They couldn’t have known it at the time, but those 50,000 Arsenal fans who streamed into Highbury on the opening day of the 1925/26 season to watch the north London derby were about to witness the early stages of a football revolution.
Not only had Sir Henry Norris recruited Herbert Chapman, manager of the all-conquering Huddersfield, but thanks to Chapman’s powers of persuasion, Sunderland’s legendary striker Charlie Buchan was also tempted to Highbury.
Gunners fan Leslie Anderson recalled: “Charlie Buchan had genuine star quality. He was the first Arsenal player to make people think that it was worthwhile getting out of their chair to go and watch them at Highbury. When he led the team onto the pitch, there was a genuine buzz, whereas before you would just politely applaud the team as they ran on. Right through the ‘20s and ‘30s, Chapman’s purchases of star players boosted Highbury crowds to massive levels, and Buchan was the start.”
Chapman realised that in Buchan, he had an experienced player who could help mould team tactics. In a heated team meeting after an early season 7-0 defeat at St James’ Park against Newcastle, Buchan and Chapman pushed through the tactics that would alter the entire course of Arsenal’s history.
From now on, Arsenal would employ a ‘stopper’ at centre-half and a midfield link man. Such tactics, coupled with an influx of big name signings, would turn Arsenal into the most powerful and charismatic football force in the land. Buchan’s and Chapman’s plan wasn’t exactly revolutionary, as Newcastle, Tottenham and Queens Park had all been experimenting with tactical switches, but Chapman adapted the plan in his inimitable style to the 3-4-3 or ‘WM’ formation, which was the bedrock of his successful Arsenal sides.
As Soar and Tyler point out in The Official History Of Arsenal, “the key was never the scheme itself, but the players who fitted into it,” and the likes of James, Bastin, and Jack made it work like clockwork. But these things take time, and Chapman’s team underwent some heartache before the tactics paid dividends.
In 1925/26, Arsenal recovered from their inconsistent start and grabbed the runners up spot behind Chapman’s former club Huddersfield, who completed a hat-trick of title triumphs. Between them, strikers Jimmy Brain and Charlie Buchan grabbed 53 league goals, as the Gunners finally sent out a powerful message that they were becoming a force to be reckoned with.
The following season, the Gunners’ league form tailed off, but at long last, an Arsenal team finally reached Wembley, where they faced Cardiff City in the FA Cup final. Buchan had the honour of leading Arsenal out. On a desperately disappointing day for the Gunners, Cardiff won 1-0, with Hugh Ferguson’s shot slipping out of Gunners’ keeper Sid Hoar Dan Lewis’s hands.
As Buchan admitted, he fluffed Arsenal's best chance, when he and Jimmy Brain left it to each other to nod home Sid Hoar's inswinging cross. The ball bounced harmlessly away, and Arsenal’s chances evaporated. That was the last time the FA Cup was won by a non English team, but even with the Gunners strong favourites, it wasn’t quite the shock everyone thinks. After all, Cardiff finished just two points behind Arsenal in the First Division that year.
A year later, Charlie Buchan retired into a hugely successful journalistic career. The problem was, who could replace the apparently irreplaceable? The answer to Chapman’s quandary was Bolton’s David Jack, who joined the Gunners for a massive £11,500 after Chapman and assistant Bob Wall bamboozled the Bolton directors by spiking their drinks.
The reason why Chapman was finally able to open the cheque book (Joe Hulme had also joined for £3,500) was because Sir Henry Norris, who’d always insisted on scrimping and saving on players, was swept away after the Daily Mail ran a series of stories claiming that Norris was guilty of making illegal payments to Charlie Buchan when he joined the Club in 1925, and that Norris had also ‘overseen’ the sale of the team bus in 1927, which raised a hefty £125. The proceeds from the sale found their way into his wife’s bank account. With Norris now banned from the game for life, Chapman was free to build Arsenal his way.
In 1929, the Club’s first truly iconic player, Alex James, joined Arsenal from Preston. Like David Jack, it took time for James to settle at Highbury, and to his team mates’ occasional chagrin, Chapman treated James with kid gloves in order to get the best out of him on the pitch.
In March 1930, the Gunners won a hard fought semi-final replay 1-0 against Hull City (many Arsenal historians have suggested that without David Jack’s late equaliser in the first match, the history of the Club may have changed course completely) to face Huddersfield at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
Arsenal’s league form had been poor, and the Gunners languished in the bottom half of the table. Skipper Tom Parker led his team out alongside rival skipper Tom Wilson, to celebrate Chapman’s association with both clubs). Goals from Alex James (after boy wonder Cliff Bastin slipped the ball to him) and Jack Lambert (just seven minutes remained when Lambert slotted the ball past Turner) gave Arsenal the cup.
Finally, 44 years after that mysterious first match in Kent, Herbert Chapman’s emerging side grabbed silverware, and Parker had the privilege of getting his hands on it first.
Several myths surround the game. It’s known as the ‘Zeppelin Final’, because the Graf Zeppelin passed over head during the match. Symbolically, it has been said that it highlighted the increasing menace of Germany in the ‘30s – but in fact the Nazis didn’t come to power for another three years, and the Zeppelin dipped so low as a gesture of respect to the King. Secondly, the game has often been seen as symbolising the historic shift in power between Huddersfield and Arsenal.
The statement is half correct. The Yorkshire side had drifted into mid-table finishes over the last two years anyway, and were on the wane (although they were a solid outfit in the 1930s) but it is true that Arsenal were now poised to enter the most legendary decade of its rich history, and become the world’s most famous football club.
1. When asked why he’d seen fit to offer ‘under the counter’ payments to Charlie Buchan in 1925, Sir Henry Norris replied: “Because otherwise we should not have got the player”
2. Sir Henry Norris died in 1934, the same year that Chapman passed away
3. Shortly after David Jack signed from Bolton, he missed training one afternoon. Chapman went to his house, to find Jack smoking, and with his feet up. “We had Wednesdays off at Bolton,” Jack told him. Needless to say, that didn’t happen at Chapman’s ArsenalCopyright 2015 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source