Exclusive: One of the most iconic tales about Chapman at Arsenal may not be quite what it seems

The Strange Case Of The Charlie Buchan Transfer

By Graham Lister

How much did Arsenal really pay Sunderland for Charlie Buchan?

Until now, everyone has given the same answer, but is it possible that his much heralded return to London, and Arsenal,  from Wearside in 1925 been consistently misreported over the intervening nine decades?

It seems it may well have been. But before considering the facts, it’s helpful to put this famous transfer into its historical context.

Here in 2017, when merely average players swap clubs for several  million pounds and the better ones flit between clubs and leagues commanding stratospheric transfer fees with wages to match, we’ve become inured to the frequency and excess of big-money player deals.

So today’s younger fans might  be surprised that Arsenal’s signing of Buchan 92 years ago had a seismic impact on the footballing landscape of the 1920s. Even now  it’s  hard to exaggerate the significance of  that particular transfer. It was sensational in so many ways.

For one thing, Buchan was just about the biggest name in the game at the time, and its most accomplished inside-forward. Although approaching his 34th birthday, he was a genuine superstar of his era. Capped by England in 1913, he became a League champion and FA Cup finalist with Sunderland the same year.

His career, like many others, was interrupted by the First World War – during which he fought at the Somme and Passchendaele, and was awarded the Military Medal – but he resumed it after the conflict and continued scheming and scoring  prolifically on the pitch. Indeed, he still holds Sunderland’s record for most League goals in total aggregate with 209 in 380  appearances.

So nobody in 1925 expected Sunderland to sell their star player. And it was inconceivable that lowly Arsenal would have the temerity even to bid for him. After all, the club had never won a major honour and had finished 20th in the First Division just two months earlier, avoiding relegation by a single place.

Furthermore, as a teenage amateur in 1910, Plumstead-born and Woolwich-educated Charlie had walked out on Woolwich Arsenal on a point of principle. He’d been unimpressed when manager George Morrell flatly refused to reimburse him the 11 shillings (55p) expenses he’d incurred in travelling to four reserve-team matches.

The incident marked the strong-willed Buchan as a rebel. But as subsequent brushes with the Football Association – who expected mere players to know their place in Edwardian society – would  show, Charlie simply had a clear understanding of his own worth, and no intention of being treated like a serf. His talent ensured that at Sunderland – who’d bought him from Leyton for £1,000 – the fans came to treat him with respect bordering on reverence.

On the face of it then, the manner of his departure from the club 15 years earlier, together with his towering status in the game, made a return to Arsenal seem distinctly unlikely.

But things were changing at Highbury. Chairman Lt Col Sir Henry Norris had bought the club in 1910 , planned and implemented its move to North London in 1913 and invested a great deal of his own money in the venture. And in the summer of 1925 he hired Herbert Chapman as manager.

Chapman was the hottest managerial property around, having just transformed Huddersfield Town into champions and the country’s leading club. Although they would later fall out with one another, Chapman and Norris were visionaries with a keen understanding of the value of publicity.

There is little doubt that Norris had specifically targeted Chapman for the job. So the advertisement he placed in the Athletic News was perhaps a little superfluous. The fact that the advert warned those inclined to spend ‘exorbitant transfer fees’ for players not to apply meant it was also somewhat disingenuous, though it made good newspaper copy. For Chapman understood, and assured  Norris, that making Arsenal great would involve entering the transfer market and buying the best.

Buchan, a brilliant footballer and natural leader, was firmly in that category. He became Chapman’s prime target.

The new Arsenal manager travelled to Sunderland, entered Buchan’s sports equipment shop and told the forward he would not be leaving until Charlie had signed for Arsenal. Chapman got his man, but negotiations dragged on for weeks before Buchan finally signed. At issue were the transfer fee – which was made public amid great fanfare – and  the altogether more private matter of compensating Buchan for the loss of his retail business and the need to buy an expensive residence in London.

Details of the latter were unsurprisingly suppressed as “sweeteners” or financial inducements for players to swap clubs were ubiquitous but illegal. And the FA was draconian in its disapproval of ‘under-the-counter’ payments to players.

Indeed in 1927 a spotlight was shone on this aspect of the Buchan transfer by the Daily Mail, who alleged that Buchan had received illegal ‘bribes’  to persuade him to move south.  However by then Sir Henry and his long term ally and friend William Hall had fallen out over the wholly different matter.  Hall had resigned from Arsenal, Sir Henry starting issue writs (as was his wont).

Meanwhile Sir Henry claimed Chapman  knew about the covert payments to Buchan, and indeed had urged Sir Henry to do whatever was necessary to clinch the transfer. Chapman, though, distanced himself from any wrong-doing, denying all knowledge of, or involvement, in ‘sweeteners’.   Elsewhere the Football League, concerned that Sir Henry was once again at war with his former club Fulham (with whom Sir Henry had had a major falling out in 1919 over the London Combination Victory Cup) told Sir Henry that his position as a club director was untenable.  He too resigned and the argument over Buchan subsided.

