By Tony Attwood
Leonard Thompson was born on 18 February 1901 in Sheffield.
His first club is recorded as Shiregreen Primitive Methodists, Shiregreen being a part of Sheffield, but then curiously there is a note of him playing for Norfolk Amateurs. I have found a few references to this team – including a programme showing them as playing Wealdstone in 1923, but why the Sheffield young man would be playing for them I can’t say.
After that we have him back in Hallam before moving to Barnsley, back to Hallam, on to Birmingham, then Swansea (his real long term success in football) before finally reaching Arsenal. His record with the league teams reads…
He joined Barnsley in 1917 aged 16, so those earlier ventures were at what we would now call schoolboy level, although I guess Len would have left school at 14. His move to Birmingham came at the end of the war, when the Football League started up again for the 1919/20 season. However it is also said that Manchester United and Liverpool were also looking at signing him.
He did not flourish at Birmingham, having only three games in three seasons, but then he moved to Swansea Town where he had his greatest success across five seasons averaging almost one goal every two games – which is certainly a good return for an inside forward (essentially an attacking midfield player).
Having been making regular appearances in the top four of the league, Swansea won the Third Division (South) title in 1924-5 and gained promotion to the Second Division (finishing just one point above Plymouth with only the champions getting promotion at that time).
Swansea flourished in the 2nd division and Len continued to score the goals, with the team also reaching the semi-final of the 1925/6 FA Cup campaign. This was where Len was introduced to Arsenal, and vice-versa, as Swansea beat Arsenal in the 6th round 2-1 at the Vetch, in what was Herbert Chapman’s first season at Arsenal. Len scored the opening goal of that game.
His goalscoring continued with 26 league goals the next season but Swansea slipped down to mid-table for the 1926/7 season but recovered to come in sixth in 1927/8. However on 17 March 1928 Len was sold to Arsenal for £4000.
He made his Arsenal debut in a 2–0 defeat by Portsmouth on 28 March 1928, but that was his only game for Arsenal in the 1927/28 season and came as Jack Lambert moved from the inside left position that he had played in for the previous six games to inside right, this in turn because Charlie Buchan moved from inside right to centre forward for one match.
But we can see the way Chapman was thinking as he shuffled the team around. He must already have had in mind that Lambert could become a centre forward and had already moved Blyth from inside left to left half. This sort of moving around of players is very much what Chapman did in his opening years at Arsenal (and to a large degree kept on doing once the trophies started to come in), and changing players’ positions was always on the cards.
Certainly Thompson was in Chapman’s mind because he played in the opening two games of the 1928/9 season at inside left. He then missed three matches through injury before getting 11 games in a row. But then injury struck again and Harold Peel stepped up to take over. Len finished the season with just 17 games and five goals.
He stayed on Arsenal’s books and came back for the third and fourth games of the 1929/30 season, but the injuries continued (it is reported that he had several knee operations during his time at Arsenal) and also from 1929/30 onwards Arsenal had Alex James playing at inside left. James got 31 league games and six FA Cup games (as Arsenal won the cup for the first time) in the season whereas Thompson got five games in the league and one in the cup (against Chelsea in the third round).
In the all conquering 1930/31 season he made two consecutive appearances, this time at left half, the second being in the extraordinary 5-1 away defeat to Aston Villa. He was injured again, a factor that explains the scoreline. He made just one appearance in the 1931/2 season, but with Alex James now hailed as one of the greatest Arsenal players ever, his Arsenal time was obviously over. That last game was in a 0-1 away defeat to Bolton on 2 March 1932.
Len Thompson is one of the players who gets a mention in Bernard Joy’s “Forward, Arsenal!” and gives not only another example of not only how unreliable a witness Joy could be in writing that book, but also how some of the things he says have been repeated without checking.
In this case Joy reports that Thompson was Arsenal’s “penalty king” and relates how he rarely missed in scoring a penalty, and how he gave a detailed account of how he took penalties which became a lead story in the London press (and then promptly missed the next one he took).
