Arsenal in the 30s – February 1934. Chapman is gone, but the club moves on.

By Tony Attwood

After one league defeat in 16, following the sudden death of Herbert Chapman Arsenal suffered two defeats and a draw in the league and had slipped to second.   The extraordinary rise of Derby with one defeat and one draw in the 12 games up to and including the match on New Years Day had given Arsenal, the reigning champions, a new rival to worry about.

In the next six league games Derby got two wins, two draws and two defeats – middle of the table stuff – but with Arsenal slipping it was still enough to put them top of the table, starting February with a record equal in every regard to Arsenal’s save one – they had scored six goals more, which took them above the champions on goal average.

So Arsenal needed to put the horrors of January behind them and start winning again, and the extraordinarily re-emergent Derby dropping some more points was also not go amiss.

Just to take January 1934 on its own and by way of example, in that month Derby County had won two, drawn one and lost one, so their form was not perfect, but it was certainly better than Arsenal in January (two defeats and a draw in the league), as they club was still trying to reorganised itself and recover from the trauma of Herbert Chapman’s sudden passing.

But football knows no sentimentality and Derby, although not in the same form that they had shown at the end of the year were certainly not going to roll over let Arsenal recover.

Huddersfield on the other hand had had a blip and although they had done better than Arsenal in January it was not that much better, having won one, drawn one and lost one.   Tottenham had won two and lost two, but after their early season challenge they were thought by newspaper commentators to be slipping behind.

On 3 February Arsenal had another home game (following hard on the heels of the home defeat to Tottenham), this time against Everton who were 15th and had won just two away games all season.  Everton were nothing like the force that they had been in 1932, and it was becoming clear that they had been nothing but a two season wonder – gaining promotion in 1931 and pipping Arsenal to the title in 1932.

So Arsenal had hopes of turning matters around by beating Everton.  And yet they lost 1-2 at Highbury.  It was the third defeat in a row, two of which had been at home.

A surviving programme from the match confirmed that the game represented a rare appearance of Alex James as captain.  It was also the last game for Ernest Coleman.  He had been a brilliant player in the previous season with 24 goals in 27 games but this season scored just the once.

Joe Shaw, now getting used to being Arsenal manager, was not doing anything remarkable with the team that Chapman would not have done.  Jones and Bowden both missed this game with injuries, and were replaced by Coleman and Hill, exactly the players Chapman would have used.  Eight of the players – including the entire defence and half back line were identical to those who started the season.  Bastin continued in his new role as attacking inside left, Dunne was centre forward and Beasley outside left.

What was wrong however was the goalscoring.  Arsenal had scored just four goals in the last five league games (including Chapman’s last match, the 0-0 away draw with Birmingham), and the four goals subsequent to that had come from four different players – Dunne, Beasley, Bastin and Burkett.  If this carried on much longer, the players’ own self belief would be destroyed.  It had been all square at 1-1 at half time, but then, once again, it just went wrong.

Derby however not only won, but won 5-1 against Stoke, and Huddersfield also won, in their case 3-1 against Wolverhampton.   Tottenham’s challenge was now more or less confirmed as over as they once again lost this time 3-1 to Liverpool.

Thus Derby were now on 37 points, and with a superior goal average.  Huddersfield and Arsenal were on 35 points, with very similar goal averages.  Arsenal now really had to improve.

So the game on 10 February, after three consecutive defeats now took on a new meaning.  Could Joe Shaw really turn the team around?  He had had years of experience playing for the club and managing the reserves, now he had a job that men across the world would die for, and much of the population (and every football journalist) had an opinion on how he should handle it.

Middlesbrough went into the match in 11th place but with a positive home record of having won 10, drawn none and lost only three – a record in terms of home points equal to Arsenal’s.  Arsenal had won six, lost three and drawn four of their away games.   The best Arsenal could expect, it was thought, was a draw and quite possibly further slippage.

But now, Joe Shaw, took action and changed the team – although to be fair, to a large degree injuries forced his hand.  Four players were dropped, Bowden and Jones came back from injury, Sidey came in at left half to replace the injured Bob John, and a new man appeared, Peter Dougall, making his first appearance for the club at inside left to replace the injured Bastin.

Peter Dougall had been signed by Herbert Chapman in September 1933, having previously been with Southampton (where comparisons to Alex James were made) and then, when things did not work out, he went to Sète in the south of France for a year.  (It is my understanding, although I would welcome more information on this, that if a player transferred outside the UK no transfer fee was payable, and likewise there was no fee payable upon his return).

The new (although temporary) line up gave us


Male Roberts Hapgood

Jones Sidey

Birkett Bowden Dunne Dougall Beasley

And in fact, Arsenal suddenly found their form again, winning 2-0, Birkett and Bowden getting the goals.  Maybe the team was helped by the changes, maybe by the lack of pressure – only 15,894 turned up – easily the lowest crowd to see Arsenal in a league game all season.

The run of three consecutive defeats, and indeed five without a win, was over.  Better still Derby were held to a home 1-1 draw by West Brom, and although Huddersfield and Tottenham both won, it was the Derby result that was seen as key – and not just because of the league position.

