Herbert Chapman Part One

Herbert Chapman is the chronologically earliest manager most informed football fans can name. Most will be aware that he was the man behind the marble halls of Highbury, and that a bust of him has just moved from there to the new Emirates Stadium. Quite a few will know that he won three consecutive titles with both Arsenal and, a decade earlier, with Huddersfield. Hardly anyone will know just how much the modern game we recognise now was his invention. Hardly anyone will know that he was in effect the first England manager, something his death from pneumonia curtailed at the very moment when he was about to impose his enormous stamp on the role. Every so often, you come across a figure in history who is so obviously alive at the wrong moment that you feel a kind of outrage and pity. Chapman is one of those. He wouldn’t have thought so. Not at Leeds City; not while on war service; not at Huddersfield, or in Rome with England in 1933. Nor whilst arriving at an Arsenal third team match one freezing night in January 1934. That the pneumonia that he took from that night killed him would have seemed frightening, traumatic and harsh, but not strange.

Chapman was not the only great coach of his day, although he was one of the few true innovators to remain in the United Kingdom. Jimmy Seed stayed home too. Seed, unusually for a good manager, had been a successful player for Newcastle United, the club Chapman went to Arsenal to emulate. It was Seed’s Charlton Athletic, not Chapman’s Arsenal, who were the most consistent First Division team of the 1930s. That was after he’d brought them up from the Third Division in straight seasons. There’d be an FA Cup for Seed and Charlton after the war, and a stand built in his memory decades later.

Others went abroad, and save for brief interludes, stayed there. Jimmy Hogan, Jack Reynolds, William Townley, Fred Pentland, all played absolutely crucial parts in building the continental game that would ultimately come to equal the home of football. To a great extent, these men worked abroad because they were appreciated abroad. Football at home was then just as it is now a jobs-for-the-boys affair, uninterested by innovation or the opportunity to improve. Chapman, like Clive Woodward today, was an ideas machine: like Woodward, he proved that if you had enough personality, you could convert the mockers, succeed, change things forever.

Relatively few of the acknowledged “great” British managers have achieved at the same level at more than one club. Chapman is one of those, and Alex Ferguson is another. It’s interesting that both men were at their second clubs for five years before winning trophies, whereas they’d been successful more or less immediately at their other clubs. There is relatively little evidence to suggest that managers improve much through experience. The careers of Shankly, Paisley, Busby, Ferguson, Stein, Clough/Taylor, Ramsey et al all follow the same pattern. They join a club – including their first club – and results improve dramatically straight away from whatever they’d been before. But having succeeded hugely at one club, moving to another becomes tricky, and the five year interval seems typical. Not for Clough, but “typical” isn’t the word for any of these men.

There are great football coaches, great managers, like Seed, Busby, Paisley, Clough. But it’s hard to look at a list of such men and not feel differently about Herbert Chapman. He didn’t, in the end, leave the mark on the game he might have done had he lived. The white football, floodlighting, the running of the England squad, numbers on shirts, modern training and physiotherapy, professional support staff – that’s all Chapman. But with the exception of the enduring set-up at Arsenal, none of this stuck – all of it had to be revived long after his death. The England squad idea still waits for it’s second pioneer:

..I would like the England selectors to choose twenty of the most promising young players in the game and arrange for them to be brought together once a week under a selector, a coach and a trainer. The object of it would be to enable them to go out and practice with definite schemes planned.. If this proposal were carried out, I think the result would be astonishing… I must say I have no hope of this international building policy being adopted.. But it is on these new lines that some of the continental countries are working.

But what did stick was to change the game so fundamentally that it’s hard to believe that it ever had to be instituted in the first place.

(In Chapman’s own playing days) ..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.

You can guess Chapman’s legacy from that one sentence. I did say it was hard to believe. But the ghosts of those occasional chats linger on at so many clubs today, and they are there on the back pages of our newspapers, and they whisper in the ears of fans and Football Association officials alike. And Chapman’s ghost? Perhaps Arsene knows.

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2 responses to “Herbert Chapman Part One

  1. “(In Chapman’s own playing days) ..no attempt was made to organise victory.” But why, for God’s sake? No-one surely has ever played cricket or rugby like that? Is football a conspiracy to be stupid?

  2. I think the idea back then was that the people who knew most about the game, and were therefore best positioned to plan, were the players themselves. The idea that someone who might not be possessed of the greatest physical skills might yet be able to point the way effectively took a long time to catch on in English football. The idea that ex-top players make the best coaches is still alive and well in England, in contrast to Italy.