In the splendid surroundings of Highbury, Arsenal began a decade of domination.
In order to appreciate the extent of Herbert Chapman’s vision, it’s important to consider the profile which football had in the early 1930s.
The media saturation of the sport, so prevalent in the modern era, simply wasn’t present. Neither did football have a stranglehold over working men.
In those far off days, speedway was a major contender, and big meetings could regularly pull in crowds of 30,000 or above. Chapman continued to argue that in the long term, football would outstrip its sporting rivals, but in the meantime, he realised that the product needed to be sufficiently attractive to pull in the punters.
With Norris now gone, Chapman was free to build his “dream team” without Sir Henry’s tiresome influence. Thanks to his drive he turned Highbury into, as one awe-struck ‘30s fan put it, “the Taj Mahal of football.”
Highbury quickly became the most talked about – and modern – stadium in Europe. At a cost of £45,000, the West Stand (complete with 4,100 seats) was opened in December 1932, and the completion of the luxurious East Stand (“a building of wonder and unparalleled in football” in the words of the Arsenal programme) made Highbury the most famous ground in the world. Its artdeco frontage simply set the ground apart from all others.
Travelling supporters and visiting players were in awe of setting foot near Highbury. Not content with incorporating the latest architectural designs into the fabric of the stadium, Chapman tried to add in a few mod cons. In 1932, he advocated the use of a giant 45-minute clock, so the crowd could see precisely how much time was left in each half.
“Chapman knew that football was an event, and he wanted fans to be part of the game. He believed that a clock would add to the tension of the game, with countdowns adding to the atmosphere,” explained George Male. The FA didn’t buy into Chapman’s way of thinking and banned the mechanism, claiming it would place referees under pressure - although they did finally allow the famous clock to be erected.
The newly nicknamed “Bank Of England” club needed to pull in 40,000 punters to every home game in order to break even. It was a tall order as the Depression started to bite London. Yet his gamble would pay off.
Some locals remained adamant that turning Highbury into a football Mecca, and spending huge sums on players, was unjustified. George Male recalled: “Some claimed times were hard and it was distasteful that Arsenal were spending so much on a fancy stadium, when the working man was going through the Depression. They had a point – but the projects were hardly vulgar – because it was paid for by success on the field. Speculating to accumulate. That’s good business in anybody’s language.”
There was always a contradiction lying at the heart of Chapman. As Huddersfield manager, he’d frequently reiterated the fact that spending large sums of money on players or stadiums was “a regrettable part of football.” He also believed that the status of footballers as George Male professionals should preferably be avoided. Yet no other manager spent so much (comparatively) on players or ground improvements until the Premiership era dawned.
George Male claimed: “Above all, Chapman was a showman. Everything – spending money included – came second to his team putting on a fantastic show.” As Gunners fans from the era testify, there was no finer performance in London in the ‘30s than watching Arsenal play at Highbury, and on FA Cup Final day, at Wembley.
By the time of the 1930/1931 campaign, the team was starting to perfect the ruthless cutting edge counter attacking football which he’d been advocating. Up front, he had a strong front line with Jack Lambert supported by David Jack and Alex James as deep lying inside forwards. Chapman employed Cliff Bastin and Joe Hulme as nippy wingers who cut inside with devastating effects.
The Gunners’ style contrasted with that of other teams, who relied on dribbling, possession football and dwelling on the ball. Chapman maintained that his back line was “the rock bottom of football,” and the Gunners’ defence was instructed to play deep, with the wing halves in their own penalty area when the opposition attacked.
The team’s ability to spend significant periods of a game under the cosh, then break out at lightning speed and score brought accusations of “Lucky Arsenal” and “Boring Arsenal” from many defeated sides. When Chapman’s men landed the First Division title in 1931, they actually scored 127 goals, which remains a club record to this day, and flew in the faces of their detractors.
Chapman was never able to emulate his Huddersfield feat of winning the ‘double’, although he came very close in 1931/32, when his team finished second behind Everton in the league, and controversially lost the 1932 FA Cup Final against Newcastle, despite the Geordies’ equalising goal appearing to come after the ball had gone out of play.
Despite the shock of losing to Walsall in the FA Cup Third Round in January 1933, Chapman’s team regained their nerve and won the 1933 title. But Chapman told club director George Allison: “The team’s played out, Mr Allison, we must rebuild.” Sadly, he was never able to see the rebuilding process completed.
Chapman brought in reinforcements for the start of the next season (including Ray Bowden, Pat Beasley and James Dunne), but died from pneumonia in January 1934. It was left to Allison to oversee the 1934 title triumph, and with the injection of new recruits, including Wilf Copping and Ted Drake, the Gunners completed a hat-trick of title successes in May 1935.
Allison’s charges, whilst crediting him for the job he did, confirmed that as a football tactician he was never in Chapman’s league.
George Male recalled: “George was fortunate to have inherited the nucleus of a great side from Chapman. Chapman was a genius in every sense. He was a true visionary, who built Arsenal’s stature and reputation and turned them into a world name.”
The 1931- 1935 period remains the most successful in Arsenal’s history, and the 60,000-plus fans who regularly packed Highbury would never forget the exhilarating sight of the red and white legions pouring forward. The architect of this thrilling spectacle was Chapman.
- If Arsenal fans wanted to see their hero Alex James at closer quarters, they could pop into Selfridges, where he worked as a “sports demonstrator”.
- In March 1935, with Arsenal poised to secure a hat-trick of title successes, a massive 73,295 crammed inside Highbury to see the Gunners take on Sunderland.
- In ‘Arsenal From The Heart’, Bob Wall claimed that Highbury staff used to be able to hear “the ghost” of Herbert Chapman pacing the corridors for years after his death.Copyright 2017 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