Arsenal in October 1937: Allison decides it is time for a total change.

By Tony Attwood

By the end of September Arsenal had raised the hopes of all their fans that another title winning season could be on the cards, but then after a perfect start had faded away and ended the month in 7th position.  But they were only three points behind the leaders – Charlton – who were once again showing that their rapid rise from the lower reaches of the league should not mean that they were not to be taken seriously.

It was also curious and most certainly unusual to notice that at this moment there were three London club ahead of Arsenal (Charlton, Chelsea and Brentford).  Put another way, Arsenal were now the lowest placed London club in the first division.  (Tottenham of course were having one of their periods in the second division).

For the first game of the month Arsenal were playing a side that as the table above shows had just gained one point away from home in the first four games, while having a perfect home record.

Leslie Compton came in for his second game of the season in place of the injured Male, while Kirchin came in at outside right, but it was revealed Drake too had been injured and Hunt took over the centre forward shirt.  Milne and Kirchen got the goals as Arsenal maintained their home record with a 2-1 victory that took the club up from 7th to 5th.

Elsewhere Bolton revealed that they were continuing to be a new force to be reckoned with, with a 6-1 win over Leicester.  There was also a little amusement in north London when the score came in showing that Tottenham had lost to the mighty Stockport County.

One week later there was the first London derby – away to Chelsea who had been having a particularly good season (for them).  Since returning to the first division Chelsea had only once finished above tenth position, but this season they had just won five out of the last six.  They were second before the game, and another side with a perfect home record.

Played before the highest crowd of the season, Arsenal changed keepers again, bringing in Boulton, with Bowden replacing Davidson.   A 2-2 draw with all the goals in the second half was a good result for Arsenal, although it saw the club slip down to sixth.  Milne and Kirchin got the goals, but elsewhere this time it was Charlton who emphasised their credentials, beating Portsmouth 5-1.

That defeat of Portsmouth was of interest to Arsenal who on 16th October had Portsmouth at home – and for once Allison kept the same team two games running. Hunt got the goal.

The 1-1 draw was a huge disappointment, although with Bolton losing 1-4 at home to Preston and Charlton losing 5-2 to Brentford, the feeling was growing that this was going to be a most topsy-turvy season.  But even so, Portsmouth were bottom of the league at the start of the match, and without a single win to date: it should have been an easy win, and not a draw.

There was a moment of slight relief however as the news came through that Tottenham had just lost their third match in a row and slipped to 13th in the second division.

Also on this day – 16 October – there was another footballing story, as Jimmy McGrory played his last match for Celtic.  Not something that would normally make the news south of the border, except for the fact that in playing this game he achieved a UK wide record of 550 goals scored during his senior career (395 in the league for Celtic plus another 13 league goals in the following season for Clydebank).

On 23 October Arsenal played Stoke away.  Stoke were 10th, with four home wins and a draw to their name having scored a league high of 19 goals in those five home games.  With Crayston injured Bastin dropped back into the right half position, as he on occasion had done before, and Davidson took over at inside left.

Perhaps the 1-1 draw was a reasonable result against such a team, but it was the third draw in a row, and although Arsenal were still sixth, their position was getting precarious.   Elsewhere eyebrows were raised when the result came in that the champions Man City had suffered another heavy defeat – this time 0-4 to Middlesbrough, thus taking them down to 13th.

There was an extra significance here for Arsenal as their final match of the month was a home league game against City’s latest tormentors – Middlesbrough.   Their win over Man City had only been their second win in five and they were 12th in the league.  Arsenal boasted four wins and a draw at home, Middlesborough had just one win and one draw away from home.  And yet the Boro won 1-2 although much can be put down to the fact that Roberts had to be taken off part way through the match (more on this below).

This game in itself was a match of considerable significance for Arsenal – although this did not become clear straight away – and I’ll take up the story in detail in the next episode.

But it was a result that meant Arsenal had won only two of the last ten league games, despite winning the first three scoring 12 conceding two.  As a result of the run, this game marked the moment that Allison decided to make significant changes – changes that had a profound impact on the way that we now look back on his reign as Arsenal manager.

Here is the team for the last game of the month.


L Compton Roberts Hapgood

Crayston Copping

Hulme Bastin Bowden Davidson Milne

Milne got the goal.

There were to be five changes for the next game.  But perhaps of greater significance in the overall history of the club was the fact that for three players this match was the complete end of their Arsenal first team career.

First this was Ray Bowden’s final appearance.   He was sold to Second Division Newcastle United on 5 November for £5,000. In all he played 138 matches for Arsenal, scoring 48 goals.  Later playing for Newcastle he scored a hat-trick against Swansea on the day before England declared war on Germany in 1939 – the day football ended.

Second this was Bobby Davidson’s last appearance.   The high point of his career at Arsenal was four goals in the 5-1 victory over Portsmouth in December 1936.    He was transferred to Coventry City on 4 November.  He had played 57 games and scored 13 goals since signing from St Johnstone on 1 February 1935.

Finally this was the great Herbie Roberts’ last appearance, in a game in which he broke his leg.  In all he made 335 starts for Arsenal including 297 in the league, and scored four league goals with one more in the FA Cup.  But above all he is remembered as the centre half at the heart of Chapman’s revised WM system in 1925.  He was one of the great, almighty servants of the club, a man whose name should always be remembered and revered whenever Arsenal is mentioned.

Elsewhere on this last game of October, four teams scored five goals, Bolton and Chelsea drew 5-5, Derby beat WBA 5-3 and Everton lost at home to Preston by the same score.

Here is the month’s summary table.

 Date Opposition Op pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
02.10.1937 Manchester City 10 home W2-1 5 11  68353 44,045
09.10.1937 Chelsea 2 away D2-2 6 12  75952  33,975
16.10.1937 Portsmouth 22 home D1-1 6 13  45150 44,045
23.10.1937 Stoke City 10 away D1-1 6 14  35684  24,970
30.10.1937 Middlesbrough 12 home L1-2 9 14  39066 44,045

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.

And here is the regular league table showing the extensive home/away bias that was now encompassing all clubs.

If there was to be any hope for Arsenal it was that they were only four points off the top, and all the changes that were now to be made came in part came because first Arsenal had such a strong reserve team from which to pick their substitute players and second because Arsenal had a lot of money in the bank, because of the high crowds they always attracted both at home and away.   Plus, if one was looking for positives, only two of the eight teams above them had a better goal average.  And of course, they were the Arsenal.

But the fact was Arsenal had played eight games with Drake in the team before he got injured once again.  Arsenal had scored 18 goals in those eight games of which eight had been scored by Drake.

Since then Arsenal had played five games and scored seven goals.  They had won one, drawn three and lost one – mid-table form.   The goals had been scored by Milne 2, Kirchen 3, Hunt, and Davidson.  Kirchen could score, but he was an outside right, not a centre forward.  Change was most certainly needed – and it came with a bang.

Arsenal History on Kindle

The novel “Making the Arsenal” by Tony Attwood which describes the events of 1910, which created the modern Arsenal FC, is now available for the first time on Kindle.  Full details are here.

Also available: Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football (Kindle Edition)   For full details please see here.

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