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

True heroes, modest to a man – meeting Chelsea’s 1955 champions

WHEN Chelsea won the 2005 Premier League, it was a fairy-tale for long suffering fans of the club. Those that had enjoyed Chelsea’s 1970 and 1971 triumph had to endure a 26-year period before another trophy was won and rarely, if ever, were the blues serious contenders in that timeframe. League titles were won by other clubs. The timing of that 2005 success couldn’t have been better for it marked the 100th anniversary of the club’s foundation. Ironically, it was also 50 years since their last championship success in 1954-55.

The club marked its centenary with some classy events, notably a reunion of that 1955 side at the Chelsea Hospital, home of the red-uniformed pensioners, mostly former servicemen who were given the chance to live out their days in modest and sedate surroundings. I was fortunate to buy a couple of tickets for what was an excellent evening full of nostalgia and affection.

Hosted by Jimmy Hill, and including guests such as the wonderful Tom Finney, this was money well spent. Mingling with men who had won Chelsea’s first title was an enormous privilege, players who were mostly jobbing footballers who were moulded into a consistent unit that took on more celebrated and more fancied teams. Ted Drake, their manager, who I had the good fortune to meet in the 1970s, had made improvements to the club when he arrived in 1952. Chelsea were underachieving, unpredictable, too comfortable in their own skin and too often satisfied with also-ran status. They had not won a major honour since being founded in 1905. 

Drake fancied they were a decent FA Cup team, but he longed for the club to shake off its nickname of “The Pensioners” and become more dynamic. At the time, Wolves, under Stan Cullis, and Matt Busby’s Manchester United were in the ascendancy and in 1954, the Molineux side were league champions. Chelsea’s side made progress in 1953-54, finishing eighth.

At the Chelsea hospital, 11 members of the squad that won the title in 1955 were present. Sadly, not everyone was there as the passage of time had already taken its toll: Bill Robertson (1973), Stan Wicks (1983), Ken Armstrong (1984), John Harris (1988) and Peter Sillett (1998) had all passed away before 2005. Most of the other players were there, some more chirpy than others, notably the beaming Stan Willemse.

This was a group of players who were extremely proud of their achievement, but there was no hubris, no element of arrogance whatsoever. This was a team of achievers who had cost, in transfer terms, around £ 104,000 and the highest fee – £ 23,000 – was paid for Eric “Rabbit” Parsons of West Ham United. He was there, blazered, unassuming and smiling, enjoying the company of old comrades.

Most arrived at Chelsea from smaller clubs, with the exception of Roy Bentley, the captain and talisman of the team. He cost £ 11,000 from Newcastle United. The rest came from clubs like Orient, Clyde, Brighton, Reading and Southend. There were also gifted amateurs in the form of Seamus O’Connell and Jim Lewis as well as former Walthamstow defender Derek Saunders.

It was marvellous to talk to these fellows, and I had a brief discussion with Lewis about his disputed penalty in the 1961 semi-final of the FA Amateur Cup against Hitchin, my local club. I asked him if he felt it was a penalty and his response was, “I’m going to take the Arséne Wenger approach and say I didn’t see the incident.”

Bentley was happy to talk about his career and the magnificent spirit that carried the 1955 team to the title. “We may not have been the most talented group of players, but we were certainly the best team that year,” he said as he signed my team photo and passed it among his team-mates when we were back at the Stamford Bridge hotel.

Almost to a man, the team seemed surprised by people’s interest and affection, but they were names out of old programmes, Pathe newsreels and yellowing press cuttings. There was also a little sadness that, in all probability, this might be the last time they were all together. For some, it proved just that. Since 2005, those heroes of 1955 who attended have all gone: Johnny McNichol (2007), Chic Thomson (2009), Bobby Smith (2010), Jim Lewis (2011), Les Stubbs (2011), Eric Parsons (2011), Stan Willemse (2011), Seamus O’Connell (2013), Peter Brabrook (2016), Roy Bentley (2018) and Derek Saunders (2018). Of the 20 players that appeared for Chelsea, only Frank Blunstone and Alan Dicks remain. Ron Greenwood, who started the campaign with Chelsea, died in 2006 and Rob Edwards, who made a cameo appearance, passed away in 2019.

It was a wonderful evening and the team photo of the 1955 team has a pride of place in my office. Never mind the showmanship of modern icons like Ronaldo, Zlatan and others, these gentleman (for that’s what they were), were real heroes of the people.