On 7 December 1940: Jack Lambert, then Arsenal’s reserve coach, died in car accident aged 38. He had played 143 league games for Arsenal and scored an amazing 98 league goals making him the most prolific goal scorer who played over 100 games, in Arsenal’s entire history.
And yet Jack Lambert was an enigmatic player both in terms of what we know about him, and in terms of his own personality.
He played local football for Greasborough and Methley Perseverance, before being rejected by The Wednesday after a trial run, then played non-league with Rotherham County and Leeds, and finally managing to get a run with Rotherham United in the 3rd Division North, wherein getting 13 goals in 44 games he looked as if he had found his level.
There are then two rival stories as to what happened next. One says that Leslie Knighton, paid £2,000 for him in January 1925. The other is that Herbert Chapman had seen him while managing Huddersfield, and so, on moving to Arsenal, he signed him £2000 in the summer of 1926.
If Knighton did sign him in 1925 then that blows another hole in the story of Sir Henry Norris not allowing Knighton to buy any player costing more than £1200. And it seems odd that a player bought with a decent transfer fee that would have stretched Norris’ patience, should not play for the first team in 1924/5 when Arsenal were struggling, and eventually ended the season one place above relegation. Surely, having paid that money, Knighton would have risked him for just one game at least.
Likewise it is odd that Chapman did not even try the man out for a single game in 1925/6. So it seems more likely that Chapman did indeed buy him in the summer of 1926.
Whatever the truth of the story, his record at Arsenal is one of the most interesting that you will ever see. The following figures relate to league matches only.
If Knighton bought the man, it is amazing that from such a low start Chapman still persevered with the player. Another story (without any backup evidence sadly) that circulates is that Jack was booed by some parts of the crowd and that Chapman was so annoyed that he wanted the “boo-boys” as they were called then, ejected from the ground.
Indeed the Jack Lambert issue is the first incident of Chapman’s side being booed by supposed Arsenal fans – something that reached a crescendo after the cup defeat to Walsall.
But this early problem for Jack was forgotten by many (although I think not by Jack) when he broke the club goal record with his 38 goals in 34 league games, including seven hat tricks, as Arsenal won the league for the first time. Those who had booed him presumably changed their minds and claimed always to have liked Jack.
His final appearance was in September 1933 and in October he moved on to Fulham where he played for two seasons before retiring as a player aged 35.
He then moved on to become coach of Margate, who at the time were run as a nursery club for Arsenal, before moving back to Arsenal in 1938 as coach of the reserve side (according to one report) or the youth team (according to another). Tragically he died that year killed in a car accident in Enfield (although yet again there is a disagreement as an alternative source says that the accident was not until 1940).
So why did Chapman stay with a player who had had no previous record of success in the top division, and who had been rejected by other clubs? One answer probably comes from the fact that at the time the reserves played in a regular Saturday afternoon league which unlike today was not a league for young players. Arsenal regularly won the Football Combination in the 1930s, and it was here that Jack finally showed signs of the standard that Chapman had known him capable of.
There is another point: Jack Lambert’s first real goal scoring return came in 1929/30 (18 goals in 20 games) when Arsenal came 14th in the league, which means that his goalscoring in such a modest team was no mean feat. But that was also the year Arsenal won the Cup, and Jack played in all 8 FA Cup matches, scoring five goals, including one in the final.
And we must remember who he was playing alongside during the peak of his career: Cliff Bastin, Alex James, David Jack and Joe Hulme. Not a bad set of players.
So why did people turn on him? Reports suggest that he was incredibly nervous as a player, saying on one occasion, “Even the thought of setting foot on the pitch, fills me with dread.”
He is of course now forgotten by most Arsenal fans, but his name and his sadly short life should be remembered – and it would be good if we could get the variant reports of his life resolved.
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