August/September 1938/39. The start of the end.


By Tony Attwood

Arsenal entered the 1938/39 season as Champions, having won the league for the fifth time in eight years.  In the seasons they did not win the trophy they had come second, third, and sixth.  Additionally they had won the FA Cup twice during the 1930s.

Rather amazingly the trophy haul for the two long term managers of the era was now equal: two league titles and an FA Cup for Chapman and for Allison.  The extra title was won by Joe Shaw who took over after Chapman’s sudden death.

Arsenal were not (as is sometimes claimed) the club with the most league titles (Sunderland and Villa had both won the league six times by this date) but three of Sunderland’s triumphs and four of Aston Villa’s had come in the 19th century when competition was, to say the least, somewhat less strenuous – and within much smaller leagues.  Certainly, in the era after the first world war Arsenal’s achievements were unmatched.  While Arsenal were winning five titles, their nearest challenger after 1918 was Huddersfield with three titles, and Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool with two each.

In the first division, Aston Villa and Manchester United now returned after two and one years in the second division respectively.  Such returns (which were common) showed that the difference between the top two divisions were just as great as they are in the modern era.  Although occasionally teams from the second division could flourish briefly after promotion, as Tottenham did for one season, they then often rapidly returned from whence they had come.

On 4 August 1938 George Allison had broken the UK transfer record signing Bryn Jones from Wolverhampton for £14,000.  So outrageous was the fee perceived as being (and what with this being Arsenal) questions were asked in Parliament.  Indeed it was the second time running that Arsenal had broken the record, for the previous transfer record was David’s Jack’s transfer from Bolton to Arsenal in October 1928 for £14,500.  Because of the 2nd world war, the Bryn Jones record remained for far longer than most – it was not broken again until September 1947 when Billy Steel went from Morton to Derby.

Thus Herbert Chapman had made the purchase of players for high fees part of his approach in turning Arsenal from being regularly threatened with relegation to being first division champions, and Allison continued the approach, mixing big name signings with players promoted from within.  In both cases the funding came from one base: Arsenal throughout the 1930s had attracted the largest crowds of any club.  And this was not just at Highbury but also in away games, where clubs would often see double the average attendance turn up for an Arsenal match.   With income from both home and away fixtures being shared between the clubs playing the match, it meant Arsenal’s income was beyond that of everyone else.

But in addition to spending money, Allison, like Chapman, had an astute sense of tactics, and the ability to move players from one position to another with great effect, as he had done with Les Jones the year before.

In the case of Bryn Jones the consensus was that he was to be the successor to Alex James as an inside forward – and this is certainly what Allison had in mind.

However although most commentaries mention this, they then also suggest that Jones was a disappointment because of his low scoring rate.  But this is to misunderstand Arsenal’s tactics completely.  In his last full season, before injuries reduced his playing time, Alex James played 40 games and scored three goals.  Indeed James never scored more than four goals in any season for Arsenal.  So quite why a lack of goals is described as part of the failure of Bryn Jones is hard to understand.  The goals were to be scored by the centre forward and two wingers – that was how Arsenal played throughout the 1930s.

Besides which, due to circumstances beyond Jones’ or Arsenal’s control, Bryn only had one season in his prime at Arsenal – and although it may not have been a stunning season by his high standards, he was moving into a club with its own style and approach, and there is every chance that had he been able to play two or three seasons the Arsenal way, he would certainly have become the player everyone expected.

Moving on to 1938/9, for the first time since 1914 Arsenal began the season with a friendly against another team.  On that occasion the match was an away game against Tottenham.  This time the opposition was the same but the game was held at Highbury.  There is evidence of Arsenal playing friendlies between the first team and the reserves (sometimes called the Reds against the Whites) on the Saturday before the season started, in front of paying spectators, but details do not seem to have been kept by the club.

This game however was a fully advertised friendly  and there is evidence of it being called the “Jubilee Benevolent match” (although there is also a suggestion that it was arranged as part of the deal that brought George Hunt from Tottenham to Arsenal – the first player ever to make the move).  It was ironic that if this was the case, by the time this friendly was played, Hunt had already moved on to Bolton.

It is suggested that this picture comes from this game, although again it is difficult to know, and the crowd in the seats looks more like that which turned up for the 1st team v Reserve matches of earlier years.

Arsenal lost the game to Tottenham 0-2 at Highbury which was an inauspicious start given that Tottenham were a resolutely second division team at the time, and Arsenal put out their first team most of whom had just won the League a couple of months earlier.

Arsenal’s team for the day was…


Male   Joy   Hapgood

Crayston   Copping

Griffiths   L Jones   Drake   B Jones   Bastin

The following Saturday the season began in earnest with a home game against Portsmouth.  There was one change in the lineup, Kirchen replacing Griffiths.  59,940 turned up and despite all I have said above about Bryn Jones replacing non-scoring Alex James, Jones scored.  The other goal was an own goal.  Arsenal were up and running.

And then, immediately, there was a friendly to play on the following Monday – the regular fixture against Rangers in Glasgow.   Allison used this fixture to experiment, and to give some of the regular back up players, first team playing time.

1937/8 was the first season in eleven that Rangers had not come first or second in the Scottish league (they had come third) and neither had they won the Scottish Cup.  But they had regrouped and presented a team which not only went on to be Champions of Scotland but also scored 112 goals in 38 league matches in doing so.

