A Decade of Dominance
After securing their third consecutive league title in 1935, Arsenal`s league form became strangely stagnant. Their 1st Division opponents were beginning to find porous holes in Arsenal`s style of play, with most teams figuring out that by defending deep and not over committing, Arsenal`s counter attacking style of play could be negated. The team Chapman had assembled was beginning to age and the puppet master was no longer of this mortal coil to rejig the strings. In particular Alex James who, despite never being either swift or industrious, was finding top flight football too irksome for his aching limbs. James eventually retired in 1937. However, the club was still in a state of positive evolution, James` great swansong was to captain Arsenal to a 1936 F.A. Cup Final victory over Sheffield United at Wembley- a trophy which helped dull the ignominy of a disappointing 6th place finish in the 1st Division (a season exacerbated by simultaneous long term injuries to James and Drake. Thank goodness that 21st Century Arsenal don`t suffer from this sort of affliction). 1936-37 saw a little improvement with Arsenal finishing 3rd. But the changes off the pitch hushed talk of the Gunners limping away quietly from England`s top table. Highbury continued its transformation into a palatial arena of luxury seemingly unreachable to the 1930s footballer, ensuring the Bank of England club had the armoury to rebuild and attract the top talent the game had to offer.
In the summer of 1935, the Laundry End- or the North Bank as it later became known, had a roof fitted, meaning the iconographic stadium timepiece moved to the College End of the ground, giving the stand the colloquial name "The Clock End." Even as he slept in the crypt, Chapman`s visions were evolving and pollinating new life into the club. In November 1936, the piece du resistance was unveiled as the new East Stand was opened. The East Stand was unlike anything the sport had seen before. Designed by William Bernie and heavily influenced by the French art deco fashions of the 1920s, the stand had an entrance fitted with Terrazzo floor embossed with the Club's emblem and was home to the bronze bust of the late Herbert Chapman. It also hosted the boardroom, cocktail lounge, dressing rooms, press facilities and main offices. The dressing room`s marble floors were heated, whilst a concierge manned the entrance of the East Stand, tipping his hat and escorting visitors to the Director`s Boxes. Arsenal invented the idea of pre match entertainment, as supporters could enjoy a meal in the club restaurant before watching the match. The Directors were even given cushioned chairs within the confines of the East Stand Upper Tier. The insignia of the club crest, an A underscored by a football and a small 'c` was embossed into every crevice of the stand. Entering the East Stand was more akin to walking through the doors of the London Palladium or a plush cinema. Even the concrete on the front of the Upper Tier was rendered to give the illusion of drapes hanging dolefully over the edge of the tier.
Chapman realised that the popularity of football among working men was not a given and feared that the game was not doing enough to keep recession bitten gentlemen clicking through the turnstiles. The new East Stand and the roof of the popular Laundry End were the culmination of Chapman`s vision that football`s wellbeing was incumbent upon those that paid admission, by looking after the supporters; the supporters would in turn look after the game. Such thinking seems hackneyed and clichéd nowadays, the sort of quasi conscious political spiel adopted by lurching silver tongued billionaire blood suckers. But this was the infancy of football`s rise to become the national game and Chapman`s discourse was years ahead of its time. But the East Stand also provided the players with a level of luxury they would likely never have seen in their whole lives. Not only did the concierges and the heated marble floors add to the feeling of aristocracy, but the facilities were truly at the zenith of the game. Massage tables and individual baths were fitted as standard, what separated Arsenal was that they allowed the away dressing room the exact same indulgences and luxuries accessible to the home team. In an era when home sides would fiddle the radiators in away dressing rooms, making them arctic in the winter and tropical in the warmer months, the Gunners approach was somewhat out of left field. Everything right down to the cutlery was branded with Arsenal`s club crest and the board of directors insisted on the flowers in the boardroom on a match day being in the colours of the visiting side. It is a tradition that lasts to this day. Chapman`s ruthless winning machine of a football team on the pitch was one underpinned by a football club in every sense that espoused the ethos of congeniality, spectator appreciation and fair play. (At this point I`m minded of a quote from Actor and Arsenal season ticket holder Paul Kaye, "Every supporter reckons their club is the classiest but we [Arsenal fans] just know we`re right, don`t we?")
