April / May 1939: Arsenal clamber back to 5th, and achieve film stardom

By Tony Attwood

The final run-in of the 1938/9 season through April and May saw Arsenal start the (as usual) very busy schedule with the league table looking like this

The champions of last season, and the joint favourites to win the league again at the start of the season were seventh and way off the pace.   The bookies were happy, as Everton, now the clear favourites, had finished 16th, 17th and 14th in the last three years and had been completely unfancied at the start of the campaign.

Of course the punters didn’t have the information and tips of FootballPredictions.com in those days to place their bets; its all a bit easier now!

But back to 1939.  In effect at the start of April there were 16 points up for grabs for most clubs, but in reality only two of the clubs – Everton and Wolverhampton were likely to be the champions, and of these two Everton were the clear favourites.

Arsenal began with a home game against Middlesbrough sitting fourth in the league, but with no realistic chance of taking the title.  Although they had won the league three times in 19th century in the 20th century they had fared less well and their titles gained were by winning the second division not the first.  But they had been improving of late, and their 2-1 victory at Highbury was not unexpected.  The Arsenal team was the same as for the last week in March; Bremner got the goal.  It all seemed to confirm that this Arsenal team was just not top of the table material.

Meanwhile hardly a week when by without a further sign of the concerns about a possible war.  On 4 April the Royal Armoured Corps was formed.

Back with the football – on Good Friday – Arsenal were away to Blackpool who had only won one game in the last 12.  But like most teams in the league this season, when they did get points they were picking up most of their points at home, where they had got six of their eight wins of the campaign.  Allison persisted with his side, again putting out exactly the same XI, save for Alf Fields coming in for his debut match, (replacing Joy) and with Cartwright replacing Collett.   But again they got the same result – a 0-1 defeat.   Two games gone in April and Arsenal had lost both and were now down to 10th.

This being Easter, Arsenal now had a match the following day, once more away, this time to Birmingham City.  One imagines that the club had the sense to take the players from Blackpool to Birmingham and stay in a hotel there overnight, and if so, it worked.

Birmingham were bottom of the table, but they had won 8 and drawn 3 of their 16 home games: the position in the table was down to their away form (as with so many teams), not what happened at St Andrews.   Male, Pugh, Les Jones and Drury joined the team this time, and at last there was a win – this time by 2-1, with Arsenal moving back to 9th.  Drury and Kirchen got the goals.

Sidney Pugh, like Alf Fields mentioned above, had come up through the Margate nursery club, and this was his only game for Arsenal.  Tragically he was killed on active service for his country, with the RAF in the forthcoming conflict.

This match against Birmingham on 8 April 1939 was also the last senior game for Alex Wilson.  He was signed as cover for Frank Moss and won the FA Cup with Arsenal, but transferred to St Mirren in 1941.  He later worked as a trainer and physio in England and America.

On Easter Monday, as was the habit at this time, the Good Friday games were reversed with Arsenal playing Blackpool at home.  After the win against Arsenal in the first match Blackpool had beaten Leicester City away, winning two in a row for the first time since September.

This match on 10 April 1939 was George Curtis’ first match for Arsenal having served his apprenticeship with Margate.  He left after 11 league games in 1946/7.  He went on to become manager of numerous clubs and the Norwegian national team and died in 2004.

Elsewhere Leslie Compton and Cartwright were back in the team, Drake moved out to the wing once again and Lewis came back at centre forward.  Arsenal won, with goals from Drake an a penalty from Compton.

On 15 April the next match was Manchester United at Highbury.  They were 19th in the league and had gone nine without a win, and Arsenal had not too much difficulty in pushing them aside albeit by just two goals to one.   Joy was back in the squad, and Crayston and Drake got the goals.

Then having played five league games in 15 days, Arsenal fitted in a friendly – away to Tottenham a re-run of the opening match of the season and presumably part of the package that had caused the breaking of tradition with a pre-season friendly.  Arsenal used the first team squad for the most part but gave George Marks a game in goal and further chance for Fields to prove himself at centre half.  Arsenal won 2-1 both goals coming from Drury.

For George Marks it was the start of an eventful couple of weeks, having transferred from Salisbury Corinthians, and signed professional forms on 20 May 1936.  He moved into Arsenal reserves for 1938/9 as an understudy for  George Swindin and Alex Wilson, and the 17 April 1939 friendly against Tottenham was his first big game.  

Tottenham were of course playing in the second division where they were currently 8th and in no danger of going up to the first (they in fact finished the season in the same position).  But they had won three of the last four and were promising to do better things.  However their defeat at home to Arsenal by 2-1 was not entirely unexpected for the modest crowd of 9000.

Arsenal now had three league games to go – two away followed by a home game that achieved a certain notoriety.

