3 January 1953: the start of the journey to winning the league on the final day

by Tony Attwood

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We are all familiar with Arsenal winning the league on the last match of the season.  George Graham’s team beating Liverpool 0-2 away, and Bertie Mee’s  Double with that last match win at Tottenham.

But there was another equally dramatic win in the last game of the season – back in 1953.  Because of the lack of TV cameras we have now forgotten this game, and yet it was as dramatic as the others. And within the story we see a moment of the discontent that has been heard at Arsenal over the years.

To tell the story we need to go back to January 3 1953, a day on which Arsenal lost 1-3 at home to Sunderland.

It was hardly a catastrophe, because Arsenal were undefeated in the previous seven games and in this era, losing 10 or 11 games while winning the league was the norm. Besides, although it was a home defeat, it was also only the fourth defeat all season for Arsenal, with over half the games now played.

Prior to the match Arsenal had beaten Bolton 6-4 away from home on 25 December 1952,  and indeed the recent run of results had also included Liverpool 1 Arsenal 5, on 15 November.

As a result of this run of form Arsenal were standing a promising second in the league. What’s more Arsenal were not only second, but second with a game in hand and a far superior goal average than other teams around them.

This was the team of Logie, Lishman, Goring and Holton, a team that evolved from the side that had won the cup in 1950. But the defeat on this day against Sunderland knocked Arsenal down the league table to 6th – and some of the fans showed what is perhaps not, after all, such a modern trend, of taking the last match alone as the indicator of how things stand.

The volume, “Highbury: the story of Arsenal” by John Spurling recounts the story that Peter Goring was confronted after the Sunderland game by a fan who said that he’d seen the Arsenal team of the 30s and that the current team wasn’t fit to lick their boots. Peter is quoted as saying, “I wasn’t the only player to be confronted in such a way.  Some of the other boys also got hassle from fans which wasn’t nice”.

The Anti-Arsenal Arsenal (as they were labelled after they started their constant attacks on Arsene Wenger) were thus active in the 1950s, as indeed they were in the 1930s (Chapman regularly railed against the boo-boys as they were called then), and indeed as they were when the fans deserted the club between 1910 and 1913.

Indeed, Jon Spurling’s account of the era includes the comment that “One of Goring’s team mates snapped and told the Daily Mail journalist… that he was ‘ashamed of the crowd and considered them the most unsporting collection in the country’.”

But all was not lost – as with Arsenal it never is.  Arsenal in fact recovered quickly from the Sunderland game and the next seven games scored 27 goals.

There was then another difficult run of four draws and two defeats in the league between March 7 and March 28.   But then on April 3 another run started – a run of seven undefeated including five straight wins.  Indeed not just five straight wins, but five wins that involved scoring 18 goals.

At the end of that run – on the evening of April 18 – the league table had been transformed…

Pld W D L F A Gl Av Pts
1 Arsenal 39 20 11 8 94 60 1.57 51
2 Wolverhampton Wndrs 41 19 13 9 84 60 1.40 51
3 Preston North End 39 18 12 9 80 60 1.33 48
4 Blackpool 41 19 9 13 71 65 1.09 47

But then with the season drawing to an end, and Arsenal needing just three points from three matches to claim the title, there was another twist.

  • 22 April 1953:  Cardiff 0 Arsenal 0
  • 25 April 1953: Preston 2 Arsenal 0

Now either Arsenal or Preston could win the league.  If both clubs produced the same result, or if Arsenal did better than Preston, then Arsenal would win.

Pld W D L F A Gl Av Pts
1 Arsenal 41 20 12 9 94 62 1.52 52
2 Preston North End 41 20 12 9 84 60 1.40 52
3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 42 19 13 10 86 63 1.36 51

Preston played their game in hand first and won 1-0, taking them up to 54 points but still with a worse goal average than Arsenal.  So Arsenal had to win.  It didn’t matter by how many but they had to win.

The Highbury pitch was in a terrible state by this time – utterly covered in mud and without a blade of grass in sight with the edges utterly unplayable – but it was at Highbury that Arsenal had to play their last game, against fifth-placed Burnley.

The teams had drawn at Turf Moor 1-1 back on December 13, and this was certainly not seen as an easy ride for Arsenal.

This final match was played on a Friday evening, to avoid clashing with the Cup Final the next day, and when Arsenal went for their normal pre-match meal at Kings Cross station they were met with fans already turning up for the Cup Final the next day. There were also people hanging around Highbury from mid-day onwards – a precursor of the game at Tottenham in 1971.

But surprisingly come kick off the ground was not full.  Only 51,586 turned up – perhaps because it was a Friday night.  Perhaps because everyone expected it to be impossible to get in!  Perhaps it was the awful weather that had seen heavy rain off and on through the day.

Doug Lishman stated later that the earlier antagonism of some of the crowd vanished for this match, saying, “The crowd was at their best that night.  The noise they made was unbelievable, it was really ear-piercing…. However much the players and the fans were in conflict that season I can’t deny they were superb on that night.”

Burnley took the lead on six minutes, but then midway through the first half Forbes and Lishman scored within minutes of each other to give Arsenal the lead which Logie extended to 3-1 just before halftime.

Then at half time the heavens opened once again and there was talk in the crowd of the match being abandoned as the pitch clearly got utterly waterlogged.   The game however did restart, and within minutes Burnley had got one back.  The conditions meant players started to pick up injuries – Joe Mercer said playing in that match crocked him for good while Don Roper played on with torn ligaments.  Logie and Goring were hardly able to move and so were just put behind the ball as Arsenal tried to hang on for the rest of the second half.

Partway through the second half Tom Whittaker, the manager who had won the league in 1948 and the cup in 1950, left the dugout and reputedly poured himself a stiff drink!  Luckily there were no TV cameras to capture the moment or we’d never have heard the last of it. Burnley hit the bar, and had a call for a penalty, but at 8pm the match ended and Arsenal had won the league on goal difference.

Pld W D L F A Gl Av Pts
1 Arsenal 42 21 12 9 97 64 1.52 54
2 Preston North End 42 21 12 9 85 60 1.42 54
3 Wolverhampton Wndrs 42 19 13 10 86 63 1.36 51

It turned out to be Tom Whittaker’s last trophy, for tragically during the 1956/7 season while still manager, he died suddenly. Jack Crayston took over for one and a half seasons, followed by four seasons of George Swindin and four seasons of Billy Wright. The club did not win another trophy until 28 April 1970 – 16 years later which makes it even more worth recording as a most special moment in Arsenal’s history.



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.


Just as the videos have been put in date order so we are now doing a day-by-day series of Arsenal events, looking to find one good story a day throughout the year.   This project started on 1 December, and we are adding to it each day.   The index is 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.

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