There was even enough lifting of the gloom for a moment of trivia (and yes they did have trivia in the 1930s, although it was called “general knowledge”) – the last five Arsenal goals in the league had been scored by players with surnames starting with B.   And the run was not over yet.

But now there was an interruption, for as luck would have it, Arsenal’s next game was a home FA Cup tie with… top of the table Derby County – which Arsenal won 1-0 the goal coming from Jack (this being a Cup game not a league match, the B sequence did not apply!)  The results  meant that Arsenal was the only one of the top four clubs left in the FA Cup for the quarter finals.  The event also did the Arsenal coffers no harm.  Having attracted 56,177 for the fourth round tie against Palace, the crowd this time reached 66,905, just two and a half weeks after 68,828 turned out for the Tottenham game.

As was the norm at the time, the league game planned for 17 February had to be played mid-week, and so Arsenal next took on fifth placed Blackburn Rovers on 21 February at Highbury.

Having gone six games at the end of the year without a win and dropped to 12th, Blackburn had suddenly transformed themselves and won four in a row in January, beating both Tottenham and Derby in the run.  They had then lost to Sheffield Wednesday but bounced back to beat Manchester City, making it five league wins in six games.

But a closer look at Blackburn revealed an uneven approach to the games – for their home form showed 12 wins and three draws out of 15 games.  But away it was two wins, one draw and 12 defeats with 10 scored and 41 conceded.  Away from home they looked ready for the taking.

Suddenly matters really were moving in the right direction once more, for Arsenal won 2-1.   OK it was only 2-1, but given the level of nervousness around Highbury any win was welcome.  Bastin and Beasley scored, meaning that the run continued – the last seven league goals had all been scored by players with surnames starting with B.

In fact all the top teams were involved on the Wednesday, and the results could hardly have been much better for Arsenal.  Derby lost to Birmingham while Tottenham lost 6-0 to Sunderland.  Only Huddersfield kept pace with Arsenal by winning 2-1 against Aston Villa.

Amazingly after such a rough patch, the results left Arsenal top once again albeit only on goal average of 0.12 goals over Huddersfield. Derby were now one point behind.  Tottenham were four behind Huddersfield, but had played one more game.  Suddenly the Joe Shaw / Tom Whittaker axis with George Allison keeping the board informed of events looked a brilliant move, rather than the dithering of executives who couldn’t decide who they wanted.

The Blackburn victory also made it three successive victories in a row (two in the league and one in the Cup) and the awful notion that only Chapman could make this team win was now displaced.

So onto the final game of the month  which was against Newcastle, currently in 13th place.

Newcastle were the home draw specialists – eight out of their 15 home games having ended in that way, and they had drawn two, lost one and won one of the last four.   But Arsenal were in no mood to slip back and gained a 0-1 victory.  Better, Derby once again slipped up, with a 1-1 home draw with Sheffield Wednesday while Huddersfield lost 1-0 away to Leicester.  Herbert Chapman, now firmly ensconced in heaven (he was, one should add, a most religious man, very much devoted to serving the church in a most becoming and modest way) was looking down upon the club he recreated from the ashes of the awful Knighton regime.

Arsenal’s goal in the Newcastle game came from Beasley.  Now the last eight league goals, across six games, had been scored by players with surnames starting with B.   And that run was not over yet – although what happened subsequently must wait until the March 1934 article.

Here is the regular table of matches; the games played in February 1934.

Date Opponent Op Pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
03.02.1934 Everton  15 home L1-2 2 35  24,025 46,252
10.02.1934 Middlesbrough  11 away W2-0 2 37 15,894 12,634
17.02.1934 Derby County FAC  1 home W1-0  —  — 66,905 46,252
21.02.1934 Blackburn Rovers  6 home W2-1 1 39 29,886 46,252
24.02.1934 Newcastle United  13 away W1-0 1 41 40,065 24,142
  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game
  • Pos is Arsenal’s position after the game
  • AC is the average crowd 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.

The crowds for the home league games against Everton and Blackburn were significantly down for Arsenal.  Now we have noticed this before – and volatility in crowd numbers was very much part of football.  Indeed we’ve seen that matches at the end of the season, even after Arsenal have won the league, could be low – there was little sense it seems in being there to celebrate achievement.

Of course the weather played a part – and the date.   Boxing Day 1933 gained an attendance at Highbury of just 22,817, and the Blackburn game was played mid-week (in the afternoon of course), but then a lot of north London had wednesday afternoon as half day closing, so higher crowds were possible.

The weather certainly wasn’t particularly bad, although there was rain around in the opening days of the month, and maybe some fans, having seen four without a win, including a home defeat to Tottenham had had enough.

But it was not actually raining in London on 3 February, and the temperature was reasonable for the time of year.  Sadly, we must reflect that the Arsenal crowd were, in part, rather fickle.

Here’s the league table for the end of February and seeing it is not surprising that the mood had lifted and there was talk in the press of Joe Shaw and the players “winning it for Mr Chapman.”

Arsenal had won nine games at home and eight away – exactly the balanced sort of form that Herbert Chapman had used each year he won the title.  Joe Shaw had learned his lesson well.  Derby had the better goal average, but Arsenal had two points more.

Arsenal in the 1930s.

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