November 1934: vying for the top of the league, and the Battle of Highbury

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal had suffered a defeat to Sunderland at the end of October which had taken some commentators by surprise, and as a result of this, and the latest Stoke City win, Stoke had risen to the highly unlikely position of top of the league – not least because of the remarkable abilities of one of their players – Stanley Matthews.

Arsenal now entered November with the normal four saturday afternoon league games to play, as well as two other matches: the annual game against Racing Club de Paris away on 18 November and the Charity Shield game against FA Cup winners Manchester City at Highbury ten days later.  Plus, also upcoming, was what was to become one of the most famous England matches of all time.  But more of that in a moment.

Everton came into the first match of the new month in 6th position, having won just two of the last five matches, although their game immediately before the Arsenal match was a 4-0 home win against West Brom.  Everton like Arsenal had a perfect home record of six wins, with no draws and no defeats, and like Arsenal their away form was nowhere near this mark, with three draws and three defeats.  It looked like a comfortable home win was to be expected and this is what the above average crowd of over 50,000 got.  2-0 to the Arsenal and two goals from Bastin.

Ted Drake however missed the match through injury and Dunne stepped in for his first game of the season.

Elsewhere on the same day Stoke looked like they couldn’t believe their position at the top of the league any more than anyone else and lost 0-3 at home to Sunderland.  Fourth placed Grimsby drew with Blackburn, and these results placed Arsenal back on top of the league with Sunderland second.

Next up was away to Grimsby Town on 10th November.  They had a solid home receord with four wins, two draws and no defeats, while Arsenal, despite this being November and the club being top of the league, still had not won away.

For this game Drake returned at centre forward and Hulme returned as outside right, and although both returnees scored, (and despite Arsenal being 2-0 up at half time) it ended 2-2.  Sunderland beat Man City 3-2, to go top of the league once more, but the most extraordinary score of the day was bottom placed Huddersfield’s 8-0 trouncing of 10th placed Liverpool.  It seemed that last season’s runners up had finally woken up.

Arsenal now had another clear week before facing Aston Villa at home – but their players didn’t, for on 14 November they played again at Highbury – for England against Italy.

If you have heard of this match you’ll probably know two things.  One was that there were seven Arsenal players in the England team and the other was that it was a violent affair.

I think there are also a couple of other points of note that are often missing from this brief summary, and I’d like to pick them up here – simply because of the Arsenal connection with the game.

The first is that in the previous match against Wales on 29 September there had only been two Arsenal players in the England team. In the next England match on 6 February 1935 there were five Arsenal players (Male, Hapgood, Copping, Drake, Bastin).  That was of course exceptional, but the occurrence of seven players in an England team was completely a one-off.

And it happened by chance, for against Italy Male was only called up after Tom Cooper of Derby County withdrew injured, and Drake came in after Sam Tilson of Manchester City was injured, and his first replacement George Hunt of Tottenham Hotspur was also injured.

Also (although I don’t have documentation to prove it), it looks to me as if England chose their teams in different ways, depending on whether the match was on a Saturday (while regular league matches were being played) or midweek (when they were not).  Going through the records it looks as if there was a deal that no more than two players per club would be called up for a Saturday match – not least because England regularly had little difficulty in their games against Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which made up the heart of their games each season.  This match against Italy was a mid-week, and so there was no problem.

The second point is that England were not part of Fifa at the time, and so did not play in the world cup.  But there was a feeling fostered by the FA that if England were to have been in the world cup they would, of course, have sauntered through and won the day.

Thus I am not at all sure that before the game the FA took this match very seriously.  Indeed it must also be noted that in the previous England international six players had made their international debut.

For Italy it was their first match since winning the World Cup; England set up the game as being the “real” world cup final.  There are stories (unconfirmed but oft repeated) that Mussolini offered the Italian players bonuses in terms of money and a car if they won.  There was certainly an air of expectation – that England would quickly put Johnny (or perhaps that was Luigi) Foreigner in his place.

The England team was…

Male, Barker, Hapgood
Britton, Copping
Matthews, Drake, Bowden, Bastin, Brook.

So we had six players gaining their first or second international cap, appearances, including the entire right side of the team.   We also had George Allison doing the BBC radio commentary, and Tom Whittaker acting as England’s physio.  And it was played at Highbury, not Wembley (where they had dog racing that night).

None of England’s players had more than nine caps entering into the match but that didn’t stop the players getting stuck in.

After two minutes the Italian centre half Luis Monti had his foot broken in a coming together with Drake on his first attack. Monti remained on the field for 15 minutes, which did the Italians no good at all, as his injury gave the England forwards a clear run at goal.    He then did leave the pitch, but by that time England/Arsenal were 3-0 up.

It is said (in Wiki) that after the game the FA considered withdrawing from all internationals as a result of this game – and what joy would could have had as club rather than country supporters had they had the nerve to do it.     As it was, aside from the “home” internationals played each year, England continued dabbling with games against foreign nations, starting with a game against the Netherlands on 18 May 1935 and including a match against Germany on 4 December with the number of such games growing at a rate of one extra game a year until war broke out.

The friendlies resumed after the war, and in 1949 the “home internationals” became a qualifying group for the 1950 Fifa World Cup, and there was no turning back.

Here are two videos of the game at Highbury.  The quality is of course poor, but even so, you get an idea.

And the other


    As the videos suggest the game itself degenerated into continual violence injuries to players became widespread.  Brook had his arm broken, Bowden suffered a severe ankle injury, Barker a hand injury and Drake got a gashed leg.

    If there had been enough strength in the English clubs they might have told the FA that they had had enough and wanted no more of this, but patriotism was the name of the game in the 1930s, and any attempt to sort out the FA before it got ideas above its station.

