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Arsenal’s first league title in 1931. How it all began (and its probably not quite what you think).

By Tony Attwood

I’m going to try and give a review of the 1930/1 season in a broad way, recording each match of course, but not primarily focussing in detail on how each game went; instead trying to get an overall flavour of the season.

And to do this I want to provide two introductions – one to Britain at the time, and the other to Arsenal as they approach this momentous season.

I won’t dwell on the former – there are a million history books available – I just want to set the scene.

Britain in 1930

Economically Britain was in chaos.  The economic policy from 1925 onwards was a disaster, and the recovery after the first world war disintegrated.  Employers attempted to cope by reducing salaries, and cutting any investment in new equipment.  The government changed from Conservative to a minority Labour government, but economic policy remained the same: balance the budget no matter how much the working man got hurt.  And boy did they get hurt.

In October 1929 the US stock market crashed, and the depression finally hit full blast.  There was even talk about this being the end of capitalism.

At the start of 1930 there were around 1 million unemployed.   By the end of the year it was 2.5 million – mostly without any unemployment benefit. London didn’t feel the full brunt of the failure of the economy, but it certainly was affected.  Industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding and steel were based on northern England, South Wales, Northern Ireland and central Scotland, and they were the areas where unemployment shot up.

In January 1930, Oswald Mosley, then a junior minister proposed that the government should take over the banks and control exports, increase pensions an boost the amount of money in the economy (anathema to the economists of the day).  Labour would have nothing to do with it, so he left and founded his own New Party.  Later that became the British Union of Fascists.

Football attendances

Now with such a collapse in the economy we might expect that crowd figures at League matches might go down, and the 1st division league average did indeed go down for 1930/1 but not dramatically.   Here are the figures taken from the History of English Football site.

Season Top club for attendance Top club’s league posn Top club av crowd League av crowd
1930/1 Arsenal  1 in Div 1 37.106 20.462
1929/30 Arsenal 14 in Div 1 35.537 22.647
1928/9 Manchester City 8 in Div 1 31.715 22.712
1927/8 Manchester City 1 in Div 2 37.468 22.885
1926/7 Newcastle Utd 1 in Div 1 36.510 22.881
1925/6 Chelsea 3 in Div 2 32.355 22.597
1924/5 Arsenal 20 in Div 1 29.485 21.609
1923/4 Chelsea 21 in Div 1 * 30.895 22.654
1922/3 Liverpool 1 in Div 1 33.495 23.213
1921/2 Chelsea 9 in Div 1 37.545 27.003


Arsenal’s average crowd for 1929/30 was certainly at the upper end of average crowds for the past ten years, but was then beaten in 1930/31, although still not the highest of the era.  And to understand this fully we need to look at the decline in the first division average crowd as shown in the last column.  The average crowd for the first division in 1930/1 was the lowest over the ten year period shown.

This combination of a decline overall, but a rise in the attendance of a London club spells out what the country was going through.  The bulk of division 1 teams were in the north and they were suffering.

Here are the top ten average gates for 1929/30

No. Club Division Posn. Average  Change on last year
1 Arsenal 1 14 35,537 +33.1%
2 Manchester City 1 2 33,339 +5.1%
3 Everton 1 22* 32,989 +11.8%
4 Newcastle United 1 19 32,559 +2.8%
5 Liverpool 1 12 30,219 +6.9%
6 Chelsea 2 2 27,799 -0,8%
7 Aston Villa 1 4 27,726 -6,3%
8 Sheffield Wednesday 1 1 25,588 -5,6%
9 Sunderland 1 9 24,553 -2,6%
10 Tottenham Hotspur 2 12 21,834 -10,6%


Two of the top ten were second division sides and both were in London.

If we then look at 1930/1 we find three of the top four clubs were in London and one in the Midlands.  The top northern club has an average attendance 10,000 fewer than Arsenal’s.

