Lucky 13- Part 1
As ever the summer brings a dearth of real football, so as ever I will be delving into the vaults of Arsenal`s rich history to while away the summertime blues. In a weekly series until the real thing kicks off again, I`ll be looking at each of Arsenal`s 13 league title winning seasons one by one and try to attempt to place them in the great canvas of Arsenal`s history. The Gunners have been ever presents in the top flight since 1919, so every August for the last 91 seasons; we have kicked the league season off with a chance of becoming England`s flagship club. For a good many of those seasons since the early 30s, it has been an expectation that we do. Today, I will look at Arsenal`s first ever league triumph in the 1930-31 season. Under the guidance of one of football`s great trailblazers, Herbert Chapman, overseen by one of football`s most upwardly mobile opportunists, Henry Norris, Arsenal built on their first ever major trophy, having secured the F.A. Cup one year earlier in 1930.
Chapman had joined the club as Manager in 1925, pledging both publicly and privately that it would take him five years to mould a club that could win trophies, so the F.A. Cup win of 1930 was a major coup as he had delivered on his promise. Which is always a sapient idea when under the helm of a ruthless leader such as Norris. Chapman had begun to forge a team in a brand new W-M formation never before seen in world football. He notoriously dropped one of his midfielders back into the defensive line and became the first manager to regularly play three players as dedicated defenders. However, the formation was not as negative as contemporary critics made out; the central midfielder had traditionally been a 'half back`, a deep lying midfielder. Chapman plugged that gap in the middle of his midfield with mercurial play-maker Alex James, who was anything but a defensive presence. Arsenal`s ethos was as simple as it was effective; the three defenders would sit deep and soak up pressure. With the opposing attack often lacking the guile to get past the three dedicated defenders, Arsenal would win the ball back and immediately despatch to Alex James, who would access his radar to play a swift defence splitting through ball to one of Arsenal`s wing heeled forwards- David Jack, Cliff Bastin and Jack Lambert. However, given the exotic nature of the formation, it took Chapman a while to bleed it into the genetics of the team. But there were signs of consistency in 1930 and the F.A. Cup win effectively blew open a piñata of belief from the players that they were headed into the correct direction. Riding the crest of that F.A. Cup wave, Arsenal roared out of the traps in August 1930, winning their first five games, four of their first seven ended in resounding 4-1 wins, whilst they also made short work of Blackpool with a 7-1 win at Highbury (a game in which George Male made his debut, who would serve the club with distinction until 1948). It wasn`t until their tenth league encounter that they tasted defeat. That defeat enabled Aston Villa to temporarily hijack Arsenal`s lead at the summit of the 1st Division.
But on the few occasions this Arsenal side did suffer setbacks, like wounded animals they bared teeth and struck back with venom. All muddy pawed and bloody jawed Arsenal responded to losing their place at the top by beating the side that had the temerity to glance lasciviously at the throne with a 5-2 win at Villa Park. Arsenal were a team that scored goals for fun, in December 1930 the North London side`s schedule demanded they play on December 25, 26 and 27. They won all three and scored 14 goals in the process. With Alex James providing the supply lines, Arsenal`s three strikers enjoyed golden seasons. David Jack scored 31 in 35 games; Cliff 'Boy` Bastin hit 28 in 42 at the tender age of 18, whilst Jack Lambert scored an incredible 38 goals in 34 games. He still holds the record as Arsenal`s top goalscorer in a league season. David Jack was making good on his £10,890 fee with a goal return that poured scorn on F.A. President Sir Charles Clegg`s claim that "No footballer in the world is worth that amount." In Bastin, Arsenal had a lightning quick winger with an exocet of a shot. On February 14th, 1931, Bastin became the youngest hat trick scorer in Arsenal`s history with his three goal salvo in a 6-3 win over Derby County. Presciently, Bastin`s portent blow at the heart of Arsenal`s history was achieved the same day that Bela Lugosi`s memorable portrayal of 'Dracula` was released to awe struck audiences and the day that Ozzie Nelson recorded the timeless hit, "Dream A Little Dream of Me." Arsenal were certainly beginning to dream about their maiden Championship.
Every Arsenal fan knows that Herbert Chapman`s influence on the club stretches far beyond the trophies he put on the sideboard. Chapman was beginning to remodel the club from top to bottom, Arsenal were just beginning to settle into their new identity as a North London club and Chapman was sculpting their image. Chapman was interested in the idea of a club European Cup, which the powers that be wouldn`t sanction. (The inaugural World Cup took place in 1930- England refused to enter the tournament until 1950). Gerry Keyser, a Dutch goalkeeper would become Arsenal`s first ever overseas player during the 1930-31 season. It was August 1930 when the iconographic clock made its fledgling appearance at Highbury. Originally, the timepiece was erected onto the roof of the Laundry End (later known as the North Bank) until the stand was rebuilt in 1935, when it was moved to the College End of the ground- though the stand soon gave its name to the eye catching appendage. Mr. Chapman realised that football`s prerogative as the nation`s pass time was under threat from sports such as Speedway, which placed emphasis on technological innovation and spectator participation and so berthed the idea of the 45 minute countdown clock to afford a sense of involvement for the supporters. However, the F.A. ruled that Arsenal could not keep the clock in its countdown guise as it impinged on the referee`s authority, so the club soon replaced it with the classic timepiece we see today. In keeping with Chapman`s wish to escalate the experience of the fans, it was also in this season that he began insisting his players line up in the centre circle as they emerged from the tunnel for kick off and turn and applaud all four sides of the ground- opposing supporters including- to acknowledge those that had parted with their hard earned money to watch. (This a tradition the Arsenal team observes to this day). As well as competition with newer, more technologically advanced sports, Chapman was all too aware that the world was in the grip of a global economic meltdown. Herbert Hoover went cap in hand to Congress in 1930 to ask for $150m to re-stimulate the American economy whilst the Austrian bank Creditanstalt was declared bankrupt, leading to a domino effect of bank collapses in Europe which led to a humbling recession. (The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?) Disposable income wasn`t quite as spare as it had been in the 1920s and Chapman sensed the players would need to take a step towards the fans to keep them emptying their wallets.
Arsenal continued their impressive form into the spring, but having already swotted Aston Villa as soon as they dared threaten the crown, the Gunners soon became angered by the sight of Sheffield Wednesday stalking the lion`s tail. So when the Yorkshiremen came to Highbury as pretenders to the throne, a 2-0 defeat soon put them back into their place. The finish line was in sight and with and 9-1 win over Grimsby at Highbury and a 7-2 away win at Leicester following shortly after, there was no sign of nerves. By the time Aston Villa came to Highbury and recorded a shock 5-1 win in March, it was too late as Arsenal ran away with it, beating Liverpool 3-1 at Highbury in late April to confirm their status as Champions of England`s top flight for the first time ever. Arsenal ran away with the title with 66 points- seven ahead of 2nd placed Aston Villa, registering 127 goals- which remains a club record for one season. (Naturally, with Chamakh attack now on board, that record will be broken on the 80th anniversary of it being set). We won 28, drew 10 and lost 4 to saunter to the title in the same season Manchester United and Leeds United were relegated, becoming the first side south of Birmingham to win the First Division title. Bastin would later call the original Arsenal champions the best team he ever played in, commenting in his autobiography, "The Arsenal team of the 1930-31 season is the best I ever played in. And, without hesitation, I include in that generalisation international teams as well. Never before has there been such a team put out by any club." Chapman and Arsenal had made history and set down the marker for a decade of domination. The day after the Gunners sealed the league title, the Empire State Building was finished. Chapman had just erected an empire and a sky scraper all of his own.LD.