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April/May 1938: from no titles to five in one decade – and the most amazing title of them all.

This is part of the series of articles which follows Arsenal through the 1930s.  An index to the articles already written is given at the end of this piece.

This article updated 8 March 2017

by Tony Attwood

On 30 March 1938 the home and away league table looked like this.  The team on the up was Middlesbrough with four wins and a draw in the last six games.  The team at the top that had suffered a dip was Wolverhampton with just one win in the last six.   Wolverhampton were however the only team attempting to play the same sort of game at home and away in the style evolved in the early part of the decade at Arsenal by Herbert Chapman

Arsenal, as we can see, had by far the best home record (13 wins and 44 goals in 16 games) but had the same number of away wins as Everton in 20th.

Arsenal now had eight league games to play in 36 days, an astonishing schedule.   And if that were not enough the club also had a series of friendlies – including (amazingly) one against arch-rivals of the season, Wolverhampton!

The opening game of the month was against Charlton who although fifth would, if they won their two games in hand, be equal on points with Arsenal.  Their results had been mixed of late with four wins and four defeats in the last eight league games – but in their last game they had done Arsenal a great turn by beating Wolverhampton 4-1.  However they had a propensity to draw their away games, (seven of their games away from home ending up with that result this season).

Collett was back into the side – this time in for Crayston – and Drury came in at outside right as Carr moved to inside left.  In the game Arsenal were 1-0 down at half time, but came back with goals from Drake and Carr to secure a 2-2 draw in front of 52,858.   The news from Wolverhampton was not so good however, as they had ended their bad run by beating Birmingham 3-2.

In form Middlesbrough had won again – this time at Leicester, but Preston, undoubtedly distracted by FA Cup affairs and talk of them winning a second “double”, had lost at Blackpool.  At the bottom Man City had gained a precious victory over Chelsea to give them some hope of avoiding relegation.  The top now looked like this:

On 6 April Man C did more to enhance their chance of survival while Charlton’s thoughts of using their games in hand to catch up slipped away as City beat Athletic 5-3.

Which then took everyone on to the next Saturday.  Arsenal were playing Leeds away, Wolverhampton were at Portsmouth, Preston at home to Derby and Charlton (in sixth, but still only four points behind the leaders with two games in hand were at home to Sunderland).   Given the volatility of recent form and games in hand all six clubs still harboured thoughts of winning the league.

The day’s key results affecting the top of the table came in as

Charlton Athletic 2-1 Sunderland
Leeds United 0-1 Arsenal
Middlesbrough 0-1 Huddersfield Town
Portsmouth 1-0 Wolverhampton Wndrs
Preston North End 4-1 Derby County
West Bromwich Albion 4-3 Brentford

Preston now re-confirmed themselves as the form team of the moment after last week’s slip, but Brentford looked to have slipped away from the race for good.   However now we had a position in which even the games in hand would not be enough to dislodge Arsenal – and there was still that extra goal average.

Leeds had looked like being a team challenging for the top position in the league earlier in the season and had been as high as second over Christmas but had dropped back, and had a solid home form showing only three defeats.  But prior to this game they had not won in seven and Arsenal were high on confidence.

Leslie Compton replaced Hapgood, Crayston came back instead of Collett, who now changed sides to replace Copping, as Bremner and Dennis Compton were added to the forward line to replace Drake and Bastin; as the rest of the forward line swapped positions.

Bremner got the goal in what was the first  of only two games he played in the league this season, having signed from Cartha Athletic of Glasgow on 3 March.

As a result of this round of games the table now looked like this

Now the football really hotted up with a series of matches one after the other, starting on Good Friday, 15 April: the match at home to Brentford, and if there was to be a prediction it must have been that Arsenal would easily move through this game with a victory.  They had beaten Middlesbrough and Grimsby in recent matches but had then lost to WBA as we have seen.  But with Drake and Bastin were back in the team (Lewis and Drury dropping out), what could go wrong?

