7 October: Arsenal purchase a music hall star as a player!





7 October 1920: Arsenal purchase Harold Walden – a music hall star!

Harold Walden had been Bradford City’s top scorer in their 1911/12 campaign, which sounds very impressive but in effect, it meant a total of 11 goals.  Two Arsenal players had scored more than this in 1919/20 – the season before Arsenal bought him.  In fact, Bradford City scored only 46 goals in 1911/12, so he was the best of what we might take to be a modest bunch.   Worse, from that high point he had declined considerably as a goalscorer thereafter.

But as is so often the case, there is more to this story.

Walden played as an amateur in the GB football team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in which 11 countries competed.  Great Britain got a bye in the first round, beat Hungary in the 2nd round 7-0 (Walden getting a double hattrick), Finland in the semi-final and Denmark in the Final.  But a subsequent injury meant that he played little thereafter.

In April 1915 he joined one of the Pals Battalions.  These battalions were encouraged particularly by Lord Derby as a way of getting local friends to sign up together in the same regiment and were particularly popular in the north of the country.  The Footballers Battalion that Arsenal owner Henry Norris created was a southern variation on this, focusing on the interest in the game rather than the locality, given that many Londoners had far less of a connection with their locality than their compatriots in the north.  But they did have a connection with their club.

Harold Walden joined one of the Bradford Pals battalions but having been injured in a training exercise during the war he returned to England and started to work on the stage and became a full-time entertainer and one of the earliest film stars.

Thus by the time Walden signed for Arsenal, also on 7 October his football career was pretty much over, but he was at the height of his career as an entertainer in the music halls.  His Olympics Gold Medal was displayed outside theatres when he performed, and several of the songs he wrote were becoming particularly popular. 

So, we may ask, what on earth was this man who had played football, but had been injured and was now a top-billing musical hall act, doing, signing for Arsenal?

What we have to remember is that this was the era of the celebrity player, and Arsenal had purchased such players in the past including Dick Roose the famous goalkeeper who sadly died serving his country in the war.

As an amateur Walden would not be paid unless he played – for which he got “expenses”, and both he and the club could get some publicity from the affair.  Walden on stage would be able to talk for a moment or two about one of the most famous clubs in the country (Arsenal still being associated with the military from the Royal Arsenal days, being the club that was closely linked with the creation of the Footballers’ Battalion, and now one of the top three supported clubs in the league) and Arsenal would be able to get a little more publicity out of his name.  Every extra person added to the gate would help, every extra person in the stalls would help – it was a good bit of mutual publicity.

Indeed while an Arsenal player, Walden was able to carry on his music hall work and could now be billed as not just the famous Harold Walden, but also as a member of the Arsenal squad.  His audiences around the country would never know he wasn’t actually turning out for Arsenal, they might well believe the publicity that he gained from appearing in a silent film which was being shown across the country in this season, and put it all together to think he really was a top goalscorer.

He did actually turn out for a couple of reserve games, which added to the profile of Arsenal’s reserve team (who of course played exactly at the same time as when Tottenham were at home – another way of having a dig at the team who had worked so hard to keep Arsenal out of north London and Arsenal out of the first division.)

Arsenal actually had to wait until February 1921 for Walden to get his first team games – and then he only had two – although he did manage to get one goal in a 2-2 draw with Oldham.  But the publicity value for the club and the entertainer was enormous.

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