    Meanwhile away from the violence, those who read stories to their children and who took note of the obituaries columns in the press noted that on 16 November that Alice Hargreaves, who, as Alice Liddell, was the inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had passed away.   Those who did note this, and who had also noted the England/Italy match (and it was rather hard not to note it, such was the publicity), began to comment on the lunacy of international football.  It was the start of a theme that George Orwell eventually took up when he wrote an article for Tribune, following the visit of Moscow Dynamo to the UK in 1945 when they played against Arsenal, called the Sporting Spirit.  It is an article well worth reading if you have ten minutes, but here is the bit that most people quote, without really knowing the full context:

    Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

    Back with the football and Arsenal in the 1930s, the Gunners now had to pick themselves up from the battle on the Wednesday and take on Aston Villa on Saturday.  Amazing only Bowden couldn’t make the game (Marshall coming in for his third game of the season), but there must have been doubts as to exactly how physically fit many of the rest of the Arsenal England players were.

    Aston Villa had no such worries – they had no such players in the England team.   But Arsenal were at home with their perfect home record.  Villa were 10th and had only won once away.

    However the memory and the wounds of the battle of Highbury were still there for all to see.  Arsenal held on – it was goalless at half time, but in the end Villa inflicted Arsenal’s first home defeat of the season 2-1.  Sunderland and Stoke both won, so Arsenal sank to third.  Bastin got Arsenal’s goal with a penalty.  If ever there was an example of Arsenal suffering because of international “duty” as it is ludicrously called, this was it.

    As if the battle of Highbury, followed by the first home defeat of the season were not enough, the following day Arsenal flew to Paris for the annual game against Racing Club.  Of course this was all arranged long before the Italy game, and was for the most important of causes – raising money for the well-being of servicemen who survived the first world war.   And in the fullest respect of the meaning of the occasion much of the regular first team were given an outing.  Compton came in for Hapgood, Sidey for Roberts, and Marshall continuing his role at inside right.  John came in for James and Hill for Bastin.   Hill got two of the goals before being substituted for Bastin, and Marshall got the other.

    After two games in two days, and the Battle of Highbury, Arsenal now had six days to prepare for their next game – a London derby away to Chelsea.   Arsenal were third, but still without an away win all season.  Chelsea were bottom with three home wins and four defeats.  They had just beaten Blackburn away, but prior to that it had been three straight defeats.

    Crayston now dropped out of the team, probably still feeling the effects of the Italy match, and Frank Hill got his first game since the opening match of the campaign.  Bowden came back to replace Marshall.  And at last on their 8th attempt of the season Arsenal won away – by 5-2.  Drake got four and Hulme the fifth.  It took Drake’s total up to 22 for the season, was the second time he had got four goals in a game and his fourth hattrick.

    What made the failure of Arsenal to win away up to this point so noticeable was that throughout Chapman’s career both at Huddersfield and Arsenal, he had sought to build teams that played counter attacking football at home and away.  Indeed the whole concept of the WM formation was based on the desire not just to defend against the new offside rule, but to get the ball from the central defender to a defensive half back who was able immediately to pass on to a passing half back who would move it on to an inside forward who gave it to a potential goal scorer.

    This very fast progress up the pitch from a defensive position worked as well at home as away, and hence the close balance in each of the successful seasons between home and away results.

    Now under Allison, this was not how it was at all.  Home was superb (until the Villa game, and there were explanations for that), away was poor.

    But help was at hand because as Arsenal were getting their first away victory, quite remarkably Stoke and Sunderland both lost – Stoke going down 3-1 to Grimsby (perhaps Matthews was also feeling the after effects of Italy) and Sunderland losing at home to WBA.  Arsenal were now up to second just one point behind Sunderland.

    This left Arsenal with one final game in this most adventurous of months – the Charity Shield match against Manchester City, to be played at Highbury on the 28th.

    Arsenal again included Sidey, and Birkett and Marshall came into the side.  Drake, Bastin, Birkett and Marshall got one each in front of a modest crowd.

    Here is, as always, the summary of the games of the month.

    Date Opponent Op Pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
    03.11.1934 Everton 6 H W 2-0 1 18 50,350 46,252
    10.11.1934 Grimsby Town 4 A D 2-2 2 19 26,288  13,706
    17.11.1934 Aston Villa  10 H L 1-2 3 19  54,226 46,252
    18.11.1934 Racing Club A W 3-0 Fr  40,000
    24.11.1934 Chelsea  22 A W 5-2 2 21  43,419  32,342
    28.11.1934 Manchester City H W 4-0 C.S  10,888

    The abbreviations, as always mean…

    • 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.

    Thus the month ended with Arsenal bloodied but now bowed.  Second in the league, Charity Shield holders for the second year running, and holders of the all time record for the most players from one club ever to appear together in an England team.   And they had, at last, won an away game and they were only one point behind the league leaders, despite having only won two of the last five league games.

    But, please don’t look away yet, for much as the Battle of Highbury had grabbed the nation’s interest there were still two more events that took particular attention.  On 29 November Prince George, Duke of Kent married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark.  This was the last occasion of a foreign-born princess marrying into the British royal family and the wedding was the first to be broadcast live on radio – a matter of even greater excitement than the Arsenal manager doing a commentary on England while his own players were hacked to pieces.

    It gripped the nation, as the nation was gripped by the event the following day when the Flying Scotsman became the first train officially to exceed 100mph in a test in England.  To those members of the public who wished to be so convinced, it seemed that England was still up to the mark when it came to anything from technological know-how to royal blood to fair footballing achievement (not like these awful foreigners).

    The series

    This is part of a series of articles on Arsenal in the 30s – and you can find the index to all the articles in this series through that link.  The most recent posts in the series are

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