April / May 1937: Arsenal slip back and Man City triumph – for the moment


By Tony Attwood

As the football going public started to get used to the new nickel-brass 12 sided coin which came to be known as the threepenny bit, the first division table at the start of March 1937 looked like this

Since losing to Manchester City on 5 December Arsenal had lost one match in 14.  But it was also the case that since losing to lowly Grimsby on Christmas Day, Manchester City were unbeaten in 15.

Charlton had won the 3rd Division (South) in 1935, and had only emerged from non-league football in 1921/2 with the expansion of the league.  The feeling was that two consecutive promotions and then the league trophy was too much of a fairy story: they would falter.

But what of Manchester City?  They had never won the first division – although they had won the second division title four times, most recently in 1928.  They had managed a 3rd, 4th and 5th place finish since then, and had won the FA Cup in 1934 for the second time, but again there was a feeling that surely Arsenal with two FA Cup victories and four league titles in the last seven seasons would be strong enough to see off the challenge.

However there was nevertheless a real doubt, because Drake was clearly not at his best, and was suffering from a constantly recurring injury.   He had last played in the goalless draw with Stoke, and in fact would not be seen on the pitch again this season.  Although he came good with his quartet of goals in the cup match against Burnley, his last league goal had been on 3 February – and indeed that was to be his last of the season.

Kirchen and Bowden could and did play centre forward, but of these two only Kirchen could deliver goals with anything like regularity, and his 18 in 33 league games, although very good, was still not at the Drake level, or before him the Bastin level or going back to the start of the decade, the incredible achievements of Lambert and Jack.  In midfield Alex James’ appearances were getting more and more intermittent as he needed to be wrapped up in cotton wool after each match, and as for the Boy Bastin, he was no longer a boy, and was now a midfielder.   He only got five goals in 33 games through the season.

So if Arsenal were to make another title happen, they really did need for both Charlton and Man City to ease up a little – and above all for Arsenal to do what only one team had done thus far this season, and beat Manchester City at Maine Road.

But before that came WBA now sitting in 17th.   Arsenal won 2-0, but ominously Manchester City simultaneously beat Brentford 2-6 away.  Charlton lost 1-0 to Sunderland which seemed to confirm (if confirmation were needed) that of the upstarts it was Man City who needed to be seen off.

Nelson retained his place in the team but switched wings as Kirchen returned.  Bowden played at centre forward but it was Davidson at inside left and Nelson who got the goals.

And then the big one game came along – Man City away on 10 April.  Before that game City played one of their two games in hand, and beat Brentford again, this time 2-1 at home leaving them one point behind Arsenal still with one game in hand.   This time Arsenal only had to make one change, but it was one they did not want to make.  The eternally dependable Herbie Roberts was forced to drop out to be replaced by the inexperienced Bernard Joy at centre half.  The change told and Manchester City ran out victors 2-0, to go top of the league.  Almost 75,000 turned up at Maine Road, for not just the match of the day, but the match of the season.

Manchester City were now ahead, with a game in hand.  The trophy was their’s to lose and with a form that read five wins and one draw in the last six (compared to Arsenal’s four draws, one win, one defeat), it now seemed quite clear where the title was going.

Two days after the monumental game on 12 April – Frank Whittle ground-tested the world’s first jet engine designed to power an aircraft, at Rugby.  It was not great news at the time, but of course its implications affected the world.

Back with football Arsenal still had three league games to go, and Man City four, but it felt a hopeless cause especially when on 14 April Manchester City played their final game in hand and beat Sunderland 3-1.  For Arsenal to win the league, Manchester City who had not been defeated since Christmas now had to lose two games out of the last three, while Arsenal had to win the lot.

Arsenal started ok with this impossible task, beating Portsmouth at home 4-0 on 17 April, but the small crowd showed just what the locals thought of it all.  Both the Compton brothers played, and Dennis got two.   Nelson scored again to make him look an interesting prospect, while Kirchen, playing at centre forward in the absence of both Drake and Bowden, got the fourth.

But then the news came in that Manchester City had beaten Preston 2-5 away from home.  They were now three points ahead of Arsenal with two games to play, and a better goal average.  Quite simply Arsenal had to win both of their remaining matches and Manchester City who had still not lost since Christmas Day, had to throw it all away at the last.

Arsenal next had to play Portsmouth again in a friendly in the “Coronation Cup” in Bath.  Only one “unknown” played came into the team – Atter.  He is a player with whom I am drawing a blank at the moment.  He played in this friendly, and in one of the five post-season friendlies, but never for the first team in the league or cup.  Any information on him would be welcome.

