James “Punch” McEwen: Arsenal’s manager in the first world war

By Tony Attwood

NOTE: This article is taken from a section of Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football, which is published in a couple of weeks time.


Britain became involved in the first world war on 4 August 1914, but the decision was taken to continue with the league programme for the 1914/15 season.   This was not so odd as it may seem – at the start no one knew just how vast the conflict would become – and there had been no thought of stopping football during the Boer War of 1899 to 1902 so there was no precedent.

But as the season progressed it became clear that there was no public mood for professional football (although it continued in Scotland) and it was decided to end league football for the duration, at the end of the 1914/1915 season.

George Morrell resigned from Arsenal with two games to go.  We don’t know why – as indeed we have no solid information of what happened to him after this – although we may guess he went back to Scotland and found further employment in football there.

So the honour of managing Woolwich Arsenal for the final games of the 1914/15 season went to James McEwen.

He was nicknamed “Punch” after the magazine, as he was renowned for his constant stream of jokes, and although he was only a temporary manager he as the first Arsenal manager who played football himself at a significant level.

Indeed he played in the  1903 FA Cup final for Bury where his team beat Derby 6-0 in front of 63,000 at Crystal Palace – the biggest FA Cup final win ever.

Born in Bootle, he started his playing career with the local club playing 14 Second Division games in the club’s only League season. Then followed spells at Liverpool South End, Everton, Luton, Glossop North End and Glossop before moving on to Bury.

He returned to Luton and became manager of Norwich after a two-year stint as a player. He came out of retirement in 1911 to play two more League games for Glossop before joining the coaching staff at Fulham.

McEwen joined Woolwich Arsenal in 1913 with the task of developing the young players in the reserves. He took charge of the first team for the last two League games of 1914-15 against Preston North End (a 0-3 defeat) and Nottingham Forest (a thumping 7-0 win).   The table of managers has until this moment been wrong in recording him as having only one match – this is being changed!

During the First World War he managed the playing affairs of the club, with John Peters acting as secretary. McEwen handed over the first team reins to Leslie Knighton in April 1919 as the League prepared to resume its activities and reverted back to his duties of looking after the affairs of the younger players.

In 1929 Arsenal formed an ‘A’ team that was used to trial young players and gave the opportunity for the senior players to have a relatively easy game of football when returning from injury. McEwen managed the ‘A’ team in the London Professional Midweek League until it was disbanded in 1935. He remained at Arsenal in the capacity of dressing room attendant finally leaving the club just before the start of the Second World War.

He was beyond doubt a great club servant who has never received the recognition he so clearly deserves.

Here’s the line up for Punch’s second game:


Sands    Shaw

Graham    Buckley    Bradshaw

Rutherford   King   Benson    Blyth    Lewis

 As there was little to play for McEwan experimented with the line-up and played left back Bob Benson at centre forward. Athletic News reported the game as follows:


Arsenal …….. 7    Nottingham Forest 0

King (4), Benson (2),



Nottingham Forest were beaten all the way at Highbury, and it may be regarded as an inglorious exit from the campaign now closing that they should fall by seven clear goals before a team which was of the daringly experimental order. Whoever dreamt of big Bob Benson, famous as a back for so many years with Sheffield United, being transformed into a virile forward leader? And yet that is what he was in this game. Benson led the line to the manner born. He had a lust for goals, and seemed to be obsessed with the idea that the sooner he shot the greater the chance of scoring. He was ever a menace to the Forest defence, and that he was twice successful justifies the methods he employed.

King welded into the line splendidly at inside-right and he got four goals, bringing his total bag for the season up to 23. It was a great revival after weeks of failure, and if he had had the least luck or shown a reasonable measure of steadiness he might have scored ten points.

Such was the overwhelming superiority of the home side. They were nearly always attacking. Rutherford worried Gibson all the while. It was the old-time brilliant Rutherford that we saw, and he revelled in his genius. Blythe, too, was a capital little forward and Lewis centred cleverly all through.

In the rear Buckley played a solid game which held the team together. He was flanked by Frank Bradshaw, who showed that he has years of football before him in the middle line, and by Graham, who did excellent work against the best of the Forest forwards in Derrick. Lievesley played the role of spectator for the most part, for Shaw and Sands did not give the vacillating Forest attack any latitude.



As a whole there is not much to be said about Forest. They were beaten in all departments. In goal H. Iremonger appeared vice Powell. He was beaten seven times but he played magnificently until all hope was abandoned. His clearances in the first half from Benson and King were brilliant. In front of him was a fair-haired young back in Fisher, who is clever enough to hold his place in any company. Derrick got very little assistance from Coleman, but he was the one man who gave serious trouble to the home defence.

The first half brought two goals and the second five. With fifteen minutes gone Blythe sent Lewis away to centre and King headed through. Another great save by Iremonger from Benson was followed by a second goal after two minutes, when Benson put the ball to Rutherford and then fastened on to the centre to drive it through with precision.

In the first few minutes of the second half King failed to hit an open goal, but within a few minutes he atoned for the failure with a fine goal following clever work by Blythe and Benson.

Rutherford centred and King scored with a great shot. Then Rutherford toyed with Gibson and sent in such a perfect centre that Benson rushed in and headed the ball a terrific rate past the hapless Iremonger. For a little while the Forest improved, but they could not score.

With five minutes to go Lewis centred so well that King turned the ball through with his head, and to Rutherford in the last minute fell the distinction of scoring the last goal of the season by a sparkling individual effort which crowned a capital display of wing play.

The attendance numbered about 10,000.

The Arsenal. – Lievesley; Sands, Shaw; Graham, Buckley, Bradshaw; Rutherford, King, Benson, Blythe, and Lewis.

Nottingham Forest. – Iremonger (H); Fisher, Gibson; Armstrong, Mercer, Needham; Derrick, Coleman, Harris, J H Lockton, and Bell.

Referee: H T Yates, Bolton.

Postscript: the nom-de-plume “The Mate” is probably a reference back to “Gunners Mate” who wrote in the Woolwich Arsenal programme.  This column is thought to have been written by George Allison at this time, and it is possible that he wrote this report too.


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