The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman

The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman by Patrick Barclay

Published by W&N.  £20.00

Journalists who write popular histories tend to give the reader facts without the details of how they got these facts.  This approach helps the flow of the text, and makes life easier for the writer.  It is how things are done.

Of course this leaves the reader hoping such history books are by and large correct – and that they’ll bring forward new information that the average reader has never come across before.

So it is with football histories.   Except with football histories there is a problem, because a lot of football history involves just taking information from earlier football histories – and as the Arsenal History Society, particularly through the work of Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews, has shown, old time football histories were largely written years after the events, without any recourse to documentation.  Even those written at or about the time of the event are sometimes quite wide of the mark.

Now I didn’t start reading The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman with these thoughts.  Indeed given that the author is a journalist of some repute even renown, I anticipated finding out some new stuff.

And that’s how my venture into this book started, revealing that while Arsenal revere Chapman – their most successful manager until Arsene Wenger, Huddersfield don’t cherish his memory – even though he was by far their most successful manager of all time.   Also we are told that Chapman contended that “players were highly strung performers requiring special treatment.”  An interesting thought which I’d not come across before.  As is the notion that Chapman took the concept of the production line developed by Ford and utilised it in his vision of football.

Although here we hit the first problem, for this notion was put forward by Donny Davies writing in the Manchester Guardian in the 1950s, 20 years after Chapman’s death.  Was it a true insight, or just a nice idea thought up on the journey to or from a match?

But much of the book does ring true  – Chapman himself wrote in his newspaper column of how much he hated the boo-boys – the version of today’s AAA that existed in the 1920s and 1930s at Arsenal.  Some of it is trivial but interesting – apparently Chapman set himself the task of weeding out pirate chocolate sellers within the stadium which I didn’t know.   (I’d just love to know the source of that idea – that’s not to say it is untrue but rather to say, I’d like to read what is written around that singular notion).

And here’s a wonderful line from the book…

Chapman “even expressed a wish that something could be done to encourage the aesthetic impulse by diluting the importance of League points).

Compare that with the banner that is constantly atop the Untold Arsenal site: “I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art.” A Wenger.

Indeed a continuity.

But then, I began to wonder about this book.  It all started around page 78 where an apparent legend (which I had never heard) is repeated that a ditty by Elgar became the first football chant in 1898.   OK, a sweet little story, but surely since this is a book about Chapman, and is thus a lot about Arsenal, the research which the Arsenal History Society has published (with your actual evidence) that as early as 1892 – if not before – the Arsenal away fans were using an adaptation of Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay as a football chant, is worthy of a mention.

OK, it is a point of detail, as is the technicality about Swindon avoiding relegation from the Southern League through the league’s extension.  No – there was no relegation from the Southern League for the first four years of its existence.

But then we get the old story about Liverpool’s terracing being nicknamed  Spion Kop.  Well, yes it was – but it was a copycat of the name given to the Woolwich Arsenal terracing – and again since this book is about Chapman and hence about Arsenal, maybe there might be a mention of that too.  After all it was the Woolwich Arsenal that provided the weapons for the Spion Kop battle.

And indeed it is the omissions and lack of detail on key points that starts to make one a little doubful.  When the Ibrox stadium disaster gets mentioned, Archie Leitch does not, even though he was both clerk of the works and architect, and had to give evidence at the inquests.  It is a relevant point since Leitch then moved away from Scotland, where his name was tainted, and worked on the Plumstead stand for Woolwich Arsenal – but didn’t get paid.  Having worked for Norris at Fulham, Norris then, on taking over Woolwich Arsenal in 1910, paid Leitch all the money he was owed.   Leitch also worked on Highbury.  Norris brought Chapman to Highbury.  It all connects – but not in this book.

So it is that doubts creep in.  Thus when there is talk that the goalkeeper could handle the ball anywhere on the field in the early rules of the game, I sit up and wonder, because my understanding has always been that from the launch of the league it was only allowed in the defensive half of the pitch – something of interest to Arsenal when they developed a new ploy for using the rule in the Woolwich days.  Am I right or is the author?

