September 1926: the great march forwards comes to a puzzling halt

by Tony Attwood

This article is part of the series “Henry Norris at the Arsenal”   The previous chapter is published at Arsenal in the Summer of 1926: the summer tour and the start of the bus affair.

Details of the whole series be found at Henry Norris at the Arsenal

Although Arsenal entered the 1926/7 without any major new signings of players who might compare with the advent of Buchan one year before, there was an absolute buzz about Arsenal, with Herbert Chapman having transformed a relegation threatened team into a team challenging for the title.

Of course realists reminded enthusiasts that as yet no London team had ever won the League and even Arsenal’s final position of second in the League was not a record-breaker, as Tottenham had achieved this in 1922, finishing six points behind Liverpool.  Prior to that Chelsea had made 3rd in 1920.  But still, such was the improvement of Arsenal under Chapman in just one season, there was a feeling that Arsenal could now make it happen.

But before we get too far into 1926/7 we should also pause for a moment cast an eye over what happened to Tom Whittaker, whose name has been mentioned occasionally in our chronicles as he had played 64 league games for Arsenal between 1919 and 1925.

In the summer of 1925 Whittaker had gone on an FA summer tour of Australia, the aim of which was to encourage the development of football as a sport in the continent.  However on 6 June 1925 Tom Whittaker received his career ending injury in Wollongong during the game against Illawarra District  which England won 0-8.

When Tom Whittaker got back to England he was fortunate to come under the medical guidance of Sir Robert Jones (who operated on Tom’s injured knee).  Sir Robert was the founding father of orthopaedics, the branch of medicine concerned with injuries and disease of the musculoskeletal system – the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles and nerves.    Indeed so eminent was Sir Robert that he became the first president of the International Society of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Having operated on Tom Whittaker, and having got to know him a little in hospital, Sir Robert became very impressed with Tom’s drive and interest and given that Tom would not be able to play again for a very long time, arranged for him to go on a year long training programme in anatomy, massage and electrical treatment.  So that is where he was during 1925/6 – Chapman’s first season at Arsenal.

However this wouldn’t have been a full time five days a week course, and we also know from Tom’s own account (Whittaker unlike most others in our story left an autobiography in the form of his thoughts dictated to a journalist who was a friend) tells us that before leaving for Australia he was given a new contract by Arsenal, so he was still an employee of the club – although of course now unable to play.

We also know that Tom already knew Joe Shaw who was running the reserve side, not least because in his last season as a player (the season before Chapman arrived at Arsenal) Tom spent almost all of his time in the reserves.   But then, as he faced 1925/6 without being able to play at all, and while Chapman and Sir Henry were continuing to argue Whittaker’s case before the FA, (and indeed argue it most forcibly) two opportunities arose for Whittaker which he was able to accommodate alongside his training programme in massage and electrical treatment.

The first was to strengthen his bond with Joe Shaw and others by bringing to the club the knowledge gained on the course about player fitness and his newly learned massage skills.  After all, if he was learning skills that could help an injured man recover more quickly, why on earth would the club not be interested?   What manager would not want such a development?  Certainly Chapman welcomed it.

Meanwhile, for the first time since joining the club one year before, the summer of 1926 was the first time that Herbert Chapman was able to step back from day to day football and consider ways of improving Arsenal.

And it was this that led to the second opportunity.  For at some time in the summer of 1926, Chapman found some unused space under the stand behind the away team’s changing room.  (The report of the incident says that Chapman simply said, “What’s behind that wall?”  No one knew so they knocked it down to find out.)

Chapman then ordered that the new found space should be turned into a basic gymnasium to help build up player fitness.  And knowing of Whittaker’s growing interest in the subject, and in particular physiothearpy, Chapman set him up as trainer of the second team and in effect deputy to George Hardy, trainer of the first team.   As far as I can see, there was no trainer of the reserves up to this point!

And so we move on to the start of the 1926/7 season, with Tom Whittaker now having a new job at Arsenal and high hopes all around as a result of last season’s second place finish.

Thus on 28 August 1926 Arsenal’s second season under Chapman began as Arsenal beat Derby County 2-1 with Buchan and Parker (a penalty) scoring in front of 32,990.

The team was


Parker Butler John

Baker  Blyth

Hulme Buchan Brain Ramsey Haden

It is a measure of the difference between Knighton and Chapman that every one of these players played at least 23 out of the 42 league games in the previous League campaign.  This contrasts with 1924/5, the last season under Knighton, in which four of the starting XI of the first game of the season played had played five or fewer games in the season before.

On 1 September Arsenal had both their second game of the season (at home to Bolton) and also their AGM, at which JJ Edwards was presented as a new member of the board.  As a member of the Feltmakers’ Company he would have been a nominee of Sir Henry Norris; he was also a solicitor with a practice in London – always a helpful person to have on the board.  Sally Davis suggests that all of Sir Henry’s appointments as directors in these years were not men with a particular (or indeed any) interest in football, but people who could represent the company’s interests in business matters.

