Tom Whittaker’s death in 1956, only a few months after he relinquished the position of manager due to ill health, proved the good old days – at least for the time being – were over.
Arsenal had slipped into decline. Gerry Ward recalled: “There was a belief at the Club that directors wouldn’t splash out on huge bids for a player. Football was changing. If you wanted top players, you had to pay top money. It wasn’t a great time to be an Arsenal player, to be honest. The fans used to get on our case. I was hyped as the next big thing because I was home grown and so young, but I didn’t really progress as well as I – or the crowd – had hoped.”
The Arsenal team of the late 1950s had some fine performers, including David Herd, Derek Tapscott and Jimmy Bloomfield. But there was a feeling that too few were genuinely top class performers, and that ‘Gentleman’ Jack Crayston, a legendary Gunners defender from the 1930s, and who took over as Arsenal manager from Tom Whittaker in ‘56, wasn’t the man to turn around the Gunners’ fortunes.
From the outset, it all looked so promising. When Crayston was appointed Arsenal manager in 1956, after the death of Tom Whittaker, the Islington Gazette spoke enthusiastically of “a shrewd appointment, which will draw on the experience of a bona fide Arsenal man.”
He became the first Arsenal manager not to combine the post of secretary, these duties being delegated to Bob Wall. Crayston was therefore free to concentrate solely on team selection, but the difficulties began almost immediately. The much vaunted youth system had failed to produce another Alex James or Cliff Bastin, which Whittaker had predicted would happen in the early ‘50s. Attendances had also slipped. The post-war crowds, which regularly swelled Highbury gates to 60,000, now often fell to around half that.
Crayston didn’t have the benefit of available transfer funds, but he certainly couldn’t be faulted for a lack of effort. His promotion of David Herd from the reserves proved fruitful, as he netted 12 goals from 22 appearances in his first season, facilitating a fifth place finish, after a stuttering start in Whittaker’s final months. A 2-1 defeat against WBA in the FA Cup Sixth Round was not an unreasonable achievement for Crayston in his first season, but he knew that progress was required during the 1957/58 campaign if he was to be judged a success.
But the Gunners would endure a hugely difficult campaign, and ‘gentleman’ Jack appeared powerless to stop a tidal wave of discontent. The team wasn’t manned by top class performers. The defence simply wasn’t robust enough, and conceded an astonishing 85 goals in ‘57/58. Although David Herd was developing into a top class forward, and scored 24 goals, Danny Clapton and Joe Haverty on the wings were proving extremely inconsistent.
Arsenal's disastrous defeat in the FA Cup Third Round against Northampton practically sealed Crayston’s fate, although he did have the honour of managing the team against Manchester United in one of Highbury’s greatest games. Although the Gunners lost 5-4 to the Busby Babes’ in their last match before the Munich air crash, goals by Tapscott, Bloomfield (2) and Herd showed the long term possibilities of Arsenal’s attacking formation; if Crayston could only have reinforced the rest of the squad. In May 1958, after 24 years’ service at Highbury, he tendered his resignation after less than two years in the job.
Arsenal turned to another star from the ‘30s to turn around their fortunes, Peterborough manager George Swindin, but like Crayston before him, he would soon discover that a trophy laden playing career at Highbury meant little in the harsh world of football management.
Swindin later recalled that his turbulent four year spell in charge of the Gunners was often punctuated by ill fortune: “Every time I thought we were on the right track, and the Club was getting back to where I wanted it to be, something bad happened,” recalled the straight talking, under-stated Yorkshireman. “Either someone got injured, or left the Club.”
By his own admission, his blunt manner hardly endeared him to several Arsenal stars, and occasionally, he seemed ill suited to deal with the changing nature of football in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. “Football was a different world from the one I operated in during the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he explained. “Footballers were becoming more aware of their market value and their rights”.
Swindin tore into his job at the start of 1958/59 with gusto, recalling: “I must have worked 14-hour days for months on end. It was an all consuming task, and all I thought about was which players to sign in order to turn Arsenal into a real force once again.”
He operated a ‘revolving door’ transfer policy during the summer of 1958. Into the side came Preston’s abrasive Scottish international winghalf Tommy Docherty, and Portsmouth’s former outside left Jackie Henderson. But out went Tapscott, Cliff Holton, and Stan Charlton. The inconsistent Gerry Ward was converted to wing half and maintained his place in the side. After six matches, the Gunners were the highest scoring side in the in the First Division, and at the midway point they were top.
Goalkeeper Jack Kelsey recalled: “There was a real sense of optimism that George could turn things around. He was buzzing about the prospects of what the team could do, and there was even talk of a Championship challenge.” But crucially, injuries derailed the title challenge, and although Arsenal finished third – their best performance in six years – the tone was set for the rest of Swindin’s troubled spell in charge. Herd, Bowen, Henderson, Ward and Vic Groves were all sidelined for long periods in the New Year, and Jack Kelsey broke his arm against Sheffield United in the FA Cup, as Arsenal crashed out 3-0.
The 1959/60 season saw the Gunners finish 11th, after a bright start to the season, where they lay a handy fourth behind Spurs, Wolves and Burnley after just 11 matches. Injuries to Dennis Evans, new signing Mel Charles and crucially, Docherty’s broken leg once again badly disrupted the side.
After the Gunners were dumped out of the FA Cup to Second Division Rotherham, the tide was about to turn irrevocably against Swindin.
- Gerry Ward had become Arsenal’s youngest ever debutant when he took his bow at home to Huddersfield aged just 16 years 322 days in August 1953
- Gunners player Gordon Nutt later went on to become a film director when he emigrated to Australia
- For one season only, South African born Danny Le Roux was registered as a Gunners player, making five League appearances for the club. He’s not to be confused with famous drag performer Danny La Rue!