Crossing the Ball

By John Cartwright

I remember it well, RON. GREENWOOD, introducing NEAR POST CROSSING to us at West Ham back in the early 1960’s. It was new to the game and brought an immediate, positive response from all of us who were there.

Crossing the ball had always been about flighted balls onto the head of a big front player, the space that was often open at the near post had previously not been recognised and therefore went unused. So, near post crossing and runs by attacking players into the spaces at the near post became an important attacking ‘weapon’ at West Ham and gradually into football generally.


The important aspect was – the space availability. If the space had not been covered properly by defending players or if they were unprepared for an attacker thrusting past them to meet a cross the possibility of a goal-scoring chance was high. In conjunction with the well-timed run towards the near post space, the crossing of the ball also needs to be well timed and accurately delivered. If the space is not there with defenders having covered it, then another crossing option needs to be chosen; in today’s game, choosing and delivering a different option is becoming less and less noticeable and a high number of crosses are wasted at the near post.

At West Ham during those early days a player called Tony Scott, played on the left flank – he was the best crosser of the ball using all options I have ever seen – here or abroad! With either foot – instep or outside – he could deliver the crossing option required for any situation – to the near post; pull backs to the edge of the box; high crosses to the back of the 6 yard box; or ‘chipped’ deliveries on to the head of a waiting attacker. This ability was achieved under severe pressure most of the time, but invariably his crosses caused danger to defending teams.

The reason why he was able to provide such exact crosses whilst at speed and under pressure is quite simple to explain; because he got his head up and looked! This doesn’t seem to happen today, it’s all rush, head down and hit – usually low and hard towards the near post and straight at a waiting defender positioned ready to clear the ball.


A CROSS, IS A PASS ACROSS THE PENALTY AREA, and like ALL PASSES it requires the player delivering the cross to LOOK, SEE, DECIDE and then DELIVER a cross most suitable for the situation. The ‘chipped’ cross is almost a lost art in our game today. This softly flighted cross when accurately delivered, offers better heading opportunities for attacking players positioned in more central and rear areas of the box.

Better use of crossing situations must become an important part in development here. Players must be capable of recognition and produce variations of deliveries when in crossing positions. It must be taught that crossing the ball is only a version of passing the ball and that the same skills should apply.

10 thoughts on “Crossing the Ball

  1. John I’m really intrigued on how you coach this. Passing over longer distances accurately is a great skill and one that would require 1000s of goes to even get half decent. Within the L3 Practice play work kicking variations is done in a scenario of constant movement, variations of volley
    , half volley using different parts of the feet. I never saw you demonstrate long passes.
    Would a traditional Practice of two players say 40 yards apart be suitable or is it done in a game scenario?
    If done in a game scenario are you in danger of it being boring if the crosses are poor?
    How do you introduce it?
    What techniques are required to put back spin on a ball?
    Look forward to your response.

  2. Hi Dave.I have never shown longer passing nor crossing situations in levels 1-2-3 with the use of the feet. Development aspects and area sizes for practises at these levels have not required deliveries of this type. Any higher/longer use of the ball towards the end of L3 have been been delivered by hand or hand to feet to achieve height and distance. Level 4 incorporates kicking variations for all types of delivery. Practises at this level are created throughout that enables players to develop their kicking/heading skills against suitably positioned opposition. Opposition in small area practises only become involved with a player(s) who are supporting the initial receiver of the ball. Once the supporting player receives the ball it his/her role keep the ball and re-link up with the players delivering the initial longer passess. The practises can gradually become more complex with the addition of more receivers and opponents requiring changes in types of delivery and player rotations being introduced to create realism . As development improves, small-sided games are played with a gradual increase in area size with direct deliveries or crossing situiations achieved by repositiong goals.
    Your question about Back Spin. Back Spin on the ball is easier to achieve if the ball is moving towards the kicking foot. The foot can the be turned inwards or outwards to connect underneath the ball to achieve the back spin required. Back Spin is more difficult to achieve if the ball is moving away from the player. In this situation it is absolutely necessary to shape the kicking foot with toe pointed down quickly under the ball to make the required contact . It is also helpful on contact with the ball, to produce a quick, upward movement of the kicking foot to impart extra loft and spin on the ball.
    I hope this has been useful to you.

  3. Great detail John. Does the practice you mention involve many repetitions to get the practice required.
    What type of practices have most pros done to be able to kick the ball so accurately over longer distances.

    There is a YouTube video of two Barcelona players keeping the ball in the air from around 50 yards away and they hardly ever have to move.