Matters in the league were resolved as was now expected, on 24 April when Arsenal lost 2-0 away to Chelsea.   Bernard Joy was again dropped and Sidey came back into the team for this and the final game at centre half.

The last match of the season was at home to 19th placed Bolton on 1 May  and was also the last game for Alex James.  One of our five greatest players to be sure, and also a forgotten captain. During the war he served with the Royal Artillery and then became a journalist before being invited by Arsenal to coach the youth team.

As for Bolton they were still in danger of going down – indeed any two out of Bolton, Leeds, Man U and Sheffield Wednesday could go down, depending on the last day’s results.  Although Man U had already completed their programme and were in 21st spot, a defeat for Leeds (who had a goal difference only 0.02 better) and the failure of Wednesday to win, could have changed things.

But as always when statisticians get excited over such fanciful possibilities they do not come to pass, and the league ended with Arsenal playing out a goalless draw, this being enough to keep Bolton up, and relegate Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday.

For Wednesday it was just seven years since they had won the league two seasons running, and those seven years had included no less than four years of coming third, and an FA Cup triumph.  Yet suddenly it had all gone hopelessly wrong.

Here is the end of season table showing home and away form.  Allison had now re-established the Chapman tradition of a team that could win away through the counter-attacking tactics.


Here is the usual table of results for the month…

Date Opposition Op pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
03.04.1937 West Bromwich Albion  17. home W2-0 1 49  38,773 43,353
10.04.1937 Manchester City  2 away L0-2 2 49 74,918 35,872
17.04.1937 Portsmouth  6 home W4-0 2 51 29,098 43,353
19.04.1937 Portsmouth* N W2-0 10,000
24.04.1937 Chelsea  14 away L0-2 3 51 53,325 32,414
01.05.1937 Bolton Wanderers  19 home D0-0 3 52  22,875 43,353

*The Bath Coronation Cup

The abbreviations, as always…

  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game.  Chesterfield’s position is obviously in relation to Division 2.
  • Pos is Arsenal’s position after the game
  • AC is the average crowd in league matches for the home team through the season, providing a comparison between the crowd on that day (in the previous column) and the norm expected by the home side.

Even though it deprived Arsenal of another title, I think one should also commemorate Man City’s run – not just because it was remarkable but because of what happened next.  If you don’t know, and don’t want to wait, just take a peek on statto.com at the table for the end of 1937/8.

Here is Man City’s run to the top, from 11th to top of the league across half a season without losing a single game.

No Date Opposition Venue Result Pos Pts
21 26.12.1936 Middlesbrough home W2-1 11 22
22 28.12.1936 Grimsby Town home D1-1 9 23
23 02.01.1937 West Bromwich Albion away D2-2 10 24
24 09.01.1937 Manchester United home W1-0 10 26
25 23.01.1937 Portsmouth home W3-1 8 28
26 03.02.1937 Chelsea away D4-4 8 29
27 06.02.1937 Stoke City home W2-1 6 31
28 13.02.1937 Charlton Athletic away D1-1 8 32
29 24.02.1937 Derby County away W5-0 6 34
30 27.02.1937 Wolverhampton Wndrs home W4-1 3 36
31 13.03.1937 Huddersfield Town home W3-0 4 38
32 20.03.1937 Everton away D1-1 7 39
33 26.03.1937 Liverpool away W5-0 4 41
34 27.03.1937 Bolton Wanderers home D2-2 4 42
35 29.03.1937 Liverpool home W5-1 3 44
36 03.04.1937 Brentford away W6-2 3 46
37 07.04.1937 Brentford home W2-1 2 48
38 10.04.1937 Arsenal home W2-0 1 50
39 14.04.1937 Sunderland away W3-1 1 52
40 17.04.1937 Preston North End away W5-2 1 54
41 24.04.1937 Sheffield Wednesday home W4-1 1 56
42 01.05.1937 Birmingham City away D2-2 1 57

The summer tour which involved five games in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands will be dealt with in the regular “Arsenal in the Summer” article which will follow shortly.  But given that Arsenal had played in the Coronation Cup we should note that on 12 May the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth took place at Westminster Abbey, London. The BBC makes its first ever outside broadcast covering the event.  

Later in the month, to conclude the royal events we’ve noted earlier in the year, George VI passed the “letters patent” which effectively forbade the wife and descendants of the Duke of Windsor from using the title “Royal Highness”.

Before moving on to the extraordinary season that was 1937/8 I shall give the usual player details for the season, and then add a few biographies from players in the 1930s who have not yet been covered.  Details of all the players who have got their own biography section are given in the Player Index which is in two parts: A to K  and  L to Z

Here’s the index of articles from the Arsenal in the 30s series.



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