Les Compton replaced Hapgood, which was expected, but Les Jones was tried out at right half, Collett came in to replace Copping, Bryn Jones played at outside right (!) and the rest of the forward line was Bremner, Carr, Drury and Cumner.   Arsenal lost 1-0.  But the changes are significant – Allison had no need to make these positional adjustments and it was clear he was experimenting on how to use Bryn Jones.

Back with the league in match 2 of the campaign, Jones scored again when exactly the same team as in the first league match played Huddersfield away, and gained a 1-1 draw.  It was a decent start to the league campaign.

But then on 8 September came the third league game of the campaign an away game with Brentford who had put in a strong showing last season, and looked for a while as if they might challenge to be champions.  So far they had won one and drawn one game, and the 0-1 defeat for Arsenal was a disappointment for Arsenal fans, especially as Arsenal had been able to play the same line-up for the third league match running.

Some changes were then felt to be required as on 10 September Arsenal returned to Highbury to play Everton who were now top of the league having won all three of their opening fixtures.  Everton had won the league in 1932, but had struggled for the last three seasons in the lower part of the league.  Now however they were looking like their old selves, and with Arsenal looking increasingly uncertain Everton beat Arsenal 1-2 at Highbury.

Although there was some pleasure that Bryn Jones had scored again, there had not been too much pleasure at the way Arsenal were playing as a team, and so for this match Carr came in as centre forward instead of Drake who had not yet scored, and Nelson played on the wing instead of Kirchen.   Nelson had played eight games the previous season, scoring three, and had looked like a possible long term player for Arsenal, but on this occasion it was not to be.  Everton’s perfect start continued.

On 13 September the news was dominated by an event that is still seen as a key moment in the history of the era: the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met the German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in an attempt to negotiate an end to German expansionist policies.

But meanwhile the football continued.  The midweek game was another home match – this against Derby.  Drake returned, Les Jones moved into defensive midfield replacing Crayston and Bremner took over at inside right.  Derby had won three, drawn one and lost one of their opening games, and were sitting in third position, although it was noted that all three of their wins were by 1-0.   But this time they went further and won 2-1.  Arsenal had now played five and only won one game in the league and were now 19th!   This was more than Arsenal’s seemingly regular poor start to a campaign – especially when starting as Champions.

On 17 September, Reg Cumner, who had joined Arsenal the previous May from the Margate nursery side, made his first league appearance for Arsenal away at Wolverhampton – the team Arsenal had pipped to the league title at the very last, back in May.  Cumner replaced the injured Bastin.

Wolverhampton like Arsenal had not maintained last season’s progress although their decline was less dramatic, and they were currently sitting 7th, having drawn their first four games before beating Brentford 1-0.  However at last Arsenal got their second win of the season 1-0 with a goal by… Cumner.  It raised Arsenal to 16th

Then Arsenal had another friendly match – this time against Swiss Wanderers.  Although there were changes (both the Compton brothers played, for example) it was a first team line up that turned out for the game in front of 16,000 at Highbury.

Swiss Wanderers was a non-de-plume for the Swiss international team who were on tour at the time.   A page from the programme is shown below.

On 24 September Arsenal played their final league match of September at home to newly promoted Aston Villa. Moving up to 5th in the league (having been as low as 14th after a defeat to Everton in the fourth game of the campaign) Villa had scored nine goals in their last two games conceding just two.   Bremner continued at number 8 with Cumner covering for the still injured Bastin at outside left.  All in all it looked as if the management and team had determined primarily to stop the rot and not be defeated again.  And in this they succeeded.  The result was a 0-0 draw.  At least after six straight wins Everton had at last lost, 3-0 away to Huddersfield.

But despite these results the league table looked far from exciting from the point of view of both the teams who challenged for the title to the bitter end of last season.

Even after all these matches there was still one more to go: the Charity Shield between the league champions and the Cup winners (Preston).  Ted Drake scored both goals as Arsenal won 2-1 at Highbury.  It was the fifth win in eight years for Arsenal but the crowd were not interested; only 7,233 turned up.

Elsewhere there were other matters to distract attention.  On 27 September the RMS Queen Elizabeth was launched at Clydebank, the largest ship in the world.   Two days later Prime Minister Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement agreeing with Germany determining to resolve all future disputes between the two countries through peaceful means.  One day later Neville Chamberlain returned to the UK from Munich, and at Heston Aerodrome waved a piece of paper that he said proclaimed Peace for our time speech – a phrase that became the basis for his speech later that day – an agreement celebrated with George VI on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.  The piece of paper waving became an iconic moment in the history of the UK.

Here is the regular chart for the month.

Date Opponent Op Pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
20.08.1938 Tottenham Hotspur home L0-2 41,977 39,102
27.08.1938 Portsmouth home W2-0 1 2 54,940 39,102
29.08.1938 Rangers away L0-1 35,000
03.09.1938 Huddersfield Town  19 away D1-1 8 3 26,126 16,490
08.09.1938 Brentford  14 away L0-1 13 3 38,535 23,117
10.09.1938 Everton  1 home L1-2 18 3 64,555 39,102
14.09.1938 Derby County  3 home L1-2 19 3 25,756 39,102
17.09.1938 Wolverhampton  7 away W1-0 16 5 45,364 29,328
21.09.1938 Swiss Wanderers home 3-2 16,000 39,102
24.09.1938 Aston Villa  7 home D0-0 15 6 66,456 39,102
26.09.1938 Preston North End home W3-2 7,233 39,102

Here are 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.

Average crowds all relate to home league games only.

Here is the full series to date

Arsenal in the 30s

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics


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