By Tony Attwood
Leslie Knighton was appointed manager of The Arsenal upon the return of the club to the first division at the end of the first world war, in 1919. Arsenal were promoted after refusing to back down on the match fixing scandal in the last pre-war season (which actually went on into the war period, finishing in 1915).
George Morrell had been dismissed from the club once the league programme was abandoned in 1915 (a common approach among the clubs who were left without income), and Knighton came in, managing his first Arsenal match in August 1919. Here’s his achievements:
|League Position||FA Cup round exit *|
|1919-20||10 / 22||2|
|1920-21||9 / 22||1|
|1921-22||17 / 22||4|
|1922-23||11 / 22||2|
|1923-24||19 / 22||2|
|1924-25||20 / 22||1|
In the FA Cup The Arsenal entered at round 1.
This was hardly a wondrous time for the club and indeed in the last two seasons of the Morrell six years things looked like getting worse. They had avoided relegation by one point in 1924 and seven points the next season. During his final season at Arsenal, Knighton was involved in an early doping story, claiming that before the FA Cup match against WHU he had (quite legally) handed out pills from a west end doctor who was a fan. The story is that the players had more energy but a great thirst, and the players refused to use pills in the replays.
So in came Herbert Chapman straight from the Championship winning Huddersfield Town who had won the league in 1924 and 1925.
Huddersfield in fact made it three in a row in 1926 with The Arsenal coming second. In 1926 the FA Cup approach was changed to the modern approach, with the top clubs entering in the third round – Arsenal went out in the sixth round (the equivalent to Knighton’s best season in 1922.
This all looked very encouraging, not least because second was the best Arsenal had achieved until this point. But as we now know it didn’t happen immediately for Arsenal, and Chapman’s club took quite a dive before finally putting the winning team together.
In 1924/5 Arsenal scored 46 and let in 58; the following season the figures were 87-63. So it is clear, what Chapman had done looks fairly obvious. He improved the attack.
He did this with one CM Buchan who scored 19 and J Brain who scored 34 up from 12 the following season. The next highest scorer was WN Blyth who got seven.
So, let’s look at these two players
Buchan was re-signed by Arsenal from Sunderland. The story is often said that the key to this resigning was the development of the WM system to cope with the change in the offside law.
Charlie Buchan did make a major contribution; he scored 56 goals in 120 matches for Arsenal.
After a year in the reserve side, Jimmy Brain played his Arsenal first-team career with a goal to be Tottenham on 25 October 1924 – in Knighton’s last season at the club.
Despite only joining the side in October Jimmy was the top scorer that season, and then in each of the first four season’s of Chapman’s reign. His goals in 1925/26 was only beat by Ted Drake with 45 in 1934/5.
Jimmy Brain was thus the mainstay of the Chapman side until 1929/30, although he did play enough games in the first championship winning team in 1931.
He left Arsenal for Tottenham for £2,500 in September 1931, having scored 139 goals in 232 games and was the first player to score 100 goals for us.
So in this regard Chapman benefited by the signing the previous season of Jimmy Brain – one of the greatest goal scorers the club had ever seen, and from his own decision to re-sign Charlie Buchan. Both made an impact on goalscoring – but the defence became a lot leakier.
But there is another side to the story. Everyone’s defence got leakier. In 1924/5 the top three teams in the first division (Huddersfield, WBA, Bolton) let in 28, 34, 34 respectively. In the following season the top three (Huddersfield, Arsenal, Sunderland) let in 60, 63 and 80.
So Arsenal’s increase in defensive frailty was nothing compared with champions Huddersfield – and it certainly looks like the change in tactics to bring in an extra defensive player to counteract the change to the offside rule, was a remarkable success from the off. Jimmy Brain, a natural goal scorer, would score goals anyway, but certainly got more goals because of the change of the law.
The conclusion might therefore be that Chapman was bringing in his magic – using the resources he had, adding one experienced striker, and a new defensive formation.