On the pitch, Allison, despite securing a 1936 F.A. Cup on the swelling sideboard; was charged with turning Arsenal into England`s titans again. With the retirement of Alex James, the task looked to be beyond a man who had taken over a ready made team and simply told them "business as usual lads." But rather than be downcast by the James` surrender to age, it appeared to liberate Arsenal. The apron strings were cut and rather than looking forlornly to an ageing and fading pro for inspiration, other players simply assumed the mantle of responsibility now that he had shuffled away from the limelight. Bob John and Herbie Roberts also retired, whilst Allison wielded the axe, selling Ray Bowden to Newcastle United, Joe Hulme had a long term back injury which would keep him out for most of the campaign and Ted Drake`s knees were in a state that would make Ledley King wince. Allison bought in George Hunt from Spurs to cover for his ailing front man, whilst a core of younger players were introduced from the reserves, such as Bernard Joy, Alf Kirchen and Denis and Leslie Compton. But there was still a sprinkling of experience and know how, with England captain Eddie Hapgood, George Male and the powerhouse Bastin, still only 26 but an incredibly seasoned professional having been a first team regular since the age of 17. This aforementioned triumvirate maintained the spirit of Chapman and were charged with wielding the wealth of trophies under their belts to lead a new, young Gunners side to glory.
Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sunderland had emerged as the top flight`s titans in Arsenal`s brief abstinence, but with the decks cleared and fresher legs aboard, the good ship Gooner was again ready for a serious assault on their trophy. They began with intent, winning their first three games with consummate ease, sweeping aside Everton 4-1 at Goodison on the opening day, before despatching Huddersfield 3-1 in their first home match and thumping contenders Wolves 5-0 in the Highbury sunshine. However, as was the wont of the team of the 30s, inconsistency dogged them during the first half of the season, particularly with some youngsters stepping into the hefty leather boots of their predecessors, the Highbury crowd, now accustomed to dining out on the caviar and fine wine of success, were less than accommodating and voiced their frustration boisterously at games. A general theme of these articles that has struck me in researching and writing them is how similar things appear to be some eighty years on. It hadn`t been my intention at all to draw these similarities as some kind of journalistic device, but the fish in this particular barrel keep cocking the gun to their own temple. Away defeats to Huddersfield Town and Bolton Wanderers, together with a drab draw at Leicester were the sign of some wildly inconsistent from to come over the autumn months. When Ted Drake`s knee gave out again in October, the Gunners looked groomed for mid table mediocrity.
Even after an impressive 4-1 home win over Sunderland and following an underwhelming 2-1 home win over Manchester City on 2nd October, Arsenal went six games without winning; this encompassed a disappointing home draw with West Bromwich Albion and an embarrassing away defeat at Grimsby Town- both clubs were comfortably relegated that season. By the time they rediscovered the winning habit with a 2-1 home win against Charlton, they had slipped to 11th place whilst amazingly; it was Brentford who took the title challenge to Wolves. To emphasise their herculean commitment to inconsistency, Arsenal punctuated the six game winless streak by winning four on the trot, including a vital 2-1 victory oiver 3rd placed Preston, they then lost two on the trot, before winning two on the trot and then drawing two on the bounce. With Drake in and out of the side, the Gunners didn`t have the same punch up front and George Hunt was struggling to fill his sizeable boots. A damaging 3-1 defeat away at league leaders Wolves in January seemed to consign the title race to a shoot out between Brentford and Wolves. But whilst not the fluid, free scoring, destroy all comers incarnation of the side of 1932-35, the Gunners still had an iron spirit. But better than that, they had Ted Drake back to full fitness.
