By Tony Attwood
The Walsall Experiment
You’ll have heard about the game: Walsall of the Third Division North vs Arsenal; 14th January 1933.
In the previous season we had come second in the league and were runners up in the F.A. Cup. At the time of the Walsall game we were top of the 1st Division – and we went on to win the league. Walsall on the other hand were solidly third division and included a fair number of amateur players. Yet they beat Arsenal lost 2-0.
The newspapers of the era give little away in terms of how it happened although The Times noted that Walsall were “more virile” than Arsenal and that we looked “dispirited” and were “a hopelessly beaten side.”
So what happened?
To understand this game it is important to remember that at this time both the standard of play and of refereeing in the lower leagues was quite different from that in the first division.
Football everywhere was more of a contact sport in the 1930s, and in the third division much of the more “vigorous” conduct went unpunished.
With no broadcasters at the games and the only reporters at league matches being from the (inevitably biased) local press, refs by and large let lower league players get on with the game, rather that blow the whistle for every infringement. Besides there were no red and yellow cards, and name taking and sendings-off were rare indeed.
As for the ground, Bernard Joy in his report on the match speaks of how too many fans were let in (it wasn’t all ticket) and how the spectators encroached onto the pitch throughout the match. Not what the players of Arsenal were used to.
Meanwhile on the same day at the same time Arsenal Reserves played Northampton Town at Highbury winning 5-0. The team included Leslie Compton, Horace Cope, Ray Parkin, Alf Haynes, and Joe Hulme, all of whom played in the first team that season. Indeed Hulme played in 40 of the 42 league games that season.
And it is this that gives us a clue as to what Herbert Chapman was doing. He wasn’t giving first team players a rest. No, he was finding out whether four of his reserves were mentally strong enough to play for Arsenal.
One of the four (Norman Sidey) did pass the test and played twice more for the first team that season, and ultimately played 45 times for the club. For the other three it was both their first and last game.
Billy Warnes joined Arsenal as an amateur in 1925 and signing as a professional on 29 June 1929. He played in 25 of the 29 reserve games that season before Walsall, leaving the club at the end of the season to go to Norwich City.
Charlie Walsh also joined Arsenal as an amateur and signed as a professional on 11 May 1931. He played in 17 of the reserve games that season before Walsall but left the club almost immediately afterwards, joining Brentford on 27 January 1933.
Tommy Black joined Arsenal on 4 July 1931 from Strathclyde. He was by no means a regular even in the reserves, playing just 16 games that season before Walsall. He was transferred to Plymouth Argyle six days after the Walsall game.
So for three players the baptism of fire experiment was a failure, but it allowed Mr Chapman the chance to have a bit of a clear out. Sadly he never had the chance to make amends – for this was his last Cup game before his early death. Had he survived who knows what he might have tried next?
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