When Arsenal ruled the world

IN THE 1980s, a television series called The Thirties highlighted a turbulent and exciting decade. An entire chapter was devoted, quite simply, to “The Arsenal”. The 1930s was the age of the Gunners, a time that the club has strived to replicate ever since. Arsenal were as 1930s as Crittall Windows, British dance bands, mock-Tudor housing and Bakelite. They were thoroughly modern in every way, from the Art Deco grandstands erected at Highbury Stadium to their redesigned geometric club crest. If ever a club reflected the zeitgeist, it was Arsenal between 1930 and 1938.

They stood astride the entire period: 1930 – FA Cup winners; 1931 – League Champions; 1932 – League runners-up and FA Cup runners-up; 1933 – League Champions; 1934 – League Champions; 1935 – League Champions; 1936 – FA Cup winners; 1938 – League Champions. No other club was as consistent, as innovative or as dynamic as Arsenal in the 1930s. Only Liverpool in the mid-1970s to late 1980s and Manchester United in the 1990s can claim to have been as all-conquering.

Of course, much of Arsenal’s dominance can be attributed to Herbert Chapman. From ground-breaking tactics to publicity stunts, Chapman and his entourage changed the face of English football. He actually had a superb track record when he arrived at Arsenal in 1925, having won two league titles with Huddersfield. Arsenal, who had struggled against relegation in the two previous seasons, had advertised for a new manager and Chapman, attracted by a lucrative salary and the prospect of larger crowds than those enjoyed at Huddersfield, applied.

Chapman replaced Leslie Knighton, who had been in charge at Arsenal since 1919. Knighton could not get along with Arsenal’s notorious chairman Sir Henry Norris and prevented him from spending big in the transfer market. When Chapman casenal,me along, Arsenal spent lavishly on centre forwards, among other players. Ironically, the Arsenal advert had said: “Anyone who considers the paying of exhorbitant transfer fees need not apply.”

Chapman’s legacy

Herbie Roberts

Chapman was one of the first managers to put results ahead of performance, although he later bemoaned the fact that a team didn’t have to play well to get results. His approach was meticulous and, certainly in Britain, ground-breaking. He was not the inventor of the WM formation, but he was certainly the most successful exponent of such tactics.

But the key to Arsenal’s success lay with one player – Alex James. In his first season, Chapman took Arsenal to a best-ever second place, behind his old club. But he soldiered on for some four years before signing James in 1929 from Preston. With his long baggy shorts and shuffling gait, James cut a Chaplinesque figure, but he became something of a household name in the 1930s, a rarity for a footballer in the movie star era. He played quite deep and had the vision to create opportunities for the Gunners’ front men – a long list of forwards in the 1930s benefitted from the rheumatic Scot’s slide-rule passing ability.

The WM formation was more defence-minded than the traditional 2-3-5 that had shaped the early professional game. Chapman identified the need for a “third back”, who eventually became what we all now call the “centre back”. The two full backs were assigned the role of marking wingers and the centre back looked after the centre forward. The half backs policed the inside forwards. In effect, 2-3-5 had become 3-2-2-3.

While James would provide the guile and craft, Chapman also recognised the need for “horses for courses”. That’s why a fundamental talent such as Herbie Roberts – an old fashioned stopper – became so instrumental in the Arsenal story. Legendary journalist Don Davies captured this ethos perfectly: “Was there ever a team where the players were more strikingly suited to the parts they had to play?” Chapman’s formula worked spectacularly and was much-copied, but nobody had the depth of resources to make it work on a sustained basis.

As promised by Chapman, it took five years to win silverware. The first signs of real success at Highbury came in 1929-30 when the club won the FA Cup for the first time. Over the next three seasons, Arsenal dominated football and in 1932, went close to winning the double, finishing runners-up in both major competitions. In January 1934, Chapman died, midway through a hat-trick of league titles for the Gunners. The club, stunned by his sudden and unexpected demise, still won the league championship in 1933-34 and appointed the club’s press officer, George Allison, as Chapman’s successor.

