Herbert Chapman had finally agreed to Charlie Buchan's request
to discuss a new tactical approach to the game. The meeting took
place immediately following Arsenal's 7-0 hiding by Newcastle
at St James's Park in October 1925, in their Newcastle hotel;
and Chapman, after a long discussion, agreed to experiment. Arsenal
beat West Ham 4-0 at Upton Park two days later - and they were
on their way to mighty deeds. It was Buchan's idea but it was
Chapman who refined the system and made it work.
Arsenal's first major success was the FA Cup of 1930 and, in
the final at Wembley, they beat Huddersfield 2-0 - Chapman's new
creation getting the better of his old. Huddersfield were ageing
while Arsenal were rising fast, and the following year they won
the championship for the first time.
Buchan had retired by now, replaced by David Jack, a vital and
elegant man who scored his goals with sharp-edged charm and even
good manners; and the key role in midfield went to Alex James,
an inside-forward of genius, an imp of a man with buttoned-down
sleeves and famously baggy shorts. Jack of England moved from
Bolton for £10,890, the first five-figure transfer fee, and James
of Scotland from Preston for £9,000. The country raised its hands
in horror at such extravagance. Chapman smiled at a couple of
bargains. Chapman led his new Arsenal into the 1930's with huge
and justified confidence.
Arsenal's almost complete dominance of the new decade went far
beyond their magnetic accumulation of trophies. A country crippled
by recession and shamed by its dole queues saw the club as a symbol
of the prosperity and privileges of London.
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Herbert Chapman's team was loved by its own but cordially hated
by just about everyone else. Arsenal were invincible, grandly
untouchable and, always, the team to beat. Their success was even
resented in other board-rooms where complacency and convention
ruled; but this was just what the game needed. Envy became a stimulant.
Arsenal's professionalism was studied and copied. The English
game had a Highbury complex - and understandably so.
Arsenal were League Champions five times (1931, 1933-4-5 and
1938), runners-up in 1932 and third in 1937. They won the FA Cup
in 1930 and 1936 and were beaten finalists in 1932. The first
38 championships had belonged to the north and midlands but when,
at last, the monopoly was broken, Arsenal did the job properly.
There was no television then to flatter and project but Arsenal's
players were household names. Alex James and David Jack, of course;
Joe Hulme and Cliff 'Boy' Bastin, thunder and lightning on the
wings; Herbie Roberts, the shy, red-headed giant who became Arsenal's
principal stopper; and impeccable full-backs such as Tom
Parker, George Male and Eddie Hapgood.
Some cost a lot of money, others were conjured out of minor football,
but all became essential components of a side which was horribly
mean in defence and cruel in counter-attack.
Arsenal's football was sometimes described as 'smash and grab'
and often they were called 'Lucky Arsenal', but Chapman was pointing
the way to the future. His feeling for things to come was remarkable.
Chapman once visited an old friend in Austria and returned to
talk excitedly about a night match he had watched. The pitch had
been lit by the headlamps of 40 cars. "Do you realise," he asked,
"that if the same number of lights were up on 40-foot poles we
could play football as if it was daylight?" Not long after, the
Press were invited to watch an Arsenal practice match at night
illuminated by dangling lanterns. Chapman got the publicity he
wanted for an idea he was convinced would work. He later watched
floodlit matches in Belgium and Holland - "cricket with a white
ball would have been possible," he said. But authority was unimpressed,
and it was nearly 20 years before the first official floodlit
match was played in England.
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Chapman was also one of the first men to insist on first-class
facilities for spectators. He tried out numbered shirts five years
before there was approval from the Football League (in 1939);
he advocated white balls and all-weather pitches; he experimented
with independent time-keeping and goal judges; and, the biggest
tribute of all to his gift for persuasion, he had the name of
the local underground station changed from Gillespie Road to Arsenal.
Nothing about Chapman was grey or vague. He demanded power, loyalty,
absolute obedience, punctuality at all times and devotion to the
club and profession. In return he was scrupulously fair and true
to his word.
