Having beaten Liverpool in the 1950 FA Cup Final, Arsenal entered the decade firing on all cylinders. In 1952, the Gunners came within just three games of securing the League and Cup ‘double’. The team had a remarkably stable and solid look to it. Goalkeeper George Swindin and defender Walley Barnes played virtually every game, and the experienced Joe Mercer, Alex Forbes, Don Roper and crowd pleaser Jimmy Logie gave Arsenal a solid look.
The responsibility of scoring goals fell to Doug Lishman and Cliff Holton. In late ’51, Lishman hit a purple patch, and netted hat-tricks in three successive home matches, and the League title appeared within the Gunners’ reach. Yet by April, the team began to run out of steam, due, in no small part, to a string of injuries. Ray Daniel broke his arm in a disappointing 0-0 draw with Blackpool, and Lionel Smith sustained a serious knee injury in a defeat against Bolton. The real nail in the coffin came when Joe Mercer was rested against West Brom and Albion ran out 3-1 winners.
In the Club’s final league game of the season, with Arsenal needing to win by seven clear goals at Old Trafford to lift the title, United thrashed Whittaker’s men 6-1 and took the title to Manchester. Thanks to victories against Luton in the quarter-final, and a replayed semi-final against Chelsea, Arsenal reached Wembley to face holders Newcastle.
The flesh may have been weak (Lishman, Daniel and Logie were only just passed fit) but the spirit remained strong, despite Barnes’s knee injury leaving Arsenal with just ten men for 55 minutes. With Holton and Roper down injured, Newcastle’s George Mitchell crossed the ball for George Robledo to power in a header, and the exhausted Gunners had no answer. Joe Mercer later spoke of his pride at how hard the Gunners fought, and promised to deliver silverware the following season.
The 1952/53 season didn’t start especially well. When Sunderland came to Highbury and won 3-1 in January, the crowd voiced its displeasure. One anonymous Gunners star told a Daily Mail journalist that he was “ashamed of the crowd and considered them the most unsporting collection in the country.”
Arsenal continued to play inconsistently, as did their nearest rivals Preston and Wolves, but plugged away. With just two games remaining, the Gunners could seal the title with a win at nearest rivals Preston. Tellingly, Arsenal had garnered 52 points from 40 games, the lowest number of points any potential Champions had gained at that stage of the season.
The nervous Arsenal lost 2-0 at Deepdale, succumbing to the brilliance of Tom Finney, and left themselves needing to win the final game of the season at home against sixth place Burnley, in order to pip Preston to the big prize.
The match kicked off at the early time of 6.30pm on Friday, May 1, and the action was frenetic. After six minutes, Burnley’s Des Thompson put the Clarets ahead against the run of play. Midway through the first-half, Arsenal found their attacking rhythm. Forbes – courtesy of a huge deflection – equalised and two minutes afterwards, Logie ducked out of the way to allow Lishman (“I just smacked the loose ball as hard as I could. It was the greatest moment of my life when it went in,” he explained) to put Arsenal 2-1 up.
Just before half-time, Jimmy Logie pounced from five yards out to snaffle a poacher’s goal. At the interval, the rain poured down, and after the restart, Burnley proved they weren’t dead and buried. If they won, they would finish fourth – no mean achievement for a team which had laboured around midtable until March. Five minutes into the second-half, the Clarets’ Billy Elliott pulled the score back to 3-2.
At that point, the Arsenal players attempted to shut up shop – a risky strategy with 40 minutes left. Don Roper recalled: “The ball weighed about twice as much as it did at the start of the game due to the wet pitch. Every time you kicked the ball, your whole body ached. I had a knee injury, and at one point I thought I’d collapse with pain when the ball caught me on the side. It later turned out I’d torn a ligament, but these were the days before substitutes, so you had to carry on.
"Jimmy (Logie) and Pete (Goring) were virtual passengers by now. They could barely walk, and so we just stuffed them behind the ball. We had no option but to stand firm in the final half hour”.
Tom Whittaker couldn’t stand the tension. He walked out and poured himself a double brandy. Roper explained: “It was just unbearable to watch. A single Burnley goal would have finished us, because there was no way we could have summoned the energy to come back at them. By now we were all defenders, and we knew that one careless tackle could be curtains for us”.
Finally at 8.01pm, the referee blew his whistle. Arsenal had won the title on goal average, by 0.099 of a goal. Gunners fan Harry Wright recalls: “The rain had eased off, and the sun was trying to break through. The sky was red, which I thought was very symbolic. All the scarves and the rosettes were being thrown up into the air. Most of us invaded the pitch in search of the Arsenal players. My friend chaired Joe Mercer off the pitch. Some of the players like Jimmy Logie couldn’t get off the pitch. They just stood and chatted to fans. It was fantastic.”
Don Roper recalled: “What a shame there were no TV cameras. I still often think of what we achieved that night. I’m proud to be part of such a backs to the wall display. To me, it sums up what it’s like to play for Arsenal. And to do it in front of our own supporters too. Marvellous!”
It was just as well that the players and fans lapped up the celebrations. Tom Whittaker’s health was starting to fail, as had Chapman’s and Allison’s before him. The following year, the Gunners had a (by their high standards) disastrous season, and tailed in in 12th place, and at the end of the 1954/55 campaign, laboured into ninth spot.
The job of keeping Arsenal at the very top was proving an intolerable strain on Whittaker, and something had to give. There wouldn’t be another Highbury night like the one against Burnley for another 17 years.
- Joe Mercer’s distinguished Arsenal career ended when he collided with team mate Joe Wade and was stretchered off during a league match at Highbury against Liverpool in 1954
- In April 1951, the annual Highbury clash between the Boxers and the Jockeys saw floodlights rigged up and deployed for the first time
- Arsenal played their first floodlit Highbury match in a friendly against Hapoel Tel Aviv. Around 40,000 showed up to watch a piece of Arsenal history