    • Hi Dave. All Premier Skills work is related to realistic playing situations. The work is always competive but opposition and area sizes are set according to playing ability at each development level. Each practice must generate game situations relevent to age and playing standards. Practises must be introduced in gradual stages and contain work already achieved along with carefully introduced new associated playing aspects.
      Playing the game is what everybvbody likes to do and practising the game in realistic steps makes learning the game an enjoyable, easily recognisable and with a better usage of limited practice time.
      The players you mention will have practiced for many hours to achieve such high standards. But it must be stressed that practice time has become a gradually diminishing situation. Practice must be able to engeder more playing situations for players to recognise —- this was not achieved with Drills! Skills;—- deliveries, receiving, movement on/off the ball, offensive and defensive awareness ability, all must be part of the practical work. This is introduced as i have already said, in gradual steps that suit the playing levels of working groups. The ‘carrot’ of adaptations is introduced to stimulate players as they become ‘comfortable’ with practises. In this way, gradual, realistic progress is achieved at each step along the development ‘pathway’

  4. During the sixties West Ham were devastating with the near post cross, as John says in the article. As John says it was part of Ron Greenwood’s genius that he recognised that nobody exploited the space at the near post because generations of outstanding headers of the ball in this country, like Tommy Lawton and Nat Lofthouse, always came in on the run at the far post. But as this area became more and more crowded and crosses produced a fight to make contact with the ball then Ron Greenwood focused his attention on the near post area, where there was unguarded space.
    The goals that West Ham scored in that near post area were numerous and it took years for other teams to cotton on to what West Ham were doing. Whenever West Ham scored a goal there the keeper would have an unholy row with his defenders for not marking the near post runner, but really it was the timing of the run, and the superb delivery of the cross, that was key and this was why it took so long for other managers/coaches to realise what was happening.
    A vital element in West Ham’s success was the brilliance in this situation of Geoff Hurst, a striker, and Martin Peters, loosely referred to as a midfield player, but actually a multi-purpose player of whom you could not really describe with a nominal position. I can’t remember the actual statistics, but in this era they did work out how many beautifully flighted crosses Peters made to the near post for Hurst to run in there and score and how many similar balls Hurst put in there for Peters. It was a staggering amount as West Ham murdered teams with this attacking ploy.
    One of the best examples of how Hurst and Peters combined on this near post cross is shown on TV from time to time because it was for England in the 1966 World Cup and was the goal that beat Argentina in the quarter final. Peters received the ball down the left wing from a throw in, looked up and saw the space at the near post. He knew from the hours of practice at West Ham that Hurst would be looking for a cross into that space, his cross was perfect and Hurst’s run and glancing header at the near post left the Argentina keeper and his defence standing.
    Also, in the Final England were 0-1 down when they won a free kick midway inside the West German half. Bobby Moore quickly placed the ball for the kick and as he does so you can see him, on the TV film, his eyes looking up and seeing space at the area of the post nearest to where he is taking the kick. Just like Peters knew in the quarter final, Moore, another member of the same West Ham team of that era, knew that Hurst would looking for the ball played into that area. His placement was perfect and England were level and on the way to winning the World Cup.
    Ron Greenwood used to stress to the West Ham players the vital importance of the cross and they used to work a lot at bending the ball around a defender coming to challenge the player, like Peters, who had the ball out wide. So the ball would go in around the challenging defender and curl away as it approached the near post area, which would be an extra hazard for the keeper who would at first think he could get the ball, but then at the last second it would curl away from him and he would be left stranded.
    To develop this ability to curl the ball in, Ron Greenwood stuck corner flags in the ground out wide on the flanks, representing defenders, and got the West Ham players to curl the ball around them into the near post area. They practiced for hours and eventually some other teams copied them, but it took a long time before others realised what was happening.
    Mention of Tony Scott reminds me that as John says he was a brilliant crosser to the near post. Also, later in his career he went to AFC Bournemouth when another old West Ham player, John Bond, was the manager. John Bond took a lot of the methods and ideas with him that he had learnt from Ron Greenwood and Tony Scott was a great buy for him. Ted Macdougall was a striker at Bournemouth at the time and just an ordinary 3rd and 4th division forward. But under Bond’s coaching he became a prolific goalscorer, especially at the near post, and the number of goals he got there from Tony Scott’s crosses were numerous.