Arsenal pose with the FA Cup the day after beating Sheffield United in the 1936 final: (back row, l-r) George Male, Jack Crayston, Alex Wilson, Herbie Roberts, Ted Drake, Eddie Hapgood (middle row, l-r) Manager George Allison, Joe Hulme, Ray Bowden, Alex James, Cliff Bastin, Trainer Tom Whittaker (front row, l-r) Albert Beasley, Wilf Copping

Allison’s eye

If Chapman was the first of his kind, so too, was Allison. He was no tactician, almost certainly he never professed to being a football coach of any kind. But as a former journalist, he had the knack of keeping Arsenal in the eye of the public. When you consider some of the stunts that Chapman pulled off – the renaming of Gillespie Road underground station to “Arsenal” and the innovative white-sleeved playing kit, it may be that Allison was the power behind the Emperor’s throne. Allison was one of the first “kings of spin”, so who better to ensure the dynasty continued? He also had players and coaches to back him up – Tom Whittaker, Alex James and Joe Shaw to name but three. Wisely, Allison didn’t take over officially until the start of 1934-35, by which time, Arsenal had regained their title and were poised for a third successive triumph.

The last throes?

George Male

Although the Gunners were far from being a spent force in 1934-35 for the next year or so, there were signs that the system and the players that had made the club almost infallible, was starting to creak. Much revolved around the likes of James, Roberts and one or two others. History has demonstrated that all great football teams have a problem with succession – fitness, age, motivation, over-familiarity all playing their part – and Arsenal found that out in the second half of the decade.

With David Jack moving on, Arsenal had signed a replacement for the talented forward in Ted Drake, who joined the club from Southampton in the latter stages of 1933-34 for £ 6,500. Other new faces such as Jack Crayston and Wilf Copping also arrived. Cliff Bastin, George Male, James and Roberts were still there, as was goalkeeper Frank Moss. James, however, had started to become injury prone.

Arsenal started well, and were unbeaten in their first five games, including an 8-1 victory against Portsmouth. Drake, who scored three times in that game, proved to be a great success and netted seven hat-tricks among his 42 league goals.

But Arsenal struggled away from home in the first half of the season. It wasn’t until late November (at Chelsea) that they secured a victory, although by the end of the campaign, they had the best travelling record.

Sunderland and Manchester City made the running with Arsenal for most of the season. Sunderland, a free-scoring team that included the likes of Raich Carter, Bob Gurney and Patsy Gallacher, inflicted upon Arsenal their second defeat of the season in October. The Gunners could not shake-off Sunderland and by Christmas, the North-East side were top of the table with Arsenal in third position, although only a point behind. While Stoke City also had their moments, it was definitely Sunderland who offered the stiffest challenge to Arsenal’s title.

Arsenal managed to make some changes in mid-season to reinforce and revitalise their bid. In January 1935, Taffy Rogers arrived from Wrexham, a few weeks later, Bobby Davidson joined from St. Johnstone, and in March, Alf Kirchen was signed from Norwich City. All would make a contribution in the run-in.

Ted Drake

When Arsenal and Sunderland met at Highbury on March 9, a crowd of 73,295 saw a tight 0-0 draw. Arsenal were on top by two points, but both Sunderland and Manchester City were closing in. With five games to go, Arsenal trounced Middlesbrough 8-0 (another four for Drake) to lead by three points. And when they won at Middlesbrough on April 22 by a single goal, Drake again the matchwinner, they opened-up a five point gap with two games remaining. They cemented their championship win with a 5-3 victory at Leicester. Sunderland finished runners-up and Sheffield Wednesday came up on the outside to leapfrog Manchester City.

Success was merited, but Arsenal had been pushed all the way. Over the next two years, it became clear that although the Gunners were still the team everyone wanted to beat, they were no longer the best around. They won the FA Cup in 1936, but slipped to sixth in the league, their lowest placing since 1930. When they next won the title in 1938, it was with just 52 points and one point more than Wolves. As war approached, they ended the decade in fifth place. The era of Arsenal was effectively over. It would be many years before the club would enjoy comparable pre-eminence.

A visit to Highbury was always a joy. If you ever got the chance to walk through the marble hall and admire the Art Deco architecture, it just oozed class and a bygone age. It’s good to see that the old art deco stands remains in some form for Highbury was one of the icons of football architecture.

