The Nearly Men – Part 1: Do You Remember The First Time?
By Robert Exley
First in a series of the almost, but not quite seasons
Arsenal are the third-most successful club in English Football history with many great triumphs throughout their illustrious 126-year history. What, though, of the moments where the club could have added to their list of honours, but fell just short? Well, this is a series of articles dedicated to those very moments.
The very first instance came back in 1925/26, where forty years after their foundation, thirty five years after turning professional, thirty three years after joining the Football League and thirteen years on from moving to Highbury, Arsenal finally found themselves somewhere near the summit of English Football. Prior to this point, Arsenal’s previous glory had been as the amateur outfit ‘Royal Arsenal’ who had proclaimed themselves as the ‘Champions of the South’ in the early 1890s, winning the London Charity Cup and Kent Senior Cup in 1890 and the London Senior Cup in 1891. Since joining the Football League in 1893, making a predominantly Northern and Midlands League a national league in the process, their highest league-finish prior to 1925 had been as Woolwich Arsenal, finishing sixth in the old First Division in 1908/09. Their best achievements in the FA Cup had been reaching back-to-back Semi Finals in 1906 and 1907.
Before Herbert Chapman’s arrival at Arsenal in the close season of 1925, the preceding two seasons under Leslie Knighton were spent hovering just above the relegation zone – finishing 19th in 1923/24 and 20th in 1924/25. On his arrival, Herbert made two significant additions. He immediately signed Woolwich Arsenal old boy Charlie Buchan from Sunderland for £1,000 plus £100 for every goal scored that season. Also, former Arsenal player Tom Whittaker, who returned from a tour of Australia with a career-ending broken leg, had been offered the position of trainer by Chapman. The season, however, started badly, losing 0-1 to Tottenham at home. After an inconsistent opening eight games, the turning point for the season had been a 0-7 away defeat to Newcastle in early October. This poor early season form was put down to Arsenal’s difficulty in adapting to a change in the offside law that season, where an opposing player now needed only two players between him and the goal, as opposed to three as it had been prior.
After the St. James’s Park debacle, Buchan had confronted Chapman at the Royal Station Hotel in Newcastle, threatening to refuse to board the train back to London, immediate retirement from the game and a return to the sports shop he had been running in Sunderland – where Chapman had called into personally to secure his signature just a few months before. He accused this Arsenal side of being a team without a plan and thus without a chance of winning anything. Buchan had been arguing the case with Chapman from the beginning of the season that the change in the offside rule meant the centre-half had to take on a more defensive role than prior, pointing out the noticeable effect of the Newcastle centre-half, Charlie Spencer, who had stayed very deep, offering little in attack, and had repeatedly broken up Arsenal attacks almost before they had even begun, thus allowing Newcastle to dominate possession and territory and subsequently rout Arsenal by seven goals.
Charlie’s idea was that the centre-halves would withdraw entirely from the attack, as well as utilising an inside-forward to drop back behind the other four attackers, thus advocating the soon-to-be-famous ‘W-M’ formation that would serve Arsenal so well into the following decade. His idea had been dismissed previously by Chapman, as well as by other players, though, in light of the St James’s Park trouncing, Chapman decided to give his idea serious consideration. The new formation was utilised against West Ham 48 hours later and contributed to a 4-0 win. As Charlie Buchan said of Chapman, ‘one of the secrets of his greatness is that he would always listen to other people and take advantage of their ideas if he thought they would improve the team in any way’.
In describing the effect of the new formation in his autobiography, Buchan states that ‘the novelty of Arsenal’s new methods took the other league clubs by surprise. We began to win games with such regularity that, by the turn of the year, we were top of the league and - it seemed - heading for our first Championship success’. However, Arsenal’s first title challenge was derailed by what Buchan describes as ‘serious injuries that I consider lost us our chance of honours’. Arsenal’s first title-challenge was to finally end at Buchan’s old ground, Roker Park, in a 1-2 defeat against Sunderland. Arsenal’s keeper Dan Lewis, who a season later would be famed for his error which handed the cup to Cardiff in Arsenal’s first ever final, was sent off for an altercation with a Sunderland forward. Long before the days of the substitute goalkeeper (or even any substitutes for that matter), outfield player Joe Hulme had become a makeshift and, as it turned out, less than adequate replacement between the sticks.
Under the two-points-for-a-win system, Arsenal finished five points off Herbert Chapman’s former side, Huddersfield Town, who completed the first-ever hat-trick of league titles, although to date they have never won a major honour since. It had at this point been the highest finishing position and points total for a side south of Birmingham, though, that season, Arsenal never really posed a serious challenge to Herbert’s old side. It also, in the short term at least, failed to materialise as the start of something glorious, rather akin to Alex Ferguson achieving a runner’s-up position in his first full season at Old Trafford in 1987/88, followed by a succession of mid-table finishes before establishing a run of trophy wins the following decade.