  5. Hi all. Steve has commented on players beginning to bend crosses into near post areas. It’s amazing how people copy; Martin Peters, was the ‘King bender’ of the ball and we all worked hard to unseat him from this skills pedestal. Bending the ball in both passing and crossing situations became a feature with West Ham teams of the late 1950’s / 1960/s . Martin had set the standard and everyone sought to ‘outgun’ him. The street game had been the last opportunity for ‘bald’ Tennis balls to be used by youngsters and bending a Tennis ball was not high on the list of achievable playing skills. But how things changed when real football’s became more available.

  6. Hi John….When Ron Greenwood began coaching the near post cross at West Ham in the sixties he introduced an expression when explaining how he wanted crosses playing in: it was to be “with either the outside of the inside foot or the inside of the outside foot”. In other words, to impart bend on the ball you could produce a cross with either foot; if you were out on the right then it had to be with the inside of the right foot or the outside of the left foot, and vice versa on the left side of the field. So, in other words, if you found yourself on the ‘wrong’ side of the pitch and in a crossing position, you could put in a good quality curling cross with the outside of your best foot.
    This use of the outside of the foot on the ‘wrong’ side of the pitch became a big part of Bobby Moore’s game in situations other than just crossing. Because he played on the left side of his centre half he often found himself out on the left side of the pitch. He was very much right footed however, so at first found himself uncomfortable because the ball was on his left foot. With practice and Ron Greenwood’s perception and coaching, however, he made superb passes down the left using the outside of his right foot, imparting curl on the ball which left opponents stranded. I understand that Ron Greenwood had observed how certain players of the great Real Madrid team of that era had used the outside of the foot to get out of similar difficulties and so he gave Moore another vital piece of skill which helped him to become one of England’s best ever players.
    Yes, as you say John, ‘bald’ tennis balls contributed enormously to the acquisition of skill of past generations and their disappearance in favour of full-size plastic balls saw a gradual decline in skill levels.

  7. Last week I saw a senior county cup final between the development team of a London club against a team from the upper end of non-league football. The young pro team were well organised within their team shape and contained athletic players who showed clear evidence of good fitness and stamina conditioning. So I am sure that each day they receive well prepared and organised training sessions.
    But what disappointed me was that I never saw any spark of invention or creativity from them. Nobody tried to beat an opponent with a dribble or clever feint. They played a game of safe passes against a team of part time players who dealt reasonably comfortably with what their professional opponents threw at them.
    Earlier in the season, Charlton Athletic introduced Ademola Lookman into their first team and he caught the eye immediately because he is a player who ‘makes things happen’. He made his home debut against Sheffield Wednesday when he came off the bench for the last ten minutes. Each time he got the ball he either took on an opponent, played a one-two or made space for himself by good movement. On the occasions I have seen him subsequently, he has continued to provide examples of imagination and creativity.
    Lookman came into the academy system late and most of his formative years were spent playing in local junior and amateur football. I don’t know anything about the background of those teams but he looks like a ‘street player’ and perhaps played a lot of football in the tight area cages which can be found on some estates, which would help explain the technical skill which he now produces. Either that, or his coaches at the junior clubs were astute in always providing realistic coaching which has resulted in him now showing his present potential.
    Young players like Lookman are rare now in this country because players more and more look the same and sparks of imagination are few and far between. As ever, it is the coaching and youth development which must be re-evaluated if we want to produce the players which can ultimately bring international success.

  8. On Sunday I went to see MK Dons U15s v. Barcelona U15s in a specially arranged challenge match in Milton Keynes. I wondered whether this would provide an insight into Barca’s methods and reveal exciting new talent we can expect to see a lot of in the future.
    It did allow a glimpse of exciting talent and MK Dons showed that they have some useful young players of their own, (their number 10 Dylan Asonganyi looks to be one for the future). It was an extremely warm day and both teams made numerous substitutions with MK winning 3 – 0. But especially in the second half Barca made, but failed to take, a host of goalscoring chances.
    In terms of the Barcelona ‘identity’, I thought that the main feature was the way in which they created and utilised space which provided evidence of what we are used to seeing from their seniors on our TV screens. Even at this young age, it is clear that the Barca youngsters have the awareness of moving opponents about the pitch, so that they can then quickly exploit those vacated areas by moving the ball and their players into those spaces they have created with rapid attacks. They played their familiar 4-3-3 system, giving them width at all times and this suits their approach. There are always wingers in the wide areas, with attack-minded full backs in support.
    Barca’s main weakness, as I have intimated, was their finishing, requiring a little more steadiness and incisiveness around the opposition penalty area. This was where MK Dons proved superior, together with the gaps that appeared in the Barcelona defence in the latter stages when the heat took its toll of one or two of the visitors’ rearguard.
    A worthwhile exercise for both teams with evidence of promising talent for the future.

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