Taking a Lax attitude- George & the magic magnetic board

 

The dim light of the training lamps strung along the old main stand illuminated the thin strip of touchline as the players sprinted by, full tilt. They were trying to impress the coach with their pace and athleticism before turning into the darkness of the shed end. The floodlights that would come to define Dalymount and become a landmark in the Dublin skyline wouldn’t be installed for another year and the majority of the pitch was in complete darkness. As the players, all amateurs, reached the Connaught Street side some of the more experienced ones stopped. Now subsumed into the darkness the only light was the faint amber glow of embers as they lit up their cigarettes. Their plan was to wait until the rest of the team had made their next lap of the pitch and save their energies for another sprint past their coach. The man that they hoped to impress, who unlike his charges was a professional football man, was a middle-aged Yorkshireman in thick glasses by the name of George Lax.

George had first encountered Bohemians as they encountered a period of comparative decline. In the opening decades of the League of Ireland Bohemian F.C. enjoyed more than their fair share of successes. Foremost among these triumphs was the “clean sweep” of the 1927-28 season when the Bohs won every competition available to them. Three further league titles, an FAI cup and an array of other trophies made their way to Dalymount of the following ten years but by the end of the 30’s things were beginning to change.

The end of the 30’s and into the 40’s other teams were coming to dominate the major prizes in Irish football, Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne, Drumcondra, Dundalk and especially a rampant Cork United side were collecting league titles and cups. Bohs were increasingly being left behind. After winning the league title in 1935-36 Bohs could only finish 7th the following year, and 9th the year after.

The Gypsies policy on remaining an amateur club was beginning to affect their performances on the pitch. While the club, even by this stage had a long and proud history, one of the best stadiums in the league, and a strong record of bringing through talented players, unsurprisingly many of these same players would leave for other clubs prepared to pay them.

While amateur on the pitch the Bohs management committee looked to take a more professional approach to training and management of team affairs. To this end they brought in an English coach not long finished his playing days, George Lax, for the beginning of the 1938-39 season. Important to realise was that while Lax would be responsible for training, coaching and physio work with the players, the starting XI was still primarily decided by a selection committee and this would remain the case until the 1964 appointment of Seán Thomas as Bohs first manager in the modern understanding of the word.

Early days

George Lax was born in Dodworth, a coal mining village near Barnsley in South Yorkshire in 1905. Unsurprisingly young George began his professional life with Frickley Colliery near Wakefield having come from a mining family. The Colliery, one of the deepest coal mines in Britain had a strong sporting tradition, they had swimming baths, cricket clubs, athletics clubs and of course a football club, Frickley Colliery F.C. founded just after George was born. A teenage George lined out for the team at right-half and in his early 20’s was spotted by the legendary Wolves manager Major Frank Buckley and signed by them for the 1929-30 season.

Lax immediately became the sides’ regular right half as Wolves finished in the top half of the second division and continued a good run of form into the next year. His good fortune continued and during his spell at Wolves he also got married, tying the knot with his fiance Kathleen Hill in the Spring of 1932. However, a series of injuries including a badly broken jaw and later a broken ankle began to limit his first team opportunities at Molineux. This saw George move back to his birthplace to sign for Barnsley in 1932 after making 66 appearance for Wolves, although it would not be his last time working with Major Buckley. Further moves, first to Bournemouth and later to non-league sides like Evesham Town and Worcester City. As his playing career wound down he was beginning to get involved as a manager and coach alongside his playing duties.

In 1938 Lax was on the move again, this time having hung up his boots, he was off to Dublin to take over the management of Bohemian Football Club from the former Liverpool star and Irish international Billy Lacey. Lax had benefited greatly from working with Major Frank Buckley, a character with a fearsome reputation who had led the Footballers regiment during the First World War and had fought at the Battle of the Somme. Buckley’s teams were well known for their robust and very direct, physical football but this belied the fact that he was also somewhat of a pioneer and moderniser in other aspects of the game.

Buckley had placed great emphasis on fitness and diet (and allegedly the use of stimulants and animal gland injections) and contrary to popular wisdom at the time had encouraged players to do plenty of ball-work in training. He had also helped Wolves gain promotion to Division One and greatly improved their scouting network and youth system which would help lay foundations for the success enjoyed by Stan Cullis’ Wolves teams in the 1950’s. Lax borrowed heavily from Buckley’s methods and was also one of the first participants in the FA’s early coaching courses.  While Bohs amateur status might have seemed a throwback to a bygone age, even by the 30’s, in their choice of trainer they were selecting a man in his early thirties whose coaching methods were cutting edge for their time.

