Chapman at the Arsenal – the opening month. Chaos in the goalmouth!

by Tony Attwood

We left Arsenal with the club having bought Highbury outright, and having installed Herbert Chapman, the man who had just won the League two years in succession with Huddersfield Town – the most unlikely of champions – as their new manager.

The Reds had played the Blues in two pre-season trial games and then one week after that on 29 August 1925 Arsenal supporters were finally able  to see Herbert Chapman’s first league match as Arsenal manager, against of all teams, Tottenham.  Not only was it Chapman’s first game, it was also the first league weekend under the new offside rule, with the £100-a-goal man Charlie Buchan making his debut.  It was every publicity angle possible all rolled into one.

Across the country fans got ready for the mass of goals that they had been promised.  And in one venue at least that is what they got as Aston Villa beat Burnley 10-0.  But elsewhere the results (at first, if not later) looked rather normal – except at Highbury where the match finished Arsenal 0 Tottenham 1.  Arsenal were one of only three teams out of the 22 playing in the first division not to score; it was not what people expected.  Mind you, two games in the second division ended goalless which was not was planned either.

The Arsenal team (with the number of games each player had played the previous season for Arsenal) was


Mackie (19) Kennedy (40)

Milne (32)  Butler (39) John (39)

Hoar (19) Buchan Cock (2) Ramsay (30) Toner (26)

There were two casualties from this game Cock (who didn’t play for Arsenal again) and Toner (who played just this and the next game before being dropped).  But the team was primarily Knighton’s team, except of course for Buchan.  I’ll return to the similarities between the managers’ teams a little later in this chapter.

The impression we get looking back into history was that Chapman was perfectly able to make changes – but he also found that the team left by Knighton (which had had two relegation escapes in the last two seasons) had more going for it that its league positions suggested.

And he didn’t need long to see what needed doing.   As note, the second game (a 2-2 draw at home to Leicester) was enough to spell the end for Joseph Toner.  It was clear that changes would be afoot, but in keeping with the terms of his job advertisement, he was not expecting the chequebook to be brought out on a weekly basis.

In the second match with Leicester on 31 August, Bob John was injured, which was a blow to the team, and of course the player.  But it also had a consequence for John, for when he returned to fitness his place was taken by Blyth who played so well he went on to play the remaining 40 games in Bob John’s left half position.  What happened to Bob John thereafter is one of the famous Chapman stories, but we’ll leave that until the correct time.

The third game was away to Manchester United and it was the first Chapman win: Manchester Utd 0 Arsenal 1.  For this game Brain, Neill, Blyth and Haden were in and John, Cock, Ramsey and Toner (who had all played in the first game) were out.  This looks in one way like the constant turnover of players that Knighton had employed, but as became clear over time, what Chapman was doing was sorting out wheat and chaff, and getting the balance of the team right.

On 7 September Arsenal won away again: Leicester City 0 Arsenal 1, using the same team as in the Manchester United game.  Arsenal had scored four goals in four games (so still no effect from the change in the offside law) and interestingly three of these had come from Brain and one from Neil.  Sir Henry (as the papers presented the situation, and Sir Henry did nothing to discourage the myth) had not had to dip into his pocket for another £100. (It was of course the club that would pay, not Sir Henry personally).  £100 was about 4000 on the gate per goal he scored.

On 10 September Fulham FC held their AGM.  Fulham was of course Sir Henry’s first club, and he still held his shares, although he had resigned as a director and did not always see eye to eye with Fulham.    William Allen who had for so long been Sir Henry’s partner in all business things, had sold all his shares in Fulham FC, having been the biggest shareholder in the postwar years.   Fulham were still solidly second division.

Before the next weekend’s matches the league table looked like his

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Tottenham Hotspur 4 4 0 0 8 4 2.000 8
2 West Ham United 4 3 1 0 5 1 5.000 7
3 Sunderland 3 3 0 0 14 5 2.800 6
4 Bolton Wanderers 5 2 2 1 10 5 2.000 6
5 Huddersfield Town 3 2 1 0 6 4 1.500 5
6 Arsenal 4 2 1 1 4 3 1.333 5

Tottenham had been continuing their good form winning each and every game, and Sunderland and Bolton looked like they had worked out how to break down defences under the new offside law.  Huddersfield under new management were also doing ok.

Then away from the football there was an odd event.  Kinnaird Park Estate Company, the property development company that Sir Henry now fronted, had been putting in planning permission requests one by one, and each one had gone through without any problem.  But now the company had put in an application for eight houses – nothing like the scale of Sir Henry’s development in Fulham, but still a big step forward.  And on 8 September Bromley Urban District Council refused permission and wanted changes to the plans.  Was Sir Henry losing his touch?  Or had he handed over the details to an underling?

