There was always a flip side to the giant Highbury crowds of the 1930s. It certainly wasn’t all bonhomie, not even when the Gunners continued to enjoy success on the pitch under George Allison.
The voracious capture of silverware under Herbert Chapman in the first part of the decade raised expectation levels to ludicrously high levels. George Male recalled: “I noticed that the crowd was very quick to get on our backs if things didn’t go according to the script at home. In fairness, they were picking up on Herbert Chapman’s feeling that the team needed urgent rebuilding work. All of us – players and fans – were learning that even a title-winning season might not ultimately be considered a vintage year. The more you won, the more was expected of you.”
In the mid 1930s, Ted Drake recalled: “My astonishment that crowds were now on Alex James’ case. He’d admittedly slowed a bit, and wasn’t getting on too well with George Allison but to actually moan at him? I was frankly astonished.”
The well-oiled Arsenal machine was beginning – ever so slightly – to splutter. Drake also remembered: “Teams like Sunderland, Preston, and Wolves were catching up with us fast. Those fellows who’d played in the early part of the ‘30s reckoned it wasn’t as much fun as it had been, and some of the players reckoned it may have been because people were edgy due to the worries about the situation in Europe. But I reckon that Arsenal fans were simply becoming more demanding.”
The quality might not have been of the Chapman vintage, but the Gunners were still box office and could scrap, and often outpoint, the best of them when required.
In 1936, Arsenal tailed off in the league but reached Wembley to face Sheffield United at Wembley in the FA Cup Final, having seen off Bristol Rovers, Liverpool, Newcastle, Barnsley and Grimsby en route.
Allison had issues with his team selection, as Drake, James, Eddie Hapgood and Herbie Roberts were struggling with injuries. The battering ram Drake (“my knee was absolutely killing me,” he recalled) had only just recovered from a cartilage operation, but was shoved in to a reshuffled attack alongside Ray Bowden and Cliff Bastin.
Second Division United dominated proceedings, but in the 74th minute Ted Drake sidestepped Blades’ skipper Johnson and beat goalkeeper Smith. Drake collapsed in pain afterwards, his knee having given way, but yet again he had done his job, and skipper Alex James lifted his final piece of silverware for the Gunners.
Pipped to the title in 1937 by a rampant Man City, Arsenal were forced to replace the seemingly irreplaceable when James retired that summer. More than anyone, ‘Wee Alec’ embodied Arsenal’s glamorous aura in the 1930s, and the harbingers of doom claimed that the Gunners would never be the same without him.
To a degree that was true, but Allison’s team rallied, and despite losing 11 of their 42 games in the 1937/38 campaign, squeezed out Wolves and Brentford to claim their fifth title of the 1930s. Bastin and Male were the only survivors from Chapman’s teams of the early ‘30s. That year, Allison’s squad was beset by injuries, but a 5-0 win against Bolton in the final match was enough for Arsenal to win the title.
Drake recalled: “I look back with a mixture of pride and regret on that particular title, because although I was delighted with what we achieved, it signalled the end of the best decade in Arsenal’s history.”
Arsenal tailed off in fifth place in 1938/39, as Allison attempted to fill the “star void” left by James’ departure with Bryn Jones, who arrived from Wolves in June 1938 for a gargantuan £14,000. His transfer fee caused shock waves to travel through the football world, and was even discussed in the Houses of Parliament. Several leading journalists of the era claimed that the fee may never be exceeded.
A nippy, pacy forward who’d performed well in a fine Wolves side, Jones was dubbed the “new Alex James,” but the team, undergoing a fairly major change in personnel, struggled to accommodate a free spirit like Jones. Drake recalled: “I thought that Bryn was also used to the team operating around him at Wolves, but at Highbury, he had to fit in with us. Within a couple of weeks, it was clear that he was never going to adapt quickly enough. Arsenal were in the process of finishing fifth that year, and very quickly, we all thought he was a luxury player who played well when the team played well, rather than a James type, who could drag the team along by the bootlaces when things weren’t going well.”
The football world at large claimed that Jones’s signing proved George Allison was taking the Bank Of England tag too far. Frustrated Arsenal fans sung of the team’s big spending: “No more money in the bank, what’s to do about it? Let’s put them to bed.” In 1938, Jones was dropped from Arsenal’s first team in a bid to pull him out of the limelight.
Expecting to run out in front of the proverbial one man and his dog at a reserve game, Jones was astonished to see 33,000 had turned up – simply out of curiosity to see how the world’s most expensive player coped in these surroundings. He was also an extremely unlucky player.
Restored to the first team at the start of the 1939/40 season, his displays drew plaudits from several leading newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph: “Jones is finally showing the Arsenal fans just why he was worth so much money.” Yet all three games are now expunged from official records, after the outbreak of World War Two meant the suspension of the league programme.
In late 1939, Arsenal season ticket holders received a letter from Gunners Secretary Manager George Allison, informing them that the ground had been requisitioned by the Public Authorities. Arsenal fan Lesley Waters recalled: “The letter didn’t really come as any major surprise. I remember Allison’s letter finished with the line ‘I look forward to the time when all Arsenal supporters will be able to foregather on the Highbury ground as they have done in the past.’
It brought home the full enormity of what was going on. It was the final proof – if any were needed, that normal life was over.” As the conflict began, the memories of the Club’s golden decade began to fade rapidly, and like the rest of the country, Arsenal FC faced an uncertain future.
- In 1938, George Allison gave permission for Highbury to be used for the filming of Leonard Gribble’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery.
- The footage used for the mythical Arsenal v Trojans match was actually from a May 1939 clash between Arsenal and Brentford. With the records for the games at the start of the 1939/40 expunged, it proved to be Arsenal’s last first class game for nearly six years.
- Of 42 players on the staff, 40 joined the forces at the start of the war.Copyright 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