In fact he scored six goals in total for Arsenal of which just two were penalties. Quite who Joy was thinking about when he wrote his comment I’ve no idea.
Despite or because of his injuries, the lack of playing time did allow Len to develop another side of his footballing career – he became a coach to the reserve team during their triumphant run during this period. He then left Arsenal and moved to Crystal Palace, making 27 league appearances for them, scoring six goals before retiring from professional football.
Len Thompson then became an amateur player once again and played for Islington Corinthians. This was an amateur team raising charity funds by playing in the London Professional Mid-Week League against the A teams in the capital.
Islington Corinthians also played the Chinese Olympic team at Highbury, and subsequently toured abroad, and becoming as well known for their high-profile off the pitch exploits as for their football. In between these games Len coached the Tottenham reserve team for a short while, and worked as a scout for Arsenal as well as being the man who went to watch the team Arsenal were to play in the following match.
There are also references (although without any substantiation) that he took part in Sandeman’s Port adverts while running an off licence in London.
He died of a heart attack on 26 August 1968, at the age of 67.
Here are some of the more popular series that have been written recently or are actively being updated at the moment.
- Arsenal in the 30s
- Arsenal players in the 30s
- Arsenal in the summer – now over 50 articles.
- The First League Season, including a review of each player who played in that season
- Arsenal day by day – over 5000 anniversaries of the club
- Arsenal in the 70s
- Tom Whittaker, player, coach, manager
Len Thompson in 1960s
Forward Arsenal page 45
|28 Mar 1928||Arsenal v Portsmouth||L||0-2||League Division One|
|25 Aug 1928||Sheffield Wednesday v Arsenal||L||3-2||League Division One|
|29 Aug 1928||Arsenal v Derby County||L||1-3||League Division One|
|22 Sep 1928||Manchester City v Arsenal||L||4-1||League Division One|
|26 Sep 1928||Derby County v Arsenal||D||0-0||League Division One|
|29 Sep 1928||Arsenal v Huddersfield Town||W||2-0||League Division One|
|06 Oct 1928||Everton v Arsenal||L||4-2||League Division One|
|13 Oct 1928||Arsenal v West Ham United||L||2-3||League Division One|
|20 Oct 1928||Newcastle United v Arsenal||W||0-3||League Division One|
|27 Oct 1928||Arsenal v Liverpool||D||4-4||League Division One|
|03 Nov 1928||Cardiff City v Arsenal||D||1-1||League Division One|
|10 Nov 1928||Arsenal v Sheffield United||W||2-0||League Division One|
|17 Nov 1928||Bury v Arsenal||L||1-0||League Division One|
|24 Nov 1928||Arsenal v Aston Villa||L||2-5||League Division One|
|01 Jan 1929||Sunderland v Arsenal||L||5-1||League Division One|
|13 Mar 1929||Birmingham City v Arsenal||D||1-1||League Division One|
|30 Mar 1929||Arsenal v Bury||W||7-1||League Division One|
|02 Apr 1929||Arsenal v Newcastle United||L||1-2||League Division One|
|07 Sep 1929||Sheffield Wednesday v Arsenal||W||0-2||League Division One|
|11 Sep 1929||Arsenal v Manchester City||W||3-2||League Division One|
|21 Sep 1929||Sunderland v Arsenal||W||0-1||League Division One|
|25 Sep 1929||Aston Villa v Arsenal||L||5-2||League Division One|
|16 Dec 1929||Sheffield United v Arsenal||L||4-1||League Division One|
|11 Jan 1930||Arsenal v Chelsea||W||2-0||FA Cup||3rd round|
|11 Mar 1931||Leeds United v Arsenal||W||1-2||League Division One|
|14 Mar 1931||Aston Villa v Arsenal||L||5-1||League Division One|
|02 Mar 1932||Bolton Wanderers v Arsenal||L||1-0||League Division One|