Cox, Jack: Don Davies, An Old International
Goldblatt, David: The Ball is Round
Inglis, Simon: The Football Grounds of Great Britain
Johnston, W.M: The Football League – Competitions of 1934-35
Knighton, Leslie: Behind the scenes in big-time football
Ollier, Fred: Arsenal, a complete record
Pevsner, Nikolaus: The Buildings of England
Stevenson, John: Britain 1914-45
Wilson, Jonathan: Inverting the Pyramid – The History of Football Tactics

Photos: PA, Neil Jensen

A player for the 70s: The brave Ray Kennedy

WHAT A marvellous and varied football career Ray Kennedy enjoyed. Considered to be too slow when he was very young, he proved the doubters wrong and enjoyed huge success at both Arsenal and Liverpool. Furthermore, he reinvented himself from a big, combative striker to a powerful midfielder, possessing a hammer-link left foot and good aerial ability. All things considered, he was one of the players that defined his era, versatile, strong and, when the moment demanded, creative.

Ray Kennedy has died at 70 years of age, no mean feat considering he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 33. To live with such a cruel and unforgiving disease for so long demanded courage and commitment, both qualities of which he displayed as a player.

Kennedy started his professional career with Arsenal, making his debut in September 1969 against Glentoran in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. By the end of the 1969-70 season, he had helped Arsenal win the competition, their first silverware since 1953, and had scored in the first leg of the final in Brussels against Anderlecht. He didn’t play in the second leg, but Arsenal won 3-0 to secure a 4-3 aggregate victory.

A year later, Kennedy was the toast of the red half of north London as Arsenal won the league title at, of all places, Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane. Kennedy scored the goal that ensured the Gunners were champions: “The ball went as far as Armstrong, outside the penalty area on the left. He in turn centred once more, and this time there was Kennedy to rise powerfully and send home a blitz of a header underneath the crossbar.” 

A few days later, Arsenal won the FA Cup to complete the double, only the second time that the feat had been achieved in the 20th century. The role played by Kennedy and his striker partner, John Radford, was very important to Bertie Mee’s side, the duo were labelled “strong, effective bombardiers” by the Times. Kennedy netted 26 goals, 19 in the league in 1970-71.

Kennedy was only 19 and had won three major prizes, the future seemed very bright for the big young man from Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. He never won another trophy with Arsenal, although they reached the FA Cup final in 1972 and over the next three seasons, he scored another 43 goals, of which 33 were in the old first division. Arsenal, by 1974, had lost their way and in the summer, Liverpool signed him for £ 200,000. It proved to be Bill Shankly’s last acquisition, in fact Kennedy arrived at Anfield on the day the legendary Liverpool boss resigned. 

Injury prevented him from opening the season for his new club, but he made his debut at Chelsea on August 31, scoring in the 22nd minute as Liverpool won 3-0. Kennedy had an excellent record against Chelsea and his presence unnerved a team that was destined for relegation. Kennedy was no John Toshack in the air, said the reports, but he was very hard to shake off the ball.

He started well, scoring eight goals in 11 games, but by the end of 1974-75, the big concern was his lack of goals. By sheer chance, manager Bob Paisley converted him to left-side midfield and suddenly, Kennedy had a new career in a new town. He was capped by England for the first time in March 1976 and went on to win 17 appearances.

At Liverpool, Kennedy was a pivotal figure in a golden era for the club – three European Cups, five league titles and a UEFA Cup, as well as the Football League Cup. He eventually left in January 1982 to join old team-mate Toshack who was managing Swansea. But his fitness was declining and it became obvious something serious was wrong with Kennedy. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 and struggled for decades to combat its dreadful symptoms.

In so many ways, he was one of the key figures of the early to mid-70s in English football. To enjoy success with one club is a magnificent achievement, but Ray Kennedy made an impact at both Arsenal and Liverpool, two clubs with rich heritages. He was a player with his own impressive history. Rest in peace.

1971: Geoffrey and Gordon

ONE OF the privileges of being born in the late 1950s was that your formative years, from a footballing perspective, were the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a great time for English football as the nation basked in the glow of World Cup 1966.

