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

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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?

img015
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.

img014
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.

Bibliography
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

Football managers and their kind – very few are winners

STEVE BRUCE has left the building and possibly the worst job he has ever endured. Hated by the Newcastle United fans, a servant to an owner who was equally disliked, and living on borrowed time after the club was taken over in somewhat controversial circumstances. It was probably a blessed relief for a man who is nothing more than an honest broker of a football manager. It was “mutual consent” and all that nonsense, a corporate phrase used to spare feelings and blushes, but what this catch-all term really meant was, “paid off, non-disclosure agreement signed and let’s say no more”.

Bruce lasted 97 games, which is below the average among current Premier League managers, which stands at 127. But take out Sean Dyche (401), Jürgen Klopp (330) and Pep Guardiola (301) and half of the Premier’s managers have been in charge for under 100 games.

Bruce had a win rate of 28.9%, a struggling team’s record, but Newcastle United have rarely been much better than underachievers. More illustrious names have struggled to bring success to the club – Rafa Benitez (42.47%), Chris Hughton (49.38%), Bobby Robson (46.67%) and Graeme Souness (44.83%), not to mention the first Kevin Keegan era (54.98%) have all done better, their records boosted, in some cases, by stints in the second tier. The bottom line is, many men have tried in vain to make Newcastle successful which leads one to assume the problem isn’t necessarily the managers, but elsewhere within the structure.

Very few managers win trophies, because very few teams win the big prizes, as evidenced in the records of current Premier bosses. Just five have won with their current sides: Mikkel Arteta (Arsenal), Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea), Brendan Rodgers (Leicester City), Klopp (Liverpool) and Guardiola (Manchester City). The last manager to win silverware with Manchester United was none other than José Mourinho, which also underlines the small universe of success managers circulate within.

In the past five seasons, there have been nine winning managers, of which four (Wenger, Conte, Sarri and Mourinho) are no longer plying their trade in the Premier League. Of the remaining five, Tuchel’s one victory with Chelsea was in European football. That leaves four domestic winners: Guardiola (eight prizes), Rodgers (one), Arteta (one) and Klopp (one). 

The chances of success are slim and getting slimmer as time passes due to the polarisation of big-time football. Guardiola’s record is outstanding whichever way you look at it. Since 2009, he has led his club to a league title in nine out of 12 seasons in which he has been working. In total, he has won 20 major trophies. His win rate at Manchester City is 72.64%. José Mourinho has also won 20, including eight league titles. These two coaches compare favourably with Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 34 across his time with Aberdeen and Manchester United. They both exceed the performance of Arséne Wenger, who won 14 overall, 10 of which were with Arsenal.

Ferguson and Wenger were unique in that they were employed by a single club for a very long time. They are both the most successful managers their respective clubs have ever had. Ferguson’s trophy haul dwarfs every one of his predecessors and successors – Matt Busby, for example, won eight trophies with United compared to Ferguson’s 25.

Similarly, at Arsenal, Wenger’s record is far more impressive than any of the men that came before him. Herbert Chapman, who contributed to the development of the modern game more than most, won just three prizes with Arsenal (two league titles in 1931 and 1933 and the FA Cup 1930). Chapman’s successors, George Allison, Tom Whittaker and later, Bertie Mee, all won three prizes apiece.

Chapman’s career was curtailed by his premature death, but his influence was actually far greater than his on-pitch success. Similarly, Bill Shankly’s record was not as comprehensive at Anfield as some people believe, although his legacy was effectively what became the modern Liverpool.

Shankly won six major trophies: three league titles, the FA Cup twice and the UEFA Cup. His successor, Bob Paisley, a more unassuming, humble figure, lifted 13 trophies, including six league titles, three Football League Cups, three European Cups and the UEFA Cup. Paisley’s win rate was 57.57%, compared to Shankly’s Liverpool figure of 51.98%. Kenny Dalglish, who took over as player-manager in the post-Paisley period and then had a second stint as manager, enjoyed a win rate of over 60% in his first spell and won five trophies, adding another in 2011-12. 

Managers have their time and often they coincide with the best of times for their respective clubs, such as Brian Clough at Forest, Bobby Robson at Ipswich, Don Revie at Leeds United and Graham Taylor at Watford. In the modern game, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that the good times eventually come to an end. Wenger at Arsenal had run his course long before he left, Mourinho is still trying to be very relevant when his best days may just be behind him. It is hard to imagine any top manager admitting he’s no longer up to the role – such as Bill Nicholson did when he left Spurs in 1974 or even Matt Busby when he stepped down for the first time. Brian Clough, genius though he was in his prime, should have passed the baton on earlier than 1993. Great managers generally know when their time is up, but human nature being what it is, they can often be in denial.

Steve Bruce has said that he may never work again and it is likely that his recent experiences may deter him from stepping back into the firing line. Clubs do not have patience anymore, they are unwilling to build something over time and want instant gratification. It is often forgotten that Sir Alex Ferguson went from 1986 to 1990 before winning his first cup with Manchester United and then another three before clinching the league title.  In today’s football, he would never have that kind of luxury. 

Likewise, a club like Chelsea would not allow two seasons to pass without silverware. One barren campaign, maybe, but after that, no way. Chelsea went from 1971 to 1997 without a major honour. The exception to this contemporary rule was Arsenal and Arséne Wenger, who went from 2005 to 2014 without needing to break out the silver polish. In hindsight, Arsenal may regret allowing a stagnating system to prevail, but post-Wenger has hardly been a happy time at the Emirates Stadium.

As Newcastle United search for a new manager, they will not only be looking for someone with a track record, but also a figure that can match their lofty ambitions. They will want to make a statement, and not one as anodyne as the message accompanying the departure of Steve Bruce. Success can be measured in many ways, but the new owners will interpret it quite simply as, “trophies, please”.

Arsenal, the Art Deco club


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

img013
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?

img015
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.

img014
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.

Bibliography
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