An Adventurer With Caution As His Watchword – Herbert Chapman, part 2

We continue our journey into Herbert Chapman’s life, this time looking into how he changed the dimension a football manager could operate at. This is the 2nd part. For the first part, “The “Gentleman from Kiveton Park”, click here.

There are the stars, the greats, and then there are the legends that have single-handedly changed the game, a club or a team with their innovation, their presence, their bravery, their visionary, forward-thinking…the legends that will forever be an integral part of the history of the beautiful game, not just revered at their individual clubs. Those are the special ones, the ones that come rarely but leave indelible imprints when they leave. Herbert Chapman was one of the very elite.

“Herbert Chapman stands out today as quite simply the greatest visionary the English game has ever seen. His innovative ideas and forward-thinking nature propelled the game into the modern era and the unprecedented success he brought to Arsenal Football Club will never be forgotten.”

– Arsene Wenger

Herbert Chapman: An influence beyond just the pitch

From one game-changing visionary to another, there are many debates about whether Herbert Chapman is simply the greatest manager Arsenal Football Club has ever seen, or whether that honour should be bestowed upon the professor from Alsace who took over at the helm decades after the former, and the sum total of whose reign is yet to be decided, on account of it being ongoing. Whatever the argument in favour of Wenger, it cannot be stressed enough how none of it would have been possible if not for Herbert Chapman.

Herbert Chapman oversaw the development of Highbury
Highbury, 1931

The season after the FA Cup triumph (1930-31), Arsenal won the League for the first time in their history. In the following season, they were runners-up in both the league and the cup. That however didn’t stop Chapman from also overseeing the development of Highbury, including the addition of a clock placed by the south terrace (yes, Clock End!) and the installation of lights in the new West Stand (he had attended a late match in 1930 in Belgium with his good friend, Hugo Meisl). Arsenal, who trained under those floodlights, would have to wait for two more decades for night matches to be officially sanctioned. (Incidentally the first recorded floodlight match in Britain had already taken place in Bramall Lane in 1878, with a crowd of around 20,000, when he was but a few months old).

Apart from being one of the most modern stadiums in the world after its upgrade, it was the art-deco East Stand that set it apart from all the others. That and the classy feel (the birth of the Arsenal Way) that slowly began to permeate every aspect of the club under the stewardship of Mr. Chapman –

“The dressing rooms in the East Stand were beautiful – the marble baths, the under-tile heating. It was pure luxury. You have to remember that this was in an era when a lot of clubs would deliberately leave the heating off in winter, or turned it up high in the summer to unsettle you. It said so much for the Arsenal that they provided for your every need. I’ll always remember the white towels laid out for us after games, and even the beer and sandwiches afterwards were of the highest quality. Arsenal had the class to treat all opponents as equals.”

– Middlesbrough striker, Wilf Mannion, who regularly played at Highbury (1930)

There was also an electronic turnstile, a PA system that transmitted team news to fans, and a letter and number scoreboard (many clubs in the country followed suit over the next 50 or so years). He also started the trend of playing music in the dressing room and in the stadium; he brought his personal gramophone player to the match, and later invited a public announcer to play records at half-time (he was the first manager to do so). All revolutionary ideas at that time that got him labelled eccentric, or a bit daft at the very least.

But even they couldn’t deny that his interests were wide-ranging. With a strong, strict belief in the necessity for peak football fitness in his players, Chapman constructed a training regimen and appointed physiotherapists and masseurs. He also advocated synthetic pitches, specifically rubber ones so that his players were protected from injury and impact. It is true that for his W-M system to succeed, an extremely high level of physical fitness was essential, but the manager’s tactical acumen was flexible enough and innovative enough to accommodate a change to the system based on the abilities and talents of his available squad. Despite early shouts of “Lucky Arsenal” (a precursor to the “Boring Arsenal” of the Graham era), Arsenal scored 127 goals in the 1930-31 season for their first title; a club record that still stands. Even after Chapman’s passing, Arsenal continued their goal-scoring dominance. In the 1934-35 season, 8 goals apiece against Leicester and Middlesbrough, 8-1 versus Liverpool, 7-0 versus Wolverhampton, and a 6-0 away at Tottenham (Reference: history section); Ted Drake scored 42 league goals in a season, another club record that stands.

