Tom Whittaker: A Legend Remembered
This Friday, Arsenal will unveil 3 statues outside the ground in tribute to 3 figures whose contribution stands to be immortalised on our 125th anniversary fixture against Everton. The club have kept the bronzed identities secret, which has led to a great deal of debate and innuendo around which the three should be. For a club with a history as rich as ours; it`s a very tough call. Busts exist of Messrs Wenger and Chapman already, whilst a bust of Dennis Bergkamp sits in the Diamond Club. Will that be considered tribute enough? What exactly will Arsenal look for? Great players? Henry, Adams, Brady, James, Bastin?
Or will the club recognise men that gave Arsenal a large slab of their careers as impeccable servants? Wilson, Rice, Hapgood. Or else perhaps some of the club`s original administrators, the movers and shakers in suits and flat caps that propelled us to greatness. Humble, Norris, Danskin. Perhaps the club will opt for a mixture of all three? Debate has raged, names have been motioned. But there is one name I haven`t seen put forward by anyone. In fact, I really don`t think much is known about him at all. I find this puzzling and frustrating in equal measure.
The man of whom I speak spent his entire working career- save for a three month stint at an engineering firm and serving in the first and second world wars- with Arsenal. He never took so much as a payslip from anyone else from the age of 21. Arsenal Football Club wouldn`t win a trophy without him as a prominent member of staff until 1970. He publicly pledged to die for the club and, tragically, did so whilst in Arsenal`s employ. Fulfilling his own prophesy. He won two league titles* and an F.A. Cup as Manager and was Chapman and Allison`s trusted Trainer for 2 F.A. Cup triumphs and 5 league titles. (*Technically, you could argue he won two and a half league titles. When Chapman died in January 1934, he co-opted the Caretaker Manager role with Joe Shaw and saw Arsenal through to the 1933-34 league title). He literally gave his life and his death to the club.
Yet the name Tom Whittaker appears to be only semi familiar in the club lexicon. Whittaker was born in Aldershot`s Surrey Barracks, the son of a Sergeant Major in the 12th Lancers. But at just three weeks old, Whittaker and family moved to Newcastle upon Tyne. Whittaker was a contented, yet quiet young man. Studious, yet unfussy. He grew attached to his local football team Newcastle United and began playing football as a young child. Upon leaving school at 15, Whittaker trained to be a Marine Engineer. That was until the outbreak of World War I.
Aged just 18, Whittaker was called up to the British Army to serve in 1916, where he was assigned to the Royal Garrison Artillery in Shoreham. In 1917 he was switched to the Royal Navy. Whittaker continued his favourite pass time when he could, playing association football in the regiment. When hostilities ceased in 1918, Tom briefly went to work as an Engineer with Green, Silley and Wears. Notably, he helped build the Blackwall Tunnel. But in January 1919, having seen him play in the regiment, Arsenal came knocking and signed him principally as a striker.
Ever the thoughtful type, Whittaker kept his job as an Engineer on a part time basis until he signed a professional contract with Arsenal in April 1920. Assured of steady employment, he resigned from his job at Green, Silley and Wears. Arsenal would be his sole employers for the rest of his life. Whittaker made his Arsenal debut on April 20th, 1920 in a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion. But soon he would be converted to the position of wing half- an undertaking he took on with dignity and rigour. Whittaker made 64 league appearances for Arsenal; moving back to left back after the signing of Bob John in 1922.
In 1925, Whittaker was selected by the F.A. for a representative squad to tour Australia. During a friendly game in Wollongong he fell awkwardly and cracked his knee socket. Doctors told him to expect a lengthy spell on the sidelines. Perhaps anticipating an undersell in the prognosis, he began studying anatomy, massage and electrolysis. Whittaker began training again in late 1926, but eventually accepted he could never play to a professional standard and retired. Perhaps with an eye on this possibility, he began helping out in Arsenal`s medical room to feed his curiosity for medical treatment of sports injuries. So when he retired, Herbert Chapman appointed him Assistant Trainer to George Hardy.
This was no token appointment. Chapman had barely managed Whittaker as a player and he placed great emphasis on fitness, physiotherapy and massage in his training regime at a time when the magic sponge was considered a bit high falluting. Whittaker continued to learn his trade under Hardy until 1929. Hardy barked an instruction to Arsenal strikers from the dugout in a league fixture without Chapman`s consent. Hardy was sacked immediately after the game. Whittaker was hastily called into Chapman`s office and informed of his promotion to Trainer. "I`m going to make this the greatest club in the world and I`m going to make you the greatest Trainer in the game," is what Whittaker records Chapman saying in his autobiography.
Chapman rarely made grandiose statements that weren`t prophetic. Those words weren`t lost on Whittaker. He went about using his studies to inform his search for the latest medical equipment, which was installed in Arsenal`s state of the art treatment room. Whittaker proposed the use of masseurs, to which Chapman acquiesced. The trainer forged good relations with his players, who referred to him as "the gentle giant." Indeed, legendary Arsenal captain Eddie Hapgood became a close ally. Hapgood developed an unhappy knack of passing out unconscious when heading the heavy, pre historic leather footballs. Whittaker concluded it was because Hapgood was too light, which he attributed to Eddie`s strict vegetarian diet. Whittaker suggested Hapgood should eat meat to build himself up. The Arsenal skipper compromised his principles at once at the instruction of a man he so respected. (Hapgood described Whittaker as 'not just my coach, but my best friend" in his autobiography). The quality of his medical treatment was so well renowned, that tennis stars Fred Perry and Bunny Austin would seek him out when injured.
