The Finest Margin
During the post war years, Arsenal tried grimly to cling onto the dominance they had brought about in the 1930s, but in truth, the intervening war years had prevented them from rebuilding the team in a smooth transition. The walnut now required a sledgehammer. The Gunners did dine at the top table of English football, winning the league in 1947-48 and winning the F.A. Cup in 1950 with a 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Wembley, but their place at the top table was no longer on permanent reserve. The 1951-52 season had been a heart breaking one for the Gunners, they were in the title race until the final day of the season, albeit in unfavourable circumstances. They had to win by seven clear goals at Old Trafford to claim the league and were instead turned over 6-1 in a humiliating reverse. One week later, in the 1952 F.A. Cup Final, they were beaten 1-0 by Newcastle United. There were no substitutes in the 1950s, so when Arsenal had four separate players injured on a boggy Wembley pitch (thank goodness such problems don`t persist at modern day Wembley) and finished the match with 7 men, you knew it wasn`t going to be their day.
The disappointment of 1952`s double bypass spilled over into the beginning of the following season. Despite beginning with consecutive 2-1 victories at Villa Park and at home to Manchester United, inconsistency set in as a new look side struggled to gel. Jack Kelsey was playing his first season as Arsenal`s first choice keeper and he looked nervous initially behind a defence that lacked understanding. Indeed, it was only the inspirational leadership of the 38 year old Joe Mercer that was adhesive enough to keep the back line together. Further forwards, Doug Lisham and Cliff Holton- a battering ram centre forward happily converted from right back- were fine players but struggled to fit into Arsenal`s long established system of having one strong centre forward, in the mould of Drake or Rooke, flanked by two nimbler wide forwards- such as Bastin and Crayston. Part of Arsenal`s psychological issue was that the team was still very much moulded into Chapman`s WM formation, but by now no players existed from the Chapman era. But there were plenty of supporters who had witnessed the great side of the 30s in the flesh, so Whittaker`s side could not escape comparisons which weighed heavy. Jimmy Logie appeared to be the only player that flourished for the entire season; ironically the barometer of comparison was rather kinder to him. In 1938, the Gunners splashed out a world record £14,000 on Bryn Jones to replace Alex James. Jones was crushed by the expectation and shipped out in favour of Logie. Logie was the replacement for one of the bigger flops in Arsenal`s history. In their first ten games, Arsenal won four, drew three and lost three, finding themselves wedged into 7th place after a toothless 2-0 defeat at the Baseball Ground to Derby County. The Gunners appeared destined to tread water in such league territory for the entire season.
On 1st November, a 2-0 away defeat at title challengers West Brom looked to have effectively ended any interest the side had in the title race. Preston, Wolves and West Brom were involved in a three way wrangle for supremacy as Arsenal glibly looked on. The post war good will period had evaporated with the supporters and men accustomed to watching the likes of James, Bastin and Drake crush opponents week after week became crotchety and impatient. Howls of derision were heard at many home games, which frustrated the players, they felt their own support were a direct impediment to the team. (Though it is worth noting that Arsenal won 15 of their 21 home games that season, which was largely responsible for their title success). The players snapped after defender Peter Goring was confronted by a drunken fan following a 3-1 home defeat to Sunderland in January, causing an anonymous player to tell a Daily Mail journalist that the team were "Ashamed of the supporters, who we consider to be the most unsporting lot in the country." The fan had apparently raged that he had seen the team of the 30s and that none of this side were fit to lick their boots. However, in goalscoring terms, this team certainly was comparable to the lofty standards of Chapman`s behemoths, registering 97 times during the season. Cliff Holton notched 19 of those with his physical frame upfront, whilst Doug Lishman scored 22 goals in 29 games as Arsenal began to find their feet around Christmas time. With Jimmy Logie`s jinking runs from midfield and exocet passing, the front men had plenty of ammunition. Kelsey began to find his voice box and ordered and cajoled his backline, Don Roper`s sense of responsibility began to grow as he appreciated Mercer`s legs were wavering. Kelsey showed a gymnast`s athleticism, time and again throwing himself into gravity defying saves. Ray Daniel shook off the shadow of Eddie Hapgood and became a fine defender. Alex Forbes also came into the side at left half and flourished in a side that was beginning to find its soul.