The answer was everything in the second half, as after a goalless first half Arsenal were beaten at home for only the second time in the season, 0-2.  Griffiths and Cartwright were in the team, and they were the ones who were chopped for the next game the following day.

Overall the Good Friday results made extraordinary reading – here are the key games…

Arsenal 0-2 Brentford
Blackpool 1-0 Charlton Athletic
Chelsea 0-2 Preston North End
Middlesbrough 1-1 Liverpool
Wolverhampton Wndrs 10-1 Leicester City

It seemed that no club was capable of a prolonged assault on the title.  As for the Wolverhampton win, that certainly helped their goal average along, but they were still somewhat behind Arsenal in that department.

Unlike Christmas, when the League had the habit of making the teams that played each other on Christmas Day, return the game on Boxing Day, here, the Easter Saturday games were different, with the return of the Good Friday games coming on Easter Monday.

So having suffered their setback Arsenal now had another home game – this against Birmingham who were 16th, with just one away win all season.  And yet, after a run of just one win in 19, they had knocked up consecutive wins over Bolton and WBA to take them away from the relegation zone where they had been lingering.   But they knew that a return to that earlier bad run of form could quickly taken them back down, and thus they put out a totally defensive team which duly worked giving them the 0-0 draw they were after.

Elsewhere the results on Easter Saturday included

Blackpool 4-2 Middlesbrough
Brentford 0-0 Stoke City
Everton 3-0 Charlton Athletic
Manchester City 7-1 West Bromwich Albion
Sunderland 0-0 Leeds United
Wolverhampton Wndrs 0-0 Preston North End

A mixed bag of games including yet another bizarre comeback by Man City who seemed incapable of making up their minds whether they were still champions or relegation fodder.

But every team in the top six had lost at least one of their last six matches, and indeed only Arsenal and Preston had kept that figure down to just one defeat.  Wolverhampton, despite now being in reaching distance of Arsenal again (if they could win their game in hand) had lost three of the last six and drawn one of the others – not quite the form they needed at this time!

This left the table at the top now looking like this…

Easter Monday, as mentioned, saw the return games from Good Friday, which gave Arsenal an away match against Brentford who had unexpectedly won at Highbury 0-2 just two days before.   Seeing Wolverhampton and Preston hot on their tails, surely Arsenal would now dig in for at least a draw against a side who had been moving up the table!

But no.  In the space of four days Brentford did the double over Arsenal this time thumping the Gunners 3-0 at Griffin Park.  True Cartwright and Griffiths were back in the team, but these players were gaining experience all the time, and the other nine men were solid regulars.  Yet 3-0 it was.  Arsenal fans could do nothing but wait for the evening papers to see what the other results said.  If either Preston or Wolverhampton had won, Arsenal would no longer be top.

And yet, those following this extraordinary season end found this…

Charlton Athletic 4-1 Blackpool
Leicester City 1-1 Wolverhampton Wndrs
Liverpool 1-1 Middlesbrough
Preston North End 0-0 Chelsea

Arsenal were still top – although it took a while for it to sink in for they had lost two and drawn one of the last three.  There were a couple more games later in the week but they didn’t affect the top of the table, and in the build up to the next game the table now looked like this

We were back on equal points with Wolverhampton, but they still had that game in hand – and their goal average had made significant strides forwards, while Arsenal’s was going the wrong way.

And then, quite amazingly, Arsenal played a friendly two days later against… of all people, Wolverhampton.   It is designated as being the Mayor of Colchester’s Cup, and noted as an away game – but I think it might have been a “neutral venue” (ie Colchester) not at Wolverhampton.

Why this game was fixed up, and when it was fixed up, I don’t know, but from a 21st century perspective this looks really, really odd, playing one’s leading challengers in a month that was already packed with eight league games.

The team Arsenal put out was mostly made up of players who were not currently automatic first choice players in the team including the Compton brothers, Scott, Fields, Collette, Nelson, Carr and Drury.  But Swindin, Crayston and Jones were there.  Wolverhampton won 1-0.