Gillespie Road to Arsenal

Herbert Chapman is also credited with changing the name of the former Gillespie Road station to Arsenal Tube Station, an idea that had first occurred to him, not when he signed on as the new manager at the club, but when he had visited the Arsenal ground in 1913 with his then-team Leeds City. Was there any inkling then of their future alliance? After months of lobbying, and the replacement of scores of tickets, maps, signs and even machinery, Arsenal made its debut on the London Underground on November 5, 1932.

Attitude towards players

In those days, players weren’t expected or believed to have any free will when it came to tactics. Enter Herbert Chapman who proved himself a blazing pioneer yet again. He was the first manager to not only focus and stress upon the importance of planning and strategy, but also the first ever to use a tactics board for team meetings. It was a little magnetic table representing a football field, with toy replica of players who could be moved around on it (the analogue version of the virtual, sensory board used by the pundits today). This made it easier to communicate his wishes to his players, who were themselves encouraged to give their views and discuss potential tactics and analyse previous games and performances; an unheard of practice back then. It led to a self-aware squad that had a strong grounding of their individual duties and a clear overview of team strategy. Not just that, Chapman also introduced the practice of weekly team meetings and encouraged them to indulge in extra-curricular activities like golf so as to foster a stronger team spirit. All of this created a sense of trust and honesty among players who were not used to being treated as unique entities, encouraged to apply their intelligence and to think more scientifically about their profession or the sport.

“It was an appeal to intelligence as well as physical skill, and it had the effect of boosting self-respect, fostering a sense of loyalty, and raising a player’s status above that of a mere paid servant.” (Stephen Studd, Herbert Chapman: Football Emperor).

Chapman was also known for making shrewd signings, whether through his excellent scouting network or his own personal eye for hidden talent; players who would go on to become Arsenal legends – Alex James, Eddie Hapgood, David Jack, Cliff Bastin, Joe Hulme, Jack Lambert and more. Though accused of being the “Bank of England” club and buying success (oh the irony!), the financial numbers from those years tell another story, without taking into consideration the increase in revenue from match-day numbers and other profits (in 1933-34, Arsenal made a profit of £35,000)

Tactical innovations

Widely appreciated and respected now as one of the foremost innovators of the beautiful game in England, Herbert Chapman faced many doubters and naysayers while he was still alive, as is common with anyone who is trying to break norms and do something different. As is also common with such people, Chapman was not afraid of being deemed unpopular. For example, he defended his strategy of “inside passing” though it didn’t perhaps look as attractive, because he didn’t agree with the then favoured attacking via the flanks and congregating in front of the goal where “the odds are nine to one on the defenders”.

But as is equally common in such cases, many of his innovations weren’t introduced or understood until after his passing. In August 1928, for the opening day of that season, Herbert Chapman had his team wear numbers on their back for their match away against Sheffield Wednesday; with the strong belief that it would make it easier and faster for players to recognise their teammates (there was also the case that players washed their own kits back then, and numbering would help with any potential misunderstanding). Joining him on the same day was Chelsea manager, David Calderhead, whose team were playing at home to Swansea. But the FA strongly disagreed with his logical argument and banned them from doing it ever again. It would take until 1939 before the FA made numbered shirts compulsory (though it was adopted for the FA Cup final in 1933, a year before Chapman’s demise, and he at least got to witness it once).

