The Death and the Glory
In 1932-33 Arsenal had been recoronated as England`s flagship football team. As they had learned in the 1931-32 season, keeping the monkey off your back is more difficult than removing it. Once again, Arsenal`s scalp was firmly upon the mantelpiece as they kicked off the 1933-34 season. But tragedy was to strike a season that should forever more be remembered as the first and only time in Arsenal`s history that they retained the Championship. Yet, at the very peak of the team`s bewitching powers, the sorcerer was to be struck down in untimely fashion. 1933-34 will forever go down as the most epoch making season in the history of Arsenal Football Club.
With Arsenal`s goalscorer in chief David Jack creeping into his mid 30s, Chapman realised that his forward line required a slight remoulding. In the summer of 1933, he made an advance for 2nd Division Southampton`s Ted Drake. But despite the challenge of top flight football and the riches on offer at Highbury, Drake proffered that he would not be prepared to move that far North! When Henry Norris was given a life ban from football in 1929, he was replaced as Chairman by Samuel Hill Wood. Hill Wood broke the mould for football, recognising Chapman`s mercurial talents and visionary status, Hill Wood gave Chapman full autonomy over transfer dealings, club administration and training. In the 1930s, this was simply unheard of. So instead of panic buying another striker, Chapman bided his time and decided to wait for Drake. In the meantime, the Gunners began the season at jogging pace; following up a 1-1 home draw with Birmingham on the opening day with a 2-1 win over likely title rivals Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsbrough. Two draws and two defeats followed in their next four games as the goals began to dry up and opponents raised their game against the newly crowned champions. But Chapman was never one to panic, his teams usually began seasons in a rather non-descript manner before punishing the track on the home straight. Chapman was the first manager in English football to deploy the warm down and employ full time masseurs at his football club. In a time when such innovations were regarded with a suspicion usually reserved for beggars and vagrants, this gave Arsenal`s players an edge in their physical fitness that allowed their stars to burn twice as bright for twice as long.
They set their marker down with a 6-0 win over Middlesbrough in September and went nine games unbeaten thereafter, winning seven and drawing two. But to the surprise of football spectators everywhere, it was not Aston Villa or Sheffield Wednesday that were to duel with the mighty Gunners at the summit of the table. With attacking players such as Raich Carter, Patsy Gallacher, Bob Gurney and Jimmy Connor, it was Sunderland that led the 1st Division through the winter months with Arsenal clinging at their coat tails. The Rokerites really announced their threat as a serious rival in December when they ended the Arsenal`s unbeaten run with a resounding 3-0 win at Roker Park. Though Arsenal had been obtaining results to that point, they hadn`t been doing so by the sort of gargantuan cricket scores that had marked their last two league campaigns, where 6s and 7s were clocked up with the regularity of a pensioners bowel movements. The defeat at Roker Park caused Chapman to confide in his assistant Bob Wall that the team would need rebuilding. He knew he needed to replace the ageing limbs of David Jack and reignite the element of surprise into Arsenal`s counter attacks. Late in December, despite Arsenal being top of the league on goal average, Captain George Male was moved to tell the press, "The team is falling well below their normal standards in recent weeks, as shown by the dour goalless draw with Birmingham a couple of days ago." Chapman wanted to remould his attack and reignite his interest in Ted Drake, who had already clocked up 20 goals for Southampton by January. Tragically, Chapman never got the opportunity to make that amends.
On the 6th January, 1934, the players took public transport to Highbury as usual in readiness for that afternoon`s home match with Sheffield Wednesday. Most were stopped in their tracks just yards from the front of the East Stand entrance, upon which work had just begun to reconstruct it into the iconographic facade we all recognise now- another of Chapman`s lasting legacies and attempts to turn watching Arsenal into a celestial paradise- both on and off the pitch. The newspaper placards outside of the ground were cold and unforgiving. "HERBERT CHAPMAN DEAD." Chapman complained of a heavy cold after watching Arsenal`s Reserves play in Guildford on January 3rd. Less than 72 hours later, he dropped dead with pneumonia. It was cruelly ironic that it was pursuing his life passion that led so innocuously to his death. The Times lamentably wrote,
"Association football is not so rich with personalities that it can afford to lose a man such as Mr. Herbert Chapman.....He was only 55 years of age and, much as he had accomplished, he had such vitality and determination that there seemed even more for him to do in the future. The full effect of his influence on football cannot be gauged yet, and it also remains to be seen whether or not there will be disciples that will carry on his work of popularizing football."
Chapman left a widow, two sons and a brother named Harry-who was a professional footballer in his younger days. But he also left behind an umbilical relationship with his players. Chapman was light heartedly ridiculed in some quarters for his use of a blackboard in the dressing room to thrash out team tactics (a practise which is par of the course today). Chapman wanted every player to know his job on the pitch, but he also wanted every player to enjoy his job on the pitch, so during team talks he would encourage his players to suggest tactical nuances. (His adoption of the revolutionary WM formation was actually built on a suggestion from ex Arsenal captain Charlie Buchan). Because of this, his players respected and adored him. Because of his innovations in spectator comfort and supporter interaction, as well as his insistence on his players regularly indulging in community work (in the days before it was written into player contracts out of PR laden, liberal guilt), Mr. Chapman was adored by the fans too-and not just because of what he put onto the sideboard. Chapman made Arsenal an institution and put a spine into a sagging middle of the road club. On the afternoon of his death, Arsenal played out an insipid 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday in a funereal atmosphere. The home side were simply too stricken with grief to play with impetus, whilst the visitors too were too consumed by shock and adherent to codes of respect to heap any more misery on a football club in grief. On the 10th January, Chapman was buried as scores of people lined the streets to see his hearse and pay their respects. His pall bearers were David Jack, Eddie Hapgood, Cliff Bastin, Alex James and Jack Lambert. A veritable who`s who of 1930s football and men who owed their careers to their benevolent leader.
