1 May 1953: Arsenal win the league on goal average

On 1 May 1953 Arsenal beat Burnley 3-2 in the final match of the season.  As a result, Arsenal won the league on goal average.  With Arsenal 3-1 up at half time, and Burnley attacking in atrocious conditions, it was widely reported that partway through the second half manager Tom Whittaker, left the dugout and poured himself a stiff drink.  I’m not sure he commented upon this.

At the time and for years after, this was one of the most famous season ends.  It was only displaced as such when George Graham’s team beat Liverpool 0-2 away, and Bertie Mee’s  Double with that last match win at Tottenham.

But this was just as dramatic as either of those and for decades just as famous.

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.

And although it was a home defeat, it was also only the fourth defeat all season for Arsenal, with over half the games now played.

What’s more, 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 1952.

As a result of this run of form, on 3 January 1953 Arsenal were standing a promising second in the league, one point behind Wolverhampton.

What’s more Arsenal were not only second but second with a game in hand and a far superior goal average to other teams around them.

This was the team of Logie, Lishman, Goring and Holton, a team built out of the side that had won the cup in 1950.

But the defeat 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.

Indeed 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”.

Jon Spurling’s book continues with the quotes saying that, “One of Goring’s teammates snapped and told the Daily Mail journalist… that he was ‘ashamed of the crowd and considered them the most unsporting collection in the country’.”

The book does contain some unfortunate inaccuracies as to Arsenal’s position in the league through the season, but it gives a good view of the era as Arsenal recovered quickly from the Sunderland game and the next seven games showed their intent by scoring 25 goals.

Of course there were defeats – Arsenal went out of the cup in the 6th round to Blackpool, one week after losing to them in the league.  And there was another difficult run of four draws and two defeats in the league between March 7 and March 28.

But then on April 3 the final great run started – a run of seven undefeated including five straight wins.  Indeed not just five straight wins, but five wins that involved scoring another 18 goals. By the end of the month Arsenal were top of the league with two games in hand over second-placed Wolverhampton.

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.  Here’s the table…

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 Wndrs 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 game was by no means seen as a certainty for Arsenal.

This 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.

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 which 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 half time.

Then at halftime 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 virtually the whole of the second half.   Fortunately for Arsenal, Burnley were feeling it just as much.

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.  Fortunately, 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 average.

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

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.

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.

100 Years: 100 Years in the First Division


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