The origin of the phrase ‘Back to square one’ is one of those that often leads people to quote the notion that it came from football.
It didn’t – as I can show below. But the phrase does, in a quirky way, have a very strong link with Arsenal, with the fight between Arsenal and the BBC over broadcasting of matches, and in particular with one of Arsenal’s most successful managers of all time, George Allison.
Allison was the third of the group of men who gathered together under Herbert Chapman at Arsenal – a group who ran the club during much of Chapman’s time at Arsenal, and on into the 1950s.
That group, we might call it the Chapman dynasty, included Chapman himself, Joe Shaw, George Allison and Tom Whittaker and you’ll find articles on all of them indexed from the Arsenal Managers page on this site.
Allison was at heart a journalist, and before he took over as Arsenal manager he was involved in commentating on numerous football matches for the BBC. Fortunately he left not only with the trophies he won for the club, but also an autobiography, “Allison Calling”, in which he goes into a lot of detail about his broadcasting days.
Because the whole notion of radio commentary of games was novel the BBC published, in Radio Times a guide to the pitch, and then would have behind the voice of the commentator a second commentator who would simply announce which part of the pitch the ball was in.
Here’s the original design from the RT in 1927.
Now George Allison spends a lot of pages of his book (about 30 pages of a 240 page book in fact) talking about his days as a commentator as so if “back to square one” was one of his phrases you might expect him to mention it. Indeed if you read the book you’ll see that Allison was no slouch in coming forward to claim his position in history. If he’d been there at the start of such a well-used phrase, he’d have been certain to mention it.
But no, he doesn’t mention it once. However he does write about the man who read out the numbers of the “squares” in which the ball resided at any moment – Derek McCulloch. And George had a nickname for him: Square Two. He doesn’t say where this nickname came from but he does mention the cramped condition the two men worked in, in the stadia from which they broadcast. There were no producers or technicians with them – just the two men in a specially erected little “sound proof kiosk” (sound proofed against the noise of the crowd) in which they sat.
And from page 40 onwards George Allison refers to Derek McCulloch by his nickname: “Square Two”. Quite why he became known as Square Two we are not told, but from that point on and through the book, Derek is only called “Square Two”.
So we have a lot of “Square Two and I …” but not one single mention of “Back to Square One”.
It is also interesting to note that there was nothing special about square one. It was not the penalty area – but one part of the penalty area and the pitch beyond to the corner flag. Indeed four areas of ground included bits off the penalty area in this designation.
(We might also mention that none of the areas are squares – they are all rectangles).
Matters were confused by the fact that in January 2009 the Radio Times reprinted the original grid and claimed definitively that it was the source of the phrase “Back to Square One”. It gave no evidence, and is certainly spurious – there is no record of the phrase being used anywhere until the 1950s, twenty years after the publication of the grid had stopped. Indeed the RT article is strange in that an earlier article in January 2002 merely said that “many believe” the grid to be the origin of the phrase.
But after four years of working for the BBC, while all the time being a director of Arsenal, Arsenal themselves decided to ban broadcasters from Highbury. And they did it at a meeting at which Mr Allison was not present.
On or around Wednesday 1 April 1931 (George Allison is not precise on the date, but by linking it with other events that can be dated we can narrow it down to sometime during that week, Arsenal wrote to the BBC to say that no further broadcasts would be allowed from Highbury.
The BBC in a commentary in Radio Times put the blame for the matter on Herbert Chapman but despite the BBC’s own campaign and a further campaign in the national press, the Football League, at its AGM in June 1931 took up the theme and banned the broadcasting of football. The reason, it said, was that the broadcasting of matches was holding down attendances.
The BBC produced figures to show that in many cases attendances went up when a match was broadcast on radio, and thousands more wrote in to protest, but to no avail.
This was not the first ban of football on radio, for the 1929 cup final had not been broadcast because of a failure of the BBC and the FA to agree a fee. The BBC responded by getting George Allison to broadcast from within the ground and then relay the report to Bolton and Portsmouth, (the clubs involved) where it was amplified through loudspeakers – across the ground at Bolton and across common land near Portsmouth.
Arsenal were not at one on this matter however, for at the next AGM the shareholders carried a resolution deploring the ban.
The 5th Arsenal History book, published by Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, which focuses on the life of George Allison, will be published in a couple of weeks and sent free to all members. If you want to join and get your free copy details are here