No. Club Division Posn. Average  Change on last year
1 Arsenal 1 1 37,106 4.4%
2 Chelsea 1 12 35,808 28.8%
3 Aston Villa 1 2 30,781 11.0%
4 Tottenham Hotspur 2 3 28,148 28.9%
5 Manchester City 1 8 26,849 -19.5%
6 Newcastle United 1 15 26,151 -19.7%
7 Liverpool 1 9 26,086 -13.7%
8 Everton 2 1 26,039 -21.1%
9 Sunderland 1 11 22,015 -10.3%
10 Sheffield Wednesday 1 3 19,911 -22.2%

When we come to look at Arsenal’s crowds at Highbury through the ages we find that they had hovered around the same level but peaking in the first two years of Chapman’s tenure, before finally hitting the big time in 1929/30

Season League pos. Average crowd Crowd pos. Cup round
1929/30 14 35.537 1 Winners
1928/9 9 26.690 8 QF
1927/8 10 27.434 7 SF
1926/7 11 30.054 4 Final
1925/6 2 31.471 3 QF
1924/5 20 29.485 1 1
1923/4 19 29.950 2 2
1922/3 11 30.245 4 1
1921/2 17 29.170 8 4
1920/1 9 35.540 5 1
1919/20 10 34.485 3 2
1914/5 5 (div 2) 13.820 8 2

Arsenal in 1929/30

As we can see from the tables above Arsenal was getting a very decent crowd and their crowd numbers were holding up despite the collapse of the economy.

The manager was, of course Herbert Chapman who had replaced the awful Leslie Knighton in 1925 with the remit of bringing some silverware to Arsenal.

In his first season (1925/6) he came close – taking Arsenal to an unprecedented second in the league (they came 20th out of 22 the previous season).

In his second season he was close again, taking Arsenal to their first ever FA Cup Final.  In his third season it was another FA Cup semi-final, but in his fourth season (1928/9) it seemed like a step back – 10th in the league and out of the Cup in the quarter finals.  That seemed like a significant step backwards and on 5 April 1929 after a 1-2 home defeat to Newcastle, he offered to resign.

It was an odd moment.  True Arsenal were out of the cup, but the team had just gone 11 without defeat. scoring 28 along the way.  Sir Henry Norris (fortunately for all of us) was no quitter and would have none of it.  He said no, and Chapman stayed.

And so Chapman was still there for a fifth season.   And it turned out to be the year Arsenal appeared in the record books – and for the right reason.  They won the FA Cup, their first ever major trophy – having reached the semi-finals twice during the Woolwich Arsenal days in Plumstead, and a final and a semi-final under Chapman.

Arsenal were also involved in the biggest win of  the 1929/30 season 8-1 over Sheffield Utd on 12 April 1930, and were part of one of no less than three games involving 12 goals.   Arsenal’s achievement in this was a 6-6 draw on 21 April 1930.  The other two were: Blackburn 7 Birmingham 5 on 28 September 1929, and Sheffield Utd 5 Blackburn 7, on 3 March 1930.  Manchester Utd also set a record with 14 successive defeats.

The Champions were Sheffield Wednesday for the fourth, and as of 2016 the last, time.

Arsenal started the 1929/30 season well, and in late September were top of the League, until a 2-5 away defeat to Villa on 25 September put paid to all that.

Thereafter it was a downhill drift – by the end of the year they were 13th, and reached the lowest point of 19th on 8th March following a 2-3 defeat to West Ham.

But this bad sequence had nothing to do with a run in the FA Cup.   It started on 26 October with a defeat 0-1 away to Man U, which saw Arsenal drop from 3rd to 5th.  Then came a run of four wins in 19, which as is often the way with such things was ended with a win over Man U on 12 March which lifted the club from 19th to 17th.

Now during that period Arsenal got through the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th round of the FA Cup.  In short, Arsenal could hardly win in the League but they could certainly win in the FA Cup.   Here are the cup results.

