“Now I must admit, the Arsenal star has waned a little. We are no longer the great side of yesteryear, and people are happily writing us off as has-beens,” wrote the Gunners striker Tommy Lawton in his 1955 autobiography My Twenty Years Of Soccer. Champions just two years previously, Arsenal were in the formative stages of their trophyless 17-year run which encompassed the rest of the decade and the 1960s. And yet, with Busby’s babes still being nurtured in the Manchester United youth team, the Gunners remained by some distance English football’s most marketable and exportable asset. 

When, in the summer of 1954, the club announced its forthcoming trip to Moscow to play Dinamo at the Dinamo Stadium, the ensuing clamour for tickets in the Soviet capital rivalled that which greeted the news of Dinamo’s goodwill British tour nearly a decade earlier. In the Daily Mail, Patrick Sergeant wrote: “The struggle for tickets here has to be believed. The town is agog about the match, and queues are expected to form from 3am tomorrow morning.”

In 1945, Tommy Lawton had spearheaded Chelsea’s attack in front of – officially – 74,496 fans at Stamford Bridge, and his side battled to a 3-3 draw against Vsevolod Bobrov, Vassili Kartsev, the skipper Mikhail Semichastny and legendary goalkeeper Alexei ‘Tiger’ Khomich. Lawton had been impressed by their “tremendously quick thinking” and “speed of movement.” Renowned as an astute tactician, Lawton also noted, “They didn’t dribble the ball in the approved English style. Instead… the ball would be passed from man to man with incredible speed and accuracy.” The Dynamos, as the British press of the time called them, trounced Cardiff 10-1 in the next match at Ninian Park, and defeated Arsenal – with Stanley Matthews and Stanley Mortensen guesting for the Gunners – 4-3 at White Hart Lane. After rounding off the tour with a breathless 2-2 draw against Rangers, the Dynamos departed as heroes. 

Yet, with the world on the cusp of a Cold War, English players’ recollections of the tour tended to focus upon more peripheral and anecdotal aspects. There were several anecdotes about the Dynamos’ occasional “rough play” and their keenness to complete the match against Arsenal at a fog-shrouded White Hart Lane. The Dynamos were winning when several Arsenal players suggested to the referee that he abandon the game. Allegations were made – still unfounded – that Moscow officials communicated to their coaching staff to push for the match to be completed. The Gunners defender Bernard Joy claimed that the Dynamos had tricked the referee and played for a short period with 12 men on account of the fact the referee couldn’t see whether the Soviets had made a substitution or not. Word got around that, in contrast to their lively and inventive play on the pitch, the Soviet players were sombre and dour, appearing as if – according to Joy – “they had the weight of the world on their shoulders.” Lawton later commented, “

As their players returned to their country [in November 1945], I wondered if I’d ever play again against a Russian team, given the uncertain times we now lived in.”

By October 1954, the Iron Curtain created a divided world. Both the Soviets and the Americans had tested the hydrogen bomb and newspaper reports told how, in response to the establishment of Nato in 1949, the Soviet Union and its satellite states would soon form the Warsaw Pact. The American Government launched its “Duck and Cover” public information campaign to advise its citizens what to do in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. Mao Tse Tung had turned China Communist in 1949 and the US had already deployed troops in Vietnam while backing Southern forces in the Korean War. Proxy wars, an aggressive arms race and a war of words between the two superpowers… Josef Stalin may have died the year before, but the Cold War rumbled on. 

The Arsenal full-back Walley Barnes remarked, “Footballers aren’t always attuned to world affairs, but I can safely say that I feel much less safe now than I did a decade ago.” When stories first surfaced about Arsenal’s “goodwill” tour to Moscow, the wing-half Alex Forbes commented, “Going to Moscow will certainly be an adventure, and given the situation in the world today, I suppose it will be more than a football match. Arsenal find themselves in quite an ambassadorial situation.”

