Nutritional science was very much in its infancy during the 1930s. Here’s George Allison of the Arsenal, upon being asked what steps a footballer should take to continue playing after the ripe old age of 30: “I suggest cutting out tea and coffee and drinking milk instead. Or water. It is not easy to give up tea and coffee. There is the same kind of physical or chemical difficulty that one finds in giving up cocaine or any kind of dope. There is for a time low spirits or depression. But in time it passes completely away. One becomes as fond of milk as other men are of beer. Milk drinkers can play in the hottest weather without the least inconvenience.”

In 1934 Allison signed James Marshall from the Glaswegian giants Rangers. A talented inside-right, Marshall had won six Scottish titles and three Scottish Cups, averaging a goal every other game. He was also a qualified doctor who was moving to London in order to further his medical career. Like his new manager, he was well versed in cutting-edge developments in the field of isotonic replenishment. “Champagne as a producer of energy is the safest of all stimulants,” he said. “It acts at once and leaves no harmful effects. It dulls the sense of fatigue so that the player feels refreshed and reinvigorated. The sparkle of the wine and the instinctive belief that it is doing him a power of good work upon his imagination, so that he steps out of the dressing room ready to win any match against any odds!”

Dr Marshall also held trenchant views on the benefits of smoking: “Is it wise for the man who smokes his 25 or 30 cigarettes a day to give up entirely for two days before an important fixture? I should say that it would most likely be harmful. The man who smokes his modest ten may reduce his allowance to five during the season, and the constitution will very soon get used to it. But I would not advise the heavy smoker who is an athlete to give up his smoking entirely just before a big physical effort. Equally, a cigarette will steady the nerve of many an excited footballer.”

But drugs other than nicotine were considered beyond the pale, and there were constant rumours of clubs doping their players up to the eyeballs. Arsenal themselves had dabbled with amphetamines as far back as 1925, when Herbert Chapman’s predecessor Leslie Knighton was approached by a Harley Street quack clutching a small bag of white tablets said to magically boost courage and strength. Knighton sampled the pusherman’s wares and was soon off his noggin. Overwhelmed with a desire to dance, prance, sing and shout he momentarily considered tearing down all four walls of his Highbury office with his bare hands, a task he suddenly felt within his capabilities. Knighton resolved to pass the tablets on to his men. “There is nothing wrong in giving a team a tonic!” he convinced himself. Such pills were not yet illegal, science outpacing the game’s governing bodies, though Knighton kept it quiet as the prim and proper British public were sure to disapprove of anything that could be construed as offering an unfair advantage. The tabs were discreetly dished out ahead of an FA Cup tie at West Ham, only for the match to be called off. Arsenal’s lip-smacking players scattered about London in search of liquid refreshment. “We drank water until I felt that the Thames would dry up,” Knighton panted.

A second dalliance with the pills, when the Cup tie finally went ahead, resulted in up-for-it Arsenal rushing around feverishly. They ran “like Olympic sprinters” and “jumped like rockets”, according to Knighton. But they could only draw 0-0. The results, admittedly from a small data sample, were inconclusive. But the players disliked the savage thirsts the pills brought – described as “red-hot and soul destroying” – and so with a defiant yell that “nearly split the roof”, they refused to continue with the experiment. Knackered, they were knocked out of the Cup.

A decade on, Dr Marshall set out a logical argument that doping was nothing to worry about unduly. Punters would be able to cop the signs a mile off, he reasoned, and in any case it would be “so highly dangerous, in more ways than one, that it is impracticable … I think we can safely pooh-pooh the idea that nasty managers are dabbling with dangerous drugs.” With the good doctor having spoken, much of the concerned chatter died down. For a while. But it never faded away completely, and the issue would become a hot potato once more as the decade drew to a close.

During a match at the Valley in early September 1934 the Charlton Athletic supporter William Hall collapsed on the terrace and passed away. At the inquest into his death, held four days later, the coroner for south-east London asked a family member whether Hall ever got excited during matches. “No, not in the slightest,” his stepson replied. The coroner considered the answer before reaching his verdict: “It must have been the strain of standing.” Charlton had never been the sort to get their fans’ hearts a-flutter.

Poor old Mr Hall just missed out on his club’s golden era. For the excitement levels at Charlton, under their new manager Jimmy Seed, were about to be taken up a notch. After limping away from Sheffield Wednesday in 1931 Seed took over at Clapton Orient, to whom he had been recommended by his friend Herbert Chapman. Arsenal were scheming to use Orient as a nursery club for talent, and Seed was excited to be part of a cutting-edge experiment in player development. But when the FA put a stop to Chapman’s expansionism, Seed increasingly saw no future at the club (not least because at one point, in the immediate wake of the FA ruling, Orient were left with no registered players, Chapman having taken everyone back to Highbury).

