Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday July 3 2012
Having already committed to produce a series of articles on Arsenal`s longest servants, I thought the summer would also be a good time to expound on some of the greatest signings the club has ever made. The sort of signings that have sped up the club`s evolution and pushed them onto another plateau. Acquisitions that either kick started a prosperous revolution for Arsenal, or else proved to be the missing part of a puzzle. This series is running chronologically. So I`ll start with arguably Arsenal`s first ever blockbuster signing and Herbert Chapman`s first chequebook purchase as Arsenal`s manager.
This player was raised just under 2 miles away from the club`s Manor Ground home in Woolwich and grew up an ardent supporter of the then South London club. However, his 1d pocket money from his stern, Aberdeen policeman father didn`t often grant him the means to meet the 3d entrance fee at the turnstiles. The bitter irony for the club would be that they actually discovered Charlie Buchan at a very young age but let him fly the net. The young Buchan showed talent for both academia and football from an early age. Unable to pay the fee to watch his heroes in the flesh, he would often stand outside the Manor Ground and listen to the noise of the crowd. He would also head to Plumstead Common after school to watch his heroes train. Simply by hanging glibly around his local area, Buchan was spotted by Arsenal officials and invited to play a Reserve game at the age of 17.
Buchan would score in a 3-1 victory over Croydon Common. He was invited to train with Woolwich Arsenal`s Reserves and did so twice a week. This was until a month later when he put in an expenses claim of 11 shillings for travel costs incurred from his Plumstead home to training. Notoriously thrifty manager George Morell scoffed at the front of the 18 year old and told him to forget it. Beginning a notorious, career long rebellious streak, Buchan promptly told Morell to forget about employing his services and left. He finished the 1909-10 season at nearby Northfleet United, but that summer, he had many clubs interested in acquiring his services. Then Fulham Chairman Henry Norris even approached the gangly striker and offered him 30 shillings a week and the opportunity to train as a teacher that Buchan craved to ply his trade in South West London. Buchan asked for £2 a week. Norris` interest ended there.
But Leyton F.C. (not to be confused with Leyton Orient) met his demands. They paid him £2 a week and set him up with a teacher training course at Leyton College. His goalscoring exploits were quickly noticed as far afield as the North East. Sunderland`s legendary manager Bob Kyle swooped and Buchan moved to Wearside in March 1911. He would finish top scorer for the Mackems in seven of his nine seasons at the club. With 209 goals, he remains their record scorer to this day and also won a league title with them in 1912-13. His career was interrupted by the First World War, where he served in the Forresters as a Brigadier. He fought in the trenches and saw action in the ill fated Battle of the Somme. He was promoted to Lieutenant in the final months of the conflict. Despite missing four years of his prime, Buchan is still today the 6th highest goalscorer in the history of the Football League.
Now, as if his early release by Arsenal weren`t ironic enough, the club`s project to recapture him would precipitate the appointment of Arsenal`s greatest ever manager. It was actually Leslie Knighton that first identified Buchan as a target, when he had heard of Charlie`s disgruntlement with Sunderland in around 1925. By now, Buchan was considered one of the greatest players in England. Though he came with a reputation of being prickly. He was only capped 6 times by England (scoring 4 goals). He fell out of favour after refusing to walk 5 miles from Sunderland station to his home after an international game and instead called a cab. He kept the receipt and sent it to the F.A. He never heard back from the Football Association. Literally. It would be another seven years before he was called up for England duty. Buchan was also a committee member of the Association Footballers` Union (AFU). With his rotting teeth and thirty a day smoking habit, he was an anathema to clean cut 20s authority figures, but loved by the cloth capped working class men on the terraces.
By now he had ceased teaching and instead owned a sports shop in Sunderland, which had made him one of the wealthiest players in the game. In the days of the maximum wage, players had to be creative to earn their extra corn. Despite repeated letters from the authorities expressing concern over his business activities, Buchan remained unruffled. He also fell foul of the authorities because he would agree to play in friendlies overseas whilst holidaying, aware of his value, he would command big fees for doing so. In the 20s, run ins with authority such as this were a much more nebulous concept. Arsenal manager Knighton knew his side lacked an imposing forward. Though he wanted to try and make good on Buchan`s disagreement with Bob Kyle, he also realised that his spendthrift chairman Henry Norris probably wouldn`t sanction the funds it would require to negotiate the purchase.
