Arsenal in the summer. 1947: The Phoenix rises out of the ashes

By Tony Attwood

The first season after the second world war was fairly gruesome for Arsenal.  In fact it turned out to be worse in terms of the league than any season since 1929/30 when Arsenal had the overwhelming compensation of winning the FA Cup for the first time – indeed their first ever major trophy.

But at least 1946/7 had Arsenal firmly back at Highbury, after playing wartime games at White Hart Lane, and for all the trials and tribulations of coming 13th in the league and going out of the FA Cup in the 3rd round to Chelsea, there were brighter spots.

One such was the game on 1 February 1947: Arsenal 6 Man U 2.  An extraordinary result given that Man U finished runners-up and the match at Old Trafford ended 2-5.

Another was the emergence of two goalscorers – Reg Lewis with 29 goals in 28 league games and Ronnie Rooke with 21 in 24.  Without them who knows where the club would have ended up.

Indeed nowhere was the strange contradiction of these two goalscorers in a mid-table team than the game on 22 February 1947 which ended Stoke 3 Arsenal 1.  Rooke makes it 11 goals in 8 games – yet this was part of a run of just one win in six.

Just before the end of the season, on 22 April the death of Frederick Coles was announced.  He had played 78 league games for Woolwich Arsenal at the start of the century before moving to Grimsby, later becoming a football and (more surprisingly) a cricket coach in Gothenburg.  An interesting connection had one established cricketer in the team (Compton) and were just about to establish another (Compton) (Dennis and Leslie).

Inevitably George Allison, who had been such a fixture in the club from at least 1910 when he was writing the programme in Plumstead, and who had worked virtually single handedly through the war keeping the club active in the regional leagues at White Hart Lane, resigned on 31 May 1947 just before his 65th birthday.

 His final act for Arsenal was to write his autobiography: Allison Calling (a title which makes reference to his long-term work as a radio commentator).  Sadly the publication of this charming, positive and insightful book in the summer of 1947 was overshadowed by the serialised rant from Leslie Knighton’s self-serving volume, Behind the scenes in big football which appeared within weeks of the Allison volume.  

Knighton was an absolute failure of a manager at Arsenal after the first world war, who fairly nearly had the club relegated back to the second division on several occasions.  How typical of the media then to publicise the unsubstantiated accusations of such a man who wrote from the memory of a quarter of a century earlier, and ignore the more measured tones of another who won the league twice and the FA Cup and who had had access to board minutes and the club’s historic documents (some of which he had written!) as he wrote his memoires.

In his book, Allison’s description of Sir Henry Norris and his style of work contrasts starkly with Knighton’s.  What subsequent commentators on Norris have failed to recognise in ignoring Allison’s work is that Knighton was sacked by Norris, while Allison worked with Norris from the moment Norris took over the club until Norris’ departure after his failed libel case against the Daily Mail.  

Indeed if I may blow my own trumpet a little, it wasn’t until the Arsenal History Society was formed that the magnitude of the way in which Knighton misled historians about his period in charge of the club began to become apparent.  Incident after incident in Knighton’s account have been shown to be wrongly reported, while accusation after accusation have now been shown to be simply contrary to all the facts.

On 2 June  1947 just before the end of a season which was extended because of the postponements caused by a terrible winter, Tom Whittaker became manager of Arsenal, thus continuing the dynasty of managers (Shaw, Allison were the previous men in this select group) who had a direct connection with Herbert Chapman and who had been at the club in 1925 when Chapman took over.

Whittaker’s first match on 7 June was a 1-2 defeat to Sheffield United away in the final league match of the season – and although now forgotten it was the only time Arsenal have played a league match in June.  

The league table at the end of the season however made sad reading

Club P W D L F A Pt
1 Liverpool 42 25 7 10 84 52 57
2 Manchester United 42 22 12 8 95 54 56
3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 42 25 6 11 98 56 56
4 Stoke City 42 24 7 11 90 53 55
5 Blackpool 42 22 6 14 71 70 50
6 Sheffield United 42 21 7 14 89 75 49
7 Preston North End 42 18 11 13 76 74 47
8 Aston Villa 42 18 9 15 67 53 45
9 Sunderland 42 18 8 16 65 66 44
10 Everton 42 17 9 16 62 67 43
11 Middlesbrough 42 17 8 17 73 68 42
12 Portsmouth 42 16 9 17 66 60 41
13 Arsenal 42 16 9 17 72 70 41

But as a glance at the list above Arsenal confirms, Arsenal were the highest London team at the time.   Indeed a look at the top of division 2 shows that the club’s wartime landlords were fairing even worse.

Division 2.

Club P W D L F A Pt
1 Manchester City 42 26 10 6 78 35 62
2 Burnley 42 22 14 6 65 29 58
3 Birmingham City 42 25 5 12 74 33 55
4 Chesterfield 42 18 14 10 58 44 50
5 Newcastle United 42 19 10 13 95 62 48
6 Tottenham Hotspur 42 17 14 11 65 53 48

On 14 July 1947 Tom Whittaker set to work building a new team signing Archie Macaulay from Brentford for £10,000,  He had previously played with Rangers and West Ham and served as a physical training instructor in the war.

On 26 July Alf Calverley was sold to Preston NE.  He had been signed four months earlier by Allison, from Mansfield for £2500, but had played Preston in his first match who hen offered £1500 which Arsenal took.  Then four months on from that Preston sold him for £4000!  It is a saga which is indicative of the chaos of the post-war football market.  No one quite knew if returning servicemen were alive, let alone still fit enough to play at the highest level, while the normal stream of 18 year olds had missed their formative years which would have been played in the reserves.

The 1946/7 season had ended without the playing of any post-season friendlies, not least because of the extension of the season due to the weather, and after the shortened break the new season likewise began without any friendlies, although undoubtedly the first team would have played the reserves on several occasions.

The first day of the new campaign, 23 August 1947 saw the League debuts for Archie Macauley and Don Roper.  One year on from the worst start to a season since 1923, 58,184 turned up to see McPherson, Logie and Rooke make it Arsenal 3 Sunderland 1 – and then undoubtedly look on in amazement as Arsenal opened with six consecutive wins, eventually going undefeated in the first 17 games.

Finally, as summer gave way to autumn, ex-Arsenal man Thomas Fitchie died on 17 October 1947: he was and remains the only man to be signed five times by Arsenal.  He was a travelling salesman with Jacques & Co a sports goods and games manufacturer. They encouraged his football career as an amature as it allowed them access to the clubs and the players who were his team mates.

Fitchie’s is a remarkable story, and an insight into an earlier time.  As Arsenal built their new post-war success story, and with their lifelong historian George Allison no longer on call, it may well be that history too took a back seat and that Fitchie was not commemorated at the time.  After all everyone had had enough of the war and the horrors it revealed.  It was a time to look forwards.  And look forwards the club most certainly did.

Arsenal in the summer: the Pre-season files



One Reply to “Arsenal in the summer. 1947: The Phoenix rises out of the ashes”

  1. Tony,
    Just to emphasise the enigma that is Arsenal, after finishing 13th in 1946/7 the following season the Div 1 title was theirs!.
    Thanks to recruited “oldies” like Ronnie Rooke and Joe Mercer from Everton, who captained Arsenal at the time.
    On the subject of books by George Allison I remember one in the late 1930’s, sponsored by Quaker Oats. You could only obtain a copy by sending in tokens printed on each large packet of the breakfast cereal. Boy, I sure ate some porridge THAT year! 😉

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