The Arsenal manager still had a positive role to play in Seed’s story, though. He invited the Orient boss to a banquet held in celebration of his team’s 1932-33 championship win. Seed of Clapton found himself seated, alphabetically, next to a representative of Charlton, who had just been relegated to the Third Division but had a few pennies to spend. They were looking for a new manager with new ideas. Seed eagerly threw his hat into the ring, landed the job and set about injecting some much-needed energy into the club. On the evening of the inquest into Mr Hall’s demise, Charlton won at Torquay, their goalkeeper Alex Wright earning plaudits for an inspired performance.

The following morning, before the team made their way back to London, Wright went out swimming at Torre Abbey sands. He was preparing to dive from a raft when it was hit by a wave. Wright fell head first into shallow water, cracking his head on a rock and fracturing his spine. His mother and sister raced south overnight from Glasgow and reached him ten minutes before he died. A tragic week at the Valley, but kinder days lay ahead.

Seed signed the Brentford striker Ralph Allen, whose 32 goals powered Charlton to the 1934-35 Third Division (South) title. By the end of the campaign, the void in goal left by Wright had been filled by Sam Bartram, a 20 year old who had played as a left-half and a centre-forward in the Wearside League, only to be spotted by Seed’s brother Anthony while standing in for his team’s injured keeper. Charlton won instant promotion from the Second Division, becoming the first club to make it from the Third to the First in successive seasons, a feat not to be repeated until Queens Park Rangers did so in 1968. Seed didn’t change much, bar laying out £1,000 on the Gillingham forward George Tadman while sending Allen to Reading for £828. A whopping net spend of £172. And every penny was well spent, as Tadman ended 1936-37, Charlton’s first season in the top flight, as the club’s leading scorer. He achieved that feat by scoring just 11 goals but that wasn’t really the point. Charlton’s game-plan was to keep it steady rather than spectacular, the goalscoring winger Harold Hobbis their one nod to aesthetic embellishment. Stay focused at the back and see what transpired.

The plan Seed sowed nearly reaped a spectacular harvest. Charlton kept grinding out one-goal victories and were top going into March. The critics remained resolutely unimpressed. “I am glad my future does not depend on adequately filling up an examination paper that would explain the success that has come to the Charlton club, for I simply could not do it,” huffed the Express columnist Trevor Wignall, utterly perplexed that a team from the Third Division, pretty much, was now on the verge of the English title. “The forward line is competent but not one of them would cause a rush if they were placed on the transfer list. The defence, good though it is, can be rattled. It seems to me the only things that can be fallen back on are comradeship and splendid team work.”

Faint praise, offered grudgingly. Though to be fair, Wignall’s analysis was vindicated by events. Subsequent victories over Preston and Manchester United were slight and rather fortunate, and suggested Charlton were beginning to run on fumes. The wheels whistled off the wagon just before Easter, when a 5-0 thrashing at Derby was followed by a 3-0 loss at Chelsea. Comradeship kicked in: Charlton responded bravely with a thumping 4-0 victory over an emerging Wolverhampton Wanderers, followed by four more wins in their last six games.

But the resurgence came too late. Arsenal initially took over the leadership, but it was Manchester City, with games in hand and wind in their sails, who made the decisive charge. Past masters at dropping from mid-table like a stone, City went the other way this time. After a couple of heavy losses in December – a 5-1 mauling by a Sheffield Wednesday side bound for relegation, and a very unmerry 5-3 Christmas Day spanking at Grimsby – they got their act together in style. They didn’t lose again in the League, storming up the division as their four-pronged attack of Peter Doherty, Eric Brook, Fred Tilson and Alec Herd clocked up 80 goals between them. The signature performances were a couple of five-goal beatings of Liverpool around Easter, when it became clear City meant business. They scored 36 times in their last ten games to breeze past Arsenal and claim, at long last, their maiden title. The Gunners gave up second place to Charlton, who deserved something for their gritty heroism. Seed’s team finished just three points behind City, despite scoring 49 fewer goals.