As the passage of time moves on, and history plays tricks with the memory, sometimes you have to remind yourself that over the course of your spectating career, you may well have seen some true greats of the game. Of course, when you are young, you take it for granted, but when people refer to players like Bobby Moore, Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and others from ’66, you realize that you probably saw all of them in their pomp.

In December 1971, West Ham were lining up to play Stoke City in the second leg of the Football League Cup semi-final. The Hammers had won the first meeting at the Victoria Ground 2-1, so they were favourites to reach the final to meet either Chelsea or Tottenham.

The game was the talk of school, largely because there were a number of West Ham fans around and also because of the promise of Wembley, which was then still a prized venue and not the everyday location it has become in football today. A small group of us decided to travel up to the East End to watch the game after school – a grand adventure on the District Line from Upminster to Upton Park.

A cold, December evening, slight mist in the air, undoubtedly frost to come, accompanied the journey. There used to be something special about floodlit games at West Ham and the atmosphere around Upton Park was of great expectations – the Hammers about to clinch a place at Wembley. Obviously everyone with claret and blue in their veins wanted to be there to witness this, for the pushing and shoving was like a huge rugby scrum without the manners. The air was thick with an intoxicating brew of halitosis, alcohol, cigarettes, onions, chewing gum and body-odour (this was, after all, the days before personal hygiene and only ‘pansies’ wore deodorant). Oh the rich aroma of a football crowd!

We wedged ourselves into the ground and found a position behind the goal in West Ham’s infamous North Bank. There was a myriad of Dickensian characters in the crowd, donkey jackets and Dr.Martens being the order of the day. The language was strictly Anglo-Saxon. In the Evening News that night, England skipper Bobby Moore had urged Upton Park to get behind the team, something the West Ham crowd never had much trouble doing, and when he took the field, he gestured to the all sides of the ground to make some noise. I remember someone standing behind me saying that he hoped the “’ammers” would play Chelsea in the final because he wanted to give those “cocky b****** a good hiding on the train up to Wembley”. I shivered, not because of the cold, but because I was also hoping West Ham would reach the final to play Chelsea…because I felt the Blues would easily beat Bobby Moore and co.

“I’m forever blowing bubbles….we’re on our way to Wembley…..Bobby, Bobby, Bobby Moore…..”, the North Bank was in fine voice as the game got underway, the crowd swaying with every move, necks craning to see the ball played down the touchlines, footings lost as the ball rained in on the penalty area. The ground was packed solid, 38,771 people inside, most of whom were trying to will West Ham to Wembley.

In the first half, West Ham created chance-after-chance, but Geoff Hurst, Trevor Brooking and Clyde Best were all generous to Stoke. There was a degree of frustration setting in, West Ham couldn’t kill-off Stoke and with 17 minutes remaining, a  cross by the pipe-smoking Stoke captain, Peter Dobing was shot low into the net by John Ritchie to give Stoke the lead and level the aggregate: 2-2.

West Ham were gifted the chance to equalize with three minutes to go as Gordon Banks brought down Harry Redknapp. A penalty – with Banks defending the North Bank end.  Surely “Geoffrey” would score the goal that would take West Ham to the Empire Stadium? Tension built. Hurst picked up the ball, puffed his cheeks as he was prone to do and smiled at his old England mucker. He shot with force, his customary approach to spot-kicks, but Banks stopped it, pushing the ball into the glow of the floodlights. It was a tremendous stop and killed the atmosphere in the North Bank stone dead. You could hear a Stanley Knife drop.

Given we had to get home, and school the next day, we didn’t really need the inconvenience of extra time, but we got our bonus 30 minutes. No further score, the home players had their heads down, Stoke were looking forward to a replay. The night belonged to Gordon Banks, England’s World Champion goalkeeper. And a few weeks later, the tie was Stoke’s and on March 4, 1972, so too was the Football League Cup. They beat Chelsea 2-1 to claim the only piece of silverware they have ever won. I’ve always blamed Geoff Hurst for that….

** For the record, on the same night, Tottenham won 2-0 in Bucharest against Rapid, “the dirtiest side I’ve seen”, according to Bill Nicholson. And Panathinaikos and Nacional (Uruguay) drew 1-1 in Athens in a typically bad tempered World Club Championship first leg tie.

Photo: PA