In the match on this day Arsenal again recorded a victory by the same score as in the first game, using the same team as in the opening game.  Hulme got both goals.

However when Chapman put out the same team for the third time – an away game with Sheffield United on 4 September suddenly it all went wrong, and Arsenal lost 0-4.   This was Jimmy Dunne’s first game for United, and his performance clearly made an impression on Chapman, because Dunne ultimately became Chapman’s last big money signing at Arsenal.

After the shock of that defeat Chapman made two changes – Lambert and Lee coming in to replace Haden and Buchan for the fourth match of the season on 6 September, a 2-2 away draw with Bolton with Brain and Hulme getting the goals.  This dropping of two regulars does suggest however that these were enforced changes through injury, and it may be that in the Sheffield game injury during the match played a part in determining the result.

The following day the club announced that after an unprecedented demand for season tickets, the Arsenal directors had decided not to put any more on sale this season.

The wording of the announcement suggests that up to that point the number of season tickets made available was not limited at all – the club simply sold as many as they could.  But the demand now was so great that there was a danger that the stand would become totally “season tickets only” – meaning that no new supporters would be able to get a place in the stand.   Obviously no one had thought of such a possibility ever arising before!

Arsenal followed the 2-2 draw with Bolton, with two more games of exactly the same score. at home to Leicester on 11 September and away to Manchester United on 15 September..  The fixture with Leicester (the second Saturday afternoon fixture at Highbury) attracted over 30,000, exactly as the first such match had done.

And before we move on, I want to pause for just one moment and go look a little further at match number five – the 2-2 draw with Leicester in which, as I noted, Hulme scored.  That meant that in five games, the outside right had scored four goals.  As you may recall, Hulme had joined Arsenal in the latter part of the previous season, played 15 games and scored two goals, which is what we might expect from a winger playing in the traditional manner.

That two in 15 (a scoring rate of 13%) as I suggest, was not really surprising – he had scored six goals in 73 for his previous club Blackburn – a scoring rate of 8%.  With his first club York it was three goals in 28 games, a ratio of 11%.  So, 8%, 11%, 13% – these are much of a muchness.  Indeed Hoar, who had been on the right wing in the first two thirds of Chapman’s first season had got three goals in 21 – a ratio of 14%.

But now, suddenly we have here four goals in five games – an 80% ratio.  Of course it was just five games, and players are well known for going on runs in which the goals just keep happening, or equally can simply dry up altogether.  So we can’t judge too much from this.  But, jumping forward, we find Hulme scored eight goals in 37 games through the season – nothing like his opening salvo, but still a ratio of 21%.

So I believe that Chapman was deliberately searching for a winger who could score goals and as such was adjusting the team’s style of play to accommodate that.   And because of this stylistic change, once more (as with the change the previous season to adjust the defence for the new offside rule) it was working sometimes and not others.  This (as well as injury during the game) may have been a contributory factor to the two defeats in which Arsenal let in four goals in each match.

Certainly Chapman knew what he was after in terms of wingers and in 1927/8 the manager had taken this approach further with Hulme (eight goals in 36 on one wing) and Hoar (nine in 38).  The ratio was now up to around 23% on both wings, which justified the manager’s persistence,  but it was not until Cliff Bastin joined half way through the 1929/30 season that Chapman knew he had really found his man.  In his first full season Bastin scored 28 in 42 as a teenager (67%) while Hulme knocked in 14 in 32 (44%) as Arsenal won the League.

Thus my point is that Chapman knew the model he was looking for but it took him a while to find the players to match that model – which, as I say, partially explains why Arsenal were prone to sudden defeats.  True letting in four goals was not as bad as the Newcastle debacle of the season before, but still such results were not what Chapman and the fans were hoping for.

As it was, after all the expectations of the summer, after these six matches (which resulted in two wins, three draws, and a defeat) Arsenal were 7th in the league, which hardly sounds impressive and was certainly not impressing the short-termist approach adopted by the new journalist in the local paper.

However Arsenal were actually only one point behind the leaders, Burnley.   And yet on 17 September, the day before the next match, the Islington Gazette with its new football correspondent, described Arsenal’s start to the season (being one point behind the leaders) as “indifferent”, although the 2-0 win against Liverpool the following day suggested all was not lost.  Charlie Buchan played at inside-left (rather than inside-right) for what was reported to be the first time in his career.  The Times described the weather in London as sweltering heat, and noted that Arsenal got their goals while Liverpool were down to ten men.  Lucky Arsenal: it was ever thus.  However the league table showed Arsenal now in fourth place, still just one point behind the leaders.

