Aligning the Stars
It was in 1929-30 that Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal finally came together
“Stars are what pull people into Picture Palaces, music halls and sports stadia,” claimed Charlie Chaplin in early 1925. His words resonated through London in the latter half of the Roaring Twenties. Box office was king. Stars pulled in punters. The bigger the crowds, the more money could be made. In an increasingly visual age, with London’s burgeoning tube network and a buoyant economy, the presence of top performers from all walks of entertainment in the capital created a unique buzz.
It is doubtful that the new Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman had Chaplin’s comment in the forefront of his mind when he strode purposefully into Charlie Buchan’s sports outfitters in Sunderland in the summer of 1925 but, as the Arsenal winger Joe Hulme later explained, “Chapman knew that football was all about entertainment, and that supporters like to see big names.” The Buchan signing (for an eventual fee of £4100) was the first of several big-money, headline-grabbing Arsenal captures during the first five years of Chapman’s managerial reign at Highbury, which included David Jack from Bolton in 1928 for football’s first five-digit transfer fee – £11,500 – and, perhaps most pivotally, Alex James from Preston in 1929 for £8750.
When he arrived at Highbury in 1925, Chapman spoke of a five-year plan for bringing success to Arsenal. At times, that prospect appeared unlikely. Arsenal finished second in Chapman’s first season and then lost in the 1927 FA Cup final to Cardiff. It became clear that he had taken his Mark 1 team – shown up in the final as being too slow and constricted – as far as he could. Charlie Buchan retired and the W-M formation, devised by Buchan but shaped according to Chapman’s wishes, appeared to be having little positive impact on the Gunners’ fortunes. Chapman’s aim to build a football dynasty in the south seemed little more than a pipe dream. Huddersfield (his former team, who completed their championship hat-trick in his first year at Highbury), Newcastle, Everton and then Sheffield Wednesday had won titles during Chapman’s early years in north London and the Gunners appeared to be in no state to wrest power south any time soon.
Chapman often spoke wistfully of his northern roots. Although he loved much of what London had to offer, the education his children received and the opportunities for self-improvement, it didn’t stop him, or several Arsenal players, missing home. In time, Arsenal would come to be seen as embodying London wealth and yet few of their 1930s stars actually hailed from the capital. The West Ham-born George Male, who made his debut in the late 1920s, recalled: “Apart from Alex James, I wouldn’t say that any Arsenal players lived the London life. We didn’t earn the money! Many were overawed with London. They’d lived in mining villages and small towns all their lives. We all tended to keep low profiles, except for Alex. Chapman wouldn’t have allowed us to live a party life.” A Daily Mail story from the time suggested that Chapman was poised to return north, but instead he eschewed all offers from rivals and stayed put in 1929, determined to make good his promise of delivering success to Arsenal.
Although league performances in 1929-30 might not have been especially indicative of improvement, Chapman, one by one, solved the essential conundrums which lay at the root of Arsenal’s underachievement. His unerring eye for detail saw him upgrade the team in several key positions. The first change he made was to replace the centre-half Jack Butler with a £200 signing from Oswestry Town, Herbie Roberts. Joe Hulme recalled Butler’s “tendency to wander out of position, because his natural instinct was to go forward.” On the other hand, Roberts “would follow Chapman’s instructions to the letter,” Male said.
A vital cog in the machine had been added, but the machine still wasn’t sufficiently oiled. Part of the problem was that the inside-forward Andy Neil, who had done a sterling job in the role, simply wasn’t quick enough or adept enough at foraging. When Preston North End put Alex James on the transfer list in the summer of 1929, Chapman fought off competition from Liverpool and Aston Villa to sign one of Scotland’s ‘Wembley Wizards’ who had dazzled against England a year before. James initially appeared to be little more than an expensive spanner in the works. A dire run of form saw Chapman’s team win just five matches between September and mid-February.
Chapman – whose success as a munitions factory manager in World War One and as Huddersfield manager had been forged through extolling the values of hard work and an adherence to a strict system of working – appeared to have landed Arsenal with a maverick individualist. The Gunners weren’t yet using James properly and he was forced to play in a far deeper role than he expected. Dropped prior to Arsenal’s crucial FA Cup fourth-round clash with Birmingham, Chapman sent James home for complete bed rest. What happened next represents arguably the most pivotal piece of man-management in Chapman’s reign. James, ordered by the club’s physician to rest for a fortnight, listened on the radio as Arsenal drew with the Blues and received injections in his battered ankle.
The following morning, Chapman strode into James’s bedroom, instructed him to get dressed and informed him that he would win the replay against Birmingham “for the boys”. It represented a huge gamble for Chapman, who confessed: “I did not know how we were going to get him back into the side.” Although colleagues surrounded James like a returning messiah after the victorious 1-0 scrap against Birmingham in a biblical downpour, Chapman had long realised that if James were to flourish at Highbury, he required someone on the left to adopt both left-sided forward positions when the team attacked. James’s role, falling back with a retreating defence, left the forward line a man short for much of the time. Hulme went as far as to say: “Sometimes when we attacked, if felt as if were hopelessly lopsided, almost a man down.”