Arsenal did reach the FA Cup Final in 1926/27, as well as reaching the Semi-Final the following year, but in the League what followed was a lot more low-key – 11th in 1926/27, 10th in 1927/28, 9th in 1928/29 and 14th in 1929/30. In 1930 they finally won a trophy, this time at the expense of Herbert Chapman’s old side, followed by their first League title the following year, which finally cemented Chapman’s legacy, as well as a further title in 1933 before his untimely death on 6th January 1934. Despite Chapman’s early demise. however, Arsenal were to become the most successful side the professional game in England had seen by this point and to remain at the top of the English game for nearly another two decades.
*Follow me on Twitter@robert_exley
29th January 2013
User Comment and Reaction
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Gary 7:42am 29th Jan 2013
What Chapman didnt do was build a dynasty like Shankly at Liverpool.Between 1938 and 1971 a total of 33 years we won 2 titles and 1 FA cup.Arsenal were the biggest club in the world in the 30's but in the 50's and 60's we were a run of the mill team.We went 17 years without winning a trophy Wenger is well on the way to equalling that record - Post No. 33976
Moscow Gooner 9:31am 29th Jan 2013
Gary - not exactly run of the mill in the ''50s. One cup win, one (unlucky) cup final defeat, one championship and a near miss. A reasonable decade. In fact the depth of the Chapman legacy is surely this: in every decade since the 30s, we ve won at least one major trophy (OK, the Fairs Cup in 69/70 is stetching it a bit...) - so far. - Post No. 33978
billthered 10:50am 29th Jan 2013
The crux of your story relates to Chapman listening to Buchan and acting on it.Van Pursestrings confronted OGL last season now where is he now. - Post No. 33980
Jack 11:11am 29th Jan 2013
The sad thing is that nowadays the AAA would have hounded Chapman out for those earlier mid table finishes,they would have been their with their banners like at Brighton.Today we live in a "I want it all now society".People are only into the glory and not into how that glory is achieved.Look at all the cheats at the Olympics and currently in cycling,football is really no better with it's sugar daddy culture,I used to think Arsenal fans were better but we are all the same as the rest now. - Post No. 33981
Mark from Aylesbury 12:16pm 29th Jan 2013
In regard to building dynasties we will never know as the 2nd world war broke up the cycle. Not too sure on my history but did we win the championship in 38. Maybe without the war we may have pushed through the 40's as well. - Post No. 33982
kdmgooner 12:21pm 29th Jan 2013
Quote:‘one of the secrets of his greatness is that he would always listen to other people and take advantage of their ideas if he thought they would improve the team in any way’. Are you listening Arsene Wenger???? I thought not, just go - Post No. 33983
Ron 12:23pm 29th Jan 2013
Gary - Dying in 1934/35 (or whenever it was) might have hindered his own chances of building a dynasty of course. - Post No. 33984
Tony Evans 12:29pm 29th Jan 2013
In my experience of Arsenal (since 1970), a good description of the club and/or most of our successful managers since then would be 'good but could have done better'. Bertie Mees double winning side was soon unrecognisable as the likes of Kennedy and George were sold too soon and not replaced. Terry Neil's late seventies team were a great cup side but never fulfilled their potential in the league, and when Brady and then Stapleton left the writing was on the wall. Then along came GG to the rescue and I can not decide on whether that great side could have achieved more - probably but as usual with Arsenal the investment / ambition required never materialised. Then we come to the enigma that is Arsene Wenger and I firmly believe that the CL could have been won sometime between 1998 and 2004, plus another Premier League title, if more ambition to dominate the game had been shown. Arsenal have never created a 'dynasty' and as for the future - well you all know my views on Wenger and Kronke - we are looking less and less like a club that would even try to. - Post No. 33986
Ron 13:16pm 29th Jan 2013
Tony - About right mate. As far as London football goes Arsenal will always be the top dog i suppose, so maybe we ve had a mini dynasty!!. I know we ve had this Chelsea thing for 5-6 years but that was always going to be short lived in the greater scheme of things as theyve always been a shabby club with a shaky foundation. I honestly think that a London Club will never build a real dynasty. The Clubs arent driven enough, the fans arent passionate or near demanding enough, theres too much top tier competition for each London Club within the Capital and the general attitude of the players once they get into the London 'life style' i.e the one where theyve lots of silly spare cash and daft places to go, too many women etc lifestyle takes over from football to a degree. The 'dynasty' Clubs like Utd and Liverpool arent so much hindered by these things and football has been and still is (less so though perhaps nowadays)more ingrained into the culture of the fans and the Clubs which creates a self propelling momentum that London Clubs will never have (in my view). Leaving London to pick up on it shaped my view years ago, but as soon as you do, you notice the drive and verve in the fans the further north one goes. Lets face it, football was for many decades a Midlands and North game before London got involved. Only Utd have kept their momentum as the football driven working classes were smashed and driven to oblivion by that regrettable, odious woman, the Member for Finchley!Social demography of an area has a massive effect on a Clubs prospects. Footballs just another item on the agenda for most Londoners. Its historically been a lifeblood for fans in the NW and at times in the central areas over past decades (though the decline of midlands football is very well marked and long standing now). Just my view. - Post No. 33988
