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GCR Books

How Arsenal won the League for the very first time.

This is the 11th article in the series Arsenal in the 1930s.  The index to all the articles in the series can be seen at the foot of the article.

By Tony Attwood

April opened with a very curious incident for on 1 April 1931 Arsenal wrote to the BBC banning all future radio broadcasts from Highbury.  (The exact date is uncertain, but certainly it was within two days either way).  They rather bizarrely failed to let George Allison know – even though he was the BBC’s chief commentator and a member of the Arsenal board and club secretary (a position of considerable importance at the time).

The argument was that the commentaries were keeping crowd numbers down, which was an odd claim, probably made more out of emotion than statistics.  Here is what the statistics for the season would have shown, had the club worked them out.  The change column is the rise (or drop) over the previous season.  The figures come from European Football Statistics

No. Club Div Average  Change
1 Arsenal 1 37.106 4,4%
2 Chelsea 1 35.808 28,8%
3 Aston Villa 1 30.781 11,0%
4 Tottenham Hotspur 2 28.148 28,9%
5 Manchester City 1 26.849 -19,5%
6 Newcastle United 1 26.151 -19,7%
7 Liverpool 1 26.086 -13,7%
8 Everton 2 26.039 -21,1%
9 Sunderland 1 22.015 -10,3%
10 Sheffield Wednesday 1 19.911 -22,2%
11 West Bromwich Albion 2 19.816 49,3%
12 Sheffield United 1 19.469 -1,2%
13 Plymouth Argyle 2 19.262 26,4%
14 Birmingham City 1 19.135 -6,2%
15 Portsmouth 1 18.779 1,5%
16 West Ham United 1 18.505 -8,1%
17 Blackpool 1 17.108 21,7%
18 Leicester City 1 17.075 -20,0%
19 Middlesbrough 1 16.860 -12,1%
20 Blackburn Rovers 1 15.701 -16,1%

But the matter was passed by the board, and although there might have been more arguments when Mr Allison found it, nothing more was heard of it, not least because at the start of the month the league table showed that not only were Arsenal getting the largest average attendances, they were also top of the Football League.

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Arsenal 35 23 8 4 111 54 2.056 54
2 Aston Villa 36 21 9 6 114 65 1.754 51
3 Sheffield Wednesday 35 19 6 10 88 65 1.354 44
4 Derby County 34 16 9 9 80 63 1.270 41
5 Portsmouth 35 15 10 10 71 61 1.164 40

There were six games left for Villa which if they won all of them would give them 63 points.   Arsenal had seven games left to amass 10 points – although almost certainly, given the goal averages, nine points would do.  Two wins and five draws to win the title.

On 3 April, Good Friday, Arsenal got one of their necessary draws 1-1 away with Portsmouth, Bastin scoring the goal.  It was Arsenal’s game in hand as Villa were not playing, giving Arsenal a four point lead.  Roberts returned at centre half, making this the same ten outfield players who had started the season.  Only Keyser had gone as Harper continued in goal.

The following day – Easter Saturday, 4 April, Arsenal were at home to Chelsea while Villa were away to Portsmouth.

