If you want a simple fact about Bob John it is that he played for Arsenal 470 times – more than any other player up to the cessation of football in 1939.
Now here’s the detail.
Robert Frederick John was born on February 3, 1899 in the Welsh town of Barry, near Cardiff. By 1920 Bob John was playing for Caerphilly (just for accuracy not Caerphilly Town which was a different team,) who came bottom of the second division of the Southern League and then left the league. They returned a couple of seasons later but did not finish the fixtures, ultimately ceasing to exist.
From Caerphilly Bob moved to Barry AFC (again, not Barry Town as sometimes said – the club changing its name after Bob John left them) – again in the Southern League. The club was a centre for rising new Welsh players, and they have had over 50 internationals play for them.
Arsenal signed him in January 1922 for £750, and as such is recorded as one of Leslie Knighton’s most successful transfers. He made his first team début on October 28 that year in a 2-1 defeat at home to Newcastle and and went on to make 24 league appearances that year, taking over the number 6 shirt from Tom Whittaker.
By 1923 he was playing for Wales (against Scotland, 17 March 1923) and eventually totted up 15 caps – a very notable total in an era when international sides tended to play little more than three games a season. (Oh for a return to such days).
By the 1923-24 season Arsenal had a surfeit of left halves, and so moved to left back. But ultimately he moved back to his original position, and continued to play there becoming noted as both a ball winner and a passer, according to some commentators.
However by this time the team was absolutely not working, and had come 20th in the league. Leslie Knighton was duly relieved of his duties and in came one Herbert Chapman.
Bob John played in the losing cup final of 1927, and started finding himself playing in a team with Herbie Roberts, Joe Hume, Cliff Bastin and of course Charlie Buchan. He got his cup medal in the winning final of 1930 (with our founder Jack Humble in the crowd), and of course was in place for the whole of the magnificent 30s. He even managed to score in a cup final (1932) although on that occasion we lost.
Having won the league in 1931, Bob John broke the club appearance record held by Percy Sands of 327 games (April 2nd 1932), before going on to get his second and third winners’ medals in 1932 and 1933. He then became very much a senior player, and lost his place when George Allison signed Wilf Copping. Be he stayed with the club, often dropping down to the reserves in later years, but continuing to advise and support the younger players who were joining the club. He had, after all, be there and done it.
He retired in 1938, and (rather oddly I feel, but I don’t have any information on this) he then joined West Ham’s coaching staff, before joining Jack Butler (also of Arsenal) at Torquay United (which, although of no consequence to anyone, is my second team. My father, who had watched the Arsenal in the 1930s and had taken me as a child, had retired to Torquay, and we went to a number of games there together).
The two ex-Arsenal men moved on to Crystal Palace in 1947 with Bob John as trainer, but in March 1950 he returned to Torquay for a sadly unsuccessful time as trainer and he departed in November. There’s no details of Bob John on the Torquay web site’s history section, but I have dropped them a line to see if they know any more.
After this he went to Cardiff City as both scout and coach, and died in his birth town of Barry in 1982, at the age of 83. His shirts from the 1927, 1930 and 1932 Cup Finals are in the Arsenal Museum.
Bob John (left), Herbert Chapman (centre), Alex James (right)
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