Mercer, Mercer Me. By Rooke Or By Crook
Following on from Arsenal`s 1937-38League triumph, Highbury was requisitioned by the authorities for air raid precautions as Britain prepared itself for World War Two and all league football was suspended. Highbury`s West Stand became an Air Raid shelter for local residents whilst the East Stand was used as a first aid premises and air raid warden reporting office. 22 of Arsenal`s staff were enlisted into the armed forces for the war effort. Nine never came back. Arsenal`s playing staff was smattered across the globe with George Male serving in Palestine, Bryn Jones stationed in Italy and Leslie Compton shipped out to India. The ground felt the repercussions of conflict too with the Laundry End roof being bombed into a pile of rubble in April 1941, a raid that saw nearby St. Thomas` Road and Blackstock Road almost entirely bereft of housing as the Nazis attacked North London on a balmy spring evening. When the war ended in 1945, local residents mucked in to help clear the rubble from around Highbury in anticipation of league football resuming imminently. Wartime friendlies had been played when players were allowed leave, but Arsenal were forced to play home games at White Hart Lane, the Highbury turf remained untouched by any other than air raid wardens in seven years.
Great excitement ensued with the news that league football could resume again in the 1946-47 season. The war may have been over but these were still very tough times for the fans and players alike, not only were they malnourished for the sport in a seven year absence, but rationing of meat and clothing was still necessary, people`s homes had been destroyed and their brothers, sisters, fathers and daughters perished- football was the working man`s escape. The appetite for league football spilled out into fever pitch on the terraces. Football attendances across the country soared in the late 40s as spectators no longer took the pleasure of attending games for granted, having had that carrot snatched away for them for seven years. Arsenal fans accustomed to success had begun to become blasé in the late 30s as the team swept all before them and discontent was audible any time a performance was less than perfect, but now supporters were more sanguine and the attendance did not dip below 45,000 despite a disappointing campaign. But the club too were in dire financial straits, having spent £130,000 on renovating the East Stand in 1936, they were now staring down the barrel of a £200,000 repair bill for damage inflicted during the war. Player salaries were cut from £8 to £7 a week, but the players were so pleased to simply be playing again that they didn`t protest too vehemently. Arsenal`s team was scarcely recognisable with the war years taking their toll. Ted Drake for instance, was 38 at this point and had suffered a spinal injury in combat which forced his retirement. Only George Male and Cliff Bastin- now 34- played on. At this point, it`s perhaps correct to note that Bastin was Arsenal`s record goal scorer for over 50 years despite the fact that he wasn`t a striker and that he lost the seven years of his career between the ages of 26-33 because of the war. Had political circumstances allowed him to see his footballing prime, one can only wonder what unbreachable tally Wright and Henry would have been left chasing. The Gunners 1946-47 season began disastrously as Allison`s side were rock bottom in December and seemed shoe ins for relegation. But Allison pulled off a master stroke in the transfer market which not only stabilised and sustained Arsenal, seeing them finish 13th in 1947, but that would have ramifications on the more impressive 1947-48 season too.
With an unfamiliar side struggling, Allison bought in 32 year old Joe Mercer from Everton on an initial one year contract. He eventually stayed for seven years, only retiring after a compound double fracture to the leg having captained the side to two league titles and an F.A. Cup. Mercer initially felt he was nearing retirement so he cut a deal with Allison that he would be allowed to train with Liverpool during the week in order to look after the grocery store he had bought in Wallasey in anticipation of his retirement nest egg. Mercer`s calm, yet authoritative presence steered a young team in the correct direction. He immediately endeared himself to the team with his broad, chipper smile and his weekly shipment of penny sweets to his team mates from his grocery store. During times of rationing, such gifts were luxuries. Allison also signed 33 year old striker Ronnie Rooke from Fulham, a fearsome bulldozer of a striker. Rooke, at 6 feet 3 inches and weighing in at 15 stone buffeted opponents and scored scrappy goals. Mercer added calm to the defence and inspirational leadership, whilst Rooke added the ammunition to a lightweight, yet gifted frontline. Both men added experience as well as physical power to a young side.
After the travails of the 1946-47 season, manager George Allison did not believe he had the wherewithal to build another young team from scratch, so he retired in the summer of 1947. Arsenal appointed long time trustee Tom Whitaker as Secretary Manager. Whitaker had been with the club since 1919, first as a player, then as a respected physio and then as an assistant coach to Chapman and Allison. Whitaker had a great rapport with the players, 1930s captain Eddie Hapgood would later describe Whitaker as, "Not only my coach, but my best friend." Whitaker bought cohesion to a team of talented players. In fact, the Arsenal side of 1947-48 was rather unique in its smorgasbord of talents. Left half Kevin O` Flanagan was an Irish rugby international and a qualified general practitioner; Denis Compton only represented Arsenal 59 times in 12 years due to a mixture of the War and the fact that he was an England cricket international, Joe Mercer was also a qualified doctor and, rumour has it, could have gone pro as a golfer, whilst Right half Arthur Milton was also an international cricketer. Young striker Reg Lewis had just begun to make his breakthrough in 1938 as a 17 year old, the war robbed him of his formative years as a striker but having blown away some cobwebs in the inaugural season following the war and with Rooke the battering ram alongside him, the fleet footed Lewis forged a devastating partnership with Rooke upfront. The Gunners had spent a gargantuan sum of £14,000 on Bryn Jones as an heir apparent to Alex James, but the fee weighed the Welshman down and he was shipped out, in Jimmy Logie, Arsenal had a playmaker worthy of the name again. Fellow Academy graduate Laurie Scott slotted in alongside the veteran Male as George Swindin, widely regarded to be the finest custodian in Arsenal`s history, manning the sticks. Centre half Archie McCauley was signed from Glasgow Rangers, whilst wing half Don Roper joined from Southampton.