Villa came into this game on the back of a tremendous run

17 Jan 1931 Aston Villa v Bolton Wanderers Won 3-1
24 Jan 1931 Liverpool v Aston Villa Drew 1-1
31 Jan 1931 Aston Villa v Middlesbrough Won 8-1
07 Feb 1931 Huddersfield Town v Aston Villa Won 1-6
18 Feb 1931 Aston Villa v Sunderland Won 4-2
21 Feb 1931 Birmingham City v Aston Villa Won 0-4
28 Feb 1931 Aston Villa v Leicester City Won 4-2
07 Mar 1931 Blackburn Rovers v Aston Villa Won 0-2
14 Mar 1931 Aston Villa v Arsenal Won 5-1
21 Mar 1931 Derby County v Aston Villa Drew 1-1
28 Mar 1931 Aston Villa v Blackpool Won 4-1
11 games, including that one against Arsenal, the league leaders.  Nine wins, two draws.  It was certainly looking good for them to make up the leeway if Arsenal continued to leak points occasionally – and the 5-1 drubbing away to Villa in March showed they certainly could.
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There were no significant issues in the Villa line up – they played the same team as beat Blackpool with just one change: the forward George Brown came in instead of John Manley.  Otherwise it was the all conquering Villa team.
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Even though Arsenal had played the day before (which as we noted above Villa did not) they kept exactly the same team – so Villa had the added bonus of having not to play two games in two days.
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Portsmouth’s build up to their home game with Arsenal was uninspiring, two defeats, at home to Newcastle (1-2) and away to Liverpool (3-1).  They were sixth in the league.  Chelsea’s record was even worse, for having knocked Arsenal the holders out of the FA Cup they themselves had gone out to Birmingham in a replay at home 0-3.   In the League they had won their last two games but before that they had won only one and lost the other four of the last five.  They were 12th.
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So with both Arsenal and Villa lining up pretty much as expected, neither sets of opponents being especially strong, or on a good run, but Arsenal having played the day before, the feelings were that if anything the advantage was with Villa, although Portsmouth were the tougher opponents both through their league position and their recent results.
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And yet the results turned out to be Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1 at Highbury (Hulme and Bastin getting the goals), but unbelievably the evening papers later announced: Portsmouth 5 Aston Villa 0.
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Suddenly the world had changed…
Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Arsenal 37 24 9 4 114 56 2.036 57
2 Aston Villa 37 21 9 7 114 70 1.629 51
3 Sheffield Wed 36 20 6 10 92 65 1.415 46
4 Portsmouth 37 16 11 10 77 62 1.242 43

There were ten points left to play for and Arsenal had a six point lead.  If Villa won all five remaining games, they would have 61.  Arsenal now needed four points to match that, and win the league on goal average.  Two wins in five games was all that was required.

On Easter Monday, 6 April, Arsenal played their third game in four days, and yet again it was Portsmouth, who had just done Arsenal such a favour on Easter Saturday.

40,490 turned up at Highbury to see a 1-1 draw (James getting the goal) but all attention was on the result from Aston Villa in the evening papers.  Villa kept faith with the team that had lost so badly to Portsmouth, and Villa beat Newcastle 4-3.  However only 29,975 turned up at Villa Park.  It seemed their fans realised there was only one way this was going to go.

The gap between the two teams remained the same, but now Villa had only four games left to make up the difference.

On 11 April Arsenal were away to Grimsby, the club whom they had thrashed to ratchet up their all time record score at Highbury in the League.  This time it was a calmer affair, Arsenal winning on the coast of the North Sea 0-1, with Lambert back on the score sheet for the first time in four games.  Roberts was out injured again, and once more Thompson came in, for his second game at centre half of the season.

Aston Villa were at home to Sheffield United and won 4-0 and the table read…

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Arsenal 39 25 10 4 116 57 2.035 60
2 Aston Villa 39 23 9 7 122 73 1.671 55
3 Sheffield Wed 38 20 8 10 95 68 1.397 48
4 Portsmouth 39 16 13 10 80 65 1.231 45
5 Huddersfield 39 17 11 11 76 62 1.226 45

There were six points to play for, meaning Villa could now only get 61.  A draw for Arsenal in their next game would just about do it because of goal average, a win would make it certain.   Arsenal had three games left to get that one (or more comfortably two) points.

On 18 April 1931, Arsenal played Liverpool at Highbury in front of 39,143 people.

Arsenal’s record of late against Liverpool had not been good:

21 Dec 1929 Liverpool v Arsenal Lost 1-0
02 Apr 1930 Arsenal v Liverpool Lost 0-1
13 Dec 1930 Liverpool v Arsenal Drew 1-1

But this time there was no mistake.  Lambert, Bastin and Jack scored in the team that had been the foundation of Arsenal from the opening day of the season through to now, with, as noted before, only the goalkeeper changing:

Harper

Parker  Roberts Hapgood

Jones John

Hulme Jack Lambert James Bastin
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Arsenal had won the league for the first time ever.  Having come just 14th the season before, 45 years after they had been formed, and 37 years after entering the Football League, and in their 33rd league season (four seasons being lost to the first world war) Arsenal were now champions.
 The table after the Liverpool game read…
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Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Arsenal 40 26 10 4 119 58 2.052 62
2 Aston Villa 40 24 9 7 124 73 1.699 57
3 Sheffield Wednesday 39 20 8 11 95 70 1.357 48
4 Portsmouth 40 17 13 10 81 65 1.246 47
5 Derby County 39 18 10 11 91 70 1.300 46

Not just this, but a London team had won the League for the first time ever, and that caused some celebrations in the capital as well – although perhaps not in Tottenham.

