A look into the life of one of football’s most visionary men, Herbert Chapman. He took Huddersfield and Arsenal to unprecedented success in the pre-WWII era.
14 miles from the birthplace of the oldest surviving club in the world is Kiveton Park. This small town in South Yorkshire has a coal-mining tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, with Kiveton Park Colliery one of the earliest deep mines in the world. Up until 1994, when all the mines shut down, the town was one of the hubs of industry. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that Herbert Chapman’s father, a miner, moved his family there from Derbyshire in 1869.
“Kiveton Park could claim to have been a cradle of two revolutions, one industrial and the other sporting, and beyond question it is the birthplace of at least one great man, widely considered the father of football as we have come to know it.”
– Patrick Barclay, The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman
Herbert Chapman was born on January 19, 1878 in a family that encouraged sporting traditions (his brother Harry played for Sheffield Wednesday in the 1900s with 2 League championships and 1 FA Cup, his older brother Tom played for Grimsby Town, and brother Matthew later became director of the same). One of eleven children, Chapman studied mining engineering at Sheffield Technical College (later part of the University of Sheffield) and played as an amateur footballer. His rather prolific tally of clubs – Kiveton Park, Ashton North End, Stalybridge Rovers, Rochdale, Grimsby Town, Sheppey United, Worksop, Northampton Town, Sheffield United, Notts Country and Tottenham Hotspur (oh the irony!) – suggests that the inside forward was never more than an average footballer at best, though even then he had the idea of wearing yellow calfskin boots so as to be instantly identified by teammates and fans alike.
A young visionary
When he took over as player-manager at Northampton in 1907, it could scarcely have been predicted that he would have an immediate impact. But impact he did have, and even later at Leeds City before the outbreak of World War 1. At the end of the war, Chapman, who had been in charge of a munitions factory for those years, expected to continue his work, but the club were implicated in an illegal payments scandal and banned from football for life. The players were auctioned off and new club, Leeds United, took charge of Elland Road. Herbert Chapman successfully overturned his ban, with the support of new employers, Huddersfield Town, who argued that he had not been in charge of Leeds City when the alleged transactions took place during the war, and was at the Barnbow factory.
On February 1, 1921, Chapman was officially appointed as Ambrose Langley’s assistant at Huddersfield, following that up with a promotion to full secretary-manager the next month. It was during his 4 years at Huddersfield, that Herbert Chapman first cemented his reputation as a managerial and tactical success, improving upon his undeniably considerable impact at Northampton (1907-12) and Leeds (1912-19). His system relied on a sturdy defence, fast counter-attacking and a focus on short, quick turnover of passing – in short, a strong precursor to a true team-effort style of play with a much-needed balance between attack and defence. There was also a dependence on wingers passing low inside the opposition defence instead of the then-traditional crossing from the byline. This was supplemented by a well-connected scouting network so that the right players for his system to work could be found. This may not seem very visionary now, in the modern day arena of data analysis, sports science and kinesiology, but back then it was a sharp turn from the norm. Especially the process of adapting tactics based on opposition, a practice that was unheard of in England at that time, which emphasised dribbling, lengthy spells of possession and space to move the ball.
“No attempt was made to organise victory. The most that I remember was the occasional chat between, say two men playing on the same wing.”
– Herbert Chapman
The success of Chapman’s methods was immediately evident as the relegation contenders won their first major trophy in his first season, beating Preston North End 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup final. This was followed by back-to-back league titles from 1923-25, the first of which also had the record of the first title-winning side that had gone through a season without conceding more than two goals in any match – another testament to the manager’s tight system.
All of this didn’t mean that he ran a rigid ship; far from it. He realised the necessity for having an organised plan to get the most out of the players at his disposal and achieve consistent success, but also left enough space for the squad to deputise creatively. As the great Matt Busby noted in his Soccer at the Top: My Life in Football,
“Chapman was an adventurer who had caution as his watchword.”
“All the men are expected to play to plan, but not so as to stifle individuality.”
– Herbert Chapman
Herbert Chapman at Arsenal: The grand orchestra
When he arrived at Highbury in May 1925, the club had been fighting relegation in their previous seasons. Let’s go back 15 years to better understand the larger context of Herbert Chapman’s arrival at Arsenal Football Club. In 1910, Arsenal (then Woolwich Arsenal) was facing a potential financial collapse and liquidation without outside help. It arrived in the form of extremely successful London property developer Henry Norris. Tony Attwood in his Making the Arsenal insists that this was the most important moment in the club’s history because Norris was the one who spent £80,000 to build Highbury Stadium (albeit after failing to move the club to Fulham and an unsuccessful attempt to merge Arsenal and Fulham, and then to get Arsenal to play their home games at Craven Cottage), and in 1919 secured them promotion to the first division, where the club’s remained since.
Arsenal continued to be one of the wealthiest clubs in the first division, but Norris wanted to have a league-winning team to go along with it all. In the summer of 1925, he published a notice in the Athletic News –
“Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of Team Manager. He must be experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exorbitant transfer fees need not apply.”
Herbert Chapman was offered a salary of £2,000 a year which was a very generous sum (football stars were paid only £300 per annum), and just like that, Arsenal Football Club had a new manager, without anyone the wiser that this would change the face of the club, and football in general. The first thing the new manager stated was that it would take five years to build a winning team. He would remain true to his word. That first season, Arsenal finished second, 5 points behind Chapman’s old club. Huddersfield thus became the first club in England to win three consecutive titles, a feat Chapman had a large hand in despite not being at the helm for the record. Little did anyone know that it would be a pattern repeated at Arsenal. But more on that later.