Cup Results
Date Round Opponent Venue Result
11.01.1930 R3 Chelsea home W2-0
25.01.1930 R4 Birmingham City home D2-2
29.01.1930 Replay Birmingham City away W1-0
15.02.1930 R5 Middlesbrough away W2-0
01.03.1930 R6 West Ham United away W3-0
But from 12 March to 21 April Arsenal had five wins, five draws and one defeat.  And in the midst of this Arsenal got to their second FA Cup final – the first being, as noted, in 1927 resulting in a 0-1 defeat to Cardiff.  This time there was no mistake.
Date Round Opponent Venue Result
22.03.1930 Semi-final Hull City Leeds D2-2
26.03.1930 Semi-final Hull City Villa Park W1-0
26.04.1930 Final Huddersfield Town Wembley W2-0
Thus if we combine cup and league results near the end of the season we can see there is a fairly reasonable record.  The last two league games played after Arsenal won the first ever trophy hardly mattered.  Leaving those two aside, there was only one defeat.
No Date Opponent Venue Result Pos Pts
31 12.03.1930 Manchester United home W4-2 17 28
32 15.03.1930 Birmingham City home W1-0 16 30
SF 22.03.1930 Hull City Leeds D2-2
SF 26.03.1930 Hull City Villa W1-0
33 29.03.1930 Blackburn Rovers home W4-0 16 32
34 02.04.1930 Liverpool home L0-1 16 32
35 05.04.1930 Newcastle United away D1-1 14 33
36 09.04.1930 Middlesbrough away D1-1 13 34
37 12.04.1930 Sheffield United home W8-1 12 36
38 18.04.1930 Leicester City home D1-1 12 37
39 19.04.1930 Huddersfield Town away D2-2 12 38
40 21.04.1930 Leicester City away D6-6 11 39
F 26.04.1930 Huddersfield Town Wembley W2-0
41 28.04.1930 Sunderland home L0-1 12 39
42 03.05.1930 Aston Villa home L2-4 14 39

This was not sparkling form, but it was definitely an improvement – and an improvement combined with the high emotion of the first ever trophy.

So what caused the turn round this season, and indeed into the glorious 1930/31 season?

The clue is to be found with two players who stepped up in the second half of the 1929/30 season.  Lambert became a regular from February onwards taking over the number 9 shirt from Halliday.  He ended the season with 18 goals from 20 league games – sign enough of something extraordinary to come.  But so was the fact that he played all eight FA Cup games and scored five, including the opening goal in the final.

The other was the boy Bastin who after a couple of early games, took on the number 11 shirt on Boxing Day, and with a few sojourns onto inside right played, 21 and scored seven.  Apart from the goalkeeper (Chapman could never stop tinkering with the goal keeper position) the team was in place and ready to roll.

But there were other signs of progress,  On 5 April David Jack was the first Arsenal player to captain England.

Four days later on 9 April the score was hardly one to remember – Middlesbrough 1 Arsenal 1.  Except that Charles Preedy began his return as goalkeeper – a run that eventually led to his appearance in the Cup Final – and a winner’s medal (even though he was then dropped and became third choice keeper the following season; but still ultimately made 19 appearances.

And there was that final league victory of the season was memorable however on 12 April 1930  as Arsenal beat Sheffield U, on this day, 8-1.  Lambert got a hat trick.   Arsenal ultimately avoided the drop, but only by three points.

On the following day there was a foretaste of the cup final, one week before the big game.  It ended Huddersfield 2 Arsenal 2.  Only 11,988 turned up for the league match.  Bastin and Hulme scored, and the recession was clearly an issue for Huddersfield.

Then on Easter Monday (and yes it really was three games in four days) we had Leicester City 6 Arsenal 6.   Four goals were scored by David Halliday, but that wasn’t enough to get him a place in the cup final and he left the club in the summer.   1929/30 was his only Arsenal season, having come from Sunderland, and leaving in November 1930 for Birmingham.  He played 15 games and scored 8 goals.  But Chapman was putting together a forward line that didn’t need him!

And so after that busy long week, on 26 April 1930 Arsenal won their first ever F.A. Cup 2-0 v Huddersfield.  And indeed they won their first ever major trophy.   It was the final remembered for the Zepplin flying overhead, and because it involved Chapman’s present and past employers playing each other.  It was also the first final in which the managers led their teams onto the pitch.

After that league life went on.  On 28 April 1930 having won the FA Cup just two days before, Arsenal then proceeded to lose 0-1 at home to Sunderland.  Also see here

On 3 May Arsenal showed off the trophy in their final match but lost 2-4 at home to Villa, completing the run of only one league win in the last nine games of the season.  But still, they had won a trophy, that one win was 8-1, and aside from the final two games after the final (which were excusable) they were not really losing.

