after Ponting scored the game's only goal, for Town, after eight minutes. The Grimsby Evening Telegraph reporter of the day complained of forwards receiving little assistance as the team fell too much on defence, frequently kicking into touch to relieve pressure. Ponting, Dyson and Jennings were too often left isolated up front with inside forwards Bestall and Craven sitting deep alongside Hall and Buck in and around the edge of the Town penalty area.

Betmead was playing the fashionable third-back role behind full-backs Kelly and Jacobson while Hull City full-backs and wingers rained crosses into the Town box. Betmead's man-marking of centre forward Jordan, and goalkeeper Reid's domination in the air, proved major contributions to the eventual victory.

Town supporters may have been jubilant at winning the championship and returning to the top flight, but the Telegraph reporter was heavily critical of the negative approach employed by Town that day. The formation as described in the match report looks like the WM 3-4-3, not the 2-3-5 pyramid shape that some of us, today, might have expected. But it was not so unusual in its time.

The trend had begun in 1925-26, when the offside rule had been changed. Before then, a forward had needed two defenders and the goalkeeper to keep him onside if he was ahead of the ball. Full backs had become adept at squeezing play, one pushing up to try and catch the opposing attack offside, the other hanging back to cover in case the offside trap failed. The new rule, introduced to encourage more goals, required only one defender to keep a forward onside.

Before 1925-26, centre half had been a midfield role, a "pivot". Then he started to fall back to a "policeman" role

Before then, centre half had been a midfield role, often called the "pivot" of the team, a midfield general: in modern terms not Ludvig Öhman, Matty Pollock or Luke Waterfall but more like Jake Hessenthaler or Harry Clifton. However, in 1926, after a discussion between their veteran centre forward Charlie Buchan and manager Herbert Chapman, Arsenal became the first club to adjust their formation. The Gunners' centre half dropped back to assume what would became known as the "third-back" or "policeman" role, between, and often behind, the two full-backs. He'd man-mark the opposing centre forward and took responsibility for deploying the offside trap.

The trend caught on and the pyramid formation [2-3-5] began to crumble. High-flying Huddersfield Town were among the leading clubs to follow the trend and during their golden age in the top league, Grimsby Town turned Harry Betmead from centre-half to centre-back.

With the centre-half turned into a third back, the inside forwards were similarly withdrawn to fill the midfield gap. In September 1934, just a few months after Grimsby's win at Hull, Eddie Hapgood, of Arsenal and England, said "it would be fatal to have a third back and five forwards all up in attack - from where would those forwards get the ball?"

Newspapers and supporters soon got used to this new 3-4-3. In April 1934, England and Birmingham goalkeeper Harry Hibs, in a syndicated article in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph wrote, "… if we were quite honest we should no longer print a programme of a football match showing each side with five forwards, three half-backs and two full-backs, and a goalkeeper. That is not the present formation in many teams."

The Grimsby Evening Telegraph celebrated Betmead as one of the best centre-backs in England, regularly dominating the greatest England strikers. But it also warned about his maddening lapses

In 1937, the Arsenal and England striker, Ted Drake, would be quoted in a Grimsby Evening Telegraph syndicated article saying, "in recent times the majority of clubs have acted on the principal the centre-half is employed very largely as a third full-back - on a level with or behind the full-backs."

The Grimsby Evening Telegraph came to celebrate Harry Betmead as one of the pioneers of the defensive role, describing him as "one of the best centre-backs in England" in acknowledgment of his regular dominance of the greatest of England strikers, Dixie Dean and Tommy Lawton, regularly sending both home goal-less.
However, Betmead did not always sit easily in the new role. The Telegraph also sounded a warning about what some identified as Betmead's "maddening lapses."

When Town faced Leeds United, in a first division fixture in October 1934, their England centre-half Ernie Hart demonstrated an attacking tendency that often left his goal exposed for Town's Ernie "Pat" Glover and Charlie Craven to exploit in a 3-1 Mariners victory. In his Telegraph match report "Blundell" observed, in an oblique critique of Betmead’s own instinctive forays forward, that "The centre-half back who leaves opposing centre forwards unmarked to indulge in a gay adventure among his forwards is exposing his own goal to great danger."

It might be interesting to reflect on an interview with Harry Betmead with "Parkite" in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph in June 1939, soon after returning from his England debut in Helsinki. Betmead says "... where I found the opposition weaker than ourselves I could afford to go up the field more than I can in English football. At times I endeavoured to help our attack. Whether the results were good or bad is a matter of opinion."

It seemed that the opinion of the selectors was that it was not good. So, Harry Betmead, the defensive colossus, rated by Preston and England centre forward Bob Kelly as "undoubtedly the best centre-half back I have seen for years and he will soon be regarded as England's first choice", would never play for his country again. Perhaps that natural inclination to venture forward curtailed his England career. The centre-half role he performed naturally was slowly disappearing from the game; and the centre-back position that he adapted to with such success seemed better filled by others.

Why did so many of us grow up thinking that the pyramid survived at least into the 1970s? Why did sports teachers continue to post school teams in the 2-3-5 formation? Why did football programmes, the Mariner included, continue to publish match-day line-ups with two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards?

Why did so many of us grow up thinking that the pyramid survived at least into the 1970s? Why did sports teachers continue to post school teams in the 2-3-5 formation? Why did football programmes, the Mariner included, continue to publish match-day line-ups with two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards? Were teachers, fans, journalists and club secretaries tactically unaware? Or did they just lack the imagination to see things differently?

The answer probably lies with the introduction of numbers on shirts. In 1939 the FA Management Committee introduced the requirement that all players be numbered 1-11 and specified that numbers should correspond with position, and they used the increasingly redundant pyramid formation as their model. The number 5 was to be worn by the "centre-half", whether a team played with one or not. And players had no monopoly on numbers. If Matthews or Finney played on the right wing - they wore the 7 shirt. If on the left - 11.

And so we continued to refer to number 5s as centre-halves. When tactical innovations produced flat back-fours the number 6 was generally pulled into that line and became another "centre-half." But why? The more accurate and already established term "centre-back" perfectly described the position and the role. The "centre" is clear enough, but what was meant by the "half"?

So should we recognise this reality and consign the centre-half to history?

Well, not necessarily. Clearly, someone had to fill the space between attack and defence when the pivot moved back 90 years ago. Typically it was an inside forward that took on a deeper role, and continues to do so. So who are they and why are they not called centre-halves? More recently we have taken to calling them "holding midfielders." Some annoying pundits insist on borrowing "quarter-back" from American football. Quarter? What does that mean?

Language should be simple and say what it means. Why invent a term with five syllables, or import an obscure equivalent when we already have a natural and historically accurate one with only three syllables - "centre-half".

Thanks to Grimsby Town FC for the picture of Harry Betmead