Whitaker had the foundations of a solid side and despite having finished in a meagre 13th place the season before, the fact that the team had been bottom in December 1946 suggested Arsenal were very much on an upward trajectory. That steady rise morphed into a meteoric one, the Gunners began with quite the statement, winning their first six matches. They opened with a 3-1 home win over Sunderland, before away wins at the Valley and Bramall Lane; they then thumped Charlton 6-0 at Highbury. Most importantly of all, main title rivals Manchester United were swept aside 2-1 at Highbury. Preston were the first side to take points from Arsenal with a 0-0 draw at Deepdale in late September. But this was not to be a tight title race; in fact, it was to be one of the most emphatic title victories Arsenal has ever achieved. The Gunners went top of the table following match day number three on 29th August and were never off the top of the table for a single second of the season thereafter. It was game number 19 before they tasted defeat for the first time, having won 13 and drawn five of their first 18 games. On 29th November, Derby County beat them 1-0 at the Baseball Ground, the East Midland side would actually go onto complete the league double over Arsenal that season. It was as near to a slump as Arsenal came all season that they drew their next game at home to Manchester City. The ease with which Arsenal were cutting through their league opponents was even more impressive considering the composition of the league. Only Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth and Aston Villa played within 150 miles of Highbury, all other 17 teams were positioned in the distant North West or North East in a flat cap and whippet centric league. This particularly in the days when players would travel to away games on 2nd class rail. This perhaps also informed Arsenal`s willingness to allow Joe Mercer to continue to live and work in the North West. But such travels perhaps took their toll in the Christmas period.
It was traditional prior to the mid 50s for teams to face one another on Christmas Day before returning for the reverse fixture on Boxing Day. Following long treks to Grimsby and Sunderland, the Gunners travelled to Anfield on Christmas Day and won 3-1. But the punishing travelling schedule took its toll as Liverpool took revenge on Boxing Day with a 2-1 win at Highbury. So after yet another long schlep to Sheffield United for a narrow and fatigued 1-0 win at Bolton Wanderers, the Gunners got their only short, sharp shock of the season as they tumbled out of the F.A. Cup in the 3rd Round at Valley Parade at the hands of Third Division Bradford City. But such a shock result proved to be merely a scratch. On 17th January, the Gunners travelled to 2nd placed Manchester United at Old Trafford, leading their closest title rivals by ten points. United realistically to win and hope for a mental collapse from the Gunners thereafter, as 83,417 hardy souls packed into the Salford ground. That still stands as a record for a 1st Division match. Ronnie Rooke`s late equaliser preserved Arsenal`s stranglehold and the chasing pack, became a forlornly lumbering snail trail. Arsenal`s style of play had become irresistible, with Jimmy Logie`s dancing feet and disguised passes, complimented Reg Lewis` pace and clever runs, whilst Rooke bludgeoned defenders with his steel frame. Rooke not only scored a lot of goals with his brute strength- registering 33 league goals that season- but his physical attributes occupied defenders and allowed space for Lewis and Logie. Meanwhile, a backline manned by the imperious Mercer and Swindin- the most agile keeper of his generation, seemingly able to reach every nook and crevice of the goal in milliseconds. The more elastic legs of Roper and Milton also complimented the experience and knowhow of Mercer and Male. Len Shackleton was to remark of Mercer, "The service of his wonderful passes that flowed from his spindly bow legged genius was, I am certain, 50% of the reason for Arsenal`s post war success." This was the perfectly blended football team.
In March, the Gunners hit Wolves 5-2 and Middlesbrough 7-0 at Highbury putting Arsenal a virtually unassailable 14 points clear. But with the prize in sight and Arsenal looking to become the first ever club to win the title before Easter, there was a distinct easing in the intensity of their game. They won only one of their six games in April, with a defeat at home to Derby and a draw away at Huddersfield, Arsenal somewhat stumbled over the finishing line, a 0-0 draw away at Portsmouth on 21st April confirming a sixth league title for the Gunners which had been won at an absolute canter. The easing off appeared to continue with a 0-0 draw away at Manchester City, but the Gunners signed off at Highbury in style. Relegated Grimsby Town came to North London the day the Gunners were to lift their title and the Gunners gave them an 8-0 shoeing. Ronnie Rooke scored four, taking his league tally to 33. It would be 2004 until an Arsenal player registered 30 league goals again with some fella named Henry managed a cornucopias 30 in another league winning campaign. The match descended into farce as the crowd greeted every goal after the fifth with laughter! The mirth was no more uproarious when the Gunners were awarded a penalty at 7-0. Rooke grabbed the ball, but having already scored four, Jimmy Logie gave the veteran forward a playful slap on the head that said, "You`ve scored enough for today, my turn!" Joe Mercer- who never scored for Arsenal- even sheepishly stepped forward to raucous chants of "We want Joe!" from the Highbury faithful. But Mercer`s advances were laughed off by his colleagues and Logie despatched for an 8-0 rout. The Gunners finished the season seven points ahead of 2nd placed Manchester United, despite the fact that they won only two of their last eight games. They scored 81 goals- the same as United. But notably they conceded only 32, the next best defence was United`s who were breached 47 times. Those twin statistics proved how shrewd the signings of Rooke and Mercer had been in Arsenal`s climb out of the post war mire. George Male retired that summer having won five league titles and two F.A. Cups with the club. Bastin, at 36, was growing increasingly deaf and would follow soon behind. The side of 1948 bought the smile back to a North London that was piecing itself together amidst the rubble. Arsenal had done just that and built their fortress again.LD.
Part 1: 1930-31
Part 2: 1932-33
Part 3: 1933-34
Part 4: 1934-35
Part 5: 1937-38