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How the Scottish FA tried to revolutionise the offside law

Little is known or recorded of an offside experiment conducted by the Scottish Football Association which could have led to a major change to the laws of the game.

The picture from the 1973 final may be grainy but shows how the additional line was drawn onto the Hampden surface.

Discussion rages eternally over how football could be changed for the better. Should we introduce goal line technology? Should we award a goal when a player has handled on the line? Should we allow a player to celebrate freely without fear of picking up a yellow card?

Simplifying the offside rule is another favourite, especially when it comes to inactive players and second phases. Yet little is said or known about the experimental cup final in Scotland which could have led to a revolution in the game through changes to the offside law. 

The Scottish Football Association were leading the field in trying to completely overhaul how the rule worked. Their first trial saw a league match between Hearts and Kilmarnock go the first 45 minutes with no offside law in effect. The Edinburgh club won 8-2.

Another SFA-proposed experiment then followed in the League Cup and Drybrough Cup matches of 1973, which saw the penalty area line extended to join up with the touchlines, creating a solid line across the pitch 18 yards from each goal.

The offside law then only applied when a player was beyond the new penalty area line. The League Cup final of that year, between Dundee and Celtic, was the eventual platform for a final decision on whether the idea was viable.

The premise was simple. "I think it was to encourage more attacking play inside the opposition’s half," explained Tommy Gemmell, who played in defence for Dundee in the final. "But of course you could still be caught offside inside the box if you like and I think that was the idea, to try and keep the game flowing.”

The effect was a reduction in midfield congestion, with attacking players able to receive the ball higher up the pitch and defensive lines forced to drop deeper. Rangers boss Willie Waddell, who was Kilmarnock manager when they were hammered by Hearts, had deduced as much before one of his teams again fell victim to the changed rules, this time in a League Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic, of which goal scorer Harry Hood admitted: “the third goal I scored against Rangers would have been offside in a normal game.”

Journalist Glenn Gibbons, recounting his memories of the trial to STV’s *The Football Years *program, was aware of Waddell's reservations. “[He] said that it would ruin the game because it would take midfield play out of the game. People would just hit long balls forward to players who couldn't be offside. And in fact during that experiment we saw signs of that.”

The Scottish League Cup final presented the opportunity to show the world the viability of removing offside decisions from the equation in midfield play. And there was certainly interest. A delegation were in Glasgow led by FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous, who “I don’t think saw many Scottish matches,” remarked another journalist, Rodger Baillie.

But the game which may have convinced Rous et al to throw their weight behind a change in the rules was played against a chaotic backdrop. Kick-off was brought forward to 1.30pm because of power cuts caused by a fuel crisis, with generators on standby at Hampden. A three day working week was effectively in action, as the nation struggled to meet power demands, with miners and railway workers on strike over an overtime ban.

Treacherous conditions caused by snow and rain led to many not making the trip at all from Dundee, in part down to inaccurate reports the game had been cancelled, with only a smattering of travelling fans carrying on regardless.

"It wasn't a game,” laments Ally Hunter, who was in goal for Celtic in the final. “The ball was sticking in the water and there was no flow to the game at all. Under normal circumstances, the game wouldn’t have gone ahead." Dundee defeated Celtic 1-0 from a Gordon Wallace goal in extra time, their last success in a major cup competition to date.

“I think because there was so many of the important legislators in football, obviously with Rous being the number one at the time, they clearly wanted to try and put it on,” surmised Baillie.

Celtic manager Jock Stein was also far from impressed that his team were involved in the experiment. “Stein objected to it bitterly,” continued Baillie. “He claimed it was unfair to expect players to play on a Wednesday in the League Cup, Saturday in the league then maybe the following week in Europe.

“The last two games would be under normal rules and then they would have to [go] back to this business of the lines drawn across the 18 yard box.” Stein's captain at the time, Billy McNeill, concludes these days that “it was easier for defenders, it would have killed the game.”

In any case, the Scottish FA were the ones who would report back to the next meeting of the International Football Association Board, with five representatives travelling to the Hotel Bachmair in Rottach-Egern, West Germany, on July 9, 1974.

Far from discouraged by their experiences and the complaints of those in the game, it was noted in the minutes of the meeting that “a request by the SFA for their league to be permitted to carry out a further experiment with a line drawn across the field from touch-line to touch-line at a distance of 25 yards from each goal line was refused.”

The IFAB did approve a repeat of the experiment in Scotland for the 1974/75 season, again in the League Cup and Drybrough Cup competitions. The subject returned to the agenda at a summit at the Gleneagles Hotel in 1975. But, after a five-course dinner, wine, liqueurs and cigars, no proposal was submitted by the SFA for the board to vote on. The idea, like the gentlemen’s after-dinner smoke, evaporated into the air for good.

For more on the season 1973/74 in Scottish football, tune into STV's The Football Years: The End of an Era at 9pm on Friday, April 1.

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