Drake immediately set about dragging a flagging team by the scruff of its neck, scoring twice in a 3-1 win over Leicester City before hitting a hat trick in a 3-0 home in over Derby. The Gunners had their groove back, shooting themselves back into contention with a four game winning streak, tucking themselves in just two points behind Brentford and four behind Wolves. Brentford actually marched to the top of the table briefly in February, but the sight of Arsenal sniffing hungrily at their hides caused them to suffer a bout of vertigo and the plucky West Londoners collapsed- unable to win for ten games until April. Yet when they did find that elusive win, it appeared to have grave consequences on the title race even though their own challenge had died. Wolves also hit a winter wobble, winning only twice in six games as Arsenal`s superior fitness began to shine through. The Gunners went top again on the 19th February, with a 2-0 victory over Chelsea. Naturally, both goals came from Drake as he and Jack Crayston struck up an impenetrable understanding.
Arsenal were still top going into March but the title race became characterised by calamity as neither Wolves nor Arsenal seemed to want to win it, nerves and anxiety gripped their performances and permeated their results. A 0-0 draw with First Division whipping boys West Brom was followed by a more respectable 2-2 draw with Charlton at Highbury- the South London side would finish 4th that season. Only by virtue of the fact that Wolves fared even worse with defeats at Leeds and Chelsea were the Gunners still top. A nervy 1-0 win over Leeds at Highbury put the Gunners five points clear and a shoe in for another title. Until Brentford had their say again in a remarkable season for a side who had been dismissed as relegation fodder the previous summer. Despite having not won for ten matches, the Bees stunned Highbury with an assured display. The fact that they had slipped out of view into 7th place removed the pressure whilst some of Arsenal`s young players froze under their respective spotlight. Brentford won 2-0 and Drake broke his wrist and suffered a concussion, meaning he`d miss the remainder of the season. Suddenly, the predicted procession had turned into a poverty of form. A drab 0-0 home draw with Birmingham was followed by a trip to Griffin Park, where the Bees took delight into routing a forlorn Gunners side 3-0. All of a sudden, Wolves were top again and the team from North London looked to have blown it completely.
Therefore a trip to 3rd placed Preston was not the ideal venue to apply the squeeze to a Wolves side who could have been crowned champions by a victory over Charlton and two Arsenal defeats to Preston and then Liverpool. But Cliff Bastin, one of the team`s more experienced charges stepped up to score two goals in a 3-1 win at Deepdale, thereby ending Preston`s very faint hopes. A 1-0 home win over Liverpool kept the championship race alive into the last day, but the streets of Islington echoed frustration, the pervasive feeling was that Arsenal had blown it and that the new young charges were not fit to lace the hobnailed boots of James, Hulme and Jack. Wolves were away at a sagging Sunderland side, who were sitting in mid table obscurity. They needed a win to be guaranteed champions. Free of expectation, a liberated Arsenal probably thought they were simply trying to end the season a relative high when they walloped Bolton Wanderers 5-1, with goals from Bastin (2), Crayston (2) and Denis Compton. Wolves took an expected early 1-0 lead at Roker Park, though this was prior to the day of expansive telecommunications, so few inside Highbury on the 7th May, 1938 would have been aware of developments in the North East. Most probably didn`t want to know. But Wolves became anxious and leaked an early second half equaliser. Despite a late onslaught Sunderland held firm. Once the final whistle sounded at Highbury, the concierges of the glamorous East Stand were sent to the commissionaire`s office to check the result on the telegraph. The 1-1 draw at Roker Park meant Arsenal were champions for the fifth time in eight years and the confirmation came over the Highbury PA system, causing rapturous scenes inside the ground. This new young team had reassumed the title, Allison spoke bullishly about this being the beginning of another period of dominance for the Gunners. But a certain Austrian had other ideas; Hitler`s lebensraum programme was slowly pushing the Allies closer and closer to conflict. Following the 1938-39 season, competitive football was suspended as the Second World War broke out and things would never be the same again.LD.
Part 1: 1930-31
Part 2: 1932-33
Part 3: 1933-34
Part 4: 1934-35