The following seasons saw them finish third and fourth using the same no-frills blueprint. Arguably the most memorable moment during that period came when they faced Chelsea on Christmas Day 1937, and an old-fashioned London-style pea-souper descended on Stamford Bridge. With visibility down to inches, never mind feet or yards, the referee was forced to abandon the game. The problem was nobody bothered telling Sam Bartram, who stayed in his goal for a full three minutes after all the other players had departed for the changing rooms. He had simply assumed his teammates were down the other end, piling on the pressure in the thick fog. The power of positive thought, right there. The initial pattern of 1937-38 was not dissimilar to the previous season: up until Christmas, Manchester City were bumbling their way to mid-table mediocrity.

But instead of an upsurge, confidence betrayed them once again. Six losses and two draws during February and March saw them plummet into the relegation places. A late-season rally looked to have saved their bacon: Eric Brook scored four in a 7-1 win over West Bromwich Albion, Peter Doherty three in a 6-2 evisceration of Leeds United, a win in the penultimate game of the season which took them four places clear of trouble. They were level on points with all the teams below, but blessed with a far superior goal average. A win at fellow strugglers Huddersfield Town would guarantee the champions’ safety. And so with just over a quarter of an hour to go, Alec Herd unleashed a blistering 35-yard drive that had the Huddersfield keeper Bob Hesford beaten. The ball crashed against the bar and back out. Town – who had just lost the FA Cup final to Preston North End in the last 30 seconds of extra-time and were probably due a bit of luck – went straight up the other end. A long throw caused a kerfuffle in the City box and Bobby Barclay toe-poked the ball over Frank Swift’s prostrate frame and into the net.

City responded to falling behind with a few desperate attacks, at one point surrounding the referee when the ball was stopped on the Huddersfield goal-line by what was in effect a rugby scrum. No goal. No penalty. No more time. The final whistle blew. City then found out that all the teams below them in the table, bar one, had secured precious victories. The champions were relegated, a unique achievement, despite scoring 80 goals. Anyone for a counterfactual? Had Herd scored with his 35-yarder instead of hitting the woodwork and City hung on for the win, Huddersfield would have gone down instead. In that scenario, Huddersfield would have become only the second team to lose an FA Cup final and suffer relegation in the same season. The first? Manchester City in 1926. Of course.

At 3.40 p.m. on 16 September 1937 the sport of association football crashed through the looking glass. Television turned up. The BBC’s fancy new outside broadcast cameras pitched up at Highbury, where the Gunners manager and seasoned broadcaster George Allison put his lads through their paces in a 15-minute programme, Football at the Arsenal, wedged between a British Movietone news bulletin and the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Wayward Canary. The action was pinged back to the Beeb’s nearby Alexandra Palace headquarters, where it was instantly transmitted to the couple of thousand of wealthy set owners peppered around north London. Viewers were treated to crisp, clear pictures of a kickabout between Arsenal’s first XI and the reserves, as well as some “football demonstrations” described by ringmaster Allison. “Clifford Bastin will now show you how a football should and should not be trapped. First, do it badly!” Bastin followed the orders with a couple of theatrically heavy touches. “Now show how it ought to be done!” Sure enough, Bastin provided viewers with the world’s first action replay, the ball accidentally clanking off his foot and flying several yards away. His teammates, sat on the Highbury turf, crumbled with laughter. “We’ll always be happy to see television here at any time!” smiled Allison, as ever sensing the prevailing breeze.

The Preston-Huddersfield FA Cup final was shown in part at the end of the 1937-38 season, and the following year’s England-Scotland international became the first game to be broadcast live in full. But while it would take a while for the full effects of this experiment to be felt by the Football League – the best part of half a century, in fact – the genie was out of the bottle. Allison signed off the historic broadcast by announcing the upcoming Mickey Mouse cartoon. As the picture faded, one of his players could be heard cracking wise: “Ah, here’s something really worth watching.” Media meta-jokes are nothing new.

Arsenal got back to serious business. As Ted Drake was struggling with injury, they sourced a big-money stand-in: George Hunt, the ‘Chesterfield Tough’, £7,500 from Spurs. The transfer was a huge surprise, partly because nobody had moved from White Hart Lane to Highbury before, but mainly because the 27-year-old striker’s career was rumoured to be as good as over. Hunt denied the allegations vociferously: “People circulate lying gossip. For example, I was on the razzle every night. But I rarely touch a drink! I suppose this sort of tale started because I’m a sociable type of man who enjoys tinkering on the piano.”

