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Tom Whittaker wins the league
By Tony Attwood
Tom Whittaker is one of the great names in Arsenal’s history and his first season as manager is the subject of our ninth iconic moment.
Having played 242 times for Arsenal it was during a tour of Australia with an FA side that in a match in Wollongong he broke his knee cap and had to stop playing.
He moved from Arsenal’s team to the coaching staff and having studied physiotherapy he became the first team trainer under Chapman in 1927 and transformed the training and physio approach of Arsenal.
He served alongside Joe Shaw for his half season in charge, and under George Allison during the third of the three successive championships under 3 managers and became the trainer for England. He served his country in the war and was rewarded for this service as a Squadron Leader on D Day with an MBE. I believe he was the first Arsenal player to get such a high honour – although maybe my colleagues in the Arsenal History Society will correct me.
And then, in 1947, Tom Whittaker became the new manager and won the league in his first season.
I have selected this particular moment because by this time there was every reason to think that Arsenal’s dominance of English football was at an end. In 1938/9 under George Allison the club came 5th in the league, 12 points behind the leaders. We were also knocked out of the cup in the 3rd round by Chelsea. Ted Drake was still out top scorer but he got just 14 goals in 38 games and no one else made double figures. The defence was the best in the league, but nothing else much shone out for the club.
Then came the war after which we had a really average season – 13th in the 1946/7 season. The only rays of light were the two sensational goal scorers – Reg Lewis with 29 from 28 games and the ageing Ronnie Rooke (who came in on an exchange deal with Fulham) getting 21 from 24.
Arsenal were 16 points off the top and 16 points away from relegation: safe but going nowhere. In the cup we were once again beaten by Chelsea in the third round.
So along came Tom – no management experience but a career at Arsenal as player and trainer, a man who had worked under Chapman and Allison.
In 1947 he went the first 17 games without a defeat (a 0-1 to Derby on November 29th), and only suffered two more defeats in the next 14.
The pivotal match of the season was seen to be the 1-1 draw away to Manchester United played in front of 81,962 at Maine Road (Man City’s ground) due to wartime damage to Old Trafford.
Arsenal were already six points ahead of second placed Burnley, eight ahead of Preston in third and nine points ahead of fourth placed Manchester United.
So a win for Man U would not have knocked Arsenal off the top, but with Arsenal due to play Preston the following week and Burnley two weeks later, it was felt that a win for Man U here, and two wins for Preston could reduce the gap to four. A slip up against Burnley could then give the other top clubs a chance.
But it was not to be. Arsenal beat Preston and Burnely and by February 14 were eight points clear of Burnley who had moved up to second. The pivotal match, although a draw, pivoted in Arsenal’s favour.
We won the league with four matches to go – and only a poor run in those last games made the league table look like it was more of a close run thing, for after a 7-0 trouncing of Middlesbrough on 26 March we only won one in eight, before rounding off the season rather nicely with an 8-0 home victory over Grimsby.
By the time that the title had been secured only 18 players had been used, the fewest ever required for a title-winning team in the first division.
Manchester United came second that year, and the pivotal match on January 17th between the clubs ended in a 1-1 draw. The crowd was recorded as 81,962.
Overall Reg Lewis scored 14 out of 28 games while Ronnie Rooke scored 33 out of 42. Ronnie was the league’s top scorer – aged 36.
For Tom Whittaker it must have been a staggering triumph. An established player whose career came to a sudden halt in a meaningless match in Australia, who rebuilt his world as a physio, gained such a significant honour for his service to the kingdom in the war, and then in his first year as manager, to win the league in such a fashion. A truly iconic moment.
Current Series: The 10 iconic moments that defined Arsenal’s history