March 1939: goalscoring and away form are the key problems

by Tony Attwood

Arsenal had finished February in ninth still 11 points off the pacemakers, and being out of the Cup as well, all that could be hoped for was an improvement to keep up the Arsenal legend of success in the 30s.

March now brought four matches in a classic home-away alternating pattern with only one of the four teams to be played being above Arsenal in the league.  Having gone out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle there were no distractions for Arsenal and no chance of having too many games piling up for the end of the season.

In short, it was in Arsenal’s hands if they were going to pull themselves up the league table to a more Arsenal-like position.

The month opened with a transfer as on 3 March 1939 Wilf Copping returned to Leeds after 166 games for Arsenal.  He had arrived from Leeds om 1930 but not made his debut until the start of the 1934 season, winning championship medals in 1935 and 1938 and the cup in 1936.  He also played 20 times for England.

Wilf was the ultimate exponent of the “vigorous” shoulder charge and the (now illegal) two footed tackle and had been a highly significant part in the club’s triumphs especially in his partnership with Jack Crayston.

Wilf left however while still a regular member of the first team, playing his last game on 25 February and it is clear that there was no ready-made replacement for him.  It looks like the player wanted to move back to his old club, and Arsenal granted his wish now, rather than at the end of the season, when Leeds’ offer might well have been lower.

Collett played the next five games at left half, then Cartwright and Pugh were given games in that position and finally Leslie Jones had three games in the shirt at the end of the season.

Allison’s thinking ultimately seemed to be that Leslie Jones did the job best, because he continued to play in the position at the start of the 1939/40 season, and in most of the friendlies that followed after the outbreak of war.

But back to 1939.  Bolton had won five of the last six games they had played in the league – their only defeat being to table topping Everton.  They were thus currently sitting in sixth having won four and drawn six of their 15 away games thus far in the league.  It seemed a tough call for Arsenal but their home strength won through, beating Bolton 3-1.

Compton came in for the injured Male, Crayton and Collet made up the defensive midfield, Kirchen and Cumner were the wingers, with Drury and Jones the inside forwards and Drake back at centre forward – from which position he scored two.  The third goal was an o.g.

It was obviously a line up that Allison liked as he kept it for the next game, even though away matches had been a considerably tougher proposition throughout most of Allison’s reign, especially this season.   And so it proved again with a trip to Leeds even though Leeds had just lost five games in a row, scoring just two goals in those five (another reason why they wanted the Copping transfer at that moment, rather than wait.  Worse for Leeds, they had only won one game in 15 – a run that went back to last November and had left them languishing in 15th.   But despite all that they won 4-2.  Arsenal’s only consolation was that Leslie Compton scored a penalty (in Bastin’s absence) and Drake got another.

That defeat was undoubtedly a severe blow to Arsenal, and they had a week to recover before a home game against Liverpool who had earlier in the season looked as if they themselves might challenge for the league title.  Liverpool had not won in eight, but had just had three draws in a row and were still holding on to 10th position.

Bastin returned instead of Cumner and it seemed to make the difference, for although goalless at half time Kirchen and Drake got the goals in the second half to run out 2-0 winners and to rise back to seventh.   What was needed now was for the dreaded away form to be broken.

There was of course a chance to resolve matters in the final game of March – an away match to Leicester. Arsenal had not got a point away from home since the end of January – but this time managed it against a team who, although they had just won their last match (against Portsmouth), had not won any of their previous six and were looking primed for relegation.  A defeat here would surely have challenged Allison’s whole rebuilding project and asked questions of the manager even in these times of the utmost solidarity with the manager.  Bremner came in for Drury otherwise the team was unchanged.  Arsenal won 2-0 with goals from Kirchen and Drake (again!)

In fact Drake was the big news – after being shunted out to the wing and watching the teenage Reg Lewis take over and get the accolades he had come back to centre forward and scored five goals in four successive games.

That was the end of Arsenal’s football for the month, but there was ominous news on the political front as on 31 March Britain signed an agreement to support Poland in the event of an invasion.

Date Opponent Venue Op pos Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
31 04.03.1939 Bolton W home  6 W3-1 7 33 29814  39102
32 11.03.1939 Leeds United away  15 L2-4 9 33 22160  19309
33 18.03.1939 Liverpool home  10 W2-0 7 35 31495 39102
34 25.03.1939 Leicester City away  21 W2-0 6 37 22565  16225

The crowds in the above are of interest.  In both Arsenal’s home games the crowd that turned up for the game was below the average of the season (39102) as the local support recognised the obvious – that Arsenal was not going to win anything this season.  But away from home Arsenal were still an attraction.  Not was big an attraction as in the past when they had often doubled the local side’s home crowd, but still an above average attraction.

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.

The end of month league table looked like this… and with this home/away analysis we can see just how the away form of Arsenal had let the side down this season.

Arsenal were 6th after their last game of the month, but the following Wednesday (29 March) Charlton had beaten Grimsby to take them above Arsenal .

As for the form, Arsenal had won three and lost three of the last six, Everton Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough had won four.   Derby however were fading ever faster with one win and four defeats in the last six.

Arsenal’s problem however was not just the away form – it had been goal scoring – Drake had only scored nine so far in the season, Kirchen seven, and Lewis seven.

The problem had been there last season to, but in the end Drake had managed 17 and Bastin 15 – and this decline had been going on for years.  (I will return to this topic when we come to sum of the season).

It is not surprising however to see that overall Arsenal had scored 44 goals this season compared with 73, 75 and 79 for Everton, Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough respectively.   Only Blackpool, Leicester and Blackpool had scored fewer goals.  Another good reason why the crowds were down.

Arsenal in the 30s

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics

Joseph Szabo, his visit to Arsenal, and the way it changed SC Braga’s history.

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