I write this on the 60th anniversary of Arsenal’s game away to Sunderland, and coincidentally at a time when we are just two days away from the same fixture in the 2013/14 season.
The match in question involved Arsenal losing 1-7 away to Sunderland on September 12 1953.
1953/4 saw Arsenal have a wretched start to the season – not the worst ever but still a poor start. The worst came in 1912/13 when we won only one of our first 28 games and for the only time in their league history (which started in 1893) Arsenal were relegated.
But the strange events around the start of the 1953/4 season – when the club lost six and drew two of its first eight games (including a 7-1 defeat away to Sunderland) – were perhaps more interesting.
What made this terrible start to the season so unexpected was the fact that Arsenal had finished the previous season in 1952/3 as champions.
So what happened?
Our ex-player Tom Whittaker who had taken over from George Allison after the second world war, was still at the helm, and his record from 1947/8 onwards was of the highest order with two championships, two FA Cup final appearances (winning one) and never finishing lower than 6th in the league.
But that summer Tom was unable to stop the departure of one significant player: Ray Daniel. Daniel had played 41 games at centre half in 1952/3 and yet was sold to Sunderland for a club record fee £30,000. Why (everyone asked) would a player leave the league champions where he was first choice number 5, to join a team that had finished 9th and which was not in the process of any serious rebuilding? (In fact they finished 18th in 1953-54).
It is now known that Sunderland offered Daniel payments far in excess of the maximum wage that was allowed. Sadly Ray Daniel was tempted by a better (although illegal) offer.
The squad also had some other problems. Cliff Holton at centre forward simply lost his touch scoring only 2 goals in the first 6 games he played. It was not until late October when he scored 8 goals in 6 league games that things started to improve.
And so, by 12th September 1953 Arsenal were bottom of the league, two points adrift from the clubs above, having suffered the sort of defeat (that 1-7 to Sunderland) that Arsenal become more used to dishing out to others than receiving.
Thereafter four changes were made, and away to Chelsea on September 15 we finally got a victory, 2-0, in front of 60,652 fans. The win started the improvement and we won four and drew one of those next five games.
But even so there were still problems such as on October 17 with the 2-5 home defeat to Burnley and January 23 a 1-4 home defeat to Sunderland.
Although Arsenal climbed up the table and ended the season in 12th position, there was still more bad news, for on 30 January 1954 we took on Norwich City of the Third Division South in front of 55767 at Highbury in the fourth round of the cup. And we lost 1-2.
The high scoring defeats were not done either as Arsenal lost 2-5 away to Newcastle on April 17.
Although now forgotten the defeat was, at the time, considered to the biggest upset of the era and of the magnitude of Chapman’s Cup defeat against Walsall. Worse the match was also notable for Alex Forbes being sent off along with Norwich’s Brennan for serious misconduct.
There was not even an excuse in terms of Arsenal having sent out a reserve team. Every player bar the left back (Lionel Smith) played over 15 games in the league for the club that season – and Smith himself had played over 170 games for the club by that time.
Over the next few seasons Tom Whittaker did start to rebuild the team but in 1956 he died in office of a heart attack before he could complete the task. It would be another 14 years before the club won its next trophy (that being in 1970 of course).
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