14 January 2006: Thierry Henry and Cliff Bastin

By Tony Attwood

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On 14 January 2006 the score was Arsenal 7 Middlesbrough 0. Henry scored a hat-trick, and on this site you can see a video of the match.

And indeed seven goals is enough by itself to make it worth celebrating this match.  But there was also something else, for those goals for Henry meant that he had equalled Cliff Bastin’s record as Arsenal’s top scorer.

Clifford Sydney Bastin was born on 14 March 1912 in Exeter and played for his school and local recreation teams.

On leaving school he started to train as an electrician, but also joined Exeter City FC.  His first game was for the Reserves in the Southern League against Bath City on December 24, 1927 age 15.   He was in the first team by the following April aged 16 years 1 month playing against Coventry City in a 0-0 draw.    In his home debut for the first team he scored two in a 5-1 win against Newport County.  In all he played 17 times for Exeter and scored six.

The fact that he only played 17 times for Exeter was something of an accident – at least according to legend.  For the story that is told is that Herbert Chapman actually went to St James Park to watch a Watford player he was contemplating signing, but Chapman was so taken with Cliff that he negotiated to buy him instead.  True or not, the signing is the indication of what Chapman did.  He travelled the land to see players, and having seen one he thought make do it, he would buy him.

Bastin in his autobiography however says that Blackburn were also after him and that before Arsenal arrived he had already had a dispute with Exeter over wages, they trying to pay him lower than the norm, probably thinking that as a 16 year old, he wouldn’t really know what’s what.

However, when Chapman arrived, Bastin turned down the offer of Arsenal.  Again in the autobiography Bastin tells of Chapman pursuing him to his house and making another pitch for his signature.  Eventually, Bastin agreed, but then needed his mother’s permission.  She apparently said, “Do as you please.”  So he signed.

Arsenal paid £2,000 for Bastin on 27 April 1929, and Bastin himself tells the tale that when he turned up at Arsenal on the first day the doorman wouldn’t let him in, thinking he was just another supporter trying to get autographs.

This was the time when Herbert Chapman was changing the role of the wingers, as part of his complete re-writing of the tactical approach following the change in the offside rule in 1925.   Wingers, up to this point had been playing up and down the line.   Chapman’s idea was to get the wingers to come inside, either with the inside forwards dropping back, or with them moving out to the wing to receive the ball if it came loose in a tackle from the full-back.   Bastin, he thought, was the ideal player to do this since he had played both on the wing and as an inside forward.

It was a tactical innovation that was part of the revolution that emerged post-1925 and it was aided by the additional facts that Bastin became a dead-ball specialist, and was dangerous in the air at the far post – another rare trait for a winger at the time.   In his first full season (1930-1) he scored 28 goals in 42 games playing in each game at number 11.  Arsenal won the league after being 14th the previous year.

In all Bastin scored 150 goals in 350 games for Arsenal.  He won the league five times and the Cup twice.    He was capped for England 21 times.

Cliff Bastin played in the friendly against Germany in May 1938 when England won 6-3 – he scored the first goal.  You can also see him in “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery” film and in the 1942 movie “One of our aircraft is missing”.

In 1936 Bastin suffered from a serious attack of the flu, which led to an inner ear infection, which in turn led to the onset of deafness.  Although his form declined somewhat he was able to keep playing, and during the last three pre-war years he often played as a half back rather than a winger.

War broke out when Bastin was 27 and he was excused war service for failing the army hearing test, instead serving as an ARP Warden at the Highbury.   During the war he played 241 games and scored 70 goals.

He played in the first six matches after the war in the 1946/7 season but with age catching up and his hearing gone he then retired.   His total including cup games for Arsenal was 178 goals in 395 games.

In retirement, he ran a café back in his home county, wrote for the Sunday Pictorial and went on to be a publican.  He died aged 79 in Devon.  In 2000 Exeter named one of their stands after him.

One can only hope Thierry knew a little about the modest man whose record he went on to beat.


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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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