Next on September 12 Arsenal were to play Liverpool who had won one, drawn one and lost one of their three games.  The game at Highbury saw Buchan’s first goal of the season, to earn Arsenal a 1-1 draw and cost them £100  The crowd of 32,553 was reasonable, but not reflecting a major upturn as yet.  But the £100 fee now owing to Sunderland certainly made the headlines – and that was what Sir Henry was after.

There was huge press interest in the match of 12 September 1925, not so much for the score (a 1-1 draw with Liverpool) but for the fact that although Sammy Haden’s cross shot was going in, Buchan moved forwards and touched it at the last second, thus costing Arsenal £100 much to the journalists’ glee. It was Buchan’s first goal for Arsenal and the first £100 that Sir Henry had to pay on the goals-scored agreement.

Chapman kept the same side for the third game running and the result meant that Arsenal had now won two and drawn two after that opening defeat to Tottenham.

The match against Liverpool was the last for Milne at right half – he was now replaced by Butler and we can see emerging a further example of the completely different way in which Chapman evolved his team from that of Knighton.  Chapman found the players he wanted, and as long as they played as he wanted, they stayed in that position.  If they did not, they were out.  Very few players were played out of their prime position and many more than in Knighton’s day, played much of the season (thus getting valuable experience of playing alongside the some team mates over and over again).

What we can also see is that certain clubs were getting the hang of the new offside law – but not everyone and not all the time.   These results from the opening five rounds of games shows some extraordinary scores…

Home advantage seems to be counting for nothing – half of these big scoring winners were away.  Sunderland clearly had got an idea of how to handle the situation, but Newcastle could win 6-3 at home and lose 1-7 again at home.

On 14 September Arsenal now played London Caledonians in the London FA Charity Cup.  Toner, Cock and Ramsey were given outings, presumably to see if they could redeem themselves having been dropped from the first team, with Cock, Brain and Neil scoring to give Arsenal a 3-2 win in front of 5000.

This was the most local of local derbies for London Caledonians played in Caledonian Park, just one mile from Highbury.  What’s more, although of course at the time no one had any thought of the two clubs being neighbours, both were formed in 1886.  London Caledonians continued until 1939 but did not reform after the war.

The club had significant success on the amateur circuit from the off, winning the Middlesex and London Senior Cups, and being the first ever champions of the Isthmian League in 1905, and winning it three times in a row before the first world war.

In 1923 they won the Amateur Cup, and in 1924/5 they won the Isthmian League for the sixth time.  Thus although they were an amateur team, they were a strong amateur team and their local presence gave an added spice to the game.  Arsenal won 3-2.

After the victory Arsenal returned to focusing on the league, and it is interesting to note at this point that before Arsenal’s game against Burnley on 19 September with most clubs having played five or six games, the number of goals scored per club ranged from 20 down to four.  Arsenal, sitting ninth in the league had scored five.  West Ham had conceded just one goal and Sheffield United 17; far bigger disparities than ever before.  Thus although the change in the offside law in 1925 is often painted simply as an event which led to goals increasing (as it did) what is missed by this view is just how different was the approach of each club and how long it took for different teams to come to terms with the approach.

Sadly it is very difficult to tell from newspaper reports what was going on in this regard.  It is possible that linesmen and referees were themselves having difficulties, but more likely most of the time it seems that that clubs were coming up with different tactics and taking each other, (and sometimes themselves) by surprise.

For the Burnley game Milne dropped out and was not seen again, and in came Baker at right half – who rewarded his boss with a goal.  Baker then kept his place until being injured near the end of the season.  Arsenal were now fourth and Burnley fifth, but after three home games Arsenal had yet to win on their home turf – they had two draws and one defeat.  And this game was another draw 2-2.  The second goal coming from Baker, like Haden getting his first of the season.

And still the unexpected results poured even – perhaps even more so on this single date, for we had

  • Liverpool 5 Manchester United 0
  • Manchester City 4 Everton 4
  • Tottenham Hotspur 5 Huddersfield Town 5
  • Leeds United 5 West Ham United 2

Chapman was not however ready to change his tactics.  Instead he swapped goalkeepers.  Out went Robson and in came Scottish international goal-keeper Harper to Arsenal from Hibernian.  And it seemed this purchase was very much Herbert Chapman’s decision; the impression given is he told Sir Henry who he wanted and it was done.

After two draws the next game on 21 September saw Arsenal return to winning ways with a 3-2 win over West Ham who were sitting 20th in the league before the match, although with a couple of games in hand.  For the first time in the season, Arsenal were behind at half time (1-2).   Buchan got two more and that of course made the headlines.  Arsenal had won three, drawn three and lost one.  Last season by this stage it had been won four drawn one lost one.  But then that’s when things had started to go wrong for Knighton.  No one seriously thought the same would happen with Chapman.

This time the midweek games in the league became a bit more staid as no one scored more than four, but then, once again, everything went completely wild for the last weekend of September.  Arsenal only slightly got into the swing of things by beating Leeds United 4-1, with Brain getting two, Buchan one and Neil one – the result put Arsenal fourth.