The inside-forward Cliff Bastin had been stunned when Chapman approached him in December 1929 and asked him to shift to outside-left. Bastin was persuaded by his manager that the move would benefit both the player and the club. Chapman had, by a mixture of bluff, shrewd judgement and persuasion, sculpted the forward line which would ultimately bring the club so much success. Despite a raft of injuries, the Hulme-Jack-Lambert-James-Bastin formation was finally in place and, slowly but surely, James led the way in the FA Cup. At Ayresome Park in the fifth round, he broke free and slipped the ball to Lambert, who prodded home. A Bastin header gave Arsenal a comfortable 2-0 win with the defence soaking up plenty of Boro pressure after the break. Arsenal appeared to have luck on their side when they avoided Huddersfield and eventual league champions Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final, and instead drew Second Division strugglers Hull City.
Arsenal laboured for much of the match, and only six minutes were left when Bastin curled in an excellent shot from the edge of the box to pull the scores level at 2-2. The replay was equally hard going. James seized on the ball in midfield but his raking pass down the right appeared to be running out for a throw-in. With Hulme injured, his deputy Joey Williams somehow kept the ball in, crossed low, and David Jack swept home. Arsenal squeaked through 1-0 to face Huddersfield Town at Wembley.
It is tempting to view the 1930 final (simply dubbed the ‘North v South Final’ by Pathé News) in purely black and white terms; the day on which the balance of power swung irrevocably from north to south and from Chapman’s former club to the one he had headed to London for. That portrayal isn’t entirely inaccurate but in truth the two clubs had been travelling on increasingly divergent paths since 1926. Despite the hat-trick of titles won by the Leeds Road club between 1924 and 1926, the foundations upon which they had been built remained unsteady. In a predominantly rugby-supporting town they had been elected to the Football League in 1910, invested an incredible £25,000 on new players in just three seasons before World War One and narrowly staved off bankruptcy.
Chapman’s arrival, and the club’s continued investment, brought unprecedented success to Town, but at the height of their success, wrote James Catton in All Sports Weekly in 1926, “The strain of endeavouring to be champions for three years without a break is enormous.” Even the Huddersfield Examiner noted a sense of “trophy fatigue” among the club’s own supporters on the eve of the 1926-27 campaign. “Never has the curtain gone up on the drama of the soccer season with less beating of drums and blowing of trumpets than it will do this year. One reason for the calm is the fact that the question ‘will Huddersfield Town win the championship again?’ cannot arouse quite the same overpowering interest.”
Amid managerial change, Huddersfield finished second in 1927 and 1928, narrowly missing out on the double, before finishing in disappointing mid-table positions in 1929 and 1930 as investment in the team and attendances began to tumble. Sheffield Wednesday, champions in 1929 and 1930, had become the powerhouse in the north, but Huddersfield had knocked them out of the FA Cup by defeating them in the other semi-final.
Huddersfield was already feeling the early impact of the Great Depression on its textile mills and surrounding coal mines, a contributory factor in the declining attendances. In contrast London, with its raft of consumer and service industries, was in a much stronger position to lead the way forward. Construction continued to flourish in the capital. Suburbs sprung up along the newly extended tube lines, slum clearance continued apace, a record number of new houses were built in Islington alone and the Piccadilly area was completely rebuilt. There were hardships due to the Depression in the capital, but as Hulme acknowledged: “London and the north were like two different worlds, really.”
The teams emerged alongside one another in bright sunshine for the 1930 FA Cup final. Given that Chapman had managed both teams, the FA decided that the Huddersfield and Arsenal players should walk out in unison.
It is supremely ironic that on the day Arsenal finally made their mark, and served notice that the tactical system they had spent nearly five years piecing together was a potent one, their first goal should come from a piece of off-the-cuff impudence. With 15 minutes on the clock, James was fouled by Roy Goodall and before he even heard the referee’s whistle blow took a quick free-kick, nudging the ball on to Bastin, who scampered down to the corner flag, doubled back under Goodall’s challenge and screwed the ball back to James. Without breaking his stride, James hammered in a great shot past Hugh Turner with the outside of his foot. James had been attempting lightning-quick free-kicks all season, much to Chapman’s annoyance, because the referee invariably made James retake it and by then Arsenal had lost their impetus. But when it really counted, James’s improvisation paid off.
Just as the all-important W-M tactical change back in 1925 had largely been Buchan’s brainchild, James’s spark of ingenuity was his own idea and as Tom Whittaker, Chapman’s assistant, later noted: “It is strange that he helped to win the cup by virtually disobeying an order from his chief.” After the game, Hulme recalled Chapman, “... smirking at James with those twinkly eyes of his at the sheer cheek of what he’d done. He couldn’t argue with James now, could he?” As Arsenal captain Tom Parker said, his team still had work to do, but not before the mother of all distractions hove into view early in the second half.
