At the beginning of the 1946/1947 season, Arsenal played their first Division One matches at Highbury in nearly seven years. As the demob happy crowds flocked back to the newly repaired stadium, attendances rarely dipped below the 50,000 mark for the rest of the decade. Arsenal weren’t the force they had been in the 1930s, but they still provided Gunners’ fans with many stellar moments.
The team, still managed by George Allison, was an eclectic mix of old stagers, ambitious youngsters, war heroes, and cult heroes. For a couple of years, George Male and Cliff Bastin, now in the twilight of their careers, were present and correct to remind Arsenal fans of the glorious Thirties. Reg Lewis and Laurie Scott, having missed a sizeable slice of their career due to the war, played the game with genuine ferocity and hunger. Jimmy Logie – the nearest thing Arsenal had to a new Alex James – scored and provided assists for colleagues on a regular basis.
Cult hero status could so easily be granted to several members of that side. The craggy faced Ronnie Rooke was one such candidate. Arsenal’s six foot three man mountain plundered goals with aplomb, as defenders literally bounced off him in the process. There was also Denis Compton, the Brylcreem boy, who only clocked up 59 appearances for Arsenal in a 12 year Highbury career.
“Denis hardly ever played for us, but he was always there at the right moment in Cup Finals and crunch games. Typical Denis, he’d always let the others do the hard work before he finished it off,” Laurie Scott commented.
The bona fide crowd favourite of that era was Joe Mercer. Signed in November 1946, after the Gunners’ disastrous start to the season saw them spiral towards the relegation zone, Mercer’s stabilising defensive presence saw Arsenal eventually finish in 13th position.
He didn’t look anything more than the shortest of short term buys when George Allison signed him for £7,000 in November 1946. Already 32, and in dispute with Everton over the terms of his new contract, he appeared to be on the verge of retiring from football altogether, opting to concentrate on his flourishing grocery store in Wallasey. George Allison persuaded him otherwise – with a few concessions. Mercer persuaded him to give consent to him staying in Liverpool and training with the Anfield outfit during the week, and travelling to London or wherever he was needed for away games on Fridays.
George Male later commented: “Mercer sort of reflected everything about Arsenal at that time. A bit clapped out – like the East Stand needed a lick of paint in the late ‘40s – but still really classy.” The former Everton star’s arrival had an immediate galvanising effect on the Arsenal dressing room. Reg Lewis recalled: “Joe earned our respect on the pitch. He had these bandy legs and knobbly knees. He could barely run. I don’t think he had any real pace anyway. But he could organise and cajole. He reminded me of Bobby Moore, in that he always seemed to know how to poke the ball away from an opposition defender without ever over committing himself. Great defenders just know what they’re doing, and Joe was a great player.”
George Allison and Mercer decided that he would stay for 12 months at Highbury. Mercer ended up playing for seven seasons. “Joe played until he was nearly 40,” explained Laurie Scott. “That was pretty much unheard of back then. He’d come in every Saturday, and you knew that he loved the glory of captaining the Arsenal.”
An unprecedented 17-match run at the start of the 1947/48 season saw the Gunners cruise to their first post-war title. By this time, George Allison had retired, mentally exhausted by the demands of football management, and another fine Arsenal servant Tom Whittaker took over the reins. Fired by Rooke and Lewis’s goals, Highbury was in carnival mood by the time sacrificial lambs Grimsby Town gambolled into town on the final game of the season.
Gunners fan Jim Baines recalls: “Arsenal beat Grimsby 8-0 and Grimsby were absolutely terrible. The Arsenal players were virtually queuing up to score. Rooke got four, and then late on Arsenal were awarded a penalty. We were at the Laundry End, and the players were play fighting amongst themselves to see who would take it. Jimmy Logie pulled the ball out of Rooke’s hands and playfully clipped him around the ear, as if to say, ‘you’ve scored enough son – it’s my turn.’ Then across comes Joe Mercer. He’d never scored for Arsenal, and he never looked likely to either. As captain, he tried to take the penalty. You could see the others telling him to forget it. The crowd was chanting: ‘We want Joe, we want
The Grimsby match also spelled the end of Male’s illustrious career. “There were tears in my eyes, and in some ways I’m disappointed that I never had a chance to say a proper goodbye, because the Arsenal fans didn’t know that I was retiring. But going out by parading the trophy wasn’t a bad way to finish.”
Arsenal signed off the decade in fine style by defeating Liverpool at Wembley in 1950. It was fitting that Reg Lewis, who missed so much of his career due to the war, should score both goals. Both Lewis’s goals came after sharp, incisive breaks by the Gunners, and Lewis tucked both his efforts away comfortably past Liverpool goalkeeper Cyril Sidlow.
Throughout the cup run, Arsenal didn’t leave London, having been drawn at home all the way through to the semis, where they faced Chelsea at White Hart Lane. For Reg Lewis, it partly made up for all those lost years. “I loved scoring goals, and that day at Wembley was the best in my life, no question at all. I’d written my name into the history books, and my team had won silverware. Perfect!” After the Final, The Mail suggested that the 1950s, “could belong to Whittaker’s Arsenal in the way the 1930s were dominated by Chapman’s and Allison’s sides."
- At the start of the 1946/47 season, the Islington Gazette reported: “For weeks, the talk around here has been of little else. The Arsenal are about to return home”
- By 1950, large sections of the crowd sang “Anchors Aweigh” at Gunners matches”
- Another Arsenal crowd favourite of the late 1940s was Dr Kevin O’Flanagan (pictured above) who had represented Ireland at rugby, and was also an Irish sprint/long jump champion