Athletic News commented that this Saturday saw the arrival of the WM formation by Newcastle United in their match against Aston Villa – confirming that the old story of Chapman inventing WM was not right.  It is interesting in hindsight however to note this commentary, as Arsenal’s first game in October was against Newcastle.

But much more to the point at that moment was the record of goals scored in the matches on this day.  Here is the complete list of Division 1 scores for this one Saturday with most clubs now having played seven games under the new offside rule.

As a result of this amazing outpouring of goals the league table now looked like this…
Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Sunderland 7 6 0 1 24 9 2.667 12
2 Tottenham Hotspur 9 5 2 2 16 15 1.067 12
3 Arsenal 8 4 3 1 14 9 1.556 11
4 West Ham United 8 5 1 2 12 9 1.333 11
5 Huddersfield Town 7 3 4 0 17 13 1.308 10
6 Aston Villa 7 3 3 1 21 11 1.909 9
7 Leeds United 8 4 1 3 15 12 1.250 9
8 Birmingham City 9 4 1 4 14 12 1.167 9
9 Liverpool 6 3 2 1 14 5 2.800 8
10 Manchester United 8 3 2 3 15 13 1.154 8

Interestingly Tottenham, who had been the early leaders after four straight wins at the start of the season had now slipped back and had now just won one game in five.  Here is their record thus far for Tottenham (the result column being, of course, from Tottenham’s perspective).

Date Game Res Score
29 Aug 1925 Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur W 0-1
31 Aug 1925 Sheffield United v Tottenham Hotspur W 2-3
05 Sep 1925 Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City W 1-0
07 Sep 1925 Tottenham Hotspur v Sheffield United W 3-2
12 Sep 1925 Everton v Tottenham Hotspur D 1-1
14 Sep 1925 Tottenham Hotspur v Cardiff City L 1-2
19 Sep 1925 Tottenham Hotspur v Huddersfield Town D 5-5
21 Sep 1925 Cardiff City v Tottenham Hotspur W 0-1
26 Sep 1925 Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur L 3-0

And to summarise the issue of Chapman’s turnaround of Arsenal, there is a clear implication in Knighton’s autobiography (written we may recall in 1946) that whereas he was starved of funding, Chapman had it aplenty.   But as this table below shows this was not the case – Chapman’s players throughout the season were pretty much the same ones that Knighton used.  He just used them differently.   Looking at the figures by the end of the 1925/6 season, at this point, is of course out of sequence for our history, but I think it is important to realise as the season progresses, just how this was Knighton’s team, playing under new management.

Player Knighton Chapman
1924/5 1925/6
Baker 32 31
Blyth 17 40
Brain 28 41
Buchan 39
Butler 39 41
Haden 15 25
Hoar 19 21
John 39 29
Kennedy 40 16
Mackie 19 35
Milne 32 5
Neil 16 27
Ramsey 30 16
Robson 26 9
Rutherford 20 3
Toner 26 2
Woods 32 19

What Chapman was doing through the 1925/6 season was turning a team of losers around and giving them a new tactical approach and a new confidence not least through his not endlessly playing the men out of position, or randomly (or so it seems) dropping them.

Here is the list of results for August and September.

Date Opponents H/A Res Score Crowd
1 29/08/1925 Tottenham Hotspur H L 0-1 53,183
2 31/08/1925 Leicester City H D 2-2 23,823
3 05/09/1925 Manchester United A W 1-0 32,288
4 07/09/1925 Leicester City A W 1-0 25,401
5 12/09/1925 Liverpool H D 1-1 32,553
1 14/09/1925 London Caledonians LFACC H W 3-2 5,000
6 19/09/1925 Burnley A D 2-2 12,334
7 21/09/1925 West Ham United H W 3-2 24,800
8 26/09/1925 Leeds United H W 4-1 32,531

We are currently evolving a series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.  The full index to the whole series is here.

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  The most complete review of this, which puts right the numerous misunderstandings of the events of that year appears, and most importantly cites contemporary articles and reports, such as the minutes of the FA meeting where the promotion was confirmed, and the reports in local papers thereafter, is set out below in these articles.

After that there is a complete index of all the articles in the series in chronological order.

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever?  And if so, why were there no new players?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation

The Eighth Level – wild fantasies and desperate stories.

The final round of misinformation and unsupported statements

Knighton’s notoriously inaccurate autobiography reports his departure from Arsenal with a whole raft of statements which a review of the historical facts shows to be untrue, ranging from his “building a new team” in 1919, to the notion that he would have got Buchan at a much lower cost.  He complains also about not getting a benefit match and claims Sir Henry Norris left him £100 in his will, stating that sacking Knighton was his biggest mistake.  There is no evidence for any of this and with so many other statements in this section of his autobiography being plainly wrong, we may wonder about these.

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