Arsenal were regarded the fittest team in the league as they swept all before them. Winning the F.A. Cup in 1930, the league title in 1931 and 1933. But then in January 1934, Chapman, Whittaker`s great mentor, died suddenly of pneumonia. Chapman`s death had a profound effect on the 36 year old. Whittaker wasn`t given to demonstrating surface emotion, but future behaviours showed a determination to uphold Chapman`s great legacy. Whittaker and Joe Shaw took the team over for the remainder of the 1933-34 season, lifting their mourning players enough to secure the league title in April, 1934. That summer, George Allison was appointed. Allison retained much of the staff in the positions they had assumed under Chapman. Whittaker was officially still club Trainer, (physio in modern parlance), but in reality, given Allison`s lack of a football coaching background, he began to take a much more hands on approach in training sessions.
Arsenal won further league titles in 1935 and 1938 and an F.A. Cup in 1936 with Whittaker an authority on the training ground. In 1939, the Second World War broke out and Whittaker served again. First he served as an ARP warden and then a pilot for the RAF, where he obtained the rank of Squadron Leader. His work as a planner for the D-Day landings on Normandy won him an MBE. Whittaker came home unharmed, but the team he loved were ailing. With a great side ageing, George Allison bowed out, retiring in 1947. The Arsenal board wanted to keep the Chapman influence in the club for as long as possible, desperately hoping his magic could rub off on his protégés and support an ailing side. Whittaker was appointed manager.
He took Chapman`s legacy very seriously. Upon appointment, Whittaker foretold his own fate. "Someone has to drive himself too hard for Arsenal. Herbert Chapman worked himself to death for this club and if that is my fate, I am happy to accept it." Tom called upon his knowhow and his superior man management skills. (For instance, whilst trainer in the 30s, many players found Eddie Hapgood`s self assurance irritating. But it was Whittaker that spotted the potential. "People found him insufferable, but it was that supreme confidence in his own ability that made him such a good player.")
Whittaker took a group of hungry players robbed of the twilight of their career by war; such as Jimmy Logie and Reg Lewis. Academy graduates such as legendary goalkeeper George Swindin and Laurie Scott, along with hardened experienced pros such as Ronnie Rook, George Male and Joe Mercer. Tom drafted in Don Roper from Southampton and young centre half Archie McAuley from Glasgow Rangers to be 37 year old Mercer`s legs. Given that Arsenal were bottom of the league in December 1946 (finishing 13th that season) it is quite remarkable that Whittaker was able to lead the team to a league title in his first year of management in 1947-48. Ronnie Rook would score 33 league goals that season, no Arsenal player would register over 30 league goals again until Thierry Henry in 2003-04.
But with Bastin and Male retiring that summer and Ronnie Rook soon to follow, Mercer approaching 40, Whittaker struggled to maintain those standards. He did bring further silverware to the club in the shape of the F.A. Cup in 1950. The cup win was unique in that Arsenal never once left London to win it. In 1952-53, Whittaker`s Arsenal huffed and puffed their way to another league title. Anfield in 1989 is remembered as the Gunners narrowest of title wins, but the league campaign of 1953 tops even that, with the Gunners eventually winning it by 0.9 of a goal. In a win or bust last game of the season at home to Burnley, Arsenal led 3-2 with 35 minutes to go and spent over half an hour camped in their own half, knowing that a Burnley goal would deny them the title. Famously, Whittaker left the dugout after 76 minutes for the dressing room, where he poured himself a triple brandy and sat alone, unable to bring himself to watch. It was foreboding of the ultimately fatal strain the job was taking on him.
Arsenal squeaked through and took the league title. But the empire was crumbling and Whittaker knew it. The Gunners` heyday of the 30s was past and in the days of maximum wage, Arsenal found it hard to attract the calibre of player Chapman had been able to seduce. Arsenal began to drop into midtable obscurity in the mid 50s. Whittaker made one last desperate stab and bringing the club back into the big time by attempting to sign Stanley Matthews. But Matthews was satisfied enough with his domestic life in the North. As the last of Arsenal`s Secretary Managers, Whittaker was responsible for transfers, team selection, training sessions, scouting and club admin such as season ticket applications. The pain of seeing Arsenal fade into mediocrity coupled with the immense workload Whittaker took on started to have implications on his health. He aged dramatically. On 24th October, 1956, he was rushed to University College Hospital in London with a suspected coronary heart attack. He died in hospital later that day. He was 58 years old.
Arsenal of course did not win another trophy until Bertie Mee guided the team to the 1969-70 European Fairs Cup. That trophy was the first that the club ever won without Whittaker`s influence. As well as the sterling work he produced as a diagnostician and the trophies he delivered as a manager, Whittaker`s influence is seen elsewhere too. When programme editor Harry Homer used the phrase 'Victoria Concordia Crescit` in the final programme of the league winning 1947-48 season, Whittaker was so taken with the phrase that he insisted it become part of the club`s new crest design.
But alongside his tangible successes, it is Whittaker`s custodianship that is truly remarkable. He never represented another club at any level and barely even knew of another employer in his 58 years. He pledged to die for the club and carried out on that promise. But if you want a real snapshot into his credentials as one of the club`s unsurpassable servants, consider this. Whittaker fought two World Wars and didn`t get so much as a scratch on him. But he broke his kneecap whilst an Arsenal player and died of a heart attack whilst Arsenal manager. It seems incredibly sombre and I seek not to celebrate this fact in the true sense of the word. Yet despite his service in eight years of catastrophic warfare, it was his work for Arsenal that virtually crippled and killed him. From his birth in the garrison town of Aldershot, his work in the Royal Artillery and his lifetime service to Arsenal, Whittaker was a Gunner from cradle to grave. For that, he deserves the ultimate salute. LD.
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