Arsenal in February 1936: an early example of rotational selection

by Tony Attwood

This post was updated 14 Dec 2016 with the addition of international matches and 16 Feb 2017 with clarification of Moss’ injury.

January 1936 ended with Arsenal recognising that any chance of holding the title for the fourth successive season had slipped away, and so their focus turned to the FA Cup.

The league table at the start of February 1936 looked like this…

In the FA Cup Arsenal had so far beaten Bristol Rovers and Liverpool in a season when the second division clubs had done particularly well.  Next up in the cup was Newcastle, and thus there was an interest not so much in how Sunderland at the top of the league was doing – they were now getting out of sight – but in how Newcastle were making out in the second division, and the month began with the news that on 1 February Newcastle lost 3-1 to Fulham.  Clearly they were thinking about the FA Cup as well.

For Arsenal the month opened with a home game with Stoke who were 5th having had four wins, one draw and one defeat through December and the start of January.  However a defeat to Sunderland in their last match had knocked them back a little.

Roberts had been injured in the game against Sheffield Wednesday in mid January and the reports were that he would be out for some time, so  Sidey continued to replace him.  Bowden continued at inside right, Alex James played at inside left and Cliff Bastin returned to outside left after 11 league games alternating between inside right and inside left.

A very decent crowd of nearly 50,000 turned up to see Arsenal win 1-0.  Drake scored for the fourth consecutive game – but it was the first game since the 7-1 thrashing of Villa (in which Drake scored all seven) that he had scored in a league match and been on the winning side.

On 5 February (for once when Arsenal were not playing) England played Wales but lost 1-2.  In the England team were Male, Hapgood, Crayston, Bastin and Drake.

On February 8 Arsenal played away to Blackburn, who were currently bottom of the league.  However Blackburn’s problems were almost totally away from home – at home they had a very respectable mid-table form of 8 wins, 2 draws and just three defeats, having scored 23 goals and conceded 14.   It was also noticeable that although they were indeed 22nd in the league there were only three points between them and the team in 15th.

During the week running up to this match, Newcastle, on whom as I mentioned Arsenal were keeping an eye, had drawn 2-2 with Port Vale.   On February 8th they drew once again.

8 February 1936 was notable as the last game for Frank Moss in goal.  Frank had taken over from Charlie Preedy and was nearly ever-present for four years playing in the title winning teams of the triple championship years (1932/3, 1933/4, 1934/5).  Having been seriously injured in 1934/5 he had come back into the team to cover for five league games and two FA Cup matches this season, but in this game he was injured and replaed in goal by Leslie Compton after 30 minutes with the score 0-0.  

He retired in 1937 after 143 games in the league and 16 in the Cup.  He also scored one goal, as noted before, returning to play on the wing after the injury last time around.  He also gained four England caps in 1935.  After retirement he went on to become manager of Heart of Midloathian

The team for the match on 8 February was indeed a mixed bunch.  Indeed the only way to show it is graphically…


Male Sidey Compton

Crayston Copping

Hulme Davidson Hill Dougall Beasley

It was the fifth league game of the season for Leslie Compton, the 13th for Beasley, the fifth for Hill (whose previously four games had been at left half), the 11th for Hulme, the fourth for Sidey, the fifth for Moss and the first for Dougall.  Only four of the players who played in the opening game of the season were included: Hapgood, Roberts, Drake, James and Bastin were all absent.

To understand what was going on (apart from Compton going in goal) we also have to note that England had played Wales on 5 February in Wolverhampton (Wales winning 2-1) with Bowden scoring England’s goal.  (George Allison did the radio commentary).

Although this game is by no means as famous as the Battle of Highbury in which seven Arsenal players took part, it did have six Arsenal players in the team: Male, Hapgood, Crayston, Bowden, Drake and Bastin.  But Ted Drake injured his knee in the first half and didn’t come out for the second half – something that totally affected the result.

This in turn explained Drake’s absence from the Blackburn game, but not that of Hapgood and Bastin – who were it seems “rested”.   Now “resting” was not part of the essence of football in an era when playing games on consecutive days and three games in four days (over Christmas and Easter) was commonplace.  But I believe that Allison felt that this was essential ahead to ensure that he had a full-ish squad for the next round of the cup.  Certainly it is hard to see any other explanation for his choice of players for the league matches in February.  And indeed we must remember the experience of the club in 1932 when they became runners’ up in both the league and the FA Cup.

Certainly for the Blackburn match Allison’s selection was right, with Arsenal winning 1-0 away to Blackburn, Crayston getting the goal.

Next it was time for the fifth round of the cup, against a Newcastle side that had no wins in the last five outings in the league, while conceding 13 goals.  They were currently 11th in the league and their home record was very solid with eight wins, four draws and three defeats.  In those eight wins they had amassed 42 goals – almost three a game, which was a good enough reason for giving Hapgood a break after the England match in preparation for this game.

The game was played in front of over 65,000 people, and Arsenal appeared to be on track for a victory, being 2-1 up at half time.  But Newcastle struck back in the second half and the game ended 3-3 with Bowden (who took over centre forward duties from the still recovering Drake) getting two and Hulme the third.  Alex James returned and made an inside forward pairing with Bastin, while Beasley took up his regular role of playing outside left when Bastin was utilised as an inside forward.

