The Golden Age Of Arsenal (PART ONE)

The Golden Age Of Arsenal


by Gary Lawrence

I remember once going to visit my cousin years ago in hospital and she introduced to me a women in the bed next to her saying “She’s related to somebody to do with Arsenal” I said “Who’s that then” to which she replied “Oh it was an uncle of mine his name was Tom Whittaker. I don’t know what he did at Arsenal though?”  I replied “You do realise he is one the most important figures in the history of Arsenal Football Club”.

I was thinking about that the other day and thought that if she wasn’t even aware of how important Tom Whittaker was, bearing in mind he was her Uncle. How many of the younger generation of Arsenal fans are unaware of him and all the other famous figures from that time, who helped shape The Arsenal into what they are today.

So I’ve decided to write about the golden era of The Arsenal. Way back in time, before Arsene Wenger, George Graham & Bertie Mee came on the scene. To the glorious decade of the 1930s. Some of the wonderful photographs included here you may not been seen before and I’d like to thank @chrisjackis for giving me permission to use them.

This era has always fascinated me from a very young age. My Dad lived at Culford Road, just off Balls Pond Road, within walking distance of Highbury. He watched the great Arsenal sides of the 1930s as a kid. As far back as I can remember he used to tell me and my brother about Herbert Chapman, Alex James, Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and all the other legendary players of that era.

I lapped it all up and began reading anything related to The Arsenal from that period. Maybe it was because in the 1960s, when our dad was telling us all this. Arsenal were starved of success winning nothing since the League Title in 1953. I loved reading about how good the 1930s side were and they all remain very special to me, to this very day.

There are still quite a few people, that like me, are very interested in that era and occasionally someone will write about it. But it’s 86 years since the beginning of the 1930s. There’s nobody left alive who played a part in that wonderful time, when The Arsenal reigned supreme and as each year passes the numbers keeping the flame alive are dwindling. Without going into too much depth and detail, I’d like to write about that golden age. So younger fans can get an idea of these extraordinary men of the 1930s, that helped make Arsenal Football Club the institution it is today.

SIR HENRY NORRIS (1865 - 1934)

SIR HENRY NORRIS (1865 – 1934)

Quite simply without Sir Henry there wouldn’t an Arsenal as we know it today. We’d have struggled on as Woolwich Arsenal and had we managed to have stayed in existence, would probably be like Charlton Athletic are today. It was Sir Henry who used his influence with the press to sway the vote to get us elected into the extended First Division after WW1.

He was the man who had the foresight to uproot the club from South London and take us to Highbury. Where our new location was much more accessible for fans to get to. He had the gumption  and the finances to initially lease and eventually buy the land off the church and build Highbury.

Crucially Sir Henry also sacked Leslie Knighton and brought Herbert Chapman to Highbury from Huddersfield Town in 1925. He made all of those key decisions for the club. Which is in stark contrast to Stan Kroenke who has done absolutely nothing for Arsenal Football Club. Sir Henry may have pulled more strokes than Oxford and Cambridge put together. Which eventually led to a lifetime ban from football in 1927. But he provided the key elements of Highbury, First Division status and Herbert Chapman to make the trophy laden 1930s possible. If ever a man deserved a statue outside the Emirates it is Sir Henry Norris.


When the stadium opened for business in 1913. It only had a single one-tiered stand and even that wasn’t finished in time, as they had to use tarpaulin for walls as late as February 1914! Can you imagine that being allowed today with all the Health and Safety rules! The two terraces behind the goals were then known as the College End which later became the Clock End and the Laundry End which became the North Bank

How Highbury looked before it was developed

How Highbury looked before it was developed

Herbert Chapman wanted everything to be first class at The Arsenal and the Stadium was no exception. He wanted the team and the fans to have nothing but the best. The beautiful luxurious Art Deco double decker stands were then built. The West Stand in 1932, followed by the East Stand in 1936.

