Jack Lambert, one of our greatest ever players, was born on this day in 1902.
Jack was an enigmatic player both in terms of what we know about him as a player, and in terms of his own personality but however one looks at him he was one of our greatest goalscorers ever.
He played local football for Greasborough and Methley Perseverance, before being rejected by The Wednesday after a trial run, then playing non-league with Rotherham County, playing without getting very far with Leeds City, and finally managing to get a run with Rotherham United in the 3rd Division North, where in getting 13 goals in 44 games he looked as if he had found his level.
There are now 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. The latter seems much more likely, since Knighton in his autobiography suggested that he was ordered by Henry Norris not to spend more than £1000 on any individual player. To have spent double that on an unknown lower division player seems a strange contradiction – although the autobiography does contain a number of seeming contradictions. And if it is true that Knighton signed him, we might wonder why he then didn’t play Jack Lambert.
But however and whenever the transfer happened, Jack’s record at Arsenal is one of the most interesting that you will ever see. The following figures relate to league matches only.
And yet despite these numbers, and totally tragically, Jack Lambert was also the first player in Chapman’s side to be regularly booed by supposed Arsenal fans in his early days at Highbury.
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 in the 1930/31 season.
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, which at the time was 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 he was not killed 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 30s, and it was here that Jack 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 saved Arsenal from relegation that year. 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.
So why did some fans 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 now forgotten by most Arsenal fans, but his name and his sadly short life most certainly should be remembered and celebrated by Arsenal.
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