By John Sowman
Browsing through some old Arsenal programmes recently I came across one from the all-time classic encounter with Manchester United at Highbury on February 1st 1958. This of course was the epic 4-5 defeat to a team destined to be struck by tragedy at Munich airport less than a week later. Further examination revealed the sad fact that of Arsenal’s 11 players on view that day only one, David Herd is still alive. United can go one better, as Sir Bobby Charlton and goalkeeper Harry Gregg are also happily still with us.
It did though make me wonder whether David Herd might even have been our all time top scorer if the prevailing circumstances had been different. Let us then look at the facts and try to assess what could have been.
It is a reasonable assumption (given his subsequent scoring record for Manchester United) that David Herd might well have figured in the top three all-time Arsenal goalscorers had he not left the club in unfortunate circumstances, the details of which will be revealed later in the article.
Herd was born in Lanarkshire in 1934 but brought up in Manchester where his father Alec was a prolific goalscorer for City in the 1930’s and enjoyed an FA Cup final triumph 2-1 against Portsmouth in the year of David’s birth. After the Second World War Alec, by then running down his long career, joined nearby Division 3 (North) side Stockport County where on the last day of the 1950/51 season he made football history when playing alongside his 17 years old son. David, incidentally, scored on his debut in a 2-0 win over Hartlepools United in that particular match.
Although National Service contrived to limit his appearances for Stockport, Herd did well enough, scoring 5 times in 12 matches during season 1953/54, to attract the attention of several top clubs. Indeed, Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker was sufficiently impressed by him to beat off other top clubs for his signature and offer County £10,000, which they accepted and he entered Highbury on 24th August 1954.
In another relatively indifferent season for the club, Herd had to wait until 19th February 1955 to make his first division debut in a 1-1 home draw with Leicester City, playing at inside right. The Arsenal centre forward on that day, Jack Wilkinson, was also making his debut but both players’ paths were destined to be very different. Wilkinson never played for Arsenal’s first team again and was soon on his way to Sheffield United. On 30th April 1955 David Herd scored his first goal in Division One in a 2-1 defeat at Fratton Park, Portsmouth. It may have been merely a tap-in consolation, welcome as it no doubt was to the player but it was certainly untypical of the powerful goals he was to score over the following six years at Highbury.
1955/56 season again saw him make a handful of first division appearances, his chances again somewhat limited, this time by the arrival of an expensive signing, Vic Groves from Leyton Orient, who was versatile enough to play anywhere in the forward line. But the times were changing fast at Highbury. Old timers Tommy Lawton, Doug Lishman and Don Roper would soon be exiting the club, leaving opportunities for the likes of young, lively forwards Herd, Danny Clapton and Jimmy Bloomfield, who had already established himself as a first teamer the previous season.
The pivotal moment in David Herd’s Arsenal career came on 20th October 1956. And it could hardly have been more dramatic. A late injury crisis to wing halves Dave Bowen and Peter Goring saw regular centre forward Cliff Holton forced to drop back to help plug the gaps.
Herd was about to step onto the team coach bound for a reserve match at Luton when he was intercepted and told he would be the first team’s number nine that day for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur to Highbury. His late inclusion over the tannoy was greeted with low groans from the near capacity crowd. But, in a forceful display that had the Spurs defence rocking to the tune of two goals and being robbed of a maiden hat trick by a highly dubious offside decision, Herd had instantly established himself as a future star centre forward. By the middle of that same season (1956/57) he had taken over Holton’s position as first team centre forward permanently. With 12 league goals in just 22 appearances, plus six more in an FA Cup run that unfortunately ended in the quarter final defeat at the hands of West Bromwich Albion, Herd’s future looked secure.
David Herd’s first full season at centre forward saw him score 24 league goals in 39 matches. It was however an unhappy time at Highbury. A disastrous 3-1 FA Cup defeat at third division Northampton Town as good as sealed manager Jack Crayston’s fate.
In the close season, after much searching, Arsenal appointed former goalkeeper George Swindin in Crayston’s place. At first everything went swimmingly well. A 6-1 trouncing of Everton at Goodison Park saw Herd devastate the home side with four goals of his own. In a run of seven matches commencing with that particular outstanding display, he failed to score only once and his tally during the sequence was eleven. Almost unbelievably, given their poor showing in Crayston’s last season in charge, Arsenal topped the first division table and Herd’s contribution had not gone unnoticed by the Scottish selectors.
