12 December: Arsenal sign a 35 year old who became a goalscoring sensation

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To read about the free Arsenal video collection and about the Arsenal History Society, please see the note at the foot of this article.

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Ronnie Rooke signed for Arsenal aged 35 from Fulham on this day in 1946.  Before signing for Arsenal he had never played in the top division of English football and remains the oldest player to make his Arsenal first-team debut.  David Nelson and Cyril Grant went to Fulham as part of the deal.

Arsenal’s record during the 1930s was something to behold: League Champions five times, Runners Up once, Cup Winners twice, losing finalists once.  The question was asked more than once, could anything stop Arsenal?

The answer of course was yes, but it wasn’t a football club.  It was the second world war.

Unlike the first world war where, in the expectation that it would be a small thing which the professional army would have sorted out by Christmas, the league programme for 1914/15 was continued and completed. But the moment war was declared in 1939 the League programme was stopped, and a short while later the first of a series of wartime leagues was set up.

During the second world war Arsenal’s ground was taken over by the military and the matches were played at White Hart Lane.  George Allison, who had been thinking of retiring from management even before war was declared, battled on through the war and (again against his wishes) was persuaded to manage the club for the first post-war season 1946/7 while the club waited for Tom Whittaker to return.

As a result, the 1946/7 season was a disaster and it soon became clear that even finishing in the top half of the league looked unlikely.

Arsenal lost the opening game away to Wolverhampton 6-1.  Our goal was scored by Reg Lewis.  The second match gave no relief to Arsenal fans – a 3-1 home defeat to Blackburn.  Reg Lewis scored.  The third match was a 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland in front of 60,000 people.  Reg Lewis got both.  In the fourth match, we lost away from home to Everton 2-3.  Reg Lewis scored.  Twice.

You’ll have started to see a pattern here.  Arsenal, despite clearly being way off the form that had led the club to dominate the 30s had in their midst a scoring machine called Reg Lewis.

Although many players were unable to continue after the war, Reg was still only 26, and he came back to professional football with a bang.  Arsenal however never recovered from their poor start in the first post-war season, but in the second half of the campaign, Reg found he had a fellow goalscorer in the team: Ronnie Rooke.  He took up Reg’s position on December 14 1946, with Reg injured, and scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Charlton.

By the end of the season the power of the Arsenal team was clear for alongside Reg’s 29 goals from 28 games Ronnie had 21 goals from 24 games.

The following season Reg and Ronnie scored 47 goals between them as Arsenal won the First Division title in 1947/48 with Tom Whittaker now enthroned in his first year as manager.

So where, one may ask, did Ronnie Rooke come from?

In answering this question, we have perhaps the strangest part of the story of all.  Ronnie played for Fulham before the war, but was 35 years old when football resumed in 1946.  And yet despite this was still signed by George Allison.  Allison’s scouting team had pretty much gone, or lost touch with who was available where, and so he was ready to take on anyone at least to get him through to the end of the season.  35 year old Ronnie was the man he found.

Amazingly the plan worked and not only did Ronnie get his 21 goals in 24 League matches in his first season, in the championship season of 1947-8 he scored an unbelievable 33 League goals.

Ronnie was born on 7 December 1911 in Guildford and started out with Crystal Palace in the Third Division South, playing 18 games and scoring four times.

Then he went on to Fulham in the Second Division in November 1936 scoring   57 goals in 87 league games, including all the goals in Fulham 6 Bury 0 in the FA Cup.

During the war he was in the RAF and upon being demobbed he joined Arsenal. Perhaps even more amazingly Ronnie kept going for one more year, getting 14 goals in 1948-9 before moving to Crystal Palace, as player-manager on 20 June 1949. He scored 70 goals in just 94 matches for Arsenal.

After Palace, Ronnie went on to be player-manager of Bedford Town in November 1950, and later worked as a porter at Luton Airport, dying of lung cancer in 1985 aged 73.

Persuading George Allison to stay with Arsenal for the first post-war season, while they waited for Tom Whittaker to be available to take up the post, was not the best reward for a man who had served Arsenal since 1910 (when he took over as programme writer and editor when Henry Norris moved to the club).  But in the longer run, it paid off.

It is to Allison, and his idea of playing Ronnie Rooke and Reg Lewis together in 1946/7 that we owe the 1947/8 Championship.


 

ARSENAL HISTORY SOCIETY VIDEO COLLECTION

For details of the videos sorted by club, and videos in the order we published them, plus our 21 golden great videos please see here.


The Arsenal History Society is part of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association – a body which gives positive support to the club, and has regular meetings with directors and senior officials of the club to represent the views of its members to the club.  You can read more about AISA on its website.

 


100 Years in the First Division: the absolute complete story of Arsenal’s promotion in 1919.

Henry Norris at the Arsenal:  There is a full index to the series here.

Arsenal in the 1930s: The most comprehensive series on the decade ever

Arsenal in the 1970s: Every match and every intrigue reviewed in detail.3 December 1949

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