WeAreBuildingATeamToDominate 13:18pm 29th Jan 2013
An interesting series of articles ahead. Under the reign of AW The Nearly Men could have their own series....should have won the league in 1999, 2003, 2008, 2010...should have won the UEFA Cup in 2000....should have won FA Cup in 1999, 2001...should have won European Cup in 2006. Any takers? - Post No. 33989
maguiresbridge gooner 13:20pm 29th Jan 2013
Nice piece of history Robert,and it's good to see it's not being forgotten.If only we had somebody like Charlie Buchan today but i suppose we'd also need a manager like Herbert Chapman who would listen and take advice. - Post No. 33990
Bard 13:44pm 29th Jan 2013
My Dad was always going on about the Chapman era and how he grew up watching his sides. But so much has changed I'm not sure how relevant it is to compare then with now. I sometimes wonder whether the real problem is that footballers have changed. They are now todays celebrity superstars lavishly rewarded for their efforts, devoid of real connections with either the clubs they play for or the fans. This weeks FA cup ties showed that many of them struggle to deal with lesser sides who's stomach for the fight is greater. Wenger goes on about mental strength but the reality many of the present side don't care that much about playing for Arsenal ( Jack excluded ). They didn't fancy it at Bradford. As long as they put a reasonable shift in and collect £80k a week the world is fine. I don't altogether blame them but for us fans who feel live and breathe Arsenal it does feel like we're being shafted by both the players and the club. - Post No. 33991
Tony Evans 13:44pm 29th Jan 2013
Ron - You are right, all seater stadiums sounded the death knell for 'working class' supporters and the sort of game that we grew up with. We now have the ridiculous situation where you almost need a second mortgage to take your family to a match. Premier League football is now so far removed from the grass roots of the game that a whole generation of fans is being / will be lost. - Post No. 33992
Rocky RIP 15:19pm 29th Jan 2013
@wearebuilding.. the 1980 FA Cup final defeat followed by the ECWC Final loss on penalties was a case of 'so near'. The 1999 season was the biggest near miss ever and handed Man U the momentum to go on and win the treble. Such fine margins. We were heading towards another double. Expected to win the league from where we were in the table (prior to the Leeds game), we are awarded a penalty in the last minute of the FA Cup semi against Man Utd. If Dennis puts it left we are in the final and I'm convinced it's a back to back double for Arsenal. Suddenly Man U gain all the momentum. Also, the 2001 FA Cup Final was the biggest travesty of justice ever. We ruined Liverpool. 'Decimated' was Hansen's word to describe how Liverpool were outplayed for most of that game. Gerrard admits that Vieira was on a different planet to him in that match. Completely played them off the pitch in Cardiff. Henchoz handles to ball on the line..TWICE and gets away with it. So painful. It sums up all that was unbearable about the Wenger years for me. Even at our rampaging best, we could still inexplicably let teams back into matches they had no right to win. - Post No. 33994
maguiresbridge gooner 18:13pm 29th Jan 2013
Rocky RIP, great examples of so near, i'm also convinced another double was there,it must have affected DB10 because i don't think ever took another penalty. - Post No. 33996
Rocky RIP 19:13pm 29th Jan 2013
@Maguiresbridge - big time! He was seen as such a cool penalty taker prior to that penalty. The iceman. The Bjorn Borg of football. I love DB10 to bits and forgive him, but that miss cost us and he did seem to lose his bottle from the spot after that. P.S. guessed the right way as he'd done his homework on Dennis. People forget how we were seen going into that fateful title run in game up at Leeds. Rarely has a result left me so flattened. I sat starring vacantly at the wall in The Hobgoblin on Holloway Road (now the H.Chapman) for about 20 mins, knowing it was over. We should have won the double that season, instead man U do it and then clinch a highly fortuitous win in Barcelona and Red Clive Tydlesly hasn't stopped reminding the world of 'that night' ever since. The man even started singing 'Oh Teddy Teddy' at one point during his commentary. Repellant individual. - Post No. 33998
Mark Rice 22:32pm 29th Jan 2013
Errr Adolf Hitler and the second world war probably didn't help build on the great success of the late 30s and chapmans bad career moving in dying? - Post No. 34000
declan burke 8:18am 30th Jan 2013
KDM GOONER you are absolutely spot on. - Post No. 34003
Mikey59 13:36pm 30th Jan 2013
Rocky RIP - just for the record, I remember DB10 missing a pen the week before against Blackburn at Highbury going to Filans left, same side he missed a week later against Schmichel. I felt as confident as Denis did that fateful night at Villa Park and I'm still scarred by the memory and what it cost us. - Post No. 34013
Rocky RIP 13:55pm 30th Jan 2013
@Mikey59 - correct. He'd missed before going to the keeper's left. That's the point I was trying to make. P.S. had probably done his homework. We should have dominated from 1998 onwards. Likewise 2004 onwards. 2002-2004 was Arsenal at their very best. 2002 felt the most satisfying for me, as we'd had 'nearly' seasons prior to it, and Man U had just won 3 in a row and seemed uncatchable. So to clinch the double in their back yard was about as good as it gets. Oh, for a return of those days. - Post No. 34014
8th February 2016
Online Ed: Vital win at Bournemouth