Sally Davis also reports that around this time Arsenal gave a donation to the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables at Putney.  Arsenal, as Ms Davis reminds us, was a regular donor of money in support of a hospitals, although normally to the Great Northern Hospital on Holloway Road, which was the hospital that injured players would be taken to.  Quite why on this occasion they switched we don’t know.

Meanwhile during this first full month of the season there were once again some rather unexpected results elsewhere in addition to Arsenal’s 0-4 defeat to Sheffield United.   September saw games ending with scores such as Leicester City 5 Sheffield Wednesday 3, West Ham United 1 Blackburn Rovers 5,  Bury 7 West Bromwich 3, Liverpool 5 Sheffield United 1.

That was it for the high scoring games of the month – so we may conclude the chances of these erratic scores had diminished somewhat since 1925/6, but when one adds in Arsenal’s 4-0 defeat we can see that it wasn’t just Arsenal that was still experimenting with the new offside law.   Unfortunately, reports of the time are often lacking in detail, but there are a few occasions where unexpectedly high scores are linked to teams being down to 10 men, or injured players coming back on the pitch to “help out the defence” by being nothing more than another body, and who actually did more harm than good, by allowing the opposition to spring the offside trap.

Such matters might explain one or two of the extraordinary scores, but I feel sure that experimentation around the new laws of the game was still the order of the day for some clubs.

As for September 1926, Arsenal now had one more league match away to Leeds United – which resulted in the second heavy defeat of the month – 1-4.   There was also one more game – the London FA Charity Cup first round tie at Highbury, and here again things did not go according to plan.  Arsenal were playing Charlton Athletic, and lost, once more 4-1 having been 1-1 at half time.  Unusually for Highbury, no crowd figure was given.

Staying with the team for one more moment, if we work through the side we find these players (with their position in brackets) playing in every game thus far, in their standard position.

Harper (1) Parker (2) Baker (4) Butler (5) Hulme (7) and Brain (9).  John also played in every game but for three matches moved back to his original position with Arsenal at left half (6).  The rest of the time he was left back.

Buchan played five of the games (three at inside right and two at inside left).  Making up the inside forward positions Ramsay got six games, and new signing Lambert five.  Only outside left saw more chopping and changing, but even here it was nothing like the scale of the comings and goings that Knighton had indulged in.  Haden played four, Lee four and Hoar one.  The experimentation was set to continue.

The league table now read…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Leicester City 8 4 4 0 27 17 1.588 12
2 Birmingham City 8 5 2 1 14 9 1.556 12
3 Burnley 7 4 2 1 19 13 1.462 10
4 Sunderland 8 4 2 2 11 9 1.222 10
5 Tottenham Hotspur 8 3 3 2 21 15 1.400 9
6 Bolton Wanderers 7 4 1 2 19 14 1.357 9
7 Newcastle United 8 3 3 2 17 14 1.214 9
8 Huddersfield Town 8 2 5 1 13 11 1.182 9
9 Bury 8 3 3 2 20 17 1.176 9
10 Sheffield United 8 4 1 3 12 12 1.000 9
11 Arsenal 8 3 3 2 13 16 0.813 9

In terms of goals scored Arsenal were doing as expected, but it was the defence that was now not right.  Even seeing them as a club in 11th position, they had let in more goals that one might have anticipated.  On the other hand Arsenal were maintaining a steady team, even though (primarily I believe, because of the experimentation) the results were not coming as expected.  If one set the issue of experimenting aside then  the two defeats in the league (and the defeat in the London FA Charity Cup) which all involved letter in four goals would be worrying – but if one sees them as experimental games, one might expect that Chapman knew exactly what he wanted to achieve.

But I think the decision to play the first team against Charlton Athletic (a very average 3rd Division (South) team at the time) shows just how interested Chapman was in formations.  He would give up any thought of the London Cup if it meant he could have another competitive match in which he could experiment with getting the shape of his team exactly as he wanted it.

And this was not the first time this had happened – we may recall the suddenly arranged friendlies last season which seemed to be there for exactly the same reason – to get the tactics sorted.

Here are the results of the month.

Date Opponents H/A Comp Res Score Crowd
28/08/1926 Derby County H FL W 2-1 32,990
01/09/1926 Bolton Wanderers H FL W 2-1 23,002
04/09/1926 Sheffield United A FL L 0-4 21,942
06/09/1926 Bolton Wanderers A FL D 2-2 19,717
11/09/1926 Leicester City H FL D 2-2 30,800
15/09/1926 Manchester United A FL D 2-2 15,259
18/09/1926 Liverpool H FL W 2-0 35,497
25/09/1926 Leeds United A FL L 1-4 20,544
27/09/1926 Charlton Athletic H LFACC L 1-4

Details of the whole series of articles on Henry Norris at the Arsenal can be found here including a selection of articles covering the election of Arsenal in 1919 – which is a topic that can still be considered contentious in some quarters.

An index to our various series published prior to this one, and to the anniversary files can be found on the home page.


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