Decades of Dominance: Soccer, interrupted

This is the third in a series of posts taking a look at the history of Arsenal. The first two parts covered the early years and the Chapman years/1930's.

Herbert Chapman built Arsenal into a powerhouse in the late 1920's and early 1930's, but passed away in 1934. The team he built, however, still managed to win some things in the 1930's; Joe Shaw took over as manager after Chapman's passing and led the 1933-34 Arsenal side to another First Division championship, then George Allison was made permanent manager after the 1934 season.

Allison took Arsenal to their third championship in a row, thanks to the players and system he inherited from Chapman, but after that 1934-35 season, Allison's teams didn't do much. Allison preferred to handle what in the modern game would be the director of football duties rather than the day-to-day training and tactical development of the club, and leave the actual soccer training to his assistants. In 1935-36, Arsenal finished sixth but won the FA Cup, and in 1937-38 they won the league, but in the other pre-war years finished third and fifth.

Allison didn't really extend Chapman's legacy; despite his predilection for general-managership, he didn't really sign replacements of the same caliber as Chapman's squad, and Arsenal went into the war years still in the top half of the table (5th in 1938-39) but were clearly not the powerhouse they were earlier in the decade.

During the war, Arsenal closed Highbury and allowed it to be used for the war effort; the West Stand was an air raid shelter, and the East Stand was a first aid station and air raid warden coordination center; the stadium suffered bombing damage in 1941 and significant work had to be done to rebuild it after the war. Games in the League War Cup, which was started in order to replace the FA Cup and provide some small measure of morale boost for a country at war, were played at White Hart Lane. There were a number of regional leagues set up during the war as well, but most of them couldn't really sustain a whole season due to travel constraints and, y'know, able-bodied men fighting a war and stuff.

Once the war ended, the Football League re-started in 1946-47. It is very hard to be critical of Arsenal's 13th place finish in that season, because so many players retired or got injured/killed in the war (22 Arsenal players and staff were called to war, and nine never returned), or just got too old to play in the seven years off between seasons. Severe food and resource shortages also made the playing of football a secondary concern; the League decided to put on a season for morale purposes, to give the nation something to distract itself from the rebuilding effort, but it wasn't really much more than a glorified exhibition for a lot of teams.

1946-47 did, however, see the final season of Cliff Bastin. As mentioned previously, he was Arsenal's all time leading scorer for almost 50 years, until Ian Wright; he lost his ages 26-33 seasons because of the war, and the mind sort of boggles at how unreachable his record might have been had he been able to play those lost years. Arsenal finished 13th, but were in real danger of relegation until the last couple months of the season. CLUB IN LEGITIMATE CRISIS.

Tom Whittaker, M.B.E (knighted an award given for his service during the war, and also probably for his appearance in The Arsenal Stadium Mystery) was named manager prior to the 1947-48 season, and Whittaker's first move was bringing in Joe Mercer from Everton for £9000 (£289,000 in today's money). The 32 year old defender promptly grabbed Arsenal's team by the scruff of its neck and hauled it back to credibility, aided by another Whittaker signing, Fulham striker Ronnie Rooke, and a much stronger cast of supporting characters - including, oddly enough, Denis Compton, noted England cricketer, who I first heard of here.

Arsenal charged out of the gate in 1947 winning their first six games in a row, and they only dropped five points (wins were only worth two points in those days) until November, when they finally lost to Derby County. By Christmas, Arsenal were comfortably in first place, which was good because in the second half of the season Arsenal came back to earth. In 1947, Arsenal won 14, drew seven, and lost only twice; in 1948, Arsenal won nine, drew six, and lost four. In January of '48, Arsenal went to Old Trafford, and there were 83,260 fans there to watch the 1-1 draw, which is still a record crowd for the First Division/Premier League.

The last month and a bit of the season was a limp to the finish; to put it in modern terms, DLDDW. Still, Arsenal did win the league by seven points over Manchester United. Ronnie Rooke played in every game, scored 33 goals, and won the Golden Boot - HE SCORES WHEN HE WANTS - and Reg Lewis, which is about the working-class-Englishest name ever, chipped in 14. Denis Compton was the captain, but when he went off to play cricket, Mercer was named captain and did so well that Compton insisted Mercer remain the captain when he returned.

Arsenal's sixth title was in the bag; the next few years weren't so kind to Arsenal, though, seeing them finish fifth, sixth, and fifth. They won the FA Cup in 1949-50 (bwahahahahaha Liverpool) thanks to Reg Lewis' two goals, and they won the league again in 1952-3 - by the slimmest margin ever, 0.099 of a goal! - but that league title was to be the start of a dry spell that, if it were replicated today, would probably have people burning down the Emirates or demanding Wenger's head on a spike; after the 1953 Charity Shield, Arsenal didn't win another shiny tin pot for 17 years, until the Double season of 1970-71.*

I'd write more about those 1954-1969 teams, but really, there's not much to write; some decent seasons and some not-so-decent ones, but overall it was a fairly bland period in the history of Arsenal. Starting in 1970, though, things got really good really fast - that's where we'll start next time.

*I don't know if this counts as perspective, but in those 17 years of relative lack of success, Arsenal had four managers. That's just a shade over four years per manager, a timeframe that seems rather long in today's win-or-you're-gone professional sports atmosphere, and a credit to Arsenal that they've stuck with Wenger during the current "bad spell". Perspective!

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