I start to think it is me, because the keeper in question – Dick Roose – does get a mention – only this time stating that the carrying of the ball could (as I believe) only happen in your own half.  So a spot of contradiction – but it all happens with no acknowledgement of the player’s service for Arsenal.   Yes that service was before Chapman got to Arsenal – but this book is called “The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman”   There is a lot on “the times”, but somehow it doesn’t all hang together and nor does it ring true throughout.  Woolwich Arsenal was within “the times” of Chapman, who was born before Woolwich Arsenal FC was created.

So what there isn’t are the links.  There is a discussion of objections to refereeing tactics in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the annoyance it caused – but no mention that Arsenal were the first ever professional club to have their ground closed as the result of a riot caused by bad refereeing.

And so when I read the revelations about Chapman at Northampton which I had not been able to see before I am fascinated and I find it really interesting but also I would really like to know the source of each piece of information.  Pedantic?  Yes indeed, but one of the books cited in the Bibliography is Soar and Tyler, and in many ways the early growth of the AHS came about through the interrogation of the “facts” in their work.

I do find it frustrating that page 126 tells us that Woolwich Arsenal had “shed their Woolwich prefix” on moving to Highbury – you only have to read any programme from the era to know this is not true – and indeed the first ever Highbury programme (reprinted by Arsenal on both the 50th and 100th anniversary of the move) makes it quite clear this is untrue on its front page.

Such details and omissions continue all the way through the book, and they bug me, but to be much more positive there is something I gained from this book that really is new (at least for me).  That is the point I mentioned at the start – the link between Chapman and Wenger (which the author doesn’t mention).  How Chapman like Wenger was involved in every detail of the club’s work.    It is a point that shines through, over and over again.  Maybe I’ll write a book that takes that as the focal point.

Sadly, where we do want illumination, with the banning of Chapman from football for life, there is not much.  Yes it was a murky affair, but given the speculation in much of the book, it would have been good to see some speculation (acknowledged as such) just here.  Why would William Clarke, of Leeds City FC, not make the documents that would clear Chapman, available to the League and FA?

(The speculation must be that there was a confidentiality agreement already struck with players who were being paid over the maximum wage rate).

Nor is there anything beyond a simple sentence on why Man U and Liverpool were not kicked out of the league over their match fixing of 1915.  Leeds City were, for a lesser technical offence.  The explanation that the League felt that it was wrong to punish the supporters over the misdeeds of the management won’t wash in the light of the demise of Leeds City and banishment of Chapman.  There was funny business afoot, and it directly affected Chapman, who was later reinstalled as a “good chap”.  How?

And it is in this period of history that the author really falls down.  He even quotes the old story that Arsenal had finished sixth in the second division in 1915 (oh come on!), there is the statement that Norris attempted a merger of Fulham and Arsenal (no, it was a negotiating ploy en route to arranging the move away from Plumstead – just look at how fast that meeting moved), and the strange story indeed that attendances after the move north showed “little sign of resurgence”.

In the last season in Plumstead Arsenal got crowds of between 3,000 and 15,000 for the most part, with one game (against Chelsea – always a top game) of 20,000.

In the first season at Highbury 20,000 was the base line, 30,000 was reached by the fourth home game, and finally exceeded with the derby game with Clapton at which 35,000 attended.   Yes there was a decline in the 1914/15 season, but this happened everywhere and was due to the fact that the UK was involved in a war with Germany.

My point in all this is simple.  From the bits of pieces that Andy, Mark, and on occasion even myself, have researched,  I recognise a number of errors and omissions.    And that makes me worry about other assertions which are given without source, about which I know little.

If you want to know about the late 19th century and the era up the outbreak of the second world war, this is a decent read and it will tell you a lot about the country and about Chapman that you may not have known.  But, I retain some doubts about the veracity of all the points made.

Tony Attwood

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