A few things happened during that 1925-26 season that would have long-lasting repercussions. On the same day that Mr. Chapman signed for Arsenal (June 15, 1925), FIFA instituted a change in the offside rule that required only two players (including the goalkeeper) instead of three between the opposition forward and the goal-line. Herbert Chapman signed Charlie Buchan from Sunderland. Buchan, whose career had started with Woolwich Arsenal before moving to Leyton and on to a prolific 14 year spell with Sunderland, was responsible, along with Chapman, for Arsenal’s adoption of the famed W-M – the usual formation changed from 2-3-5 to 3-4-3 (it formed the “WM” shape). Whether they were the first exponents of this formation is still debatable, but it is clear they improved upon it and used it to great success, expediting its evolution with Chapman’s astute tactical views which were seamlessly merged with this new formation.
“The most opportune time for scoring is immediately after repelling an attack, because opponents are then strung out in the wrong half of the field.”
– Herbert Chapman
The third and final event was the scandal that embroiled Arsenal at the end of the season. An FA enquiry uncovered illegal payments made by the club to Charlie Buchan as an incentive to sign for them (at that time there was a maximum wage limit for footballers’ pay). Sir Henry Norris was banned from football for his part, but Chapman escaped punishment. Norris had notorious dictatorship qualities, and despite his assurances to the latter that he would be given free rein, it wasn’t anywhere near that power and influence the manager could exert under new chairman, Samuel Hill-Wood (yes the very same family younger Gooners are familiar with; his fortune was thanks to the cotton industry in Derbyshire and he had previously owned Glossop North End). Nobody knew it then, but it was the start of “The Arsenal Way” which Herbert Chapman propagated with his keen interest in and control of different aspects of the club’s management. It was the start of his journey towards becoming the first great manager, changing the previous definition of what it meant to be one, and setting the stage for those who were to follow. Though he would have to wait 28 years for the FA to implement his proposal of an England manager with the sole responsibility of choosing his team (the first manager after the change was Sir Alf Ramsey of Ipswich Town fame).
“For the first 40 years or so of professional football there was no real concrete idea of what a manager actually did. Teams were picked by an ad-hoc committee of board members and the secretary-manager, a vaguely clerical figure with a distinctly below-stairs status. Herbert Chapman is credited with pioneering the modern notion of a manager as the dominant personality within a football club, first at Huddersfield and then at Arsenal in the 1920s and 1930s.”
-Barney Ronay, The Guardian, August 16, 2007
His 5 year plan succeeded as promised on April 26, 1930. Wembley had an attendance of 92,486 to see Arsenal play Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup final. It’s not hard to imagine that it was especially emotional for Chapman to face his former club, the team he had coached to the pinnacle of English football; especially after the heartbreak three years prior (Arsenal losing to Cardiff in the FA Cup final of 1927). What isn’t as freely known is that a certain George Allison was in the commentary box that day, in what was only the fifth live broadcast of a football match. BBC’s first sports commentator would go on to manage Arsenal just 4 years on from that day, following Chapman’s untimely death in January 1934 at only 55 years of age. George Allison, who was originally the club’s programme editor, and later a member of Arsenal’s board of directors after WWI (first club secretary, later managing director), would manage the club for 13 years including the advent of World War II becoming Arsenal’s longest-running manager; a feat surpassed by one Arsene Wenger on October 1, 2009 (who himself has set a benchmark since then that seems destined to remain unmatched).
But defeat Huddersfield Town they did that day in April to win Arsenal’s first major trophy. (How fitting that the Gunners’ trophy journey started with the cup they are currently top joint-holders in!) It is widely considered as the day the club began their journey to greatness. This didn’t just include the football side of things, though that of course was the key focus of the Yorkshire-born and bred Chapman, but also the manner in which the team played, how the crowd experience was on match-days, what “Arsenal” symbolised to its fans and the larger footballing world. For example, Chapman was against “bad language, gambling and barracking”, calling them the “chief evils of the game”, and wanted men to bring their wives and girlfriends to games so as to generally raise the bar for crowd behaviour. (It’s a shame he wasn’t around to see a record attendance crowd of 73, 295 for an Arsenal home game at Highbury on March 9, 1935 when the club were title contenders)
A romantic might say that this win over his former club signalled a new start of sorts with his new, the handing over of the baton from one Chapman-coached team to win three successive league titles to another that would achieve the same feat not long after (Arsenal are one of only 4 clubs to have this record; the second after Huddersfield, and succeeded by Liverpool in 1982-84 and Manchester United twice in 1999-2001 and 2006-2009). As further proof of how much Chapman impacted the wider world of football, his connection with both clubs was the reason the teams walked out together at Wembley on that day. It’s a tradition that’s continued ever since.
Whatever the symbolism in all of this, the victory was just the start of a dominant period that would take Arsenal into the pantheon of one of the greatest clubs in the world. And all because of the vision of one suited, hatted, bespectacled gent from Kiveton called Herbert Chapman.
This was part 1 of a 2-part series on Herbert Chapman. To read the second part,“An Adventurer With Caution As His Watchword – Herbert Chapman, part 2, click here