By Tony Attwood
We are all familiar with Arsenal winning the league on the last match of the season. George Graham’s team beating Liverpool 2-0 away, Bertie Mee’s Double with that last- match win at Tottenham.
But there was another equally dramatic win in the last game of the season - back in 1953. Somehow we have now forgotten this game, and yet it was as dramatic as the others. And within the story we see a moment of the discontent that has been heard at Arsenal over the years.
To tell the story we need to go back to January 3, 1953, a day on which Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Sunderland.
It was hardly a catastrophe, because Arsenal were undefeated in the previous seven games and, in this era, losing 10 or 11 games while winning the league was the norm.
Besides, although it was a home defeat, it was also only the fourth loss all season for Arsenal, with over half the games now played.
Prior to the match Arsenal had beaten Bolton 6-4 away from home on 25 December 1952, and indeed the recent run of results had also included Liverpool 1 Arsenal 5 on 15 November 1952.
As a result of this run of form Arsenal were standing a promising second in the league.
What’s more Arsenal were not only second, but second with a game in hand and a far superior goal average (as shown in the penultimate column) than other teams around them.
This was the team of Logie, Lishman, Goring and Holton, a team beat out of the side that had won the cup in 1950.
But the defeat against Sunderland knocked Arsenal down the league table to sixth - and some of the fans showed what is perhaps not, after all, such a modern trend of taking the last match alone as the indicator of how things stand.
The volume, “Highbury: the story of Arsenal” by John Spurling recounts the story that Peter Goring was confronted after the Sunderland game by a drunken fan who said that he’d seen the Arsenal team of the 30s and that the current team wasn’t fit to lick their boots.
Peter is quoted as saying, “I wasn’t the only player to be confronted in such a way. Some of the other boys also got hassle from fans which wasn’t nice”.
Unfortunately Peter is also quoted as saying that “but the fact was that we were never lower than third in the league throughout the 1952/3 season and some of those fans were very hard to please. We felt that they didn’t know they were born.”
That “not lower than third” comment is unfortunate as the table in the Sunday papers on January 4, 1953 shows…
… but the rest of the point is well made. The AAA (as we call them today) were active in the 1950s, as they were in the 1930s (Chapman railed against the boo-boys as they were called then), and indeed as they were when the fans deserted the club between 1910 and 1913.
Jon Spurling’s book continues with the quotes saying that, “one of Goring’s team-mates snapped and told the Daily Mail journalist… that he was ‘ashamed of the crowd and considered them the most unsporting collection in the country’.”
But all was not lost - as with Arsenal it never is. Arsenal in fact recovered quickly from the Sunderland game and the next seven games showed their intent:
January 10: Arsenal 4 Doncaster 0 (FA Cup 3)
January 17: Arsenal 5 Wolverhampton 3
January 24: Charlton 2 Arsenal 2
January 31: Arsenal 6 Bury 2 (FA Cup)
February 7: Arsenal 4 Tottenham 0
February 14: Burnley 0 Arsenal 2 (FA Cup)
February 18: Arsenal 6 Derby 2
Of course there were defeats - Arsenal went out of the cup in the sixth round to Blackpool, one week after losing to them in the league. And there was another difficult run of four draws and two defeats in the league between March 7 and March 28.
But then on April 3 another run started - a run of seven undefeated including five straight wins. Indeed not just five straight wins, but five wins that involved scoring 18 goals.
At the end of that run, on the evening of April 18, the league table had once more been transformed…
But then with the season drawing to an end, and Arsenal needing just three points from three matches to claim the title, there was another twist.
22 April 1953: Cardiff 0 Arsenal 0
25 April 1953: Preston 2 Arsenal 0
Now either Arsenal or Preston could win the league. If both clubs produced the same result, or if Arsenal did better than Preston, then Arsenal would win.
Preston played their game in hand first and won 1-0, taking them up to 54 points but still with a worse goal average than Arsenal. So Arsenal had to win. It didn’t matter by how many but they had to win.
The Highbury pitch was in a terrible state by this time - utterly covered in mud and without a blade of grass in sight, with the edges utterly unplayable - but it was at Highbury that Arsenal had to play their last game, against fifth-placed Burnley.
The teams had drawn at Turf Moor 1-1 back on December 13, and this was certainly not seen as a certainty for Arsenal.
This final match was played on a Friday evening, to avoid clashing with the FA Cup final the next day, and when Arsenal went for their normal pre-match meal at Kings Cross station they were met with fans already turning up for the Cup final the next day.
There were also people hanging around Highbury from midday onwards - a precursor of the game at Tottenham in 1971.
But, surprisingly, come kick off the ground was not full. Only 51,586 turned up - perhaps because it was a Friday night. Perhaps because everyone expected it to be impossible to get in! Perhaps it was the awful weather which had seen heavy rain off and on through the day.
This first appeared on Arsenal History Society in February 2014
Doug Lishman stated later that the earlier antagonism of some of the fans vanished for this match, saying, “The crowd was at their best that night. The noise they made was unbelievable, it was really ear piercing… However much the players and the fans were in conflict that season I can’t deny they were superb on that night”.
Burnley took the lead on six minutes, but then midway through the first half Forbes and Lishman scored within minutes of each other to give Arsenal the lead which Logie extended to 3-1 just before half time.
Then at half-time the heavens opened once again and there was talk in the crowd of the match being abandoned as the pitch clearly got utterly waterlogged. The game however did restart, and within minutes Burnley had got one back. The conditions meant players started to pick up injuries - Joe Mercer said playing in that match crocked him for good, while Don Roper played on with torn ligaments. Logie and Goring were hardly able to move and so were just put behind the ball as Arsenal tried to hang on for virtually the whole of the second half. Fortunately for Arsenal, Burnley were feeling it just as much.
Partway through the second half Tom Whittaker, the manager who had won the league in 1948 and the cup in 1950, left the dugout and reputedly poured himself a stiff drink. Fortunately there were no TV cameras to capture the moment or we’d never have heard the last of it.
Burnley hit the bar, and had a call for a penalty, but at 8pm the match ended and Arsenal had won the league on goal difference.
It is my first Arsenal memory. I was far too young to be taken to Arsenal at the time, but my father went. I was asleep before he got back, but I remember the shine in his eyes the next morning.
The people who lived in the flat below ours in Devonshire Hill Lane - just off White Hart Lane - were Tottenham fans, and they were utterly devastated at yet another Arsenal triumph and they weren’t allowed to forget it.
Just how much of an effort that victory was was revealed by the start of the following season when Arsenal lost six and drew two of their first eight league matches as champions.
And it turned out to be Whittaker’s last trophy, for tragically during the 1956/7 season, while still manager, he died suddenly.
Jack Crayston took over for one-and-a-half seasons, followed by four seasons of George Swindin and four seasons of Billy Wright.
The club did not win another trophy until April 28, 1970, some 16 years later, which makes it even more worth recording as a most special moment in Arsenal’s history.