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Herbie Roberts: how can Arsenal forget this wonderful player?

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Victory Through Harmony

There are so many famous names from the Chapman / Allison era that is not surprising that one or two slip from the public mind despite their being players of enormous importance and stature in the history of the club.

Herbie Roberts is one such. The Arsenal web site has no picture of this player, and no commentary on him other than his birthday and the statistical note of the number of games he played.   This is really inexcusable, because this man not only served his club brilliantly, he was also the player who was the first really successful centre half in all football.   I’ll explain how and why below.

Yet just consider this.  In the 1930/31 season he played 40 league games and won the league.  The following season he got a runners up medal in both league and cup.  In 1932/33 he played in 36 games and won the league.  In 1933/34 he only managed 30 games – and won the league.  In 1934/5 he played in 36 games and won the league.  In 1935/6 he finally got his cup winners medal.  In 1937/38 he only played in 13 games which was not quite enough to secure another league winner’s medal – but his position in the history of the club, and indeed world football, was secure.   (I add the latter, because he was the first brilliant exponent of the stopper system, which became possible after the off side rule change in 1925 – of which more below.

In all 335 starts for Arsenal including 297 in the league and four league goals with one more in the FA Cup.

Herbert “Herbie” Roberts was born on 19 February 1905 and died while serving his country on 19 June 1944.

He was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, becoming a policeman in this area and playing amateur football for Oswestry Town.  (I am going to sidetrack for a moment because I find Oswestry Town a fascinating club.  It goes back to 1860 so is one of the oldest in the world, and yet I have limited information about its past.  But what I do know is that around 2005 it merged with another club to form Total Network Solutions (now known as The New Saints) playing in the Welsh League (where it has spent much of its time, despite being in England).  TNS were the dominant club for a number of years – an example of sponsorship taking the club to the very top of the league).

Anyway, Herbie Roberts was said to be tall and unassuming defensive midfielder, playing initially right half.  Chapman signed him in December 2006 for £200 directly from Oswestry and of course he then became a pro footballer, playing his first game for us at home against Aston Villa on 18 April 1927.  We won 2-1 in front of 38,000.

Herbie Roberts’ was moved by Chapman into the centre half position, playing between the two full backs in the new WM formation.  (The position also became known as that of the “stopper”.)

Now I am going to divert a little into the offside law here, both because I should have done it in the Woolwich Arsenal reviews and because Herbie’s career developed because of the 1925 rule change.

Initially (1863 to be exact) the rule was that a player in front of the ball was offside.  In other words all you could do was pass backwards, or kick the ball upfield and rush forwards.  Which is in fact what rugby was all about and is not dissimilar to the way some clubs play now.

Three years later the nonsense of this rule was removed and instead you could be onside if there were three defensive players between you and the goal when you got the ball, or if the ball was kicked back to you (ie towards your own goal).

The next change was in 1873, and this time the law said that the offside moment was when the ball was kicked, not when it was received.

We like to think that “interfering with play” is a modern idea, but it isn’t – in 1903 the rules changed again to say that being in an offside position was neither here nor there – the player is only offside if he “causes the play to be affected.”

In 1907 we were off again – this time with the addition that you could not be offside in your own half, and then there was stability (apart from the matter of World War I) until 1921 when you could not be offside from a throw in.

This collection of rules and modifications however led to a sterile form of football in which teams pushed up all the time.  With three players needed to be between you and the goal when you got the ball clubs knew that they could leave just two back in their own half and so effectively stop anyone on the attacking team being in their opposition half.  All anyone could do would be hoof the ball down the field and rush.   If both teams played the game, it was truly awful.

By the mid 1920s the number of goals per game was sinking fast, the press were describing football as a boring waste of time, and attendances were in what seemed to be terminal decline.   The game was said to be on its death bed – a leftover from the 19th century, not part of the modern new, post-war world.

Amazingly (and in today’s world utterly unbelievably) the Football Association decided to act!  It proposed that two new lines between drawn 40 yards from goal, with players not able to be offside until they went past that line.  It didn’t work too well, but an alternative suggestion did.  Cut the number of defenders who had to be in front of the ball down to two instead of three.  This change was adopted in the summer of 1925 for the following season – a speed of change that we can only wonder at today.

The result was dramatic with the average number of goals per game being 3.69, and a dramatic change of tactic, since you could no longer leave a player lurking in defence while the rest stepped up to catch an attacker off side.   As a result WM was invented with the back line being three players, the big “stopper” in the middle marking the big centre forward.  The centre half was created by Herbert Chapman, and Herbie Roberts was the key exponent – the model for all defenders until 4-4-2 came along with effectively two central defenders.

Of course there were critics – when Arsenal are around there are always critics.  And although this move made for much better, open football, as revealed by Arsenal in the 1930s, many newspapers led the charge that Arsenal were boring (which must sound familiar).

Herbie Roberts broke his leg in the 1937/8 season playing against Middlesbrough and then retired after 335 games scoring five goals.   He then joined the club as a trainer working with the reserves, before joining the Royal Fusiliers upon the outbreak of war.  He died at the age of 39 while on duty, serving his country.

George Allison and his players

Arsenal in 1910

It will be very difficult for us to be taken seriously in the corridors of world sport

3 comments to Herbie Roberts: how can Arsenal forget this wonderful player?

  • Andy Kelly

    There is a typo in there: “Chapman signed him in December 2006 for £200”. Should be 1926.

    Staying on the offside law, Arsenal played a friendly against Chelsea on 31 January 1925. This game was a trial for the new offside law. It didn’t create an avalanche of goals (Chelsea won 1-0) but it must have been seen as a success.

    Herbie took charge of Arsenal’s ‘A’ team. This team was the forerunner of the youth team. It was used to blood young players who were not experienced enough to play in Arsenal’s reserve team. At this time Arsenal’s reserves were more succesful than the first team.

    The ‘A’ team was entered into the Southern League for the 1938-39 season (46 years after Arsenal originally tried to form the league). They finished 6th in the league that season. The following season only 1 game was played before the league was suspended due to the outbreak of World War II.

    One player that Herbie coached but was released when the team was disbanded due to the war was Len Shackleton. There is a picture of Shackleton cutting the Highbury grass in a book called “Arsenal: A Pictorial History”.

  • Keith Roberts

    I believe that Herbie Roberts might be my great great great uncle.I am trying to find out more.I was born at Gobowen 1944 Herbie died one month before June 1944
    He played his first game for Arsenal against Aston Villa.My grandson plays for Aston Villa in goal he is only nine.What a coincidence if we are related

  • J b

    Uhh Keith, I am related to him he’s my grandmas cousin he is to me by blood and family tree so small world I guess

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