4 September: Final Arsenal match for Don Roper


4 September 1956

by Tony Attwood

Donald George Beaumont Roper was seen as a schoolboy by Southampton, playing for Bitterne Nomads, in the Hampshire League and soon turned professional with Southampton in 1939, (and not in the late 1940s as Brian Glanville wrote in a rather eccentric obituary in the Guardian).  He started playing for the club during the second world war – including some games alongside Ted Bates who later became his manager and was the source of a life-long rift between Roper and Southampton.

After one post-war season, and having played a first class cricket match for Hampshire against Cambridge University in the summer of 1947 Arsenal signed Don Roper, with George Curtis, Tom Rudkin plus £10,000 going in the opposite direction.

The transfer was a very difficult one, not least because Arsenal absolutely did not want to lose George Curtis.  It is reported that Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker went to Southampton eleven times during the war years and during Roper’s one post-war league season at the Dell to watch the player and to try and ease the negotiations along.

Roper immediately became a first-team player, playing 40 league games and scoring ten league goals (plus one in the cup) in the amazing 1947/8 season as Arsenal won the league under Whittaker.  This was the season in which Arsenal went the first 17 matches unbeaten, playing most of the home games in front of 60,000.

But on 29 January 1949 he was injured in a cup match against Derby and although the team initially did well without him (winning the next three games scoring 13 goals with only one against) and a run of seven games without a win took its toll, as Arsenal ended up 5th.

1949/50 was a season of shuffling the team and Roper started the first match as centre forward before moving to left wing, and then back to centre forward.  But injury struck again and he only played one match in the run to the Cup Final and just a smattering of games in the second half of the season.   (Interestingly many reports seem to copy each other by saying that he was moved from right wing to left wing, and that he was “dropped” for the cup final, but the situation is far more complex than that).

By 1951/2 he was back to his wing position – playing sometimes left-wing sometimes right, and he played in Arsenal’s cup run to the FA Cup final – in which the team was disrupted by an injury to Walley Barnes.

But finally, in 1952/3 he got his second league winner’s medal and played 41 of the 42 league matches.

He continued playing as a regular for Arsenal until 3 December 1955 and played 321 matches for Arsenal in total, scoring 95 goals and then (mistakenly as it turned out) went back to Southampton (then of Division III South) in January 1957 as club captain, playing in a team with Terry Paine.

But in his third season back at the club a split arose between Roper and Ted Bates after Bates reneged on a pledge that Roper should have a job as a trainer with the club at the end of his playing career.  It was a nasty end to a relationship between the club and one of its top players of all time, and with Southampton refusing to back down, it was never healed.

He finished his career by moving from Hampshire into Dorset playing for Weymouth and Dorchester Town, finally retiring from football in 1963 and moving on to work for an engineering company.  In his later years he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and died in 2001 aged 78.

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