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Herbert Chapman’s problem with keepers

By Tony Attwood

Herbert Chapman used nine goalkeepers during his nine seasons at Arsenal each playing an average of 42 league games per season.  (Note I am counting the final Chapman season, during which he sadly passed away as a complete season here since Joe Shaw continued running the team very much on the lines Chapman had laid down and with his players).

It seems a high number of keepers.  But life in the first division was of course different in the 1920s and 1930s – keepers were subject to much rougher treatment than now, and so injuries were more common.  What’s more, there being no substitutes in the game then, keepers not employed on the pitch with the first team would play equally competitive games in the reserves and A team.

So such factors must be taken into account when we ask, did Chapman have a blind spot with goal keepers?  The aim of this article is to try and throw some light on that issue and consider Chapman’s approach to goal keeping.

To give a true insight into goalkeeping at the time, it is not a bad idea to look back to Chapman’s predecessor Leslie Knighton.

Knighton took over Arsenal after the first world war, and in common with most managers had to recruit much of his team from scratch.  This was certainly true of the goalkeepers, no pre-war Arsenal keeper survived into the post-war period.

Here’s the table of keepers that Knighton used:

Season Goalkeeper Appearances Goalkeeper Appearances Goalkeeper Appearances
1919/20 Williamson 26 Dunn 16    
1920/21 Williamson 33 Dunn 9    
1921/22 Williamson 41 Dunn 1    
1922/23 Williamson 5 Dunn 17 Robson 20
1923/24         Robson 42
1924/25 Lewis 16     Robson 26

We can look at this and make out the patterns which are not dissimilar today.  Given the extra chance of injuries we see Williamson as first choice keeper until his time has ended in 1922/3 either by injury or loss of form or age.  We see Dunn as the faithful reserve keeper, but not really the man wanted as the first choice, and Robson coming in when Williamson’s time is over Lewis appearing as the new backup in the final season.

Chapman kept Robson and Lewis from his predecessor’s teamsheet, although Robson only got nine more games.  The emerging Lewis however was held in high regard as he played on for six seasons, with over 30 appearances in each of the last three.

Season Goal App Goal App Goal App Goal App Goal App
Pre-‘25 Robson 88 Lewis 16            
1925/6 Robson 9 Lewis 14 Harper 19        
1926/7     Lewis 17 Harper 23 Moody 2    
1927/8     Lewis 33 Harper 0 Moody 4 Paterson 5
1928/9     Lewis 32 Harper 0     Paterson 10
1929/0 Preedy 12 Lewis 30 Harper 0        
1930/1 Preedy 11 Keyser 12 Harper 19        
1931/2 Preedy 13     Harper 2 Moss 27    
1932/3 Preedy 1         Moss 41    
1933/4             Moss 37 Wilson 5

Harper however, signed by Chapman, proved a problem and eventually left to play in the US.  But most interestingly Chapman took the player back upon his return as Lewis had left and Keyser had proved unsatisfactory.

Moody and Paterson may have come with hope, but were in essence reserve keepers.

But we can see that the big problem arose ironically in the first league winning year when Preedy was still not thought good enough to see a season through.  With no Lewis, Keyser was brought in, and got the opening 12 games of the season but was then dropped and allowed to play no more.  Harper was brought back and shared the jersey with Preedy.

It was only after this that Chapman managed to sign his one great success of a keeper – Frank Moss, something it took him seven years to do.

A further insight into Chapman and goal keepers comes from the transfer details of each player

Season Keeper From Went to
1925/6 Robson Innerleithen Bournemouth
1926/7 Lewis Clapton Orient Gillingham
1927/8 Harper Hibs USA/Plymouth*
1928/9 Moody Bradford PA Bradford PA
1929/0 Paterson Dundee Utd Airdrie
1930/1 Preedy Wigan Borough Bristol Rovers
1931/2 Keyser Margate QPR
1936 Moss Oldham Retired
1939** Wilson Morton St Mirren

The conclusion was that Chapman was not buying players from top clubs but rather from lesser clubs.

However there are a couple of oddities to be considered here.   Harper, on getting a limited number of games decided to try his luck with the growing American league, and played successfully for a number of teams before coming back for a second spell at Arsenal, before finally moving on to Plymouth.   Wilson’s position was affected undoubtedly by the outbreak of war in 1939.

Which brings us back to Keyser.  Margate had a close link with Arsenal, having been the nursery club of Arsenal for some years (although this arrangement had stopped by the time Keyser turned up.  His story is unique – please see the report on him, in order to get a full grip on this.

So our one truly successful keeper of the era was Moss who came from Oldham.who at the time were a mid-table second division side.

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