Tragically Chapman didn’t live long enough to see the East Stand built. The opulent marble halls, the underfloor heating in the dressing rooms and the latest medical equipment all made Highbury the finest football ground around, the Downton Abbey of football stadiums  and thus it became “The Home of Football”

HERBERT CHAPMAN (1878 - 1934)

HERBERT CHAPMAN (1878 – 1934)

So much has been written about the great man. But I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. He was a great innovator and visionary who revolutionised the game in this country. He put much more emphasis on tactics than his contemporaries and came up with the revolutionary WM formation. Chapman also brought in new training ideas and held regular team talks. Which didn’t really happen back then. There is no doubt that Herbert Chapman was years ahead of his time.

An unusual team photo where The Arsenal are suited and booted

An unusual team photo where The Arsenal are suited and booted

Chapman was a great organiser who brought some superb big name star players to the club like Charles Buchan, then later David Jack & Alex James. He was always open to new ideas and was friends with some of the top coaches in Europe and was in favour of introducing a European competition to test himself and his side against top European coaches and teams.

He fought to get shirt numbering and floodlit football introduced to the Football League. He brought the unique clock to Highbury, as well as persuading London Underground to rename Gillespie Road tube station to Arsenal in 1932. He was also responsible for the famous distinctive red shirts with white sleeves.

Tom Parker and Tom Wilson lead the Arsenal and Huddersfield Town teams out side by side at the 1930 FA Cup Final. A suggestion by Herbert Chapman. A tradition which is still observed to this day

Tom Parker and Tom Wilson lead the Arsenal and Huddersfield Town teams out side by side at the 1930 FA Cup Final. A suggestion by Herbert Chapman. A tradition which is still observed to this day

There were many other things too numerous to mention here. But suffice to say in my opinion he was the greatest manager of all time. Not just of The Arsenal but the greatest of them all. Chapman was a pioneer. The first modern manager. He was the blueprint that every manager has followed since. Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough all evolved the art of management from Herbert Chapman’s ideas and their methods all had a little bit of Chapman DNA in them.

He had an almost hypnotic effect on his players. When George Male went into his office to be told he was going to be Arsenal’s right-back, a position he’d never played before. Male said “By the time I got out of that room. I wasn’t only convinced that I was a full blown right-back, I knew without doubt I was the best right-back in the country!” Such was Chapman’s legendary powers of persuasion. Cliff Bastin always said Herbert Chapman should be the Prime Minister!

When he died so suddenly from pneumonia on the 6th of January 1934. It was a massive shock to all at Arsenal Football Club. He was only 55 years old and it sent shockwaves around the football world. To get some idea of the enormity of this event. Can you imagine Arsene Wenger who is now 66 years old, dying suddenly at Chapman’s age, 11 years ago at the peak of his powers.

Everyone at Highbury was devastated by Chapman’s death. Even Cliff Bastin, a man who didn’t show his emotions too often, broke down at the funeral, coming out the church. Tom Whittaker was worse, wandering around outside the church, dazed by his grief. Tom later told Bastin that for several mornings after Chapman’s death, he heard the chiming clock in his room strike 3am, though he never heard it chime at any other hour. It was 3am that Chapman had died.

The crowds line the streets for Herbert Chapman's funeral

The crowds line the streets for Herbert Chapman’s funeral

Chapman had a five year success plan for Arsenal and fulfilled it when he delivered the club’s first major trophy the FA Cup in 1930. Followed by the League Championship in 1931, then winning it again in 1933. Another title was on its way when he was unfortunately taken from us.

One of Chapman's early 1930s sides

One of Chapman’s early 1930s sides

But he’d  built strong foundations which were to serve Arsenal well for many years after his passing. Chapman had the foresight to form a management structure, having a boot room long before Liverpool did. Which comprised of Herbert Chapman, George Allison, Tom Whittaker, Arthur Shaw and Billy Milne. This ensured losing Chapman didn’t mean Arsenal couldn’t continue to be successful, as the succession was already in place.

It is Herbert Chapman we have to thank for making The Arsenal the most famous club in the World in the 1930s.

GEORGE ALLISON (1883 - 1957)

GEORGE ALLISON (1883 – 1957)

when Chapman passed away so suddenly it left a massive void to be filled. It was impossible to replace the genius of Chapman. But George Allison did a very fine job indeed of keeping the good ship Arsenal on course that season, going on to win a second league title in a row, for the club in 1933-34. Then the team went on to win a third league title in a row in 1934-5. He also added an FA Cup in 1935-36 and yet another league title in 1937-38.