Plus there was a little social change in the air (not that anyone interested in football noticed much), for the following Monday the House of Commons finally passed a bill allowing places of amusement (by which it primarily meant cinemas and theatres, but which could also mean football grounds, should anyone wish it) to open on Sundays.

Next up in footballing terms there was an oddity, for on 22 April 1931 Arsenal played their  first Sheriff of London game – a competition which was set up to be played between and amateur and a professional side in England once a year by Sir Thomas Dewar.  Arsenal beat Corinthians 5-3 at Highbury; attendance 12,000.  Lambert (2), Hulme (2) and John, getting the goals.

There was one more league game to be played this month – an away trip to Newcastle, and Arsenal continued the winning form, running out on top 3-1 thanks to a goal from Jones (his only goal of the season) and two from Hulme.

The table then looked like this

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Arsenal 41 27 10 4 122 59 2.068 64
2 Aston Villa 41 25 9 7 128 75 1.707 59
3 Sheffield Wednesday 41 21 8 12 99 75 1.320 50
4 Huddersfield Town 41 18 12 11 80 63 1.270 48
5 Portsmouth 41 17 13 11 81 67 1.209 47
6 Derby County 41 18 10 13 93 76 1.224 46
7 Middlesbrough 41 19 7 15 94 86 1.093 45
8 Manchester City 41 18 9 14 73 68 1.074 45
9 Blackburn Rovers 41 17 8 16 83 81 1.025 42
10 Liverpool 41 14 12 15 84 85 0.988 40

And suddenly a realisation swept through the football world in that sunday’s papers; one more win in the final game would give Arsenal the highest number of points ever achieved in the first division.

Here are Arsenal’s results for the month’s  games in summary

Date Opponent Op Pos H/A Result Pos Pts Crowd AC
3.4.31 Portsmouth  5 away D1-1  1 55  31,398 17,779
4.4.31 Chelsea 12 home W2-1  1 57 53,867 37,106
6.4.31 Portsmouth 4 home D1-1  1 58 40,490 37,106
11.4.31 Grimsby Town 14 away W0-1  1 60 22,394 13,082
18.4.31 Liverpool 10 home W3-1  1 62 39,143 37,106
25,4.31 Newcastle United 17 away W1-3  1 64 21,747 26,151
  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game
  • Pos is Arsenal’s position after the game
  • AC is the average crowd for the home team through the season, providing a comparison between the crowd on that day and and the norm expected by the home side.

But while Arsenal were celebrating, what of second division Tottenham?  For much of the season they had looked as if they were going to climb back into the first division.  However while Arsenal were entering their all conquering (apart from one game against Villa) run, Tottenham were getting into difficulty.

Date Game Result Score
28 Mar 1931 Tottenham Hotspur v West Bromwich Albion D 2-2
03 Apr 1931 Tottenham Hotspur v Cardiff City D 2-2
04 Apr 1931 Port Vale v Tottenham Hotspur L 3-0
06 Apr 1931 Cardiff City v Tottenham Hotspur D 0-0
11 Apr 1931 Tottenham Hotspur v Plymouth Argyle D 1-1
18 Apr 1931 Bristol City v Tottenham Hotspur L 2-1
25 Apr 1931 Tottenham Hotspur v Barnsley W 4-2
02 May 1931 Burnley v Tottenham Hotspur L 1-0

Just one win while Arsenal were steaming ahead to absolute triumph, left Tottenham missing out on promotion by four points.

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAvg Pts
1 Everton 42 28 5 9 121 66 1.833 61
2 West Bromwich Albion 42 22 10 10 83 49 1.694 54
3 Tottenham Hotspur 42 22 7 13 88 55 1.600 51
4 Wolverhampton Wan 42 21 5 16 84 67 1.254 47
5 Port Vale 42 21 5 16 67 61 1.098 47

 

Next time: the final game of the season, and the end of season friendlies

Arsenal 1930/31

 

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