Hunt was good for a sing-song, but he wasn’t quite the marksman of old. Sharp enough to have once hit three hat-tricks in six games at Spurs, he was off the pace across town. Too eager to please, anxiety seeping into every pass and shot, he scored just three times in 18 appearances before being moved on to Bolton Wanderers. A refreshed Drake reclaimed his place and ended the season as his club’s top scorer again. Even so, Hunt’s efforts were enough for a League medal. Arsenal ended the 1937-38 season as champions, securing their fifth title in eight years.

But they had to fight like blazes for it. Brentford had, like Charlton before them, risen from the Third Division (South) to surprise the top-flight cognoscenti . In 1929-30 Harry Curtis’s side won all 21 of their home games in the third tier, yet somehow failed to win promotion on account of bang-average away form. Three years later, they made it to the Second, and after a season of consolidation went up again. Despite some early hiccups, they finished fifth in 1935-36, their virgin season in the First Division: the club-record £6,000 signing of goal-a-game David McCulloch from Heart of Midlothian had been the key to their successful acclimatisation. And by 1937-38 they were ready to take a serious tilt at the title. In mid-October they moved top of the League by eviscerating the famously parsimonious Charlton defence. They won 5-2 in a match which saw the wing-halves Duncan McKenzie and Tally Sneddon switch places with mind-boggling speed and fluidity. “It would be difficult to overrate the quality of the football Brentford played,” purred the man from the Times. “They were so clever, so adaptable in their ideas. McKenzie and Sneddon looked capable of murdering the Charlton defence.”

Towards the end of January, a 3-0 win over Everton gave Brentford a four-point advantage over Wolverhampton Wanderers. Arsenal at that point looked completely out of it, seven points back. But an eight-game run of six losses and two draws put an abrupt end to the fairytale. McCulloch started to spurn easy chances. Doubts crept in. The defence took on a ragged look. “Brentford seem to have shot their bolt,” was the blunt assessment of the Manchester Guardian after Portsmouth beat them 4‒1 in mid-March. They trailed in sixth. The few late-season successes Brentford did enjoy served mainly to galvanise others into action. A 6‒1 rout of rock-bottom Grimsby Town cleared heads to such an extent that the Mighty Mariners won five of their last seven to escape relegation by a point. Arsenal, meanwhile, were routed 3-0 at Griffin Park on Easter Monday, their keeper Joe Crozier knocking Ted Drake spark out when attempting to punch the ball clear. Drake was carted off on a stretcher, eventually re-emerging five stitches later, swathed in bandages, to meander around on the wing. At the end of the game – during which he received dog’s abuse from an unsympathetic home crowd – he was carted off half-conscious by trainer Tom Whittaker, a towel covering his head, and sent to hospital.

Arsenal’s response was to win their final three matches of the season. They had made a determined late run, yet it shouldn’t have been enough. Wolverhampton Wanderers, led by the charismatic and ever-so-slightly scary Major Frank Buckley, looked the real deal. Major Buckley had shown immense bravery during the First World War, his lungs taking a severe pounding from shrapnel and poison gas on the Western Front. That put an end to an average playing career, but his stint in the army stood him in good stead when he embarked on life as a manager.

He had served in the Football Battalion, made up of amateur and professional players as well as supporters, and the friends he made with knowledgeable football men all around the country eventually provided a ready-made scouting network. Hot talent was on tap. The Major, with a little help from his friends, quickly developed a reputation for sourcing promising players on the cheap, then selling them on for large sums of money. He was also at the cutting edge of physical conditioning. Trips to the seaside for long runs up and down the beach were refreshingly old-school; fitness camps in army-style barracks were a tad more extreme. Buckley took delivery of an ‘electric horse’, a moving platform on which players stood, holding onto rubber handles for dear life, as the machine vibrated like a bucking bronco, leg muscles being yanked around in an extremely vibrant manner.

Having joined Wolves in 1927, Buckley sold on more than £100,000 worth of talent during his first decade at the club. Fans began to get irked at what appeared to be the prioritisation of profit over glory. After a home defeat by Chelsea in November 1936, with Wolves struggling at the wrong end of the table, around 100 supporters raced onto the field of play. Initially it was thought they were going for the referee, but it turned out they were desirous of some hot chat with Buckley over transfer policy. Arthur Simmons of the Daily Express was aghast at the outpouring of fan frustration: “It is a pity they cannot be held up to ridicule by being spanked in Wolverhampton market place. I am all for decorum in matters of flesh, but ‘trousers down, take that, and that, and that!’ would be a fitting corrective.”