What was only just becoming clear however was that Ted Drake’s season was almost over as he only made two more league appearances in the season.  But the “not quite” comment had a deeper meaning than that – as we shall see when we get to April.

Elsewhere on 15 February in the FA Cup Tottenham drew away with Bradford PA, winning the replay at White Hart Lane 2-1 on the following Monday.

However as normal, before the replay of the Arsenal-Newcastle game which took place on Wednesday 19 February, Arsenal already knew that they had another Division 2 team to play in the quarter finals: Barnsley.

Indeed, the success of the second division sides had continued through the fifth round with half the teams in the draw for the quarter finals coming from the second tier.

The draw pitched two of the surviving first division teams (Grimsby and Middlesbrough) against each other while in an all second division game Sheffield Utd were drawn to play Tottenham.  Fulham of the second were at home to first division Derby, while Arsenal’s pairing was the last out of the bag.

For the replay Arsenal put out a more recognisable team with the keeper, full backs and half backs all being those who were selected for the opening game of the season.   James and Bastin continued as the inside forwards, Beasley and Hulme took the wings and Bowden played at centre forward.  Bastin scored from two penalties and Beasley got the third in a comfortable 3-0 win.  62,391 came to Highbury for a match which kicked off at 2.15pm on the Wednesday afternoon.  It was half day closing for the shops in the area, but even so it is likely that a fair number of people took a half day off work.

Arsenal went a goal up in the first half from a penalty by Bastin after the Newcastle centre half David Davidson handled the ball in the penalty area.  Hapgood cleared off the line and Newcastle looked like equalising until their keeper Tapken  cleared the ball directly to Beasley who simply shot directly into the empty net.  It was already looking like Arsenal would go through when Bastin was brought down in the area, and inevitably got up, placed the ball on the spot, and scored.  

With the final league match of the month, Allison’s tactic of selections became clear, for while in the FA Cup he continued to put out the obvious first choice team, for this league match Male, Crayston, Roberts, James and Bastin were all left out.  Dunne played his second game of the season at centre forward and Sidney Cartwright for his first game for Arsenal, playing at right half.

Cartwright’s progression to the first team had taken a while – for he had signed for the club back in 1931 from High Moor FC in Sheffield.  He stayed with the club until 1946, but obviously most of his career was taken from him by the war, and he only made 16 league appearances and scored two goals.

Portsmouth had won just two games in their last six and were lying 8th in the table, but they were too strong for Arsenal, whose collective minds were elsewhere.  Portsmouth won 2-3.  Compton and Dougall got the goals.

The month ended with a match on 29 February, as Arsenal hosted Barnsley of division 2, who were currently in 19th place in the league having won just three away games all season scoring 12 goals in 16 away games.  Worse for them, they had won just one of their last five games.

Arsenal’s team was identical to the one that beat Newcastle, showing exactly how Allison had arranged his team selection priorities, and the ploy worked.  In front of 60,420 Arsenal progressed to the semi-finals for the first time since 1932, with two goals from Beasley and one each from Bowden and Bastin (a penalty) in a 4-1 win.  

The press reports have Arsenal outplaying Barnsley from the off the first goal coming in the fourth minute from Beasley in an attacking move. Bowden scored the second goal, and the third came from a penalty scored by Bastin. The final Arsenal goal was Beasley’s second, with Barnsley’s consolation goal coming a couple of minutes from the end of the match.

Grimsby beat Middlesbrough, Sheffield Utd beat Tottenham, Fulham beat Derby: it was a straight run of home wins.

As a footnote to the month we might also note the crowds at Highbury.  The two FA Cup games got over 60,000 attending, including the mid-week afternoon replay.  The league game against Portsmouth on a Saturday however brought in just 21,728 in a season when the average league crowd was almost double that.   Clearly the more casual members of the support knew of Allison’s selection tactics and responded accordingly.

Here is the usual table of results for the month.

Date Opposition Op Pos H/A Res Pos Pts Crowd AC*
01.02.1936 Stoke City  5 home W1-0 4 29 49,347 41,960
08.02.1936 Blackburn Rovers  22 away W1-0 4 31 24,998 15,498
15.02.1936 Newcastle (FA5)  11(D2) away D3-3 65,484 19,483
19.02.1936 Newcastle (FA5r)  11(D2) home W3-0 62,391 41,960
22.02.1936 Portsmouth  8 home L2-3 5 31 21,728 21,728
29.02.1936 Barnsley (FA6)  19 (D2) home W4-1 60,420 60,420

*Crowd averages are based only on league games and for FA Cup games are given just by way of comparison.

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 in league matches 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.

Here’s the league table for the end of February 1936.  Arsenal slipping to 7th might look rather concerning, coming so soon after three championships in a row, but with the team selections taken into account we can now see why.

The league championship had become a procession.  Sunderland had 11 games to play and were eight points clear.  Arsenal had four games in hand because of their cup run, but with Allison’s policy of resting players, a charge up the table looked unlikely.

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