Manchester City’s standing as a progressive club goes back much further than the reign of the current manager, Spaniard Pep Guardiola – although in 1954 the players themselves were the innovators


Manchester City’s 5-0 defeat away to Preston North End in their opening match of the 1954-55 Football League season was not the most auspicious start to the launch of a revolutionary playing system.

In fact the so-called ‘Revie plan’ was radical only as far as an English club side were concerned. City were doing no more than copying the way Hungary had played a year earlier when they beat England 6-3 in London.

The victory made Hungary the first continental team to win at Wembley and shook not only the English game’s deeply entrenched complacency, also its understanding of where players should be deployed on the pitch.

This understanding dated right back to football’s emergence in the nineteenth century as a passing game (previously it had been a matter of a player dribbling the ball until dispossessed).

Most significantly Hungary deployed a deep-lying, freewheeling centre forward, Nandor Hidegkuti. This completely flummoxed England’s defence who were drilled to mark a No 9 who occupied a fixed point leading the attack from a central, forward-lying position.

But it was much more than Hidegkuti’s simply playing ‘out of position’ that so baffled England. The England players and domestic press were utterly confused by what was going on all over the pitch.

Over the years Hungary’s manager Gustav Sebes has been credited with deploying any number of formations on that late autumn afternoon in November 1953. It was 4-2-4 – but not quite. Maybe 3-1-2-4 would be more accurate – or perhaps even 2-3-3-2.

Looking back the most surprising thing was that the tried and (stubbornly) trusted way of lining up used by English clubs for years – the WM formation with the full-backs and half-backs forming the W and the forwards the M – survived for more than five minutes after the whistle blew on England’s Wembley defeat.

A certain amount of controversy surrounds the fact that Manchester City’s version of Hungary’s method has been called the ‘Revie plan’, implying that Don Revie, who played for City from 1951-56 and also played for and managed Engand, devised the plan.

In fact it carries his moniker because he was the one who filled Hidegkuti’s deep-lying centre-forward position when City’s first team adopted the system that their reserves had used with great success towards the end of the previous season.

Bill Leivers, a City player from 1953-64 and a member of the side who lost to Preston, says today: ‘I think most of the players who played for City in that match against Preston weren’t very pleased that it is now known as the Revie plan because it most certainly wasn’t called that at the time.’

The two players who came up with the idea, he says, were Ken Barnes, a skilful right-half who ‘never tackled’, and Johnny Williamson, a slow but clever forward. There was ‘absolutely no question’ that they were the ones who introduced the new system that proved so profitable – 26 matches without defeat – when they played together in the reserves.

‘It became known as the Revie plan because Don was the one who played as the deep-lying forward when the first-team took it over. Don was down as centre forward but played in the middle of the park and no one came with him to mark him. It’s astonishing when you think about it.’

Despite the 5-0 thrashing by Preston, City prospered as the players grew used to the system. They finished the 1954-55 season seventh in the First Division, seven places ahead of Preston, and reached the 1955 and ’56 FA Cup finals.

The Preston game was doubly disappointing for Leivers. Not only did his team lose heavily,

he suffered an injury that would have a lasting physical effect.

‘I went up for a high ball,’ Leivers says, ‘and this other player made a back for me. I went straight over the top and landed on the bottom of my spine. I have now got three collapsed discs and I’m full of arthritis.’

And he adds, with feeling: ‘I didn’t go off – but you didn’t in those days, you just walked about, but it put me out for quite a while, at least five months.’


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.