Chapman died, suddenly, in January 1934. Despite a chill, and
against advice, he insisted on watching his third team play in
a cutting wind at Guildford. "I haven't seen the boys for a week
or so," he said. Pneumonia set in and three days later he was
gone. Arsenal still won the championship that season; and the
season after. There is a knowing smile on the face of the bust
of Chapman which now stands in the main entrance hall at Highbury.
Herbert Chapman surrounded himself with intelligent footballers,
such as James, Jack, and Buchan. Charles Buchan believed that
the secret of Chapman's greatness was that he "would always listen
to other people and take advantage of their ideas if he thought
they would improve the team in any way." Chapman institutionalised
his belief in shared discussion by setting up scheduled meetings
for the Arsenal players at midday every Friday, when the team
would discuss both the previous and the upcoming match. Chapman
even had a magnetic model football pitch on a table so that he
could show players exactly what he wanted them to do.
Chapman's penchant for tactical planning and ability to transfer
his designs onto the pitch led to his teams earning the label
`machine'. This was heard first in 1910, at Northampton and it
was often repeated through the Arsenal years, where
as Harding describes it "though the faces changed, the machine
rolled on smoothly, sometimes more efficiently."
In the final analysis, it was Herbert Chapman's boundless desire
for progress that hallmarked his contribution to the development
of English football. He would seemingly utilise any method, regardless
of its origin, to effect the betterment of his teams. He experimented,
but he did not do so blindly, for he possessed the vision and
adaptability to incorporate innovations into his grand designs.
History has employed many a superlative in the attempt to explain
the central role of Herbert Chapman in the changes to the English
game, and doubtless his significance will continue to provoke
discussion. Unhappily, however, his influence is perhaps best
illustrated by the events which followed his death. Nobody really
took up Chapman's mantle - and English football stagnated as a
result. Whilst the nation complained that the stopper had a negative
impact upon the game, the Hungarians re-invented the role to momentous
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It is not inconceivable that Chapman would have been moving in
a similar direction had he lived on. Firstly, he had always sought
to keep abreast of tactical innovation, and there is no reason
to assume he would have ceased doing so. Secondly, he kept a close
eye on developments in the European game, and was a close friend
of Hugo Meisl, Chairman of the Austrian FA.
Throughout his managerial career, Chapman had always borrowed
ideas if he considered them worthy and Europe was no exception.
His conviction that "there is a great future for football by artificial
light in England" was cemented after seeing floodlit matches in
Belgium and Holland in 1930. Chapman had always backed his belief
in the importance of learning from the continentals with actions.
As early as 1909, he took his Northampton team to Germany to play
Nuremburg FC and in April 1921 his Huddersfield side overcame
the French Champions, Red Star, 2-0 in Paris. Chapman carried
these excursions right through to his Arsenal days, but he believed
that they were only a prelude to a Western European Cup involving
the Champions of nations such as France, Spain, Germany, Scotland
and England. Chapman saw such developments as crucial to the long-term
success of English football, and he cared passionately about his
nation's game. In fact, in 1933, despite objections from selectors,
he acted as unofficial manager to the England team in Italy and
Switzerland with considerable success. His tactical pre-match
team talks helped effect a 4-0 victory over a strong Swiss team,
and a 1-1 draw against Italy, in Rome. A year later the Italians
were World Champions and seven Arsenal players were in the England
team that proved what England could achieve, defeating the visitors
3-2 in `the Battle of Highbury'. Chapman's teams enjoyed considerable
success against continental opposition.
The English game was at a crossroads when Chapman died. Despite
its status as one of the most advanced footballing nations, other
countries were catching and surpassing it in many areas. Though
there were other progressive figures in the game, none of their
voices carried half the weight that Chapman's did.
He had recognised the need for drastic change, and saw the way
forward in the efficient running of the Italian and Austrian sides.
But the English FA's refusal to learn from these examples and
stubborn insistence upon choosing the national side with a selection
committee, were typical of its unenlightened nature. Nearly a
quarter of a century before they were humbled by the Hungarians
at Wembley in 1953, Chapman had predicted a downturn in England's
fortunes if they continued to ignore the advances being made in
the European game. Perhaps it could be said that English football
is still paying the price for not acting on his warning.
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