At that time there had not yet been a mass defection of players from the Scottish League to its English equivalent and there was therefore no intrinsic bias against ‘Anglo Scots’ i.e those playing for English clubs; that would come later, so Herd was selected for his first full international cap on 18th October 1958 alongside the newly recruited Tommy Docherty, whose barnstorming displays for his new club had resurrected his international career at the mature age of 30 and Jackie Henderson, a powerful two footed winger signed from Wolves just a fortnight previously.
Following an injury in mid November which saw him put out of action until January 1959, Herd found goals a little hard to come by and his final total of 15 in 26 appearances was slightly disappointing, given Arsenal’s valiant, but ultimately fruitless attempt on the league title.
Season 1959/60 saw him start in another rich goalscoring vein, 8 in the first 12 matches but Swindin, inexplicably, started to move him about in the front line – inside left in a 3-0 defeat to Preston, outside left in a 2-2 draw at Leicester (Len Julians replaced him at centre forward in both matches and failed to score). Herd was then brought back as No.9 for the next two matches and scored in both. Nevertheless, Swindin moved him again to inside right and gave Vic Groves leadership of the line; neither scored in a 3-1 home defeat by West Ham.
So, after a bright start to the season, Arsenal, without warning, collapsed spectacularly between the first week of October and Boxing Day, the disastrous record being: Played 13, Won 2, drew 1, lost 10 – Goals for 20, goals against 39.
During this time, Herd spent 6 weeks on the treatment table for a leg injury. When he returned just after Christmas, he found yet another colleague had usurped what he considered to be his rightful place – Mel Charles, the costly centre half from Swansea was the latest in Swindin’s dubious realignments. To be fair to the big Welshman, he did at least score precious goals at centre forward, seven of them in his first four starts and Herd looked to have lost his preferred position, at least for the time being.
Having missed three more matches, seemingly out of favour with the increasingly eccentric Swindin, David Herd returned at inside right and managed to net the goal in a 1-1 draw with Leicester at Highbury. When Charles suffered yet another injury which initially looked to have ended his season, an even more bizarre replacement No.9 was found – DP Clapton, Danny’s brother, made his first team debut in a 3-2 defeat at Burnley – but didn’t score either. Herd’s last goal of the season came in a 2-0 win over Fulham on Good Friday – from inside left.
But something happened off the field towards the end of the season that, in retrospect, effectively ended David Herd’s career at Arsenal. On 14th March 1960 Swindin’s assistant, Ron Greenwood was in Huddersfield, queuing up with several other major First Division clubs to attempt to negotiate the transfer of new wonder kid Denis Law. When Arsenal’s turn came to bid, their offer was a substantial amount of cash plus David Herd in exchange. This was Swindin’s idea of a lucratively attractive offer, but Huddersfield only wanted money, not player exchanges and Manchester City eventually outbid them all to secure Law’s services for a cool £53,000, a record British sum at that time.
As if failing to land Denis Law wasn’t bad enough in itself, George Swindin had made one bad, cardinal mistake. He had offered Herd to Huddersfield without even consulting the player. Herd, understandably, was incensed when he found out what had happened. Somehow though Swindin managed to calm him but the seeds of doubt over his Arsenal future had been sown in David Herd’s mind. In a season notable for his frequent absences injured, he still managed 14 goals in 31 games, which made him top scorer for the third consecutive season.
Restored to his favourite centre forward position, perhaps by a slightly penitent Swindin, Herd managed only 3 goals in the first eight league matches of the 1960/61 campaign. Seemingly, as a result of his comparatively poor returns, Herd was again switched to inside left to accommodate newcomer Geoff Strong, who had risen through the junior ranks quite spectacularly. The move was a great success for both players as Newcastle were thrashed 5-0 at Highbury – Herd with a hat trick and Strong scoring on his league debut. Watching events from the East stand was George Eastham, Newcastle’s star inside forward, who everyone knew was top of Arsenal’s wish list.