Among the modern elements of the game that Lax brought to Bohs was his “magnetic demonstration board”. While such coaching aids as a tactics board are hardly unusual today its use in the League of Ireland in the 1930’s seems to have raised more than a few eyebrows. He also brought with him a number of other tactical innovations such as “The Switch” which entailed the swapping of roles between the outside-right (usually Kevin O’Flanagan) and the team’s centre forward (Frank Fullen at the time). While this may not seem that groundbreaking to a modern football audience, the idea of swapping a centre-forward with a right-winger as part of a usually rigid W-M formation employed by the vast majority of British and Irish teams was revolutionary. It no doubt helped that O’Flanagan was an exceptional and versatile sportsmen and one of the best forwards in the country. These tactical innovations bore closer resemblance to the type of tactical experiments being tried out by coaches in Hungary or Austria.

It is worth remembering that it was only in 1953 when Hungary’s wandering centre-forward Nándor Hidegkuti helped dismantle the English national teams defense as they destroyed Billy Wright and Co. 5-3 that such tactical experiments began to get greater credence in Britain and Ireland.

Such was the success of this tactical innovation (no doubt worked out on the infamous magnetic tactics board) that other Irish sides soon started copying the ploy with Belfast Celtic using their international winger Norman Kernaghan in the O’Flanagan role.

Call of battle and the return to English football

Lax had two spells with Bohemians, joining in 1938 before leaving in 1942 at the height of the Second World War to enlist in the RAF. As someone resident in neutral Ireland at the time he could have conveniently avoided the danger of the conflict but instead chose to enlist. He was eventually demobilised some months after the end of the War in February 1946. The high-points of his first spell as coach of Bohs included a 3rd place league finish in the 1940-41 season as well as back to back League of Ireland shield wins (1938-39, 1939-40) and a Leinster Senior Cup win also in 1939-40.

George’s first spell at Bohs would see him succeeded by Sheffield United and Ireland legend Jimmy Dunne who had fallen out with Shamrock Rovers where he was previously player-coach. Once he was demobilised George was straight back into his sporting involvement, first with non-league Scunthorpe United where he was coach but also an occasional player and then onto second division Hull City as a “trainer-coach”.

George’s job at Hull was secured by the intervention of his former mentor Major Frank Buckley who wrote to club Chairman Harold Needler stating that Lax was a “grand servant, of irreproachable character, keen, willing and loyal”. Buckley also boasted that it was “on my recommendation that he went as trainer-coach to the famous amateur Irish club, the Bohemians of Dublin. He gave grand service to them and it was the war that caused their severance”.

George was joined by his mentor Buckley as manager at Hull just a month later in May 1946. Hull were stuck in the unglamorous world of the English Division Three North, however they certainly had ambition, over the course of the next few seasons Hull sought promotion to the second division, succeeding by winning Division Three North in 1948-49. By that stage Major Buckley had already moved onto Leeds United where he would help start the careers of John Charles and later Jack Charlton.

His trusty lieutenant George Lax remained on Humberside working for Raich Carter who took over as player-manager. Carter had been one of the most highly-regarded and stylish inside-forwards of his era and over the coming years he brought some big names to Hull’s new ground at Boothferry Park. Joining Carter were players like England centre-half Neil Franklin, Danish international Viggo Jensen and an up and coming young forward named Don Revie.

Carter retired in 1952 and his role was taken over by Bob Jackson, a league winning manager with Portsmouth only a couple of years earlier. George Lax stayed on as part of his coaching team although Hull, despite all their ambition couldn’t do better than lower mid-table finishes in the second tier. After almost ten years with Hull as coach, trainer and physio among other roles George left for a new challenge. During his time at Hull he’d played second fiddle to some of the most famous and successful English managers in the game but perhaps he wanted to be in charge of himself again.

