By Tony Attwood
This article focuses on the first ever league match that Chapman took charge of for Arsenal It is an update on part of an earlier article – that earlier article is still on the site as it continues the story beyond the first game – but the rest of the piece will be updated later. However new research throws question marks all over our earlier understanding.
Leslie Knighton – Arsenal’s first manager after the first world war, lasted six years at Highbury. He started his final season on a high, with three successive wins and not a goal scored against the club. Sadly it did not continue like this and a run of six successive defeats and elimination from the FA Cup in the first round (the notorious drugs games against West Ham) through January and February took Arsenal perilously close to relegation.
In the end Arsenal ended 20th. The 21st and 22nd clubs went down. Sir Henry Norris put his famous advert in Athletic News and in came Herbert Chapman.
Having missed relegation by one place, Chapman (perhaps contrary to expectation) did not replace the Knighton team wholesale, but instead took many of the players who had failed so badly the previous season and turned the team round. Indeed instead of missing relegation by one place we missed winning the league by one place. It was Arsenal’s best season ever thus far in their 31 year League history.
It is sometimes assumed that Chapman did this by bringing in a huge number of new players – despite the warning in the job advert that managers whose main preoccupation was for the paying of huge transfer fees for established stars. But as this table shows this was not the case.
There is only one player who played over 20 games for Chapman in his first season who was new – Charlie Buchan. All the rest of the team that played a significant number of games under Chapman in his first year played a fair number under Knighton in his last season.
As we’ve seen in other articles on this site, understanding Knighton is difficult because the main source of information we have is an autobiography that Knighton wrote many years later (and wrote without any access to Arsenal documentation or records).
Indeed by the time Knighton wrote his book (in order to gain some extra income for his retiring years in Bournemouth), Chapman and the Arsenal chairman, Lt Col Sir Henry Norris were dead, and although Chapman did contribute some articles to the Sunday Express, he himself left no diary or autobiography, and neither did Sir Henry.
The Arsenal History Society booklet “Wartime, Promotion and the pre-Chapman years” shows clearly that an awful lot of what Knighton wrote is pure tosh. (If you have not go a copy of the booklet it is available through Arsenal Independent Supporters Association) He in fact wrote a prolonged excuse for his failure as a manager at Arsenal, and indeed elsewhere, complete with the sensationalism that the publishers wanted in order to maximise sales.
One of Knighton’s many moans about Arsenal was that the opening match of the 1925/6 season (which was the small matter of Arsenal v Tottenham) had been promised to him by Sir Henry as a testimonial for Knighton. Further he said that the reason Knighton was dismissed was in part due to Sir Henry wanting to avoid handing over the money.
But there is no documentary or other collaborative evidence that any such promise was made, nor that it was made for this match. Indeed when Knighton was sacked there was no knowledge of what the first match of the season was going to be.
In fact it is most likely that Knighton was sacked because for his last two seasons Arsenal had been awful, coming 19th and 20th in the league, finishing 1924/5 with two wins in the last ten games – despite having a decent transfer fund (again despite all his claims in his book to the contrary).
What’s more, the fact that Chapman could turn such a team of losers around and take them to runners-up speaks volumes for Chapman, and for Knighton (who totally omits to point out this contrast in finishing league position in his book.)
By the time Chapman arrived, Arsenal v Tottenham was a huge game – the match on 25 October 1924 was played in front of 51,000 at Highbury. Arsenal won 1-0. (The return match at White Hart Lane on 28 February 1925 however only attracted 29,457).
Arsenal’s crowds at the time were above average for the league – although highly variable, not least because mid-week games were played in the afternoon, thus precluding most working men from attending. The game against West Ham for example on Monday 23 March 1925 only attracted 10,000.
The comparison of the players who took part in Knighton’s last match and Chapman’s first is interesting…
Chapman gave four players a go to see what he was getting – which is perhaps why Arsenal lost 0-1 at home – but then were not defeated in the next seven games. Cock only lasted one game, Toner two – all season, and several others fared hardly any better. But still we have seven of the team who played the last Knighton game, three who did not but were already at the club, and one new transfer.
The Offside Rule
So, Arsenal lost, and Knighton didn’t get his pay off. But there is one more point to notice. This was the first game at Highbury under the new offside rule in which the number of defenders who had to be behind the ball to avoid offside was reduced from three to two.
There is no evidence that Chapman made much of a tactical change to accommodate this, although the Charlie Buchan autobiography says that many other managers did – or had started changing in previous seasons.
There is more on the tactical change Arsenal did make this season in the new Arsenal History Society booklet, which moves on from Knighton and explores the Chapman years. It is published in the next couple of weeks, and if you would like a copy you can get one free by joining AISA, via the link above.
Arsenal, then, having lost to Tottenham, went on a winning spree until 3 October when the world was turned upside down. If you want to know about it soonish, join AISA and get the new booklet. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until October 3.
But I can tell you, the previously told tales of Arsenal adopting the WM formation after October 3 in order to counteract the new offside law, are very wide of the mark. Very wide of the mark indeed.