Let's Hear It For the Boy
Last week I told you the story of Arsenal`s first star signing Charlie Buchan. This week, I`m jumping forward five years to talk about Arsenal`s next epoch making capture. There are a plethora of names that would make fitting candidacy. I would have been tempted to write about the creative pivot of that side, 'Wee` Alex James, the stocky Scottish maestro whose ability to land a football on a sixpence from a hundred yards would be central to Arsenal`s counterattacking style under Chapman. But I already wrote about one of Scotland`s "Wembley Wizards" some four years ago.
Eddie Hapgood, Jack Lambert, Joe Hulme, David Jack, Herbie Roberts, George Male or Wilf Copping would all have been worth their own articles, so dominant was that side. But in lieu of opting for James, I`ve gone for his partner in crime. James` through balls are reputed to have earned Arsenal a bagful of goals during the decade. The man chasing them down was the reason they bore fruit. He would represent Arsenal over 350 times and was the club`s record goalscorer for over 60 years. This despite some beguiling facts. He barely registered any goals after he turned 27 due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Once hostilities had ceased, he could scarcely run due to a leg injury that forced his retirement. He only registered 8 competitive games after his 27th birthday. He also did not even play as a striker.
A quiet and ruthlessly self confident individual, Cliff Bastin showed an aptitude for football from an early age. He escalated to professional very quickly having represented his Devonshire schoolboy side near his birthplace of Heavitree in Exeter. He trained as an electrician in his final year at school, but it quickly became apparent that he was not fated to spend his life wiring plugs. Exeter City took him on aged 16 and he became their youngest ever debutant when he turned out in April 1928 at the age of 16 years and 46 days. He scored twice on his home debut too. In January 1929, Herbert Chapman went on one of his scouting missions to watch a Watford player named Tommy Barnett in an away fixture at Exeter.
Though he`d come to watch Barnett, Chapman`s eye instantly fell on the spindly 16 year old winger Bastin. Chapman had only just signed his creative midfield genius James, whom he knew could play the perfect through ball. In Bastin he saw a wing heeled winger with electric pace and a ruthless shot with either foot. (He used to hit the ball so hard that, by his mid 20s, the toll of the heavy leather football of the day meant his knee cartilage used to dislodge mid game). Chapman was impressed and took it upon himself to visit Bastin in April 1929. It took Herbert some time to convince the West Country lad to leave his cocooned Exeter surroundings. He considered he was close to home, making a good living and didn`t see the attraction of upping sticks to the capital.
Famously, Bastin had been in the middle of a tennis match and, concerned by the dying light, finally relented and agreed to Chapman`s insistence. Arsenal paid £2,000, a huge sum for a 17 year old with only 17 league games and 6 goals under his belt. He joined his teammates for pre season training in 1929-30 and instantly earned the nickname "Boy Bastin" due to his youthfulness. An insulated 17 year old lad from Devon might have been excused for being blinded by the bright lights of the capital at a bigger club (though Arsenal had yet to win any major honours at this stage of their history), but Bastin was cut from a different cloth. His future captain Eddie Hapgood would describe Bastin as "Born to be great. Quiet, reserved, but with the infinite ability of being able to play football with the touch of a master." Bastin described himself in his autobiography as "phlegmatic in temperament. I am not easily elated and not easily depressed." Legendary Arsenal administrator Bob Wall joined the club as Secretary just two months before Cliff`s signing and also saw his quiet, steely character, "Cliff was a single minded young man. He believed in his ability to tease and torment defences and score goals. He backed up his conviction with deeds."
Boy Bastin grew up quickly and found success in his first season. He played the inside left forward role unconventionally. Whilst most inside forwards in those days were mere servants to centre forwards, Arsenal were built around the goal capability of their wingers. With James beginning counter attacks with his long, raking passes, both Bastin and Lambert thrived on this service. Bastin was noted for his fulminating shooting with either foot, his precision and his calmness in front of goal. It was the reason he quickly assumed penalty duties for the team. His trainer Tom Whittaker would assert, "He had a trait few of us were blessed with; an ice cool nerve."
This showed itself most notably and crucially in Arsenal`s 1930 F.A. Cup semi final against Hull City. The Second Division side took a shock two goal lead inside the first half an hour, with the Gunners looking to have lost their nerve in pursuit of their first major trophy. David Jack pulled one back until Bastin went through on goal in the 89th minute. He calmly despatched. Eddie Hapgood would later say in his autobiography Football Ambassador, "We nearly mobbed him, but he took it all without turning a hair….he was the coolest player I ever saw." His partnership with James would become legion. On the coach to Wembley for the 1930 F.A. Cp Final, Bastin and James talked tactics.
