The Golden Age Of Arsenal
by Gary Lawrence
In the 2nd part of this piece, (If you missed Part 1 and want to read that first click here) I’ve written about the players. Unfortunately there isn’t room to include them all, or to write in very much detail about the magnificent seven I’ve opted for.
Apologies to Frank Moss, George Male, Tom Parker, Bob John, Herbie Roberts, Jack Crayston, Jack Lambert, Charlie Jones and all the other wonderful Arsenal players of the 1930s that regrettably I’ve had to omit.
A footballers life in the 1930s was of course very different from today. They were paid just £8 a week during the season and £6 a week in the summer. They didn’t live pampered lives, in gated mansions like today’s players.
The game was a lot harder then and players had to have their wits about them as the boots went flying in. The boots they wore were heavy, with reinforced toe caps and could do untold damage and often did. Nothing like the lightweight boots, which are more like slippers, that they wear today.
The most skillful players like the inside forwards and wingers, had to be able to look after themselves and evade the kicks from the wing halves and full backs. The centre forwards had to be tough as well, as the centre halves went through the back of them on a regular basis. The footballs became extremely heavy when they absorbed water, with the lace of the football sometimes whipping into the players faces, as they went to head it. Nothing like the relative beach balls they play with today.
Even the goalkeepers took a real battering from the centre forwards and many a time the keeper ended up being smashed into the back of the net with the ball, as forwards were allowed to make challenges on the keepers and shoulder charge them.
Although Arsenal were fortunate to have Tom Whittaker. Most trainers equipment of the day, consisted of just a towel, a bucket of cold water and of course the magic sponge!
The players back then always ran the risk of getting seriously injured. They took longer to recover from injury and a player may come back severely hampered, not being the same player they once were, before their injury, or in some cases, as with Tom Whittaker himself, they had to retire from playing. When that happened players faced an uncertain future with nowhere near enough money to survive, without earning a living doing something else,
Wilf signed for The Arsenal in 1934 from Leeds United for £8,000. A lot of money back then. A Yorkshireman who’d worked in the pits. He’s nickname was the “Ironman” and for good reason, he was as hard as nails. Though he wasn’t as gifted a footballer as his predecessor Bob John. Wilf made up for that with his never say die attitude. A Left Half who was very much in the Peter Storey envelope as an enforcer.
None other than Bill Shankly said this about him when playing against Wilf for Scotland against England in 1938. “The grass was short, the ground was quick and I was playing the ball. The next thing I knew, Copping had done me down the front of my right leg. He had burst the stocking, the shin pad was out and cut my leg. That was after 10 minutes and it was my first impression of Copping. He didn’t need to be playing at home to kick you. He would have kicked you in your own back yard, or in your own chair”. But strangely enough Wilf was never booked or sent off in his entire career!
One of his sayings was “The first man in a tackle never gets hurt” his finest game was probably when he was one of seven Arsenal players selected to play for England against World Champions Italy at Highbury in 1934. Which became known as the “The Battle of Highbury”
England won 3-2, Wilf was in his element and fought fire with fire, against the dark arts of the Italians and he was the man of the match. He never shirked a tackle and his legs were black and blue afterwards from the many kicks the Italians inflicted on him. In the same match poor Eddie Hapgood had his nose broken.
Wilf also never shaved before a game and allegedly used to indulge in a bottle of Guinness at half time!
Eddie was born in Bristol and started out as a milkman. Nicknamed “Happy” by his team mates, he was signed from Kettering Town for just £1,000 in 1927. What a bargain that was! He struggled at first to earn a regular place as he was very frail. But Tom Whittaker got him lifting weights and made him give up being a vegetarian. As a result he ended up with a powerful physique and able to cope with the rigours of top class football. He was a permanent fixture at Left Back for a decade from 1929 till the war broke out.
He became Arsenal captain, taking over from Alex James and was England captain as well. He played a major part in all 5 Title wins and both the FA Cups that Arsenal won in the 1930s. One of his best games for Arsenal was nullifying Huddersfield’s star man Alex Jackson in the 1930 FA Cup Final.
Eddie was a stylish classy player. One of the greatest full backs of all time. The Kenny Sansom of the 1930s. He was an immaculate tackler with perfect timing, never ruffled with a good passing range, genuinely two footed with great positional sense, as he read the game so well. He didn’t earn film star wages but had the looks. Earning himself some extra money, doing some fashion modelling!