The dates of the match, and the opponents, remained shrouded in mystery and doubt until only a fortnight before the match. Although players were still labouring under the “slavery contract”, Lawton, Barnes and Forbes questioned with manager Tom Whittaker the wisdom of embarking on the adventure in the first place. Immediately following their Highbury league match with Leicester City on October 2, which Arsenal drew 3-3, the players went home, packed a bag and reported to a West End Hotel. The following morning the delegation arrived at Northolt Airport and set off on their journey in two special British European Airways Viscounts. Lawton compared them “to a flying luxury hotel.” The planes stopped off in Frankfurt and then Prague. Once in Prague, the Viscounts headed back to England and Lawton likened it to “saying goodbye to civilisation. We had a terrible empty feeling, and a rather deep depression set in among our party.” The players then boarded two ramshackle aircraft which resembled Dakotas. They refuelled briefly in Warsaw and then, due to poor weather, landed in Minsk, 400 miles from Moscow, where they spent an uncomfortable night in a down-at-heel dormitory. At 5am, they set off for Minsk airport, and boarded a plane for the two-and-a-half hour flight to Moscow.  

After arriving at lunchtime, the travel-weary Arsenal players were able to have a good feed, catch up on some sleep and train prior to the match at the Dinamo Stadium on the following day. Invoking some of the partisan feel of nine years before, the Daily Mail’s Patrick Sergeant announced in his match preview, “It may be old hope long dying, but I feel that if Arsenal can shoot first time and fulfil their own positional defence, I may be collecting a lot of rubles on Tuesday.” The odds on an Arsenal victory were 10-1. With an average age of 22, Mikhail Yakushin’s team, which boasted a young Lev Yashin in goal, were a formidable outfit. The Gunners received a police escort to the ground, which was filled way beyond its 64,500 capacity. When the team reached the stadium, they saw a giant banner which read: “Long Live Friendship Between the Peoples of England and the Soviet Union.”

As the teams emerged from the tunnel, the Union Jack and the Hammer and Sickle fluttered side by side on top of one of the stands. Before the national anthems were played, the crowd was treated to the baritone voice of the US singer Paul Robeson, who was noted for his Communist sympathies, booming out over the stadium loudspeaker. Then the Friendship Match got underway. With a British Parliamentary delegation looking on, the first half was tight, although tellingly Alex Forbes recalled, “The Dynamos played as a collective, whereas we relied rather too much on humping the ball forward to Tommy [Lawton].”  On a heavy pitch, the hosts took the lead in the 44th minute, when Vladimir Ilyin swerved past the Arsenal defence and drove the ball low past Jack Kelsey. In the second half, the Dynamos pulled Arsenal to pieces. By then 35 and past his prime, the lumbering Lawton tried manfully to run on to the increasingly long punts hoofed in his direction. The English press was merciless towards him. In the Daily Herald, Clifford Webb described how the crowd jeered at his pedestrian approach: “They are asking how old is Tommy Lawton and how old are some of the other Arsenal players, because they seem so tired. Is this the best team England can find?”

Moscow Radio might have been effusive in its praise towards the visitors (“Arsenal have made bosom friends of the home spectators”) but the nimble Dynamos showed no mercy and eventually ran out 5-0 winners, with Vladimir Ryzhakin, Mamedov (2) and Shabrov piling more misery on the Gunners. Back home, the headlines were unforgiving. The Daily Herald boomed: “Arsenal Run Down In DynamoLand!” The Daily Mail blasted: “Outplayed Arsenal Get The Moscow Whistle – Crowd Chuckle At 5-0 Defeat.” The fatigued Arsenal players returned to North London and pulled themselves together quickly, going to Hillsborough and defeating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1. 

Subsequent stories about Arsenal’s Moscow excursion focused on the more bizarre elements of the trip. Tommy Lawton informed journalists that the chicken soup the players were given on final leg to Moscow “made our stomachs turn. The chicken legs, which were in the soup, still boasted big, black pores in the skin… there was also some meat that was so rubbery none of us could get it down.” The story also made it into his 1955 autobiography. The forward Derek Tapscott admitted that some of the players had been hunting for “bugging devices in their rooms.” The usually placid Walley Barnes really vented his fury, breaking ranks and telling Reynolds News that the entire trip had been a waste of time and that a lack of sleep had scuppered any chance of an Arsenal victory. He vowed that when Arsenal faced Spartak Moscow at Highbury – in another “goodwill friendly” – the Gunners would get even with the Russians. “They’ll take it all back,” he vowed. “You can’t see the chip on my shoulder, but take my word for it, I’ve got one there.” Much to Barnes’ annoyance, Arsenal lost that match 2-1.