Buckley pleaded patience, and was justified when Wolves rallied to finish fifth in 1936-37. He now had a team more attractive than their reputation for an overly physical long-ball game suggested, and was ready to make a move for the title in 1937-38. Stan Cullis stood at the heart of the defence; the skilful inside forward Bryn Jones and the dependable goalscorer Dennis Westcott were the threats up front. Towards the end of the season, Buckley unearthed another star in 18-year-old Dicky Dorsett, who in only his fourth senior appearance scored four times in a spectacular 10-1 Good Friday win over Leicester City. Westcott also hit four that day. Wolves even contributed Leicester’s consolation, Cullis heading into his own net. There were suggestions that Buckley had deliberately flooded the pitch beforehand and Leicester hadn’t been able to arrange suitable long-studded footwear at short notice. Still, ten goals are ten goals and it couldn’t have been the sole reason for the rout. After all, the same trick didn’t pay off 24 hours later when Preston held Wolves 0-0 on another Molineux quagmire.

Either way, the hard work appeared complete: a win at Sunderland on the final day of the season would give Wolves their first League title. But they fell behind early doors to a Raich Carter goal, and never looked like getting back into the game. Arsenal, on the other hand, breezed past Bolton 5‒0 to take the title by a point, two-goal Cliff Bastin back in his groove, that brief humiliation in front of the BBC cameras having long been lost to the ether.

Wolverhampton’s lethargy at the business end of 1937–38 came as something of a surprise because Buckley was notorious for injecting his players with extract from monkey glands, a new scientific wheeze designed to fill the squad with confidence and vigour. The injections were first administered to the team in 1937 by the chemist Menzies Sharp, whose “secret remedy” was influenced by French experiments in which testicles from young animals were grafted onto old knackered ones, causing the senior creatures to magically regain some of their youthful vim. Buckley tested out a dozen injections on himself, enjoyed how he felt and imposed a course on his squad. The practice was extremely controversial. “If players have got to be doped to get results, things must be pretty bad,” blasted Bolton Wanderers captain Harry Goslin. “It is a selfish policy, and the principle of the thing is wrong. “The FA eventually “voiced disapproval” of the treatment after holding a summit meeting, though most of the affronted passion that day was reserved for another contentious issue, that of “showing strongly against the televising of League matches”. Gland treatment was not made illegal.

“Buckley’s Babes”, as the press semi-affectionately christened them, started 1938–39 slowly, partly depressed by the loss of Bryn Jones to Arsenal in a world-record £14,000 deal. The shy Jones struggled at his new club, while his old pals fared little better. By the end of October, Wolves were a point off the bottom. It subsequently transpired Buckley had taken the team off the glands. They were soon back on them – Buckley confessed as much in the press – and won 19 of their next 23 matches. The signature performance was a 7‒0 obliteration of Everton, who had started the season themselves with six wins on the bounce, and had remained at the top pretty much ever since. Everton’s new star striker Tommy Lawton said hello to his England teammate Cullis before kick-off. “He walked past me with glazed eyes,” Lawton later recalled. “There’s no question they were on these monkey pills, and when they licked us 7‒0 I was sure of it. It was heavy going, and they hadn’t raised a sweat.”

Everton arrived back at Molineux a fortnight later for an FA Cup tie, only to find the pitch little more than a sea of mud. Buckley initially refused to give Everton’s trainer the key to the boot room so the visitors could attach longer studs. He eventually relented and Wolves won the tie 2‒0 anyway. Wolves were now hot favourites for the first Double of the twentieth century. “They are a law unto themselves, they are magnificent, they are unequalled!” trilled the News of the World. But their slow start – and Everton’s fast one – came back to haunt them. Wolves’ defence buckled in three consecutive away games, shipping three at Birmingham, five at Stoke, and four at Preston. Everton cruised home to claim a title that was thoroughly deserved, not least because in Lawton they had found a more than adequate replacement for Dixie Dean: he had scored 35 goals in 38 appearances. (The old warhorse Dean, before being packed off to Notts County the previous season, had spent hours coaxing brilliance out of young Lawton on the training ground, full in the knowledge that he was hastening his own demise at Goodison. There’s taking one for the team.)

Buckley’s Babes gained no succour at the Cup final. They were given a stiff lesson by Portsmouth, who sashayed to a 4‒1 victory attributed in part to the beneficial power of … monkey-gland elixir. Hoist by their own petard. “Portsmouth easily deserved their win,” sighed a dejected but sportsmanlike Cullis as he trudged away from Wembley. “Ah well. Perhaps next year.”

This is an edited extract from Scott Murray’s book The Title published by Bloomsbury.