Arsenal in February 1938: a true resurgence takes us top of the league.

This article is part of a series that traces Arsenal’s history through the 1930s.  A full index of the articles is given at the end of this piece.

by Tony Attwood

Arsenal ended January 1938 in the 5th round of the FA Cup but were now six points behind the league leaders with two games in hand.   Worse, they were also four points behind the second placed side – Wolverhampton and Wolverhampton themselves had a game in hand over Arsenal.  The only comforting news in all this was that Arsenal had just beaten Wolverhampton in the Cup.  Unfortunately they had lost to the same team in the league.

The top of the league table below shows the home and away split.   I have often commented on how Chapman’s counter attacking style both at Huddersfield and Arsenal had led to a balancing of home and away results.   Only Brentford could be seen to be looking to emulate that; Wolverhampton slightly so.  All the others were playing a style that involved putting out defence minded teams away from home.  The lineups might not change much but the style of play did – exactly the opposite of what Chapman preached.

The teams in form were Wolverhampton (five wins and a draw in the last six) and Charlton (four wins and two draws).  Arsenal’s last six games (two wins one draw and three defeats) was not an encouraging sign for the future.  Nor was the lack of consistent goal scoring form from Ted Drake.

Here’s the home/away table.

Arsenal began with a home league game against Leicester who were 18th and with only two away wins all season.  Drake returned and Kirchen was replaced by the Welsh international Mal Griffiths recently signed from Leicester.  It should have been an easy game – but that was what had been said all season about games like this, and it wasn’t always true.  Leicester had only won one game in their last four and even the resurgent champions Manchester City had just beaten them 4-1.

However this time it was fine, Arsenal did in fact win 3-1, with goals from Drake, Jones and Bastin, and the win took the club up to third, but this was one of their catch up matches, and with none of the other leading clubs playing the leap in position was slightly misleading.

Arsenal now had a second home game and a further chance to establish their position at the top while waiting for other clubs around them to slip up.   This time it was against 9th placed Derby who had managed three wins and four draws away from home thus far.

The only change was to give Lewis his third game for Arsenal, replacing Drake of course, and he duly got another goal.  The other two Arsenal goals came from a most unlikely source: Jack Crayston.  Talk about letting the defensive midfielders advance up the pitch when playing at home.

Derby had just beaten Stoke 4-1, but prior to that had lost 1-7 to Manchester City – I mentioned just now they were resurgent.  Arsenal’s 3-0 victory didn’t take them up the table, and although Wolverhampton won, Brentford only drew.  Charlton also lost, which further helped secure Arsenal’s position.

Next up we had Preston in the Cup – the third successive home game and the highest home crowd of the season.  Indeed 12 February 1938 is in the record books as only the fourth 70,000+ crowd to see Arsenal at Highbury.  A Kirchen, recovered from his injury, came back in to replace Griffiths and Drake took over once again from Lewis.  Preston were sitting in fourth, and had beaten West Ham and Leicester in the previous rounds of the Cup, and their last six league games had resulted in four draws and two wins.   And they won at Highbury to put Arsenal out of the cup for another year.  Thereafter they beat Brentford, Villa and Huddersfield to win the cup for the first time since their unbeaten season of 1889.

There were also five league games on the Cup day and as a result of their victory by 1-0 over WBA Leeds moved one point above Arsenal.

And then we had the enigmatic Manchester City away.  Man City had won the league for the first time in the previous season, but this season had often looked as if they were still celebrating.  Having had a run over Christmas and the New Year of four consecutive defeats which had taken them down to 20th, they were still in the Cup, although struggling to beat lower league opposition, but three league wins and a draw before the Arsenal game had taken them back up to 12th.  These results included a 4-1 and then the 7-1 win away to Leicester and Derby respectively.

Carr replaced Hunt and Dennis Compton replaced Bastin; Drake and Compton duly got the goals in a 2-1 away win.

It proved to be a bad moment for City, for this was the start of a run of six defeats and two draws in the next eight, which took them down to 21st – a relegation position.   Was it possible, people were asking, just as they asked nearly 80 years later, for the champions to go down in the following season?