Like “a huge silver cigar” (the Guardian), the Graf Zeppelin, accompanied by a dozen aircraft, drifted over Wembley just before the start of the second half. King George V seemed happy enough, raising his hat as the airship dipped its nose to salute him. Parker was matter-of-fact. “I glanced up, saw what it was, and didn’t give another second’s thought. I’d seen a Zeppelin over London before, anyway.” Parker was probably referring to the R101 airship’s maiden voyage in late 1929, which drew huge crowds as it passed over the capital.
The Zeppelin was in England on a publicity trip and even at the timeits appearance was described by the Guardian as “not graceful at all, but heavy, threatening, sullen, and creating a fearful din.” In various football histories, the ‘Zeppelin Final’, as well as heralding the emergence of Chapman’s Arsenal, has also been highlighted as an ominous warning of Germany’s growing industrial might during the 1930s. But this was still three years before the Nazis came to power and the purpose of the Zeppelin’s flight that day, in the words of Home Secretary JR Clynes, was “a symbol of how Germany and England can now work in harmony to ensure that both countries benefit from advanced aerial power.” After the enormous vessel eventually landed in Cardington, scientists from both nations met to swap aeronautic technology.
Huddersfield kept their concentration firmly on events at ground level, and laid siege to Arsenal’s goal for much of the second half. With seven minutes remaining, Arsenal appeared ready to buckle. Then James intervened again. Receiving possession in his own half, the Daily Mail reported he “held the ball long enough to make the halves and backs uncertain of his intentions. Then he pushed the ball straight down the middle where Lambert, between the two backs, could not be challenged promptly by either.” Lambert looked up, briefly stayed on the ball and, as Turner committed himself, slipped it past him to make the score 2-0. At long, long last, Arsenal had lifted silverware and, following in Tottenham and Chelsea’s footsteps, brought the FA Cup south. When it absolutely counted, the Gunners’ sheer efficiency and precision – drawn up on the tactics board and perfected on the training ground – worked. For Huddersfield, although they would remain a strong side well into the 1930s, the party was over.
Newspaper headlines in those days tended to be rather reserved, but the press made an exception in James’s case. The Daily Mail hailed the Magic Touch of Alex James. Perhaps the most perceptive and relevant headline of all was in the Evening Times, “The justification of Alec [sic] James: famous Scot scotches his critics”. With his reputation, as well as that of his manager and teammates, on the line, the Scot had proved to be Arsenal’s alchemist.
Had Huddersfield battered down Arsenal’s defence in that fraught second half, James believed that Chapman would have dismantled the side and offloaded him. “Chapman,” he said, “was never a man to give two thoughts to the fact that a player had cost many thousands of pounds to buy. They paid £9000 for me, but I tell you quite frankly, that if we hadn’t won at Wembley, I am fairly certain in my own mind that Alex James would have been up for sale again.” In reality, it is highly unlikely that a Samuel Hill-Wood-led board would have altered its laissez-faire philosophy and dismissed the manager or ripped apart the squad had Chapman failed to make good on his five-year plan. It simply wasn’t the Hill-Wood style.
The aura surrounding James grew exponentially. In his role as sports outfitter at Selfridges, Alex James – now dubbed “the greatest living footballer” by the West End department store – rubbed shoulders with the likes of the Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen, the trans-Atlantic flyer Amy Johnson, and even Charlie Chaplin himself, who attended Gordon Selfridge’s 1931 General Election party at the store. Chapman and Selfridge knew that innovation and novelty was necessary to keep their respective businesses cutting edge. Selfridge experimented with extended opening hours and numerous gimmicks, like the aviation pioneer Louis Blériot and his plane and the golfer Walter Hagen “teaching punters to tee off”. Chapman oversaw the blueprints for the art deco East and West stands, the installation of the famous clock and looked at a host of other gizmos and gadgets. In an era when the Great Depression saw millions unemployed, Arsenal – with their towering stands and marble halls – and Selfridges would represent a form of escapism, glamour and fantasy; James was the common link between them.
While the national dailies focussed on details of the Arsenal v Huddersfield match itself, the local Daily Gazette (before it became known as the Islington Gazette) viewed Arsenal’s triumph from a broader perspective. Chapman’s post-match comments in the local newspaper spoke volumes for his sense of business acumen, his broader economic understanding and his awareness that stability, unity and patience were the key factors behind any successful organisation. He insisted: “We showed the team spirit which is necessary to the success of any enterprise, whether sporting, business or municipal... We commence our success in the boardroom. My directors have very great ideals on our great game and on the lives of the people. There is nothing too good for the Arsenal.”
'St Ivel’ (it was common for journalists then to use a pen name) described Arsenal as “the Bank of England club” – and reported that a gaggle of journalists had suggested to Chapman that he “must have had a horseshoe in his pocket during the final.” The Gazette picked up on the theme. “Lucky Arsenal” had bought themselves some silverware. But Chapman stuck doggedly to his beliefs and his system, and would soon make Arsenal, who’d win the title in 1930-31, the most talked about and innovative club in world football.
In an era in which football was often disorganised and distinctly ad hoc, Chapman’s five-year Arsenal plan, rooted in scientific theory, business acumen, tactical change, nuanced man-management and individual brilliance, proved irresistible, and ultimately shaped 1930s football. The power and momentum had well and truly shifted south to N5.