The players began to use the supporters` ire as a motivation rather than an impediment. The week after being jeered off the pitch against Sunderland, Arsenal smashed five past title challengers Wolves at Highbury, before coming from two down a week later to earn a creditable draw with Charlton, who would eventually finish 4th. The Gunners were on the up and up and scoring freely, first thumping Spurs at home 4-0, before avenging the early season defeat to Derby with a 6-2 shoeing of the Rams in North London. The margins of victory and the amount of goals were serving to win the more sceptical fans back and deposited a little dosh in the credit bank, how little the players would have known how heart stoppingly vital their little scoring habit would become May. But the burst of form did not last, the Gunners lost a topsy turvy match 3-2 away at Blackpool and the confidence and ebullience sapped from their play. They didn`t win again for six games, meaning they began April in 6th place. Just as Joseph Stalin lay dying in hospital from a stroke, another force of the 1930s seemed to be withering into the abyss. It appears utterly absurd that a team that begins April in 6th place could go onto win the title, but the fact was that this was an extraordinary season in English football. Arsenal would eventually take the crown with 54 points, which is the lowest total for a side winning the championship in English football history. (Do bear in mind however, that in those days, it was 2 points for a win). Basically, Preston and Wolves did not seem to want to much win the title either, blighted as they were by their own inconsistency under the intense pressure of the run in. Arsenal simply stole in like a dog in a park snatching a stuffed toy from a bemused child.
A 5-3 home win over Liverpool on Easter Saturday followed by a 2-0 home win over Chelsea on Easter Monday had put the wind in Arsenal`s sails just as the twin ships Wolves and Preston were faltering in choppy waters. They steamrollered Manchester City 4-2 at Maine Road and then, one weekend later, a 4-1 win at home to Bolton on the same weekend that Wolves and Preston lost at home put the Gunners top of the table, just 12 days after having been marooned in 6th place. The Londoners could scarcely believe their luck when a 3-1 home win over Stoke City was concurrently matched by a draw for Preston and defeat for Wolves. The title was in sight, but that became part of the problem. For perhaps the first time in the campaign, the pressure was on Arsenal. Not just from their own fans this time, the external focus was exuded towards them as they led the table going into the home straight. A nervy 0-0 draw with Cardiff at Ninian Park only scratched the surface of their tension. Pitches were incredibly heavy in those days and Highbury was considered one of the worst playing surfaces in the league, heavy legs and high octane tension was an unhappy marriage. On the 25th April, Arsenal travelled to Deepdale to take on their nearest challengers. They simply had to avoid defeat to be crowned champions, but the great Tom Finney tore into the champions elect, scoring once and creating another for Tom Wayman as Arsenal fell to a 2-0 defeat, locking both sides on 52 points with one game to play. In those days, the last fixtures of the season were not necessarily synchronised. So Preston had the formality of a home fixture against relegated Derby on the Wednesday evening, with Arsenal then facing Burnley- who finished 6th- at home on the Friday evening. Preston matter of factly disposed of Derby 2-0. Arsenal welcomed Burnley to Highbury, knowing only a victory would suffice for the league title.
The Arsenal players felt they had little to give physically for the game, whilst their tension increased on the morning of the game, when they met for their pre match meal at a cafe in King`s Cross, they chanced upon hundreds of well wishers from Blackpool and Bolton, down in London to see that Saturday`s F.A. Cup Final (which would forever become known as the Matthews Final). Both sets of supporters were united by dislike of Preston and Burnley and made a point of uttering encouraging words to the Arsenal players as their trains chuffed in from Lancashire. The match kicked off at 6.30pm on Friday evening (despite Chapman`s insistence dating back some 20 years that they be a permanent fixture, in 1953, Highbury still did not have permanent floodlights) yet bodies were seen milling around the stadium from around midday. The tension was further increased for players and spectators as the afternoon was blighted by constant torrential downpours, soaking waiting fans and making a quagmire of a pitch boggier and heavier than ever. Supporters, almost to a man, wore scarves and rosettes in the days before it was de rigueur to wear your team`s colours at a match. The atmosphere was deafening, as confirmed by Don Roper, "We had our problems with the supporters that season, but that night they were absolutely superb. I`ve never heard such noise in all my life; it makes the hairs on my neck stand up just thinking about it." That said, an illustration of how blasé Gooners were towards the team can be inferred when you consider that the ground was not entirely full.
