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John Butler: WM’s first centre half, and one of the claimants to be Arsenal’s first foreign player

By Tony Attwood

A couple of years ago I ran a little piece here about Arsenal’s first foreign player.

Much of the article was taken up with the issue of definition, but taking it at its narrowest finding Scottish players is a doddle (they were at Royal Arsenal from the start), and the rest of the UK is not so hard: I have found Dick Roose from Wales who played in the 1911/12 season,  and Joesph Toner from Northern Ireland who joined us in 1919.   But the first from outside the British Isles was Jack Butler who also joined in 1910 – he was from Sri Lanka.

Andy added Hugh Cassidy who was Irish played a couple of first team games in the 1890s.   As Andy said at the time, “He came over and joined the Hussars and made is debut for Arsenal aged 34 or 35. He married the sister of future Arsenal stalwart, Charlie Lewis.”    He also suggested that the first proper foreigner that we know of was an Egyptian named Ahmed Fahmy who played a season in the reserves in the early 1920s.

Now I’m returning to this theme, to look at the not insignificant contribution of John Butler…

Jack Butler : Biography

He was born in Sri Lanka to English parents who returned to England while he was still a child.

In his early time in football he played for Fulham Thursday (known in some reports as Fulham Thursdays), Dartford and Fulham although different sources disagree on the order in which he played for those clubs.

But we do know he signed for Arsenal as a reserve in 1914, and served in France in the Royal Artillery in the war.  After the war he made his first team début on 15 November 1919 in a 2-2 away draw with Bolton, under the management of Leslie Knighton.

It is said in some quarters that he was a centre half who rivalled Chris Buckley and Alex Graham for a place in the team from the start.  But the records show Butler often played in the same team as Buckley, playing number 4 or 8, as well as centre half (5) on occasion.   Alex Graham also played 4 and 10, and again many games that season saw Butler plus Graham both on the pitch.

In all he played 21 league games in his first active season of 1919-20 and scored one goal.  In 1920/1 he got fewer games (just six)  but by 1921/2 he was regularly playing centre half although he also got a couple of games at centre forward.

By 1923/4 he was first choice centre half, and in Knighton’s last season of 1924/5 he was selected to start 39 of the 42 league games.  He was also selected to play for England against Belgium on 8 December 1924.

Herbert Chapman clearly liked what he saw for the following season he managed 41 starts, and thus Jack Butler had the honour of being the first centre half to be the focus of the Chapman/Buchan WM formation that revolutionised Arsenal’s play under the new offside rule.   Arsenal came second that season, giving Butler two runners’ up medals (one for the FA Cup defeat to Cardiff in 1927, and one for 1925/6 in the league).

He continued as the pre-eminent centre half in the club, but after just two games in 1929/30 he was sold. Arsenal had a new centre half in Herbie Roberts.

Butler had played 267 times for the club and scored seven goals.  Including cup games that made 296 games and 8 goals.

On 6 June 1930 Herbert Chapman sold  John Butler to Torquay United for £1,000.  After two seasons he became the coach of Royal Daring, in Belgium, and was coach of the Belgian national side in the 1938 World Cup. It is interesting to speculate on how much the fact that he was at the heart of the WM revolution, rubbed off and influenced his knowledge of how to change football through changing tactics.

In the second world war he naturally returned to England and after the war managed Torquay United (in 1946/7), Crystal Palace and Colchester Utd, before retiring from football in 1955 at the age of 60.

Jack Butler died on 5th January 1961, aged 66

1 comment to John Butler: WM’s first centre half, and one of the claimants to be Arsenal’s first foreign player

  • I realize he wasn’t born on English or even British Isles soil, and also that the state of international football being what it was, it’s hard to say that he “should have played for England.”

    But it looks like he was eligible to play for England, and only for England. So can he really be counted as a “foreign player”?

    I suggest that “Arsenal’s first foreign player,” if you’re not willing to count Scots, Welshmen, and anyone from the Emerald Isle, has to be someone who could have played for a national side from outside the British Isles. If Andy is correct, and the aforementioned Ahmed Fahmy only played in the reserves, then he’s not the one.

    I would be very interested to know who that one was, especially since we recently passed the 10th anniversary of the first player from my homeland to have played for Arsenal, however briefly: Frank Simek.

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