Joe Shaw took the reigns as Caretaker Manager, but understandably found it difficult to lift a club in mourning. Arsenal lost their next three games, the second of those matches was at home to local rivals Tottenham Hotspur with an estimated 70,000 inside Highbury tunefully declaring "For he`s a jolly good fellow" for the entire 90 minutes. The 3-1 defeat to Spurs knocked Arsenal off the top of the league as Sunderland stole a march. But from the flames of grief, the Champions picked themselves back up again and forged their melancholy into defiance. They vowed to win the title in tribute to the great man who had propelled them to such heights in the first place. Three narrow away wins against Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Blackburn Rovers pulled them kicking and screaming back into the title race in February. Then in March, Chapman got one of his dying wishes as Ted Drake relented and signed for Arsenal on March 1st 1934 for a sum of £6,500. Drake instantly turned the Gunners into a more free scoring outfit, but the real jewel in Arsenal`s crown was Chapman`s greatest discovery. 'Wee` Alex James.
James is considered by those that saw him as the greatest player ever to don the Arsenal shirt. Drake himself would remark some years later that, "He was the one that made Arsenal tick in those days. And that`s saying something considering the great players Arsenal had. Alex was the first midfield general; he had the ability to boss any side." Though he operated in central midfield, James was no metronomic workhorse. In fact, shortly after his move from Preston North End in the late 20s, several of his team mates began to become suspicious of James after he openly admitted to Chapman that he "doesn`t chase opponents back." But Chapman was a great man manager and recognised that whilst some players need the stick, others require a more loving approach. Following a spell of indifferent form in early 1930, Chapman ordered James to go home and stay in bed for a few days. The players threatened revolt at what they considered to be unequal treatment. On the morning of a 4th Round Cup tie with Birmingham City, Chapman journeyed to James` house and ordered him out of bed for the game. James reluctantly came out from under his sheets and single handedly bossed a match Arsenal won 2-0. Nobody questioned Chapman- or James- again. James appeared to be the antithesis of a midfield player. He was short, tubby and wore ridiculously long shorts. It was no secret that he was rather fond of a beer and a smoke too. But with Arsenal`s extra defender, James had license to sit deep in midfield, collect the ball from his defenders and find the Gunners flying V of pacy forwards with his unrivalled passing range and accuracy. 'Wee Alec`s` technical ability was considered light years ahead of his time in the industrial 1930s game. The supporters came to adore his balletic skills as he was the first footballer ever to earn comparisons with the arts world. Part ballet, part poetry, James was the sort of player that got turnstiles clicking. He was one of the first true celebrity footballers, his second job as a sports demonstrator for Selfridges meant he rubbed shoulders with Wimbledon champions and film stars, he would regularly be seen at trendy London nightspots with celebrity associates such as Transatlantic flier Amy Johnson.
A 4-1 defeat at Filbert Street in early March put Sunderland back to the top, but Arsenal`s guts got steelier and their guts grew colder as they forged another formidable unbeaten run into mid April. Sunderland could not hold their nerve in lieu of the Gunners stately progress as they roared back to the top. Consecutive victories over 6th placed Derby County, 4th placed Liverpool and 3rd placed Huddersfield Town took Arsenal top and they never slipped again. On 21st April, goals from Drake and James slew Sunderland 2-1 at Highbury as the Rokerites fell out of the championship view. They now needed a victory at Stamford Bridge to seal the title on Chelsea`s turf for the second consecutive season, but they stumbled to a 2-2 draw with Chapman`s old club Huddersfield Town hoping for a miracle. But Chapman`s memory received it`s rightful plateau, as a 2-0 win over Sheffield United at Highbury on the final day, meant Arsenal had retained the league title for the first time in their history, finishing three points above Huddersfield Town. Arsenal had been an unpopular side during the early 30s, but a club in mourning received universal praise as the triumph was dedicated to the sorcerer that conjured it. It is also somewhat fitting that his previous club Huddersfield finished 2nd, another lasting monument to his greatness. When asked what his biggest regret was surrounding his now departed manager, Eddie Hapgood remarked, "That he never saw a game under floodlights. He`d seen it done on the continent and wanted so desperately to see it here but was told he couldn`t due to fuel shortages in the depression. I`d love to have seen him looking out over Highbury under floodlights." As with many of Chapman`s innovations, the fruits of that one were not realised until after he had shuffled off this mortal coil. In July 1934, Henry Norris too died. Despite having been banned from Association Football a few years earlier, his mark on the club too was indelible. The Gunners would begin the 1934-35 season with the two greatest engineers of its long term future as ghosts of its past.LD.
Part 1: 1930-31
Part 2: 1932-33