Iconic moments in the history of Arsenal: signing Cliff Bastin

By Tony Attwood

There were so many great players in Arsenal’s first golden era that it is hard to pick out the signing of any as providing the iconic moment, but I’ll try – with the signing of Cliff Bastin who went on to be our highest peace-time scorer before Ian Wright.

Clifford Sydney Bastin  was born on 14 March 1912 in Exeter and (at least according to local reports) played for his school and local recreation teams, and won the Football Express Elementary Schools Challenge Cup in 1925.  The story is that he kept up his contact with his school and returned each year to talk to the boys about his life in football, although as we’ll see later an illness in the 1930s led to severe deafness.

On leaving school he started to train as an electrician, but also joined his first club was Exeter, and his first game was for the Reserves in the Southern League against Bath City on December 24, 1927.   He was in the first team by the following April aged 16 years 1 month playing against Coventry City in a 0-0 draw.    In his home debut for the first team he scored two  in a 5-1 win against Newport County.  In all he played 17 times for Exeter and scored six.

The reason that I choose the Boy Bastin signing as an iconic moment in Arsenal’s history is this very fact: that he played 17 times for Exeter and was 17 before Arsenal took him on.  He symbolises the Arsenal Youth Policy under Chapman.

The story that is told is that Herbert Chapman actually went to St James Park to watch a Watford player but was so taken with Cliff that he negotiated to buy him.  True or not, the signing is the indication of what Chapman did.  He travelled the land to see players, and bought them.   (Incidentally I have always doubted the story – I mean, why go on a five hour train journey to Exeter to see at Watford player, when there must have been a home game he could have made just up the road – when Arsenal were not playing.)

Cliff Bastin was thus duly signed for Arsenal for £2,000 (about £380,000 in today’s money using comparative wages probably around £4m using transfer fee inflation) on 27 April 1929 after 17 games in the Third Division South.  It is iconic because it tells us so much about Chapman – about him being willing to take a punt on a young lad.

At these times it was rare for someone to be signed this young (especially for that amount of money) and another story goes that the doorman refused him entry thinking he was some sort of autograph hunter.  (Again, who knows – it is just a tale – surely even at this time he would not have been dumped in London on his own with no one even to show him the way to the ground?)

But the story stuck and Cliff was named “Boy Bastin”.  Within a year he was the youngest ever FA Cup winner.

This was the time when Herbert Chapman was changing the tactics of the wingers, as part of his complete re-writing of the tactical approach following the change in the offside rule.   Wingers, up to this point had been playing up and down the line.   Chapman’s idea was to get the wingers to come inside, either with the inside forwards dropping back, or with them moving out to the wing to receive the ball if it came lose in a tackle from the full back.   Boy Bastin was the ideal man (sorry boy) to do this since he had played both on the wing and as an inside forward.

It was a tactical innovation that changed the style of attacking play following the abolition of the offside law in 1925.   Bastin became a dead-ball specialist, and dangerous in the air at the far post – another rare trait for a winger at the time.   In his first full season (1930-1) he scored 28 goals in 42 games playing in each game at number 11.  Arsenal won the league after being 14th the previous year.

He scored 150 goals in 350 games for Arsenal – a remarkable achievement for a player who spent all his games on the wing.   He won the league five times and the Cup twice.    He was capped for England 21 times.

Cliff Bastin played in the friendly against Germany in May 1938 when England won 6-3 – he scored the first goal.  You can also see him in “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” film and in the in the 1942 movie “One of our aircraft is missing”.

In 1936 Bastin suffered from a serious attack of the flu, which led to an inner ear infection, which in turn led to the on set of deafness.  Although his form declined somewhat he was able to keep playing, and during the last three pre-war years he often played as a half back rather than a winger.

War broke out when Bastin was 27 and was excused war service for failing the army hearing test, instead serving as an ARP Warden at the Highbury.   During the war he played 241 games and scored 70 goals.

He played in the first six matches after the war in the 1946/7 season but , when he played 6 times, but then retired.   His total including cup games for Arsenal was 178 goals in 395 games.

In retirement he ran a cafe, wrote for the Sunday Pictorial and went on to be a publican, and died aged 79 back in Devon.



In writing this piece I have discovered that in 2000 Exeter City re-named one of its stands named after Cliff Bastin in his honour – which I must confess is embarrassing, having written in the “Arsenal Uncovered” column in the programme that Northampton Town was the only place where you can find a stand named after an Arsenal player.  If there are any other stands named after Arsenal players do let me know.

Other recent iconic moments

White Hart Lane 1971

121 Years Ago: Royal Arsenal’s last trophy

The anniversary of Arsenal’s first ever trophy


The Series: The iconic moments that defined Arsenal


One Reply to “Iconic moments in the history of Arsenal: signing Cliff Bastin”

  1. Tony,

    Denis Compton has one of the two Nursery end stands at Lords Cricket Ground named after him.

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