Then the team recovered ready for the last league match of the month on 30 April against Liverpool who having been as low as 21st earlier in the season had now climbed up to 10th due to a run of six successive wins in March and April.  In the last four games however it had been one win, one defeat and four draws.

Arsenal had three games left including this one, and quite simply needed to win the lot.  But even then Wolverhampton could still come in with that game in hand and take the title for the first time.

Arsenal played what was emerging as a team as close to being first choice as they could get at this moment:

Swindin

Male Joy Hapgood

Crayston Copping

Drake Jones Carr Drury Bastin

You will have noticed the oddity.  Drake on the wing.  But that is what is says in the records.  Carr at centre forward.  Last time he had played in the league he had scored two, so why not try him again?  And amazingly it worked, he scored the only goal of the game as Arsenal won 1-0.

So once again everyone was waiting for the announcement of the results from around the country.  This is what they found

Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool
Bolton Wanderers 3-1 Middlesbrough
Brentford 1-2 Birmingham City
Leicester City 1-0 Charlton Athletic
Wolverhampton Wndrs 1-1 Chelsea

It had all gone Arsenal’s way!   As a result the table now looked like this with just one game to go.

Form was now irrelevant – every club in the top five had lost at least once in the last six games – and indeed Arsenal were the only club to have won three games out of the six.  No one had won more.  In fact that statistic alone reveals just what an extraordinary end to the season it was.

Yes Wolverhampton still had a game in hand, and if they won both their remaining games they would take the title – but the way things had been going, no one could have confidence in that.  Their last four games read

Game Date Opposition Venue Result Pos Pts
37 16.04.1938 Preston North End home D0-0 3 45
38 18.04.1938 Leicester City away D1-1 3 46
39 23.04.1938 Middlesbrough away W3-0 2 48
40 30.04.1938 Chelsea home D1-1 2 49

They now had West Brom at home and then Sunderland away on 2 May.  Curiously Arsenal had a game on that day as well – a friendly against Southampton.  I have no details as to the reason for this match, but I imagine it was either for another good cause or because of a positional experiment.  If I had to put money on it, I’d go for the latter.

And the news was grim – Wolverhampton had won.  The table now looked like this

Arsenal’s match against Southampton on the same day was probably forgotten by most people the very moment it was finished, but for the record Arsenal won 3-2.

As I have suggested I suspect that as compared to the previous friendly this was much more a match for keeping the players up to speed – and indeed I wonder if that was the intention – along with the fact that the manager wanted to give Jones more game time playing at right half – which is where he had played twice already and where he was going to play in the final game of the season (and indeed in the final friendly played after the the season was over).

For the final game quite simply if Wolverhampton won they won the league – it was their’s for the taking.  Otherwise if Arsenal did better than Wolverhampton (winning when Wolverhampton drew, drawing when Wolverhampton lost, or of course winning when Wolverhampton lost) the title was Arsenal’s for an incredible fifth time in one decade.

But attention was not just at the top of the league for the bottom of the table was also utterly fascinating

Any two of those seven could go down, although to be fair Huddersfield looked reasonably safe since for them to go down five of the teams below them would all have to do better than Huddersfield.

Thus everyone wanted to know not just the results of their club but the results of the whole league, and then do the calculations.

On 7 May the results came out like this

Arsenal 5-0 Bolton Wanderers
Charlton Athletic 0-0 Preston North End
Everton 1-1 Derby County
Grimsby Town 2-0 Chelsea
Huddersfield Town 1-0 Manchester City
Leicester City 1-4 Birmingham City
Middlesbrough 4-1 West Bromwich Albion
Portsmouth 4-0 Leeds United
Stoke City 2-0 Liverpool
Sunderland 1-0 Wolverhampton Wndrs

Amazingly not only did Arsenal win but Wolverhampton blew it at the last against a team with nothing to play for.  Arsenal had indeed won the league for the fifth time.

