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GCR Books

Arsenal in October 1938: the champions stagnating in mid-table

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal ended September in the lower reaches of the first division – way below what had been hoped for after their dramatic seizing of the Championship for the fifth time the previous May.

They were at least undefeated in the last two games however (although saying this is rather a case of clutching at straws), and they had made bad starts to the season before. Although these starts had not been quite this bad in the 1930s, for Arsenal were now only two points above Brentford who occupied one of the relegation spots.

And since this was the season immediately after the one in which champions Manchester City had been relegated, the notion of a sudden decline of a previously top club was a topic for debate.

Here is the foot of the table at the start of October.

The month started with a match away to Sunderland which ended goalless.  The good news was that Arsenal had now gone three successive games without conceding a goal and thus three without defeat.  The bad news was that in those three games they had only scored only once.   Nelson came in at outside right, Cumner continued at outside left and Les Jones returned to his more familiar inside right role. Drake was still centre forward, but had thus far scored only one goal.

At least the team now had a full week between games, with no more friendlies arranged, and they used the time properly to prepare for a home match against Grimbsy.  The Marriners were occupying their usual position in the lower reaches of the league, and had not won in their last three games.  Crayston dropped out, Les Jones returned to right half and Bremner took his place at inside left.  Bastin was still injured.

But despite any worries about the team changes, Bastin’s injury and Drake’s non-scoring run, it was a 2-0 victory for Arsenal with Bremner and Kirchen scoring, making it four games without conceding.

There was now another full week’s break before the away game to Chelsea who were sitting 13th with two defeats and three draws in the last five games.  Those two defeats had both been by 1-5, against Blackpool and Manchester United and that gave Arsenal hope.

At last Bastin came back, although playing at inside right, where he had played before, but it was far from being his natural position.   But the best that could be said was that Arsenal scored a couple of goals.  The worst of it was that Arsenal lost 4-2 against such modest opposition.

For the next match wholesale changes were made, not least because on the same day Wales had a home game against England which Wales won 4-2.  Copping and Hapgood played for England, Bryn Jones and Reg Cumner played for Wales.   This was Reg Cumner’s international debut – his first of three caps and he certainly would have had more full caps had it not been for the war.  (He was one of a handful of players who came through the Margate nursery and went on to play for their country.)

As a result of this match Leslie Compton, Wilfred Walsh, George Drury and Alex Wilson came in for their first games of the season and Bastin moved back to outside left.   Walsh was another Margate man and this was indeed his first game for the club.  He made three appearances in all for the season and moved on to Derby on 26 June 1939.  Drury had played 11 times in the previous season and this year played 23 league games for Arsenal – another player of great promise whose years in football were lost to the war.  Alex Wilson had played 37 games in the 1935/6 season when he was an FA Cup winner, but he then had dropped out of favour.  This was the first of 19 games for this season – he moved on to St Mirren on 14 January 1941.

Preston had risen to sixth earlier in the season, but two draws and a defeat in the last three had taken them back down the table, an ultimately Arsenal won the match thanks to an own goal from Beattie.  Not the most convincing way to win a match, but at least Arsenal were back in the top 10.

On 26 October 1938: England beat the Rest of Europe 3-0 at Highbury on a Wednesday afternoon.  Early closing of the local shops allowed 40,185 to attend and Hapgood and Copping played.  It was the second match to be shown live on British TV – the first having been the Arsenal v Arsenal Reserves match, also (obviously) at Highbury.

There was just one more league match in the month – this against Bolton, away from home.  After a modest start they had risen to third thanks to a run of five wins and a draw in six games, slipping back to fourth prior to this match against Arsenal following a defeat to Huddersfield in the week before.

Despite the return from international duty of the regular squad members, Collet, Walsh and Drury kept their places, only Hapgood returning straight into the Arsenal team.  Drake continued to play at centre forward despite still having only scored one goal all season.  Bastin continued at outside left.   The result was a 1-1 draw, Bryn Jones now playing at inside right getting the goal.   Arsenal stayed in 10th place.

Here is the table of results for the month…

Date Opponent Op pos Venue Result Pos Pts Crowd Av crowd
01.10.1938 Sunderland 8 away D0-0 14 7 51,042 21,740
08.10.1938 Grimsby Town 17 home W2-0 8 9 39,174 39,102
15.10.1938 Chelsea 13 away L2-4 15 9 66,443 30,999
22.10.1938 Preston North End 12 home W1-0 10 11 40,296 39,102
29.10.1938 Bolton Wanderers 4 away D1-1 10 12 46,611 23,073

Here are the abbreviations as always…

  • 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.

And here is the league table at the end of the month.

Derby were very much the team in form with five wins and one defeat in the last six.  Of the others in the top ten only Middlesborugh had managed four wins (along with two defeats).  Arsenal’s last six had given them two wins, and three draws.  But six goals in the last five games was not what the Arsenal crowd was used to.

Arsenal in the 30s

1930s: the players, the crowds, the tactics

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