Joey as he was called by his fellow Arsenal players, was born in Stafford and signed for Arsenal in 1926 from Blackburn Rovers. One of Chapman’s first signings. He was a lightning quick and skilful Right Winger and an excellent crosser of the ball. He must have been a nightmare for opposing full backs. Although not quite as prolific as our other winger Cliff Bastin, Hulme scored over 100 goals for Arsenal. He’s the only Arsenal player to appear in Arsenal’s first four FA Cup Finals. Joe was also an England international.
An all round natural sportsman, Hulme had a fine career as a cricketer with Middlesex and played for them for many years. He regularly made hundred breaks at Billiards and was a fine golfer as well, like many of the Arsenal players.
I once worked with someone who was Joe’s next door neighbour and he always used to get my workmate a ticket for any cup final in the late 60s and early 70s, that The Arsenal were involved in.
Born in Bolton. The splendidly named David Bone Nightingale Jack was top scorer in 5 of the 8 seasons he played for Bolton Wanderers. Herbert Chapman smashed the world record transfer fee to sign the England International and bring him to Highbury in 1928, paying £10,890 for his services. People questioned the fee at the time for a player his age. But David more than justified it in his outstanding career with The Arsenal.
He’ll be forever remembered as the first man to score at Wembley, in the famous White Horse FA Cup Final in 1923 for Bolton, in their 2-0 win against West Ham. He also scored the only goal of the game for Bolton, in their FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City in 1926.
He became the first man to win the FA Cup for two different clubs when he played for The Arsenal against Huddersfield Town in 1930. After scoring the winner against Hull City in the semi-Final replay to get us there. He also won three league titles with Arsenal and was a vital member of the side. He also had the distinction of being the first Arsenal player to captain England.
He came from a footballing family where no only was his father Bob a professional, but his two brothers Rollo and Donald were as well. Though David was by far the most renowned player in the family.
He was a brilliant footballer. One of the finest attacking inside-rights the game has ever seen. He had an amazing natural body swerve that bamboozled many an opponent. Eddie Hapgood described it as ghost-like. It was said that when David went past someone, using his famous body swerve, it was like somebody sliding across a pane of glass. David had a tremendous shot as well, switching feet very quickly in front of goal, making life very difficult for goalkeepers.
He scored 124 goals in 208 matches for The Arsenal. A brilliant goals to games ratio. Eddie Hapgood also said “If I had to make a set decision on the best player I ever saw, I would plump for David”. He was very often the man who delivered on the big occasion scoring or making goals in Cup Finals and Semi-Finals.
David was always impeccably-dressed. The fashion guru of Highbury. He even used to turn up for matches wearing spats! David was as stylish off the field as he was on it. He was also very well educated.
Eddie Hapgood tells an amusing story about him. When he came to Highbury he turned up a few times for training, then one day he didn’t turn up. Tom Whittaker went over to where he was lodging. Mrs Jack opened the door and said David is in the back room resting. He was, with his feet on the mantelpiece and smoking like a furnace. To Tom’s enquiry as to his health David replied “Oh I’m alright, but I always had Thursday’s off at Bolton!” Tom soon explained that didn’t happen at The Arsenal!
What’s more Herbert Chapman had invited Fleet Street’s finest to Highbury to show off Arsenal’s new World record signing to the press. So the place was full of reporters and photographers and Arsenal’s new star didn’t turn up!
Born in Southampton Ted started his working career as a gas meter reader. Combining this with playing for Winchester City, before being snapped up by Southampton in 1931.
Herbert Chapman tried his best to get him to sign for The Arsenal but he choose to stay with his home town club. Arsenal finally got their man when George Allison made him his first signing in March 1934, costing £6,500. He made an immediate impact scoring 7 times in 10 games. Though he didn’t qualify for a title winners medal that season, as he didn’t play enough games. He was our top scorer for the next five seasons and was the best out and out centre forward ever to play for The Arsenal.
The following season 1934-35, he scored an incredible 42 goals in 41 league games, which is still a club record. He also holds the record for most goals in one game when he scored 7 times against Aston Villa at Villa Park, which assured him of legendary status. He won a Title winners medal that season and followed that up, winning the FA Cup in 1936, scoring the winner when we beat Sheffield United 1-0. He then won a second title medal in 1937-38. He was of course, another of Arsenal’s full England international’s. Ted also played county cricket for Hampshire. Coming in for his debut, batting against the great Harold Larwood!
