December 1938: the manager makes changes and a new hero is found

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal entered December in the unfamiliar position of being in the bottom half of the table without even the consolation that they had found last year of having all the teams bunched together near the top.  They were a full 11 points off the leaders, with just one game in hand. Put another way, they were only three points off the relegation position.

Given that Arsenal had not finished lower than 6th since 1929/30 when they finished 14th (but won the FA Cup – their first ever trophy) this was something of a shock.

December was not quite the usual crowded month for football with Arsenal booked to play six games.  Given that they had only won 25% of their games thus far, the thought must have been that if they could just win their three home games during the month that would at least be a huge improvement on what had happened thus far.

And with the first game of the month it looked like Arsenal might be moving in the right direction as they secured a 3-1 home win over Birmingham which took them up to 10th position.  True Birmingham were 20th in the league, and had been (and indeed continued to be) in the bottom places of the table through the season, but they had won three and lost three of their last six, which was more mid-table form, than bottom of the league.

Leslie Compton was still in for Male, Nelson came back in at outside right, but Bastin was back at outside left.  Drake, Crayston and Nelson got the goals.

If this was encouraging, then it was not just because Arsenal had won, but because the next match was against bottom of the table Manchester United.  For this game Les Jones dropped out, Bryn Jones came back, Bastin dropped out  and Cumnor took over on the wing, but the shuffling around was to no avail.  Arsenal lost 1-0 to the bottom team.  Results elsewhere meant that Arsenal stayed 10th, but Man U climbed off the foot of the table.  The 42,008 crowd could scarcely believe it – Man U had previously won just one of their last ten games.

Arsenal returned to Highbury in urgent need of a good win to rebuild their morale and keep their supporters, who were used to table topping success not mid-table mediocrity, on side.  The chance came one week on, against another of the more modest teams in the league – Stoke City who were 14th.

Now Allison did make changes – at both ends of the pitch.  Wilson came back in as goalkeeper for the first time in just over a year, and Reg Lewis finally got his chance.  He had played four times the previous season and scored twice – not bad for a rookie.

Male continued to be out so Compton continued to deputise, Bastin returned and Les Jones again took over from Bryn.  Stoke were unbeaten in their last three games, and had had some success on the road including beating Huddersfield away, 4-1, at the start of the month.

But this was to be the newly revitalised Arsenal’s day.   Two goals from Lewis, one from Bastin and one from Drury, gave Arsenal their first game with four goals for the club.  Since the victory over Birmingham had been the first in which Arsenal had scored three this season, it did seem that things were looking up.

The result only took Arsenal up one place to 9th, but it certainly felt as if a revival were now possible.

The next match was on Christmas Eve, which this year fell on a Saturday, away to Portsmouth, meaning that no matches were played on Christmas Day itself.

Portsmouth were just behind Arsenal in the table, having slipped away after a bright start to the season.  They were unbeaten in the last three, but the win against Chelsea on 17 December had been their first since October 8.

Not surprisingly for Arsenal the same team was chosen, but Lewis couldn’t repeat his heroics and the result was a goalless draw.  It was however only the second time in an away game Arsenal had kept a clean sheet – so that too was something to be pleased about.

Boxing Day saw an away London derby against Charlton, one of four London clubs in the league this season (Brentford and Chelsea being the others).  Drury and Bryn Jones returned, as did Ted Drake, but instead of displacing Lewis at number nine, Drake took up a place on the right wing, meaning the attacking forward line was made up of Drake, Lewis and Bastin – three men who all knew how to score.  And they …. didn’t .  For the second match running Arsenal failed to score, and lost 0-1.  It was Charlton’s third consecutive win.

With the new forward line having failed to score in the last two games, there were questions as to whether the manager would stick with the format, or whether he might move Drake back into the middle.  The answer was that he would stick with the new approach, and Male returned at full back.  Bremner replaced Jones.  Arsenal finished the month with a 1-0 victory, the goal coming from Drake, taking the club back to 9th.

Here’s the table of games, which shows just how much the December programme was tilted towards games against clubs in the lower part of the league.  Arsenal had made progress with three wins and a draw, but even better performances were required if Arsenal were to climb to a more respectable position in the table by the end of the season.

 Date  Opposition  Venue Op pos  Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
03.12.1938 Birmingham home  20 W3-1 10 17 33,710 39,102
10.12.1938 Manchester Utd away  22 L0-1 10 17 42,008 30,365
17.12.1938 Stoke City home  14 W4-1 9 19 30,006 39,102
24.12.1938 Portsmouth away  13 D0-0 9 20 21,344 23,630
26.12.1938 Charlton Ath away  3 L0-1 11 20 51,479 25,141
31.12.1938 Huddersfield T home  17 W1-0 9 22 34,146 39,102

Here are the abbreviations as always…

  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game.
  • 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 the league table at the end of the year.

The extraordinary thing about the month was however the fact that Arsenal with three wins and a draw were one of the teams in form.  Obviously they were aided by playing teams from the lower reaches, but even so it must have added a little confidence.

But there was a most noteable problem with the away form.  Since beating Wolverhampton in September Arsenal had not had an away win – and that was not acceptable for the club.  The only consolation locally was that Tottenham in division 2 was also having a very ordinary season and were currently in 10th position having ended the year with a 4-0 away defeat to Coventry.

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