He was a man of many talents. He started as a judges secretary. Then became a greyhound correspondent for The Sporting Life. Next he was the London correspondent for The New York Post. During WW1 he worked for the War Office, the Admiralty, then joined  the Royal Flying Corps, the fore runner of the RAF.

After the war he joined the BBC, becoming the first man to commentate on the Derby & Grand National. He also commentated on England v Scotland and the 1927 FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Cardiff City. Which I believe was the first final to have radio commentary.

His CV at The Arsenal was equally impressive. His roles at Arsenal included Programme Editor, Director, Managing Director and Club Secretary as well as being Arsenal Manager! Like Bertie Mee and Terry Neill, George knew he didn’t have sufficient knowledge of tactics and training so he left that to somebody else. In this case Tom Whittaker and Joe Shaw. Feeling more comfortable dealing with transfers and his speciality the media.

After WW2 he only had one more season as manager, stepping down after finishing 13th in 1946-47. He passed away in 1957. The club owe him a great deal for what he did. Doing such a difficult task, taking the managerial reins after Chapman’s death, as well as performing his many other roles at The Arsenal.

TOM WHITTAKER (1898 - 1956)

TOM WHITTAKER (1898 – 1956)

Tom started out training to be a marine engineer before being called up for the Army in 1917. Later he switched to the Royal Navy. Upon being demobbed in 1919 he joined The Arsenal and forced his way into the first team and played about 70 games. But in 1925 while playing for a touring FA side in Australia, he broke his kneecap forcing him to retire from playing.

Arsenal were going to release Tom as a player, but kept him on, at least until after the FA Tour finished, so he would be eligible to go on the tour. Ironically had he not gone, he may well have left Arsenal and his career taken a completely different path, never to became the legendary trainer and manager for Arsenal Football Club.

Whittaker wanted to stay involved in football and joined the Arsenal back room staff. He then studied to become a physiotherapist. Herbert Chapman thought that trainer George Hardy was interfering and wasn’t up to the job, promptly sacking him as trainer when Hardy tried to give instructions from the touch line and promoted Tom to first team trainer in 1927. This would prove to be a very astute move indeed on Chapman’s part.

Tom Whittaker was a brilliant physiotherapist and trainer and he worked wonders on the Arsenal players and their various injuries. He studied and kept up to date on all the latest techniques and equipment. There wasn’t a better, or more knowledgeable physio in the game. His healing hands would get players back playing in three or four days. When it took other clubs three or four weeks.

He became so renowned that other sportsman such as Fred Perry came to him for treatment and advice about their injuries. Whittaker also worked with Chapman on training programs for the players.

Tom Whittaker talking to Fred Perry and some of the Arsenal players

Tom Whittaker talking to Fred Perry and some of the Arsenal players

A little gem from his book Cliff Bastin Remembers, shows how knowledgeable and talented Tom Whittaker was. When Cliff Bastin had an operation to remove a cartilage Tom Whittaker attended the operation and assisted in various ways. The surgeon who performed the operation informed Bastin when he was convalescing “Tom was magnificent. You would have thought he’d been in an operating theatre every day of his life. I wanted to come to an arrangement with him, under which I performed operations and he helped me to look after the patients, while they were convalescing. He refused though. It’s a great pity. I’m positive we could make a fortune together, that way.” A great tribute to Tom.

During WW2 he was an ARP Warden before joining the RAF and rose to become Squadron Leader and received an MBE for his part in the D-Day operations.

Tom as a Squadron Leader

Tom as a Squadron Leader

After George Allison stepped down Tom was the ideal choice to take over as manager. A man who would do things the Chapman way and he had instant success, winning the league title in his first season 1947-48. He then won the FA Cup in 1949-50, beating Liverpool 2-0 in the final. Before winning the title again in 1952-53. Unfortunately the club then had a barren trophy spell and the pressure told on Tom, he suffered a heart attack and died in office just as Herbert Chapman had before him on the 24th of October 1956, aged 58.

Tom Whittaker was above all a marvellous servant to Arsenal Football Club and should rightly go down in history as an Arsenal legend. Although he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for all he achieved at Arsenal.


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