Ted was as tough as old boots and as brave as they come. He was a typical centre forward of the time. Very quick and direct and very strong with a powerful physique. Superb in the air and he had a ferocious shot with both feet. He scored an avalanche of goals for Arsenal, scoring an impressive 139 goals in 184 games. It would have been more but for WW2 interrupting his career.
It’s worth noting that the seven seasons missed because of WW2, prevented either Ted Drake or Reg Lewis from setting the goal scoring record so high, that it would have been well beyond Ian Wright and Thierry Henry’s reach. Of course Cliff Bastin’s total would have been much higher as well.
He was fearless and picked up a lot of injuries as a consequence. In fact he was too brave for own good at times. One afternoon in a game at Brentford in 1938, he broke two bones in his wrist, received nine stitches in a head wound and was carried off the pitch twice, the second time unconscious, slung over the shoulder of Tom Whittaker! Perhaps the current Arsenal team should read this and learn about what real commitment is!
I remember when Arsenal celebrated their centenary in 1986, we played Southampton at Highbury. All the old legends were introduced to the crowd, then walked to the centre of the pitch. I was thrilled when the last two names were introduced. They were George Male and Ted Drake and a massive cheer went up from the crowd as they walked onto the pitch waving to the fans.
Born in Exeter, “Boy” Bastin was destined for greatness. He made his debut for Exeter City when he was just 15 years old and it wasn’t long before bigger clubs would become interested in the talented teenage star.
On a spring day in 1929, Herbert Chapman travelled down to Exeter to convince Cliff Bastin to sign for The Arsenal, initially turning him down, Chapman was undeterred and turned up on the Bastin’s doorstep. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. Bastin agreed to come to Highbury and Chapman had his man, or should that be “Boy”. But he did cost Arsenal £2,000 which was a huge amount then for a 17 year old.
On Bastin’s first day at Highbury, as he walked through the main entrance, he was stopped by the commissionaire. “What do you want” he asked. Bastin told him he wanted to join the rest of the Arsenal players. He patted Bastin on the back and began to edge him towards the door and said “Well sonny, you’re a bit young at the moment. But never mind. One day you may be good enough to play for Arsenal” Eventually Joe Shaw had to come and vouch for him as a bone-fide Arsenal player!
Like Eddie Hapgood he was part of all the Arsenal trophy winning sides of the 1930s. In fact he’d won the title, the FA Cup and was a full international at 19 years old, being the youngest ever to reach that milestone at the time. As with David Jack, Bastin often came up with crucial goals in the big games, scoring in three FA Cup Semi-Finals on the spin.
Cliff Bastin was one of the most destructive wingers of all time, scoring 33 league one season. He wasn’t an orthodox winger. In fact he was converted into a Left Winger from an Inside Left by Chapman. The partnership he formed with Alex James was fantastic. Bastin wouldn’t hug the touch line like most wingers did. He stood about 15 yards in. This allowed Alex James to put in throughballs for Bastin to cut inside using his tremendous pace to home in on goal to show his lethal finishing.
Fans today debate over who was the better player between Bergkamp and Henry. There must have been similar arguments back then about Bastin and James. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that both Bastin and James, have a claim to be the greatest Arsenal player of all time
Bastin had an ice cool temperament, nothing seemed to faze him. He was never flustered in front of goal, remaining calm and clinical and he was the ideal penalty taker for Arsenal. He scored 178 goals in 395 games. Phenomenal figures for a winger. A club record that stood for many years, till Ian Wright broke it in 1997. Bastin also held the record for most league goals of 150, which eventually fell to Thierry Henry in 2006. Although Cliff still has the record for most FA Cup goals of 26.
Of course Cliff had a defective hearing problem, which became progressively worse from the mid 1930s. But he never let it get him down, even if it did affect his performances in later years. Sadly he was another player who lost some of his prime years as a player due to WW2.
Born in Mossend Scotland. Wee Alec was signed from Preston North End for a massive fee of £8,750 in 1929. He was an attacking Inside Left who like David Jack came with a big reputation as well as a big fee. He was also one of the Wembley Wizards in 1928, when Scotland destroyed England 5-1.
He was really the first celebrity footballer. He was always in the newspapers, leading a colourful life both on and off the pitch. He was a real entertainer and the fans loved him, including my dad. Alex James was his favourite player. Alex played in four title winning sides and won two FA Cups. He missed out winning the title in 1937-38 as he retired at the end of the previous season.
