The curious life of Jimmy Dunne: Herbert Chapman’s last big money signing

By Tony Attwood

Herbert Chapman’s last major signing came four months before he passed away suddenly.

Arsenal already had four centre forwards in the club: Lambert, Jack, Coleman and Bowden, but Chapman was always looking to improve and develop, and give competition for those who were in the team.  So he chose Jimmy Dunne.

In fact Arsenal made two separate offers for Dunne but we haven’t covered him yet.  So here goes…

Jimmy Dunne was born in Ireland on 3 September 1905.

He started with Shamrock Rovers, and then moved to New Brighton of the Third Division North in November 1925, scoring six goals in his first eight league games. Then it was Sheffield United, who signed him in February 1926 for £800.

He made his first team debut in a 4–0 home win against Arsenal on 4 September 1926 but it was not until the 1929–30 season that Dunne hit the headlines.  His scored a hat-trick against Leicester City in a 3–3 draw on 7 September 1929 was followed by four against West Ham United on New Year’s Day 1930 (4–2) and four in the defeat of Leicester City (7–1) on 4 January. He scored another hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers on 3 March. He was the club’s top goalscorer with 36 goals in 39 games and Sheffield United avoided relegation on goal average totally because of him.

Dunne was not surprisingly top goalscorer at United for four consecutive seasons between 1929 and 1933 including 30+ in three consecutive seasons between 1930 and 1933.   In 1930/1 he scored 41 league goals plus a further nine in other competitions; his 41-goal haul remains the record in the English League by an Irishman. Between 24 October 1931 and 1 January 1932 he scored in twelve successive games and he was a national phenomenon.

What makes that figure even more amazing is that Sheffield Utd ended up 15th in the league and only scored 78 all season (the season Arsenal got 127).

The first Arsenal offer made for him was in February 1932 when Arsenal offered Sheffield United £10,000 for Dunne but were turned down.  Whittaker tells the story that Chapman, thus rebuffed, then by chance met George Pearce, the chairman of Grimsby in the Grand Hotel, Sheffield who was taking his wife to see a specialist surgeon.   This was on 4 March 1932.

Pearce said that he didn’t rate Dunne, but his own centre forward Ernie Coleman was for sale.   So they went to Grimsby together to look at Coleman.  Chapman then called Sir Samuel Hill Wood and said “Pearce wants £8000 for Coleman but I won’t go beyond £7500”.

The chairman asked to speak to his Grimsby counterpart and said (on the phone), “I’ll toss you for £7750 or £7500.”   Chapman tossed the coin, Pearce called heads and won, but said, “pay £7500 now, and if you like him send up a cheque for the remaining £250.”

Apart from anything else this story casts a new light on Chapman’s purchasing programme.  He was willing to follow chance as much as follow up on a player who had hit the headlines or been reported by a scout.

Coleman played 27 games and scored 24 goals for Arsenal but didn’t play after the end of March 1933.  He returned for the opening of the 1933/4 season and played the first two games as centreforward and then three as outside left, picking up just seven other games mostly as an inside forward, throughout the season.  Something had stopped his goalscoring – or maybe the team just didn’t balance any more.

Arsenal were thus still struggling to find a centre forward who could score and stay fit and fit in.  Lambert had three games after Coleman was moved, then Bowden had a couple, but the results at the start of the 1933/4 season were patchy.  In the first seven games, Arsenal, the defending champions, and of course destined to be champions again, won two, drew three and lost two scoring nine goals.  This from the team that had scored 118 goals in the season before.

Meanwhile Sheffield United were in financial trouble themselves, having over-extended their ambition, and so they returned to the negotiating table and accepted £8,250 for Dunne.  That was Chapman for you.  He never ever gave up.

The story is told in Tom Whittaker’s Arsenal Story that Jimmy Dunne was playing football in Ireland on the Tuesday and Wednesday before he signed for Arsenal, but I can’t trace any specific games.  The Irish Free State (as the country was called then) had no matches at that time, so maybe they were practice sessions.  But Jimmy Dunne was one of a handful of players who played for both Northern Ireland and the Free State teams,  so maybe he had a training match with each, one day after the other.  If you know, please tell.

Jimmy travelled back to England and was then told in the early hours of Saturday that he had been sold to Arsenal!  That was retain and transfer for you – the player had no say in the matter.

Chapman and Jimmy Dunne rushed off to the train to London, Jimmy forgot his boots, they rushed to the groundsman’s house, woke him up, got him to the ground and they made the train.  Jimmy played in the 6-0 win over Middlesbrough on 30 September 1934.  That would place his transfer date as 29 September 1934.

Dunne now became the regular no 9 for Arsenal until March by which time he had scored nine in 21 games, and of course by which time also Joe Shaw was the manager.  Then Cox got a couple of games, and finally up stepped Ted Drake who played the last 10 games, and scored seven to give Arsenal the title.

Dunne was then called, “the most expensive reserve player in English football” in the press, although his Arsenal colleagues clearly recognised his talents, with Cliff Bastin reported as saying “one of the best five centre forwards I had ever seen”.

Dunne won three caps for the Free State during his time with Arsenal but thereafter Dunne, the man with the most amazing goal scoring record with Sheffield Utd played just twice in the next two seasons.  With Ted Drake arriving, Dunne was seemingly expendable.  Which is amazing when one considers his earlier record.

With first-team football limited, Dunne joined Southampton for £2,000 in July 1936. After one season on the south coast in which he was the leading goalscorer with 14 goals in 36 second division games, he returned to Shamrock Rovers, first as a player and then a player manager – which suggests either he was getting regular injuries or else his talent had been blown.

Shamrock Rovers won the League of Ireland in 1938 and 1939 and he won nine more caps, and the FAI Cup in 1940.  Between 1942 and 1947 he coached Bohemians and then returned to Shamrock Rovers.

Overall Jimmy played seven times and scored four goals for the IFA (which is now the football association for Northern Ireland) and 15 times for the FAI (which is now the association for what the British call the Republic of Ireland) and scored 13 goals.


Jimmy Dunne died tragically young from a sudden heart attack, at the age of 44, on 14 November 1949.

His sons, Tommy and Jimmy and two of his nephews also played football in Ireland.

The blog of the Arsenal History Society


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