At the bottom Grimsby won, Portsmouth won, Birmingham won, Stoke won, while Man City and WBA lost.  An amazing run of results for the teams at the bottom, meaning that most unlikely as it had seemed even at the start of play on the final day, last season’s champions, Manchester City had gone down.

Arsenal’s team for this historic final game of the season was

Swindin

Male Joy Hapgood

Jones Copping

Kirchen Bremner Carr Drury Bastin

The goals came from Kirchen, Carr (2) and Bastin (2).   The new forward line worked, and how.

To complete the story Arsenal had one more game, a friendly against Feyenoord when they lost 1-0.  It is amazing that they could rouse themselves to get to the game let alone put out a team.  But they did, and it was almost the same as the team that had won the league.  Crayston replaced Kirchen, and Nelson replaced Bastin (who was about to go off and play with England).

So there we have it.  I will deal with the issue of why the five championships was so impressive in a later article.   But for now, perhaps having read this, you might join with me in a moment’s tribute to the team that pulled off the fifth, and the most remarkable win of Arsenal in the 30s – a win that was perhaps at least on the same level of 1989.

Here is the list of matches throughout April and May that led to this extraordinary triumphy…

Date  Opposition Op pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
02.04.1938 Charlton Athletic  5 home D2-2 1 43  52858  44,045
09.04.1938 Leeds United 10 away W1-0 1 45 29,365  21,256
15.04.1938 Brentford  6 home L0-2 1 45 51,299  44,045
16.04.1938 Birmingham City  16 home D0-0 1 46 35,161  44,045
18.04.1938 Brentford  4 away L0-3 1 46 34,601  22,335
23.04.1938 Preston North End  3 away W3-1 1 48 42,684  22,671
25.04.1938 Wolverhampton(1) away L0-1 17,584
30.04.1938 Liverpool  10 home W1-0 1 50 34,703  44,045
02.05.1938 Southampton (2) away W3-2  (16583)
07.05.1938 Bolton Wanderers 6 home W5-0 1 52 40,500  44,045
08.05.1938 Feyenoord (2) away L0-1 50,000

I would particularly like to draw attention to the crowds for the home games this month.  With the exception of the two London derbies that were played at the start of April, Arsenal’s home crowds were all below the season’s average, despite the intensity of the competiton and the chance of winning the league.  I find it quite extraordinary that on 7 May only 40,500 turned up at Highbury to see Arsenal win the League.

Perhaps there were reasons – if you can think of any or have any research on the subject do let me know.

(1) Mayor of Colchester’s Cup

(2) Friendly matches – no other details available

The abbreviations, for the table above, as always are…

  • Op pos, is the league position of the opposition before the game.  Chesterfield’s position is obviously in relation to Division 2.
  • Pos is Arsenal’s position after the game
  • AC is the average crowd in league matches for the home team through the season, providing a comparison between the crowd on that day (in the previous column) and the norm expected by the home side.

Arsenal in the 30s

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics

 

3 comments to April/May 1938: from no titles to five in one decade – and the most amazing title of them all.

