Chapman: the fifth season, and the first trophy

By Tony Attwood

Herbert Chapman followed Leslie Knighton as manager at Arsenal.  Here’s how the last years of Knighton’s reign compared with Chapman’s opening years.

Season Manager League Position Cup exit round*
1921/2 Knighton 17 4 (6)
1922/3 Knighton 11 2 (4)
1923/4 Knighton 19 2 (4)
1924/5 Knighton 20 2 (4)
1925/6 Chapman 2 6
1926/7 Chapman 11 Beaten finalist
1927/8 Chapman 10 Semi-final
1928/9 Chapman 9 6
1929/30 Chapman 14 Winners

* Before 1925 teams in the top league entered the FA Cup in Round 1.  The figure in brackets in the Knighton years shows the equivalent round in modern terms with the top clubs entering in round 3.

Looking at the above it is clear why Knighton might have been sacked as manager – his record was average and getting worse, with three near relegation finishes in the last four years of his time at the club.  The FA Cup was giving no respite either, with the club getting knocked out year after year in the second round.

Crowds were modest, with 25,000 being a common attendance during Knighton’s time in charge. For much of the time in his early years Chapman’s teams had not secured much in terms of an improvement, but by the start of 1929/30 things were looking up a litte.  While the final home game of 1928/9 had gained a crowd of 21,465 against Leeds, the opening home game of the following season against the same opposition had a crowd of 41,885.

The reason might well have been the team which lined up as


Parker, Roberts, Hapgood

Baker John

Hulme Brain Jack James Jones

The new man being, of course, Alex James, who went on to play 31 league games and score six goals.  He also undertook the little matter of scoring in the Cup Final, of which more in a moment.

So as we can see, Arsenal won the cup this year – their first ever major trophy, having joined the ranks of the professionals division two in 1893.

But the league position was yet another flop.  Arsenal won 15, drew 9,  lost 18 games.  The only consolation was that they had the fourth best defence in the league – but you can imagine what today’s supporters would say if Untold Arsenal trotted out that line after two top ten finishes in nine years.

Sheffield Wednesday won the league with 60 points, to our 39 (two points for a win of course).  Burnley went down with 36 points – that is how close it was.  It was April that did us in once again, with one win in the last nine games.  There was however a 6-6 draw during this final period in which Cliff Bastin got four.

However we must be fair.  In those days the FA Cup Final was not the last game of the season.   Arsenal’s end of campaign went like this

April 26: FA Cup Final – won 2-0 against Huddersfield

April 28 – League – lost 0-1 at home to Sunderland

May 3 – League – lost 2-4 at home to Aston Villa

The teams however in the league games were almost identical to the cup winning game.  No rotation and bringing in new players.  Everyone just played on and on.

But it was the cup that took the attention.  Arsenal finally won the trophy after beaing Chelsea, Brimingham Middlesbrough, WHU, Hull City, and Huddersfield (in the final).  Two games were drawn (Birmingham and Hull) and these were the only two where the opposition scored.  In all the games we won, and which took us on towards the ultimate winning of the cup, the opposition did not get a goal.

So we won the cup but in the league no one got over 20 goals.

Alex James

Alex was born in Lanarkshire and played for Brandon Amateurs, Orbiston Celtic, Glasgow Ashfield, Motherwell, Raith Rovers (singed in 1922), Preston NE (singed in 1925) and then finally Arsenal (singed in 1929).  Preston had been refusing to release Alex for internationals with Scotland, and there was also a dispute about money – both of which led to his transfer for £8750.

By this time, with Norris out of the picture – ironically for infringements of financial regulations – Arsenal were seemingly moving full steam ahead into infringing financial regulations by getting Alex a job as a “sports demonstrator” at Selfridges.  Thus he and the club neatly sidestepped the maximum wage rule – which had seemingly been the problem at Preston.  He played as what we would today see as a deep creative midfielder – the man who created the passes that allowed Jack, Bastin, Drake and Lambert to score.

Cliff Bastin

Cliff joined Arsenal at the age of 16 having played 17 games for Exeter.  He started with Arsenal just a couple of months after Alex James, and became like Alex a key part of the club in the glorious era of the 1930s.

He scored 178 goals in 395 games, making him the third top scorer behind Ian Wright and Thierry Henry.  He made 21 appearances in the 1929/30 season, playing much of the time on the left wing, and devising the new policy of having the wingers cut in, rather than staying on the wing and passing.

So the long drought was over and Arsenal finally won a major trophy, in Chapman’s fifth season, with the league, as we all know, coming in the sixth.

But the question remains: why did it take Chapman six years to win the league?  That’s a question that I will try and look at in more detail in the next article.

As to whether Chapman would today be given six years from the moment he signed to the first league win it seems unlikely.  And had he not, we would have lost one of our two most important managers.

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3 Replies to “Chapman: the fifth season, and the first trophy”

  1. Arsenal made another major signing this season – David Halliday. Arsenal paid £6500 to Sunderland for the man who replaced Charles Buchan. Halliday knew where the back of the net was having scored 153 goals in 166 league games in 4 years at Roker Park. Unfortunately he couldn’t do it at Arsenal.

    His first 14 league games produced just 4 goals. He finally found his scoring boots the week before the FA Cup Final when he put 4 past Leicester. It wasn’t enough to convince Chapman. Halliday must be the only player to score 4 goals and get dropped for a cup final!

    He scored 15 goals in 13 reserve games in 1931/2 before he was sold to Manchester City for £5700 where he rediscovered his form.

  2. Now why would people want to “singe” Alex James? One of our legends with his Brylcreemed hair…long before Denis Compton. No Mr Teasy Weasy in those days with these fancy cuts. Make do with a pudden’ bowl and a pair of scissors.

  3. Halliday, fresh from his Division 1 topping 43 goal total of 1928-29, was dropped by Sunderland after a run of seven games without a goal the following season. Newspaper archives show Herbert Chapman had to be pretty persistent to convince the centre forward to move south. As history shows he never regained his touch at Arsenal, only doing so after he moved on to Manchester City. However, Chapman really rated him as can be seen in the words he devotes to Halliday in his book on football.

    Halliday remains only player in top flight English football to score 30plus goals in four straight seasons and the quickest 100 goals (100-101). Archives describe him as graceful, elegant, skilful with wonderful ball control. Still, never considered good enough for Scotland.

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