January 1937: Arsenal unbeaten as the goalkeepers change (again).

This article is part of a series covering Arsenal throughout the 1930s from the first FA Cup and League triumphs to the outbreak of war.  A list of all the articles appears at the end of this episode.

By Tony Attwood

At the end of 1936 the top of the first division table was indeed congested, and nothing as yet was certain.  Sunderland were the reigning champions, Brentford had won the 2nd Division in 1935 and Charlton had won promotion in 1936 by coming runners’ up in the 2nd Division while Derby had been runners’ up in the top tier that season.  And all of them were vying with Arsenal for dominance in the league.

Thus there was a significant amount of jostling for position among teams with recent successes, but there is no doubt that Arsenal was the team of the decade with four league titles and two FA Cups in the 1930s thus far.

As the new year began the league table looked like this…

On New Years Day Bolton approached their match against Arsenal not in the best of spirits, having just lost twice to bottom club Man U over the Xmas period, 0-1 away and 0-4 at home.  Worse for them in approaching Arsenal was the fact that their home form was decidedly mediocre having won just three games, scoring 13 goals at home in their 12 games.  In fact the game on Christmas Day was the start of a 14 match run without a win which took them quickly down to 21st place where they remained until mid-March. Indeed they would have been bottom had Manchester United not managed some equally poor form during the period.


Except that on this day, quite extraordinarily, Man U beat Sunderland 2-1!

Arsenal had been forced to field a very changed side for the Preston game at the end of the old year, and further changes were now required.  Male came back but Hapgood was out.   Roberts was still missing at centre half, Davidson was not available, and both first and second choice keepers were now by-passed meaning that Boulton continued in goal.

Elsewhere Bernard Joy was dropped as deputy centre half and Sidey therefore came in and made just his third appearance of the season.  Leslie Compton continued to oblige at full back, once more swapping sides this time from right to left back to cover for the injuries.

And as a result of all these changes… Arsenal won 5-0 with Drake getting four and Milne the other.

The next game, against Huddersfield the very next day (January 2), was one in which we might have expected Arsenal, a team used to using the whole squad in Allison’s earlier seasons, to shuffle the pack.  But this was not how it turned out – exactly the same XI played as had played the day before.

Huddersfield had not won a single away game, but they had managed five draws and were on a fairly decent run having won three of the last four games.  They also had the benefit of not having played since 28 December, unlike Arsenal who could hardly have had time to get off the train and have a nap before coming back to the ground.   As a result the 1-1 draw was acceptable.  Kirchen got Arsenal’s goal.

Of the chasing pack only Charlton won. Sunderland lost while Brentford drew and as the holiday period finally came to an end the table still had Arsenal at the top – but perhaps just as importantly with a goal average that was now streaking ahead of the nearby teams…

The game scheduled for January 9 had looked for a few weeks as if it might be a clash between the top two, but Sunderland’s recent run of form had been similar to Arsenal’s in the earlier part of the season with just four wins in the last nine.  Worse for them the last two results had been defeats to bottom of the table Man U (as noted above) and Preston.

As such some expected Arsenal to win at Sunderland, but the club still had a perfect home record of 11 straight wins.   Roberts returned, and Nelson got a second game, as Arsenal continued to use their third choice keeper.

What happened this season with the Arsenal goalkeepers is sometimes called “rotation” but this is not the case.  Herbert Chapman had often been one to change his keepers, dropping Bill Harper in 1927 only to sign him again in 1930, after he had dropped Keyser who had played in goal for the first 12 games of the 1930/1 season, being only once on the losing side.  (There’s a lot of dropping in that last sentence, and this is deliberate.  Removing one keeper and replacing with another was what both Chapman and Allison did.   The use of three keepers in a season was normal – sometimes it was even four.  Wilson had been replaced by Swindin, and now Swindin was replaced by Boulton.  It happened.  The keepers had to get used to it).

Thus there was no rotation, these keepers were dropped, sometimes to be brought back later in the case of injury or perceived loss of form by another member of the squad, sometimes never to be seen again.  It is was something both Chapman and Allison did.

So although a draw was not all Arsenal wanted, there was still the consolation of being the first club of the season to take a point at Roker Park.  And besides results elsewhere were still going in Arsenal’s favour leaving them first, at least for another couple of weeks.  Charlton were the only winners of the top four thus moving them to within a point of Arsenal.

Arsenal thus were still the form team of the day with four wins and two draws in the last six. Charlton had four wins, a draw and a defeat, Brentford three wins, two draws and a defeat, and Sunderland were fading fast with three wins and three defeats.

But now, just as things were really coming to the boil,  everything was put on hold as the FA Cup 3rd round took over, Arsenal being away to second division Chesterfield (promoted the previous season from Division III North).  They were currently 13th in their league, but despite their modest position they had won four of the last six, their last match resulting in a 4-1 home win against Fulham.

For Arsenal however there were no nasty surprises and they ran out easy winners 5-1, Drake (2), Kirchen (2) and Davidson getting the goals.

The draw for the next round gave Arsenal a home game against relegation threatened Manchester United at the end of the month – something that in Arsenal’s current form looked eminently winnable.

But before that there was another home game – against Wolverhampton who were in 13th position.  Their away record thus far did not look too frightening: two wins, three draws, seven defeats.  True they had won six of their last seven league games and had handsomely beaten high flying Middlesbrough 6-1 at Molineux in the 3rd round of the cup, but even so…

The same team as beat Sunderland turned out – including Bastin now playing at inside right, and there was a straightforward 3-0 win, Bastin getting a penalty to open the scoring, followed by goals from Drake and Bowden.  Brentford and Sunderland played out a 3-3 draw while Charlton won away at Birmingham.

And so Arsenal went onto the fourth round of the cup against Man U: top against bottom.   A mini United revival of three wins in four over Christmas had faded and Man U had suffered two draws and two defeats in the subsequent league games.  They were now with one win and 12 defeats away from home.

The 5-0 win to Arsenal was just about the easiest result of the day to predict.  The team once more remained the same, as Bastin, Davidson, Drake, Kitchen and an supplementary own goal saw Arsenal through to the fifth round for the third year running.

Elsewhere Charlton, having been knocked out in the third round, played out a 2-2 draw with Middlesbrough and courtesy of the extra game went top.

Here’s the regular table.  *Chesterfield’s league position refers of course to the second division.  Their crowd average and that of Man U refers to league matches only.

Date Opposition Op pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
01.01.1937 Bolton Wanderers  15 away W5-0 1 30  42,171 22,518
02.01.1937 Huddersfield Town  7 home D1-1 1 31 44,224 43,353
09.01.1937 Sunderland  4 away D1-1 1 32 54,694 28,670
16.01.1937 Chesterfield FAC3 13* away W5-1 21,786 13,139
23.01.1937 Wolverhampton 13 home W3-0 1 34 33,896 43,353
30.01.1937 Man  Utd FAC4  22 home W5-0 2 45,637 32,332

The abbreviations, as always…

  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game.  Chesterfield’s position is obviously in relation to Division 2.
  • 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 table for the end of January 1937.

Arsenal in the 30s

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