However, George Swindin, having been thwarted by Manchester City’s record bid for Denis Law, was not prepared to see his alternative prospective acquisition slip through his fingers. On 23rd September, he felt confident enough to make an opening bid for Eastham’s services – £30,000 + David Herd which our friends at the press interpreted as a new British record, following on the Denis Law transfer just months previously. Just for the record, Swindin had offered Newcastle the pick of his players and Charlie Mitten, their manager, had chosen David Herd, saying that if the player said no, the deal was off. Sadly, again, David Herd had not been consulted. Repercussions were inevitable. The following day Herd quashed the deal by saying that he had no wish to live in the Newcastle area and that all his connections, in particular, his salesman’s job was in the London area. Mitten’s response was clear – without Herd, the deal was off.
But matters were beginning to get out of hand. When inside forward Jimmy Bloomfield discovered that he too had been offered to Newcastle as bait for the Eastham deal, he stated categorically that he would never pull on an Arsenal shirt again. And he didn’t.
On 18th November 1960, 141 days after he had gone on strike, George Eastham finally got his wish and was transferred to Arsenal. David Herd also saw it as an opportunity to leave Highbury and join Manchester United, a club where he felt he would regain his preferred centre forward role.
George Swindin, ever the optimist, realising that Herd was probably permanently unsettled at Highbury, started scouting around north of the border, looking particularly at Alex Young, Hearts’ Scottish international centre forward.
But with the arrival of Eastham, David Herd, at least on the surface, seemed to be regaining his appetite. On 25th November, he scored all three of the goals that beat Everton 3-2 at Highbury. Although Eastham had yet to make his Arsenal debut, Herd appeared to be in the form of his life. Ironically though, when Eastham finally made his Arsenal debut, it was Herd who had to make way for the newcomer. Within a week however, Herd returned at inside left to Eastham’s inside right position, with Geoff Strong at centre forward. After a chastising 5-2 defeat at home to Burnley, Swindin characteristically dropped Strong and brought back Herd at centre forward. His response was positive; consecutive hat tricks at Nottingham Forest and at home to Manchester City in early January looked to have reconciled his position at Highbury. Sadly of course this was not so, for by then Herd had already made up his mind as to where he wanted to go – Manchester United.
George Swindin, realising that his number one goal scorer was intent on leaving, pulled a clever stunt by including him in the FA Cup tie at Sunderland, which Arsenal duly lost 2-1, despite Herd giving them the lead in the first half. It meant that Herd was cup tied and could not play again in the FA Cup that season. Sir Matt Busby’s reaction was one of anger that he had been foiled and he withdrew from any further negotiations for the player, at least until the following season. David Herd was furious. He was well aware of what Swindin had done but said he could wait a little longer to get what he wanted.
David Herd played out the rest of the season, determined that it would be his last in North London. In the remaining matches he scored a further 6 goals to take his tally to 29 league goals that season, one in which he missed only two matches. On 29th April 1961, in the final match of the season, a 4-1 defeat at Goodison Park, he scored his very last goal for Arsenal. Early in August of the same year David Herd finally got the move that he had longed for. Manchester United manager Matt Busby came in with a £35,000 bid and Arsenal bowed to the inevitable. In retaining him over the previous year his 30 League and FA Cup goals had inevitably added £10,000 to his transfer value.
So, looking at David Herd’s subsequent career at Manchester United and latterly, Stoke City, are we really looking at a player who might have been one of our all time greats?
Let us look at the facts and make up our own minds;
At Arsenal, he scored 97 league goals in 166 appearances; at Old Trafford he netted 114 in 202 matches and finally, at Stoke he added 11 in 44 games. The total, in league matches only, is a nicely rounded 222 goals in 412 First Division games, a remarkable strike rate in any era. Please make up your own minds as to whether David Herd, without an erratic, put-upon manager in George Swindin, just might have been our greatest ever marksman.
Recent series on this site:
- Arsenal in the 1930s – the current series. Full list of articles so far on the home page
- The First League Season, including a review of each player who played in that season
- Arsenal in the 70s – the full story
- Arsenal in the summer – a growing review of transfers, pre- and post-season games.
- Tom Whittaker, player, coach, manager
- Arsenal on this Day – over 5000 Arsenal anniversaries in day order.