But what about the transfer fee? Sunderland wanted £4,000 for Buchan. Norris was unwilling to pay that much. So a novel, headline-grabbing deal was agreed whereby Arsenal would pay Sunderland £2,000 immediately, then an additional £100 for every goal Charlie scored during his first season with the Gunners.

For a club intent on raising its profile, the structure of the transfer fee was pure gold in public relations terms. Headline writers in the national press were poised with a ready-made splash every time Buchan scored. And from the terraces fans would roar ‘Here goes another £100’ every time Charlie threatened the opposition goal.

It has passed into football folklore that Arsenal finished up paying Sunderland £4,100 – giving his critics the ammunition to snipe that the deal backfired somewhat on Sir Henry, who could have bought the player for £100 less.

Even today, reputable sources maintain that Sunderland got their asking price plus £100 ‘interest’. Most of these sources claim that Buchan scored 21 goals in that 1925-26 season – 19 in the League and two in the FA Cup. However, Arsenal’s playing record for 1925-26  clearly shows that Buchan scored 19 League goals plus just one in the FA Cup (see below). That made a total of 20 goals, which equates to exactly £2,000 – meaning that Arsenal paid no more nor less than the fee originally demanded by Sunderland.

But why did Norris himself  make no attempt to correct the misreporting of the fee?

It is tempting to think that  he assessed the publicity value of the ‘£100 interest’ angle and concluded that on balance it was positive in terms of keeping Arsenal in the public eye. He may even have  originated the story himself for precisely that reason. It is tempting too to suppose that Chapman, a shrewd publicist himself, also felt the ‘overpayment’ story had more legs. After all, the higher the figure said to have been paid to Sunderland, the more it would vindicate his judgement in the transfer market and his eye for the enduring talent and goalscoring prowess of a player in his mid-thirties.

Muddying the waters a little further is Bernard Joy’s comment in his 1952 book Forward, Arsenal! that Buchan’s scoring exploits cost Arsenal an additional £1,900 – suggesting that it was only League goals that attracted the bounty.

But the £2,100 version is the one that gained traction and persists to this day. Intriguingly, Sunderland do not appear to have confirmed or contradicted the reports, or stated for the record how much they received  from Arsenal for Charles Murray Buchan, MM.

What is beyond dispute, however, is that Buchan made a huge impact at Highbury. He was a highly intelligent footballer who gave Chapman’s early Arsenal side its leadership, finesse and tactical nous.  With Buchan’s support, Chapman and he developed and modified the ‘WM’ formation that – once the right players to exploit it were identified and recruited – providing the blueprint for the counter-attacking style with which Arsenal swept all before them in the following decade. In the meantime, Buchan led the Gunners to their highest-ever placing – runners-up – in both the League (1925-26) and FA Cup (1927).

At the end of the 1927-28 season, four months short of his 37th birthday, Charlie retired to concentrate on his burgeoning career in journalism. His final game was at Goodison Park in the 3-3 draw with newly-crowned champions Everton that saw Dixie Dean score his record-breaking 60th League goal of the campaign.

Buchan was not quite that prolific, but in his three seasons at Arsenal he scored 20, 19 and 17 goals, respectively, for a total of 56 in 120 appearances. Two years later the club won their first major trophy, the FA Cup. Buchan had played a prominent role in putting Arsenal on the road towards that and subsequent honours. He’d cost £4,000 but his overall contribution and influence was, arguably, priceless.

Buchan’s Goals for Arsenal in 1925-26

Date Goals Opposition Venue Competition Result
Sep 12 1 Liverpool H League D 1-1
Sep 21 2 West Ham United H League W 3-2
Sep 26 1 Leeds Utd H League W 4-1
Oct 5 2 West Ham United A League W 4-0
Oct 10 1 Bolton Wanderers H League L 2-3
Nov 7 1 Manchester City A League W 5-2
Nov 14 2 Bury H League W 6-1
Nov 21 1 Blackburn Rovers A League W 3-2
Nov 28 1 Sunderland H League W 2-0
Dec 5 1 Huddersfield Town A League D 2-2
Dec 25 1 Notts County H League W 3-0
Jan 16 1 Manchester Utd H League W 3-2
Feb 3 1 Burnley H League L 1-2
Feb 13 1 Newcastle Utd H League W 3-0
Feb 20 1 Aston Villa A FA Cup 5 D 1-1
Mar 17 1 Sheffield Utd H League W 4-0
April 3 1 Blackburn Rovers H League W 4-2

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Graham Lister

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