As for the league, after the games on the 19th it was still possible for Everton to be caught by Wolverhampton, who were, just as last year, hovering in second place.  But to make anything of their position Wolverhampton had to win all their remaining games while Everton had to lose theirs,  but once again Wolves threw it away.  Everton did their best to help Wolverhampton by losing at Charlton, but Wolverhampton could only manager a goalless draw at Bolton.  Their slim chance had gone, and Everton were champions.

For Arsenal there was a match against Stoke City who were 9th in the league.   After three straight wins Arsenal might have expected better than a 1-0 defeat.  Drake stayed on the wing with Lewis at centre forward and with Male and Hapgood as the full backs plus Joy at centre half it looked like a strong team, but it was not to be.

This match on 22 April 1939 was Reg Cumner’s last league game.  He too had come through the ranks at Margate to play both for Arsenal and England, but only played 13 times for Arsenal – 12 in the league in this season, plus one of the FA Cup matches of 1945/6.

On 25 April 1939 we should most certainly note the passing of Archie Leitch.  He is remembered as the prime architect of Highbury, but should also be remembered for his work on the Manor Ground in Plumstead.  Henry Norris also employed him before moving to Arsenal to work at Fulham while he also worked on Stamford Bridge at the same time.  His career was not without controversy, particularly in relation to the building of Rangers ground in Glasgow, and the subsequent disaster as part of the terracing collapsed.  Leitch was not found guilty of any professional misconduct although questions were asked as to how well he had supervised the building materials that were used.

On 27 April, just in case there was anyone who was not clear that war was now a real possibility the Military Training Act was passed, to come into force on 3 June.  It re-introduced conscription for all men aged 20 and 21.  Six months military training was now compulsory.

But of course football continued and there were now two games to go, with not much to play for in Arsenal’s case except perhaps some pride.  The final away game of the season was against Derby who for a while had challenged at the top of the league.

This was Derby’s last game of the season, and they had not won any of their last four finding themselves now languishing in fifth.  Arsenal brought in Andy Farr (once again a Margate man) for his first game, along with giving Marks another match, with Dennis Compton getting a rare outing on the wing.  Goals from Kirchen and Drake gave Arsenal the victory, as they held on to sixth position.

Although Archie Leitch’s passing was noted, the death on 29 April 1939 of Arsenal’s mysterious keeper E Bateup was not recorded by the club.  Indeed the club had little to go on as so much of his life and career is uncertain, but it seems that after leaving Arsenal he played for Port Vale before retiring from football in 1918, having been playing in the war time leagues.

Back with the football the final game of the season was at home, and we have moments of this match captured on film, for it was used as part of the movie The Arsenal Stadium Mystery.

Brentford had spent much of the season looking over their shoulders at the prospect of relegation, but a good run in February and a couple of decent wins at the start of April had lifted them to 11th.  However four defeats and a draw had taken them back down to 18th which is where they were before and after this final game.

The result of what was our final professional league game that is officially recorded before the war, on 6 May 1939, was Arsenal 2 Brentford 0.   The game was the last appearance for Eddie Hapgood and also Leslie Jones.   

Although three matches were played for the 1939/40 season it was then abandoned and this was the last “official” league game until 31 August 1946     See also here

Because of what happened hereafter the line up for this game is worth recording:


L Compton  Joy   Hapgood

Crayston   L Jones

Kirchen Farr Drake Drury Nelson

Kirchen and Drake got the goals and Arsenal ended the league in 5th place.

Leicester City and Birmingham were relegated.  Blackburn and Sheffield United returned to the first division in their places.  Here is Arsenal’s table of results for the end of the 1938/39 season.

Date Opposition Venue Op pos Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
01.04.1939 Middlesbrough home  4 L1-2 9 37 34669 39102
07.04.1939 Blackpool away  18 L0-1 10 37 31497  19178
08.04.1939 Birmingham City away  22 W2-1 9 39 33250 25528
10.04.1939 Blackpool home  17 W2-1 6 41 30760  39102
15.04.1939 Manchester United home  19 W2-1 6 43 25741  39102
17.04.1939 Tottenham Hotspur away W2-1 9000  29397*
22.04.1939 Stoke City away  9 L0-1 6 43 26039  22535
29.04.1939 Derby County away  5 W2-1 6 45 10186  19101
06.05.1939 Brentford home 18 W2-0 5 47 30928  39102

*League games in division 2.

Although that concludes Arsenal’s official league programme for the 1930s, football did continue, and in the coming days we shall publish the regular “Arsenal in the Summer” article, for 1939, notes on the matches that were played in the new season, and in the first of the war time leagues, and summaries of appearances etc for 1938/9, as well as an overview of this amazing decade in Arsenal’s history.

Here are the articles published thus far…

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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