George had been a player-manager at Evesham before he had even hit the age of 30. During his time there he’d helped to launch the career of players like future West Brom and England forward Jack Haines. He was used to being his own man. Still it was with some surprise that in 1955 he moved the short distance to take over the management of Goole Town of the Midland league. During his brief tenure George led the club to the third round of the FA Cup, their best ever result in that competition.  George’s time in Goole was short and by 1957 he was heading back to Ireland, but this time not to Dublin but to a new club from Cork.

A return to Hibernia

In 1957 yet another Cork football club went the way of the dodo, this time it was the short-lived Cork Athletic. Although they had won back to back titles and two FAI cups around the turn of the 50’s, and had even coaxed George Lax’s old boss Raich Carter out of retirement to lead them briefly as player-manager, by 1957 financial difficulties saw them withdraw from the League. Their spot was taken by another Cork based club, this time it was Cork Hibernians. Their first manager was to be George Lax.

A tough first season for the Hibernians finish bottom of the 12 team division but gradual progress was made in the following seasons with Hibs finishing 9th and then by 1959-60 up to 6th place. George had set up a comfortable life in Cork, he ran a physiotherapy practice in the city and was on a considerable salary of £1,000 a year to manage the team. However, despite the steady progress Lax was making he left Cork Hibernians to return to Dublin and to Dalymount to take on a Bohs side that had finished bottom the previous two seasons. By the time he left the press credited him with having “moulded Cork Hibs into a first class side”. Lax took the reigns again at Bohemians for the beginning of the 1960-61 season, some 22 years after he had first arrived at Dalymount.

While the side that George had inherited in the late 30’s had some genuine stars like the O’Flanagan brothers, Fred Horlacher, “Pip” Meighan, Kevin Kerr and Billy Jordan. The side of the early 60’s unfortunately wasn’t so blessed and the drawbacks of the enforced amateur ethos at the club was being keenly felt. Some genuine greats of Bohs history were to join not long afterwards, most notably centre-half Willie Browne who would go on to win three Irish caps during his time in red and black and became captain of the club in only his second season.

After two seasons of propping up the table, including the 59-60 season where Bohs had finished without a single win and with a paltry five points there was some modest yet clear improvements under Lax, Bohs finished 11th out of 12th in his first season back in charge and 9th the year after. The following year however Bohs once again finished bottom in a reduced 10 team division and bottom again the following season (1963-64) as the division expanded again to 12 sides. Despite the initial improvements and the fact that he had helped bring through players like Browne, Billy Young, Mick Kearin and Larry Gilmore the club felt it was time for a significant change.

Lax left the club at the end of the 1963-64 season and the club directors finally agreed to the abolition of the 5 man selection committee that still picked the starting XI. Full control of team affairs was to be entrusted to a team manager for the first time and Phibsborough local Seán Thomas was given the reigns. Thomas’s talent and the additional authority invested in his role had the desired impact and Bohs finished the following season in 3rd place and saw the emergence of future Irish internationals like Jimmy Conway and Turlough O’Connor.

During his less successful second stay George remained true to his footballing philosophy. Unlike his mentor Major Buckley the focus on Lax’s teams was always on trying to play good football even on the boggy winter pitches of the League of Ireland. He told the Evening Herald that “there is no substitute for good football and it only will draw the crowds”. He had a focus on discipline and skill, players were instructed strictly to never argue with the referee, a practice that certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. In training his focus was always on improving touch and ball control, often preferring to organise 5-a-sides with various handicaps such as players only taking two touches or only using their weaker foot so as to build technique.  Practices that might now seem commonplace but were certainly ahead of their time for the league in the 1960’s. His commitment to this footballing ideal wasn’t even shaken during times of duress. Commenting after a heavy 6-0 defeat to a strong Drumcondra side Lax rejected the idea that his team should have tried to spoil or play more direct, stating simply “I’ve made it quite clear, I want them to play football all the time”. In many ways despite the struggles of the team in the early 60’s George Lax certainly seemed to try to embody the three golden rules of Bohemian F.C.  “never say die, keep the ball on the floor and the best defence is attack”.

After leaving the Bohs George’s services were quickly in demand. He was  signed up by St. Patrick’s Athletic to replace Ronnie Whelan Snr but he would spend only a season in Inchicore before quitting. He would later take on a physio role at Dundalk and later at Shelbourne where he was working well into his 60’s. He continued to run a physiotherapy practice in the Phibsboro area and treated many prominent GAA players and other athletes in his private practice.

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