He scored the opening goal in the 1930 FA Cup Final, with a move involving himself and Cliff Bastin, an idea he came up with on the coach, on the way to the game! He also captained the side in the 1936 FA Cup Final as well.
When he came to Arsenal Herbert Chapman wanted him to play deeper as a schemer and he struggled a bit at first in his new role. But he came good in the end. The partnership he formed with Cliff Bastin was almost telepathic at times, they could read each others game so well.
Even though Bastin and James had a great relationship on the pitch. They were very different people off it. Like chalk and cheese. They didn’t socialise together and there was also an 11 year age gap between them. Alex best friend among the players at Arsenal was David Jack
Alex James ball control was second to none. One time a ball dropped from the sky and Alex volleyed it perfectly, straight to Joe Hulme’s feet on the other side of the pitch. He also had the gift of knowing exactly when to release a pass with perfect timing. In the same way Dennis Bergkamp did all those years later. Alex was one of the quickest players over the first ten yards. Which he used to get himself out of trouble and away from his opponents.
Alex played towards the centre of the pitch leaving plenty of room for Cliff to do his stuff. Alex was a past master of switching the play from one side of the field to the other, he would spray passes to the left for Bastin and to the right for Hulme. With the elegant David Jack using his intelligence to pop up and cause maximum damage to the opposing team. Then you had Jack Lambert, or later, Ted Drake rampaging down the centre causing havoc.
It must have been an awesome sight seeing that forward line in full flow. Is it any wonder that between 1930-31 and 1934-35 the team scored 525 League goals, averaging 105 goals a season. Right at the centre of operations was Wee Alec, the maestro conducting the orchestra, with his baggy shorts and shirt sleeves flapping. Oh to have a time machine like HG Wells wrote about and turn the dial to the 1930s, to go back in time, to see that wonderful side.
Tragically Alex James died relatively young, aged just 51 from cancer, on 1st June 1953. The following few paragraphs are extracts from the book Alex James by John Harding.
Even in hospital towards the end, he didn’t know he was dying. Hustling for Cup Final tickets for his old friend Steve Thomas. On the phone to David Jack up at Middlesbrough. “Hey Davie! I need some tickets!” On cup final morning Steve got a call from Alex to say they’d duly arrived.
Tom Whittaker was a constant visitor even though as Arsenal manager he was caught up in a title race. Tom was almost the last person to speak to Alex before he died.
Tom said “Everybody played ball and kept the secret from Alec and he never knew until almost the day he died. I was with him one afternoon when the wee man said, through the dope they were giving him to ease the pain”. “Tom I’m dying and I’m afraid'” Tom consoled him and he calmed. With a smile he said “It’s been a fine life Tom. I’ve loved every minute of it”.
Tom was with him, together with Billy Milne, until a few minutes before he died and Tom said “Nobody will know just what the death of the gallant little man with the big heart meant to me”
Alex James had a big heart indeed. He gave away both his FA Cup Winners medals. A few days after the 1930 Final he sent his medal with a letter to his friend Robert Morrison, a former director at Raith Rovers. Alex’s first club. The letter read “No one deserves it more than you, for I can honestly say that there would never have been any Alex James but for old Bob”.
The 1936 medal he gave to the unlucky Pat Beasley. Who lost his place at the eleventh hour, when Ted Drake was passed fit. Pat was also left out, just before the 1932 final, when Joe Hulme was passed fit. The same day that Alex James failed his infamous fitness test!
So there we have it, my magnificent seven. If they were in their prime today, with modern training and diets making them fitter. I’ve no doubt they’d still be great players, in this or any other era. It’s difficult to put values on them but I estimate for those seven players you wouldn’t get much change out of £500m in today’s inflated transfer market.
I’ve only really just scratched the surface on what I could have written about the 1930s era and the personalities involved. There are so many tales to tell about the era. But it would be impossible to include everything in a blog. I’ve done my best to paint a picture of these larger than life characters and hope I’ve whetted your appetite to want to learn more of Arsenal’s remarkable history.
As usual thanks for reading and if you’ve enjoyed reading about Arsenal’s history. May I suggest you follow these two superb Arsenal historians @Gooner_AK and @RoyalArsenal MRA on Twitter and pay a visit to their website thearsenalhistory.com
Go to PART ONE
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Started going to Highbury in ’66. Season ticket holder since ’76. Love The Arsenal. Need I say more?