Arsenal played only one post-season match that year on 5 May 1930: Northampton Town 0 Arsenal 7.  It was one of a series of end of season games with Chapman’s first managerial club, which was set up to help Northampton recover from a devastating fire that had swept their ground.   The game was agreed in the winter, and although when they made the offer Northampton knew they would get their old manager and his first division team back, they didn’t know that Arsenal would be displaying the FA Cup!

There was little transfer activity that summer – indeed just one player turning pro and one stalwart leaving.

8 May 1930: George Male turned pro on his 20th birthday.  He started out on the left wing as a deputy for Bob John and he played just three times in the first championship winning season, but played in the 1932 cup final due to an injury to Alex James.

6 June 1930: John Butler (the man who played for Arsenal at the heart of their “WM” tactical revolution in 1925) was sold to Torquay United.

So the question was: what was the dominant factor at Arsenal.  The league form that left them just three points above relegation, or the heroics in winning a trophy for the first time?

Here was the Cup Final team…


Charlie Preedy

Tom Parker (c)  Bill Seddon   Eddie Hapgood

Alf Baker                                                        Bob John

                       David Jack      10 Alex James   

Joe Hulme            Jack Lambert            11  Cliff Bastin

Here is one of the goals…

Arsenal vs Huddersfield Town 1930

And here is the Zepplin

Arsenal vs Huddersfield Town 1930

And the cup winners… the lights you can see hang over the dog track that went around Wembley at the time.

Arsenal vs Huddersfield Town 1930

And the winning team posed

Arsenal vs Huddersfield Town 1930

Back Row: Baker, Lambert, Preedy, Seddon, Hapgood, John Middle Row: Herbert Chapman (Manager), Jack, Parker, James, Whittaker (Trainer) Front Row: Hulme, Bastin.

But we still haven’t understood how a team that finished 14th just three points above relegation, could then become not only Champions, but Champions with the record number of points and more than double the number of goals than scored by Huddersfield in 1925 when they were champions.

Actually that last point is a bit of a trick – the year Chapman came to Arsenal the off side rule changed and goal scoring shot up.

To find what Chapman did we have to look at the 1929-30 competition statistics (first four columns below) and compare with the final column – appearances in the 1930/1 league winning season…

Player Position Ap Gls 1930/1
Alf Baker Right back/Right half 19 1
Cliff Bastin Outside Left 21 7 42
James Brain Inside right 6 16
Jack Butler Centre half 2
Horace Cope Left back 1 1
David Halliday Centre forward 15 8
Eddie Hapgood Left back 38 38
Alfred Edward Haynes Half back 13 2
Joe Hulme Outside right 37 14 32
Albert Edward Humpish Half back 3
David Jack Inside forward 33 13 35
Alex James Inside left 31 6 40
Bob John Half Back 34 40
William S Johnstone Inside forward 7 3 2
Charles Jones Outside left 31 1 24
Jack Lambert Centre forward 20 18 34
Dan Lewis Goalkeeper 30
Tom Parker Full back 41 3 41
Harold Burston Peel Inside left 1
Charlie Preedy Goalkeeper 12 11
Herbie Roberts Centre half 26 40
Bill Seddon Half back 24 18
Leonard Thompson Inside left 5 1 2
Joey Williams Winger 12 3 9

Only three players played in 1930/1 who did not play in the previous cup winning season; two of those were goalkeepers, and one a youngster just learning his way.  Keyser played the opening 12 games and then was removed in “interesting” circumstances.  Harper had been a success with the club between 1925 and 1927, and returned.  As for Male… well he deserves his full mention from 1932 onwards.

  • Harper 19
  • Keyser 12
  • Male 3

So yes, this was in 1930/1 by and large the team of 1929/30 growing up and believing that they could now do the previously unthought of.   Become the first ever London team to win the Football League.

And how.

Arsenal History Society has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle.  The books are

  • The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
  • Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace.  By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
  • Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football.  By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
  • Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
  • The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.

You can find details of all five on our new Arsenal Books page

You can also find details of our most recent series – a review of every player who played in the first ever Arsenal league season in 1893/4, on the home page along with details of other recent series.

This series on the 1930s continues in the next article.

Some of the other major series on the site that have recently been completed

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