James deliberately took Bastin under his wing and a solid friendship fermented between the two. James took Bastin aside and instructed him that, if Arsenal were to get a free kick near the touchline, James would nudge it to Bastin, draw the defender, then pass it back to James to clear him to shoot. To an absolute tee, that was how James opened the scoring in a 2-0 win. It was Arsenal`s first ever silverware. Bastin would score 6 goals in the F.A. Cup that season. By the age of 19, Bastin had won a league title, an F.A. Cup and made his England debut. No other 19 year old in the game could boast those achievements. In his book Arsenal`s Who`s Who, Jeff Harris commented on Bastin`s style, "He stood at least ten yards in from the touchline so that his alert football brain could thrive on the brilliance of James."
His dexterity meant that, even if a full back pushed him towards the line, he was just as comfortable on his left side. It was incredibly unusual for a right footed player to play on the left in those days. Bastin would win four league titles in five years between 1931 and 1935. He finished the club`s top scorer in 1933 (with 33 goals) and 1935 (with 15). But in 1934, George Allison completed Chapman`s dying wish by signing Ted Drake as a centre forward. All of a sudden, Bastin wasn`t the most central goal threat. It was clear Boy Bastin was somewhat perturbed by this. Drake would later tell Jon Spurling in his book 'Highbury, The Story of Arsenal in N5` "I felt his nose was put a little out of joint a bit when Arsenal signed me. I was annoyed when he came out in his autobiography and basically said he didn`t think I was a Grade A striker."
However, that didn`t stop the two forging an on pitch partnership that would be crysltalised most crucially when Bastin crossed for Drake to hit the winner in the 1936 F.A. Cup Final. By 1936, Bastin had contracted an inner ear infection that made him go increasingly deaf. His deafness, multiplied by his quiet self confidence was often mistaken for aloofness. Drake wasn`t the only person he upset with his 1950 autobiography, ghost written by a 19 year old Brian Glanville. He upset record signing Bryn Jones with his laconic comments on the Welshman`s ill fated spell at Arsenal, "Bryn just did not have it in him." A contemporary critic, Willy Miesl, wrote of Cliff`s memoirs, "It is clear Bastin likes Bastin a lot." But Glanville protested that Bastin`s independence and his deafness gave a false impression of arrogance, "He lived in a psychological cocoon, increased by his deafness. He was remarkably self sufficient."
But Bastin was kinder about some of his other teammates. He was effusive in his praise of opposite winger Jack Lambert, "Jack was one of the finest whole hearted players I have ever seen." Bastin would pick up a leg injury in 1937-38 which would eventually end his career, though he still managed to play in England`s infamous 6-3 win over Germany in Berlin in April 1938, opening the scoring in a match made famous for the Nazi salute the England players agreed to give before kickoff. It was a huge diplomatic incident in a time when Neville Chamberlain`s government were pursuing a policy of appeasement and looking to avoid conflict at all costs. The German government requested the English players salute Hitler and they reluctantly agreed to do so, captained by Arsenal skipper Eddie Hapgood.
Cliff`s career was halted by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when he was just 27. Bastin was not called up for frontline duties because he failed the army`s hearing test, so he served as an air raid warden at Highbury. Bastin would play in over 250 friendlies during the war years, but none of the goals he scored are counted towards his statistics. Though he did endure a bizarre incident when Mussolini`s fascist radio station proclaimed they had captured Bastin in Crete in 1941, despite the fact he wasn`t even serving! By the time hostilities were ended in 1945, he was 33, couldn`t even hear the roar of a football crowd and could barely run due to his leg injury. He retired in January 1947 having appeared just 6 times in two years. He finished his career with 29 England caps, five league titles and 2 F.A. Cups. He scored 178 goals in 395 appearances and stayed Arsenal`s record goalscorer until September 1997. He is currently Arsenal`s third record goalscorer of all time, behind Ian Wright and Thierry Henry.
Bastin`s statistics are all the more remarkable when you consider that his career effectively finished at 27. Had the war not intervened, he surely would have run Henry`s record 228 goals close. By today`s standards, Bastin probably qualifies as a modern winger. He didn`t hug the touchline in the way his contemporaries did, he had two good feet but played on his opposite side in order to cut in on his right to unleash a vicious shot. Bastin was an unfussy player, apparently his finishing was never particularly finessed. He simply saw the goal and applied the necessary finish, whether that required a cannon or a paintbrush. Were statistics for assists recorded in the 1930s, his record would likely look even more formidable. For a 17 year old Devon boy to move to the capital and help create the legacy of its biggest and most successful club. Bastin would run a pub in Devon in retirement and died in December 1991, aged 79. His widow Joan survived till aged 96, having only passed on in April 2012. Her husband`s legacy is still well in tact, having been voted at number 18 in Arsenal`s all time greatest player poll on arsenal.com. LD.
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