This game on a Wednesday was one of the catch up days for teams that were still in the FA Cup or trying to play games postponed by fog (mostly in London) or waterlogged pitches (most places).  Attention particularly focussed on Wolverhampton and Brentford , and to everyone’s surprise the result came in Wolverhampton 1 Huddersfield Town 4.  Given that Huddersfield were currently 18th in the league it was a shock and a half.   As if that were not enough of a present for Arsenal, Brentford lost away to Sunderland 1-0.

And thus in an afternoon, Arsenal’s hopes were transformed.  Arsenal were now second, one point behind Brentford with one game in hand.  True they were only above Wolverhampton on goal average and Wolves had two games in hand over Arsenal, but the afternoon’s results had shown that this was one of the most upside down seasons in recent history, and so hope sprung to the hearts of all Arsenal fans.

The following Saturday Arsenal had their fourth home match of the month – against Chelsea.   Griffiths returned replacing Kirchin and Bastin came back on the wing.

Having reached the top of the league in late October following a home win over Brentford, Chelsea, who had never won the league, had just got two wins in 15.   One of these was their game before playing Arsenal, a 3-1 home win over struggling Portsmouth, which had raised them to 11th, but their record gave Arsenal hope.

And that hope was rewarded as Arsenal won 2-0, Drake and Griffiths getting the goals as Arsenal made it four straight league wins in a row.  As a result Arsenal climbed back to the top of the league for the first time since 4 September.  Elsewhere Brentford lost 2-3 at home to Derby, but Wolverhampton won 0-1 at Everton.   Leeds who still harboured hopes of a league title, slipped back with a 3-2 defeat at Birmingham.

The final game of the month was away to Portsmouth who in 21st place were in one of the two relegation spots.  For a club this low in the table it is interesting to note that they had only lost two in the last 12, their position reflecting a truly awful start to the season, and too many draws to help them pull away.   But they had just beaten Charlton at home.

For Arsenal Hunt replaced Carr but otherwise the team was the same as before.

The 0-0 draw was disappointing for those wanting a perfect month, especially as Wolverhampton won at Liverpool to go top for the first time in the season.  Brentford lost 1-0 to Charlton, Leeds drew 4-4 with Everton and Preston slipped further off the pace with a draw with Bolton.  It wasn’t the perfect end to the month, as Arsenal slipped to second, but it was not bad.

Date Opposition Op pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
02.02.1938 Leicester City  18 home W3-1 3 30  23839 44,045
05.02.1938 Derby County  9 home W3-0 3 32 47263 44,045
12.02.1938 Preston FAC5  4 home L0-1 4  72,121 44,045
16.02.1938 Manchester City  12 away W2-1 2 34 34299  32670
19.02.1938 Chelsea  11 home W2-0 1 36 49573 44,045
26.02.1938 Portsmouth  21 away D0-0 2 37 43991  22827

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.  *reminds us that the average crowds are only based on league games and for cup games are just provided by way of comparison.

Arsenal and Wolverhampton had now become the form teams with four wins and two draws for Arsenal, five wins and one defeat for Wolverhampton in the last six.   Brentford were slipping fast with only one win in the last six while Leeds had two wins three draws and a defeat.

Wolverhampton were clearly the favourites however, one point ahead and with two games in hand.

As the month ended everyone looked forward keenly to the next month’s fixtures for the two clubs.  Wolverhampton had Leeds and Charlton from the top group, plus Grimsby, Stoke and Middlesbrough, and the thoughts were that these were all winnable.  Not least because of the last eight league games, Wolverhampton had won seven and lost just one.  At the very least three wins were expected.

As for Arsenal they had Stoke, Middlesbrough, Grimsby and West Brom, meaning that although Arsenal’s fixture list looked easier, Wolverhampton were going to make up one of their games in hand and could go even further ahead.

Wolverhampton had never won the first division, gaining promotion to it by winning the Third Division (North) in 1924 and division Two in 1932.   Since then they had come 20th, 15th, 17th, 15th and 5th.  Their best ever performance was third in 1898, before they slipped down the leagues.   It certainly looked like this could be their season.

Recent News

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.

For an index of the various series on this site please see the home page.

Arsenal in the 30s

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics

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