This story first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Journalist John Cross and Arsenal historian Andy Kelly address either side of this month's debate: Who is Arsenal's greatest manager? This article first featured in the March issue of Arsenal Magazine.
Chief football writer at the Daily Mirror
There are certainly a few strong candidates when it comes to picking Arsenal’s best manager. I really like Herbert Chapman because of the history he built. He was revolutionary in his own right – changing the tactics, the strips and also the Underground. He was a pioneer of his time and a great, great, success.
George Graham was fantastic for Arsenal because the club was in a bad place when he took them over. I do think he was massively underrated and I have huge respect for him. Actually, I was sort a fan in those days and I went home and away.
Arsenal had no chance of being competitive but he raised the level and got them winning trophies again. In terms of his playing style, people conveniently forget the fact the two title-winning teams played some really good stuff. He also led them to their first title in the 18 years.
I think that gets overlooked and he deserves more credit than he gets. But I still believe Arsène Wenger is the best because what he has done for the club is absolutely amazing. Everyone now regards Arsenal as one of the best footballing teams, if not the best footballing team in the Premier League, from a position where they weren’t at all before he took over.
In the days of “1-0 to the Arsenal” it was terrible to watch. Wenger introduced a whole new philosophy at the football club. I know people talk about the long periods without a trophy and the testing times but I think moving to a new stadium deserves so much credit.
I think he has just been amazing. He brought different methods to the club and to English football, such as diet and things like stretching, which was viewed as weird at the time.
"It is a great charm and quality to have because at Arsenal you know that if you are good enough, he will bring you through"
He prolonged careers and got the best out of his players. People talk about coaching and the strengths and weaknesses but every manager has those. He was very clever in the way he set up the structure of the club.
Most managers would go and see the chairman of the board and say, “I want this much money,” and be reckless with the spending, but he is responsible with it.
Sometimes the restrictions on him were great, yet he still managed to consistently get the football club to the top four – and that is a big achievement. I still think he burns brightly and he still has got as much desire today as he did when he took over 20 years ago.
I did a piece with Hector Bellerin recently and he was saying one of the prime reasons he came to Arsenal was Arsène Wenger. I think that is true with so many young players. It is a great charm and quality to have because at Arsenal you know that if you are good enough, he will bring you through.
My nomination for Arsenal’s greatest manager is Herbert Chapman. Having turned Huddersfield from mid-table mediocrity to all-conquering champions almost overnight, he left them at the height of their success to join perennial relegation battlers Arsenal.
His aim was to turn them into the “Newcastle of the South”, a phrase that held much more merit in the 1920s than today! Chapman not only achieved that but surpassed it. By the time of his untimely death he had turned the Gunners into the most famous football club on the planet.
In his first season he took a team that had escaped relegation by one place the previous season to runners- up in the First Division – the highest placing ever achieved by a southern team. Upon his arrival he said he had a five-year plan and he was true to his word as Arsenal won their first major honour, the FA Cup, in his fifth year.
Chapman’s modified WM formation created an exciting counter-attacking system that other teams could not compete against nor copy, and which enabled Arsenal to dominate the 1930s. The success was as much to do with Chapman introducing team talks as it was to bringing the best players to Highbury.
In addition, Chapman looked at other ways to promote the Arsenal brand. In 1932 he literally put Arsenal on the map when he had Gillespie Road station renamed. He ensured that the club’s name was associated with other innovations such as shirt numbering, floodlighting and artificial pitches.
His vision was for Arsenal to play in the finest stadium in the country. He was the driving force behind the West Stand at Highbury and set the wheels in motion for the new East Stand. He also introduced the giant clock that, eventually, gave its name to the Clock End at Highbury and is still with us at the Emirates.
However, perhaps Chapman’s greatest legacy was the “boot room” that brought success to the club for 20 years after his death. George Allison, Joe Shaw and Tom Whittaker were all at the club in 1934 and continued to use Chapman’s methods, achieving five league titles and two FA Cup wins in 13 peacetime seasons, despite the fact that Arsenal were virtually bankrupt after the war.
This ensured that Arsenal’s name was still at the forefront of football, even during fallow periods. Herbert Chapman created a football club to which others aspired, and still do.