Whilst Norris holidayed in his Riviera pied a terre, Knighton surreptitiously called a board meeting to negotiate the release of funds. The board granted him a £6,000 limit- which constituted a world record fee at that point. Knighton travelled to the Northeast and pleaded long and hard with Bob Kyle, even raising the stakes by offering £7,000. But Kyle wouldn`t budge and Knighton had to return to Norris to face the music. It wasn`t long before he was fired. Knighton always alleged that he lost Norris` trust over that incident. That said, Arsenal had just finished 20th and Norris was a few weeks away from deadline for a bonus he had promised Knighton. The chairman acted quickly and Chapman came in.
The genteel Yorkshireman felt Arsenal fans needed a big name to draw in the crowds and generate a buzz around the club. Chapman was always a big advocate of the marquee signing. He always felt a player should excite fans as well as stimulate a team in order to generate momentum and belief. Chapman travelled to Buchan`s Sunderland sports shop and persuaded him to join Arsenal. Bob Kyle was harder to convince, but Chapman negotiated a unique transfer fee, laying down £2,000 followed by a further £100 every time Buchan scored a league goal. Given that he was 34 at the time, Chapman probably knew he only had a season or two in him at Arsenal. Nevertheless, Buchan got the crowds clicking through the Highbury turnstiles as probably the first marquee signing in the club`s history and certainly the most expensive at that point. Despite his age, he was a bona fide star in England with an enviable scoring record. Chapman used Buchan to win the hearts and minds of his public.
Buchan would go onto score 56 goals in 120 matches for the club (his final fee turned out to be just over £7,000). He captained Arsenal to defeat in the 1927 F.A. Cup Final against Cardiff. In his autobiography "A Lifetime in Football", Buchan heart breakingly recants how he missed a glorious last minute chance to level the score at Wembley. An inviting Bob Hoar cross from the left saw he and Jimmy Brain arrive unmarked in the area. "Jimmy left it to me. Unfortunately, I left it to him. Between us, we missed the golden opportunity of the game." At the age of 36, Buchan`s last chance for to add to his 1913 league title medal had surely passed him by. He would retire in 1928, just as Chapman`s grand plan would come into being. But Buchan was the first part of that jigsaw. A way to make the Arsenal fans trust in Chapman`s big dream and a message to all other clubs that his club were to be taken seriously.
But Charlie`s big legacy for Arsenal lay not in his 56 goals or at Wembley Stadium. In January 1927, Arsenal were thrashed 7-0 away at Newcastle. In his frustration, Buchan told the dressing room he never wanted to play for the club again. Herbert Chapman was a man that encouraged his players to share their ideas and talk about tactics. This in the age of the Secretary Manager where most players were treated as robots or serfs. On the train back to London, Chapman invited Charlie to articulate his concerns. Buchan grabbed a notebook and scribbled down a suggestion. The offside law had recently been relaxed, so that there only needed to be two defenders between the attacker and the goal line as opposed to two for offside to be called. In the 20s, the centre half was a roaming midfield figure and the offside trap was left to the full backs.
Buchan suggested dropping the centre half back into a more dedicated "stopper" position, where he could help his full backs co-opt the offside trap. Herbie Roberts was the player identified for the role. The resulting formation, WM, was duly deployed by Chapman and is universally considered to be the catalyst for the success of the 1930s side. Not only was it defensively more secure, but it allowed for quick transitions of play from defence to attack, which Chapman`s Arsenal would perfect. The world took a while to catch up, but by the 40s, nearly every team in the world played the WM system. Buchan never really got to play in it and glory in that success. But typically of his schoolteacher roots and his always effusive nature, Buchan was the germ of Chapman`s great plan.
Buchan`s forthright intelligence saw him take a role as a Football Writer after retirement. He was a journalist for the Daily News and wrote the first known coaching manual in Britain. He commentated for the BBC and co founded the Football Writers` Association before his death in 1960. Buchan facilitated the Arsenal chrysalis from shy South London interlopers into England`s behemoths. He brought the crowds to Highbury as its first ever star name and helped transform the club`s fortunes on the pitch. But his biggest contribution to our success lay off the pitch, on a fusty old steam train after a 7-0 defeat at Newcastle. Buchan isn`t just one of Arsenal`s greatest players (listed as an all time favourite by both Bob Wall and Brian Glanville), but he was one of Arsenal`s great thinkers too. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Tuesday July 3 2012
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