While it is undeniably true that the Arsenal players hadn’t had much time to adapt to their new surroundings, the fundamental reason for their 1954 defeat was a tactical one. The harsh reality was largely overlooked by the press, just as it had been in 1945. In Britain, the Dynamos had displayed their exhilarating brand of football – passovotchka – which had bewitched rival teams. It relied heavily on teamwork and incisive movement off the ball. Dynamo’s innovative 4-2-4 formation – the front five or six could interchange at any time tied the opposition defences (especially bewildered Cardiff City defenders) up in knots. The Soviet press affectionately nicknamed it “Organised Disorder.” Tommy Lawton noted the forwards’ ability to defend to the final man. After the games had ended, Russian officials were keen to meet with British managers in order to discuss “the way forward” in areas such as vitamin and calcium intake, masseurs and warm downs, and training drills. The vast majority of English managers stayed away from the meeting and Charlie Buchan noted, “When any Britisher asked a question about the Russian ways, they claimed they did not understand.” It was an opportunity missed, and English football stubbornly refused to assimilate any of the Dynamos' enlightened approaches.

Tommy Lawton had been one of the few footballers to castigate such an inward-looking approach, commenting in 1990: “Even now, some club bosses are only just taking on board what the Dynamos espoused all those years ago. They were a wonderful, incisive side, far more technically gifted than anything you’d come across in England.” In 1954, as he laboured on the muddy Moscow pitch, Lawton embodied Arsenal’s – and English football’s – largely agricultural approach to the game. It was the cruellest of ironies, given Lawton’s willingness for introspection. Here, in front of the TV cameras, English football’s lack of inventiveness was laid startlingly bare, as increasingly wild punts were hammered in his direction by Arsenal’s fraught backline. 

The general consensus appeared to be that the Dynamos circa 1954 were inferior to the team which toured Britain in 1945.That may be true, but in Moscow, Arsenal were ripped apart by the hosts’ breathtaking speed and crisp passing. Derek Tapscott acknowledged, “We seemed intent on hoofing the ball in the air as often as we could. They kept the ball on the ground. The Dynamos players stroked it around beautifully, and could change position on the pitch instinctively. It’s not something we did at Arsenal, or something you saw in English football as a rule, I’m afraid.” The players also noted the superb training and gymnasium facilities at the Dinamo Stadium, which “outdid anything you saw in English football – even Highbury – which is about as modern as it gets,” said Alex Forbes. Several of the Dynamo players, including Lev Yashin, had also excelled at ice hockey and Yashin later noted that the Soviet players’ multi-discipline abilities gave them “a more rounded understanding of time and space on the football pitch.” The coach Mikhail Yakushin - himself a former ice hockey player – encouraged his players to be as two-footed as possible, even suggesting that learning to write clearly with both hands would create a pliable mindset which would set them above their opponents.  Anxious to catch their outbound flight, the Arsenal delegation was unable to meet with their Russian counterparts the following morning to discuss – in echoes of 1945 – these left-field (to English teams anyway) innovations. The manager (and former physiotherapist) Tom Whittaker had gained a deserved reputation within the game for his willingness to embrace the latest medical techniques, but due to time constraints, he missed the opportunity. 

The Moscow match is merely a footnote in the Gunners’ history and has always paled into historical insignificance in comparison with the more newsworthy Dynamos tour of 1945. But as Arsenal struggled to find a winning formula or style throughout the rest of the 1950s (Highbury crowds regularly expressed their frustration at their team’s distinctly blue collar approach), it’s impossible to ignore the fact their chastening experience behind the Iron Curtain should have been a wake up call for the club and, perhaps, for English football. Just as in 1945, it wasn’t.