The cacophony of noise was briefly dimmed to an audible murmur after just six minutes, when Burnley`s Des Thompson drove a low cross into the box which Captain Joe Mercer directed past his own keeper. It looked as though the Lancastrians were about to bring the league title back up to their regional brethren. But Gooner voices got louder and the Arsenal will redoubled. After intense pressure, Alex Forbes hit a long range strike which took a huge deflection before squirming past Clarets keeper Colin McDonald. Two minutes later, Highbury was in raptures as Doug Lishman gave the ball a hearty wallop from twenty five yards which flew into the corner. Lishman was coy about his goal some years later when he said, "I didn`t know what else to do so I just hit it as hard as I could. Seeing it fly in was the best moment of my career." Fuelled by adrenaline and a rumbustuous Highbury crowd, the Gunners tore into Burnley and assumed a 3-1 lead two minutes before half time when Holton`s low shot was beaten out by McDonald, only for Jimmy Logie to pounce and despatch the rebound. But nail gnawing nerves would be the order of the second half, the heavens opened during the half time interval, further turning the already decimated pitch into an unctuous peat bog, whilst the iconic 1950s, laced leather football was by now a water swollen vat of leather. So pregnant was the ball with liquid, that Don Roper tore his medial ligament simply by kicking it mid way through the second half. This being the 1950s, he of course gritted his teeth and played on. Billy Elliott notched a consolation goal for the visitors in the 50th minute, leaving the stadium a combustible mass of tension.
Arsenal had simply run out of energy, they didn`t have the gumption to attack any further, so they shut up shop for the remaining 40 minutes. By now, Mercer`s legs had completely given way as he tried to rally those around him to do his bidding. Mercer would later articulate that his legs gave way for good that evening, in his words, it was the last time he ever operated as a top level footballer prior to his injury induced retirement in 1954. So engorged was the stadium in the tension, that manager Tom Whittaker famously left the dug out with fifteen minutes left and chose to sup on a double brandy in the dressing room instead. By this point, Whittaker`s health was failing. He died three years later whilst still Arsenal manager, the second such man to die in office at Arsenal, which elucidated what a consuming job it was. The evening of May 1st, 1953 may well have been Whittaker`s finest hour, but it possibly shaved a couple of years off of his life too. By now Burnley were piling on the pressure and the Gunners were grimly holding out, realising that any concession of a goal would hand the title to Preston. In the 89th minute, Billy Elliott cracked a shot goalwards from the edge of the box which rattled the North Bank crossbar. The sun was now trying to crack through the dark clouds, turning the evening sky red as the final whistle sounded and Highbury erupted. Whittaker emerged from the dressing room to find most of the crowd had spilled onto the pitch in delight. Arsenal and Preston had finished the season on 54 points, having both won 21, drawn 12 and lost 9. Arsenal`s goal average was 1.516, whilst Preston`s had been 1.417. Arsenal had won the league by 0.9 of a goal, the tightest margin for a league win in the history of English football. (Incidentally, had they been using the current 'goal difference` system at the time, Arsenal would have comfortably dwarfed Preston in that respect). The Gunners ruthless goal scoring habit cultivated in the spring, had won them the title. The supporters and players conversed and celebrated on the pitch together that Friday evening, scarcely able to relay the fraught tension of the occasion. Arsenal were champions of England for the seventh time. However, little did the players and supporters know as they cavorted on the Highbury turf that evening, that the old ground would not see another night like this for seventeen years. The weight of Arsenal`s history continued to weigh down on them and the club endured a spell of mediocrity that would endure for a generation. It would be 1968 before they even contested another showpiece final. As the red sky peered over the Highbury turf that early summer evening, the sun was setting on an empire. Things would never be the same again.LD.
Part 1: 1930-31
Part 2: 1932-33
Part 3: 1933-34
Part 4: 1934-35
Part 5: 1937-38
Part 6: 1947-48