  • Nigel

    First can say thank you Tony for continuing this series while you were away in Australia. I was fully expecting you to postpone until you got back. It appears you had a great time there with your family so that was brilliant. As Arsenal didn’t win all their games while you were away, welcome home!!
    What a fascinating season that was, most extraordinary. If it had been nowadays what a time the media would have had on the last day of the season covering all those vital matches.
    Of all Arsenal’s titles I think this ranks with 1952-53, 1988-89 and 1970-71 as the closest, all being decided on the last game. The difference in 1937-38 of course being it wasn’t in our own hands on the last day. Had Wolves won we would have lost out but interestingly if they had drawn we would comfortably be champions on goal average. If goal difference had been in vogue then we would still have won the same as in 1952-53 but a good thing for us that goal average didn’t count at Anfield in ’89 as the match with Liverpool would have been academic as we would have needed a rugby score to secure the title. Although both teams finished level on points and goal difference Arsenal were champions through scoring more goals. Always seems odd to me that when the Football League was first formed that it narrowly selected goal average over goal difference to decide positions when clubs were level on points. The public would have bee robbed of a classic match that night. Also had three points for a win instead of two been the rule in ’38, ’53 and ’89 Arsenal would still have triumphed.
    At the relegation zone of ’38 on my probably dodgy maths on todays three points for a win Birmingham City would have gone down with West Bromwich Albion instead of the previous seasons champions Manchester City. Out of interest only because that was the rules then.
    Another fact of 1937-38 season is that Arsenal equalled the lowest number of title winning points by a champion club when in a forty two match season only scored fifty two out of a maximum of eighty four. Only Sheffield Wednesday in 1928-29 and Chelsea in 1954-55 were champions with such a low number between
    1919-20 and 1980-81 when this was the maximum number attainable.

    What an incredible season.

  • Nigel

    Just to go back to the subject of goal average it did put a strange occurrence in the last match of the 1970-71 against Spurs. If the game had finished 0-0 Arsenal would be champions but 1-1 then Leeds United would be. So when Ray Kennedy scored with four minutes to go many of the Arsenal players have said they felt more vulnerable then than when it was goalless. Fortunately Arsenal held on to win the title by one point. Under that system it was better to win 2-1 than 3-2 and also much more difficult to work out than goal difference.
    Another interesting thing about the 1937-38 season is as Tony pointed out was the change of players throughout. The most sad was Herbie Roberts whose bad injury finished his great career and he was unfortunate in that he was just one game short of winning his fifth championship medal. Eddie Hapgood and Cliff Bastin did achieve that distinction. Two other medalists had left before the season’s end, Jackie Milne and George Hunt. Milne had a good record with goals scored with appearances but Arsenal seemed to have an abundance of good wingers so let him go as early as December. The next season he gained a full international cap for Scotland. Hunt however was only signed from Spurs at the beginning of October but was sold by the end of February. An England international he must have been a bit disappointing only scoring three goals in eighteen league appearances and none in three FA cup games.
    Apart from Roberts other players unlucky not to win a medal were Eddie Carr who came into the side late and scored some vital goals , George Drury and Alex Wilson. The Compton brothers Leslie and Denis would have to wait ten years to win theirs along with Reg Lewis but George Swindin did get his first to go with two more ten and fifteen years later, a championship medal in three different decades, a feat much later also achieved by Tony Adams. George Male won his fourth and also played in the winning squads of 1930-31 and 1947-48 so had played in six title winning sides. A mention should perhaps should be made for loyal reserve Norman Sidey who made only three appearances this season but had contributed to three other championships as well without ever earning a medal and had now made his last league team outing.
    The two odd friendly matches you mention Tony were on May 2nd away to Southampton where we won 3-2 with Gordon Bremner scoring twice and Drury the other. Amazingly the second friendly was the next day after winning the league when Arsenal travelled over to Holland where they lost 0-1 to Feyenoord in Rotterdam. Swindin;, Male, Compton,L; Jones,L, B. Joy, Copping (Collett); Crayston, Bremner, Carr,Drury, Nelson was the team and seven had played the previous day. No jet travel those days so what tremendous effort by the club. These stats come from ‘Arsenal A Complete Record 1886-1990’ by Fred Ollier.
    Although Arsenal have had undoubtably better championship winning teams I think that 1937-38 must have been one of the most exciting and rewarding seasons the club has had. Unfortunately for many of the younger players their careers would be curtailed in just over a year with the second world war.
    So thanks again Tony for this excellent series which delves into each teams matches so thoroughly and puts winning titles into true perspective.

  • nicky

    Tony,
    Surprised I could find no reference to the signing of Bryn Jones in 1938, from Wolves for a record £14,000.

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