They couldn’t however stop the gaffer from redesigning Arsenal’s kit. Chapman started with the socks, changing them to an unmistakable white and blue so that his players didn’t have to waste time looking up to spot their teammates. The jersey was replaced with a shirt with buttons at the neck and a turn-over collar. The all-red colour was brightened and white sleeves were added to finalise the distinctive look. When Arsenal first debuted this kit against Liverpool on March 4, 1933, he was not to know that it would become iconic and be associated with Arsenal Football Club even decades after.

Football on the Continent

At a time when European tours or visits abroad were worse than an anomaly, and European football was far from admired, Herbert Chapman was close friends with Hugo Meisl and Jimmy Hogan, who coached the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930s, and was one of the first British managers to consider signing black and foreign players. Years before, in 1909, he had already taken his Northampton side to play Nuremberg in Germany. When he arrived at Arsenal, he organised a series of regular friendlies (home and away) with Racing Club de Paris with the proceeds going to war veterans.

If further proof was needed of his visionary thoughts, it should come with his idea of feeder clubs, his proposal of a European club competition about 20 years before the European Cup was formed, and his idea of goal judges and a second referee to minimise the pressure on human error (to think that this goal-line technology has been only recently incorporated after a long struggle). Herbert Chapman also showed a keen interest in developing local talent. As proof, the Arsenal reserve side (who were allowed to play with numbered shirts) won the Combination league title for the fifth consecutive year in 1930-31.

The start of the end

When Arsenal drew 0-0 with Birmingham City on December 30, 1933, they were four points clear at the top of the table. Their manager, after spending New Year’s Eve in London, went on a scouting trip to see Bury vs Notts County on January 1, 1934, then to watch Sheffield Wednesday at home the day after (Arsenal was to play them next), before spending a night in his hometown of Kiveton. He returned to London with a cold, but that didn’t stop him from watching Arsenal thirds play Guildford City. A love for football that would cause him pneumonia, which worked rapidly. In the early hours of January 6, 1934, Herbert Chapman succumbed to this sudden illness at his home in Hendon, Middlesex. Four days later, his players David Jack, Eddie Hapgood, Joe Hulme, Jack Lambert, Cliff Bastin and Alex James would be his pall-bearers as he was buried in his local St. Mary’s Churchyard.

If we are to consider only statistics, then Herbert Chapman wouldn’t fare very well. Under him, Arsenal played 403, won 201, lost 105 and drew 97, also winning their first ever FA Cup and League, and the Charity Shield in 1930, 1931 and 1933. He wasn’t alive to watch his beloved Arsenal become only the second team to win the championship for three successive years, or win two more titles before the end of their 1930s dominance.

And for all his brilliance, it’s a surprise that he isn’t as appreciated or celebrated in Kiveton Park or even Huddersfield Town for that matter (it was Arsenal who finally sent them a replica of Chapman’s bust from Highbury for their centenary in 2008), as he is in London, the continent, and even Brazil.

But the first manager to have an exclusive column in the Sunday Times has left a legacy that runs far deeper than plain numbers. Whether tactically, with regards to football in the larger community, or in terms of appropriate professional behaviour on and off the field, you’d be hard-pressed to find an area that he has not actively influenced in some way. Not just that, but without him the likes of Clough, Fergie, Shankley, Wenger and Ramsey would not have been able to do what they did years later.

“It also remains to be seen whether or not there will be disciples who will carry on his work of popularising football, making it attractive for the shilling-paying public”

– HC Obit in The Times on Monday, January 8th, 1934


This isn’t to say that he was always right (it’s a good thing his idea of swapping the 11 clubs in the top division with 11 clubs in the second so as to remove the fear of relegation was never even considered), but he had an infinitely far-reaching vision, the discipline, hard work, commitment and morals to see a lot of that vision through, and the conviction and logic to back up his views. In our modern-day era of FFP, financial super-clubs, oil tycoons and multi-billionaires, and the subsequently widening grey zones that come with them, couldn’t we use a maverick like Herbert Chapman?

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.