Heritage: The life of legendary Arsenal Football Club manager Herbert Chapman
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In the latest of our series commemorating people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the life of legendary Arsenal Football Club manger Herbert Chapman, one of the great innovators of the beautiful game.
He was a student of mining engineering turned footballer.
Later, as an accidental manager, Herbert Chapman became a tactical innovator of unrivalled success and the most forward thinking proponent of the game.
In the 1930s he wrote of introducing ‘Goal Judges... convinced that referees need their help if they are to avoid mistakes and injustices’. He once embarked on a ‘secret mission’ involving a cigar as a casual wager and later wrote that “confidence is the greatest asset a man can have”.
When Chapman wasn’t running the show from ‘the bench’, he could be found ushering another congregation in his role as church sidesman. A particularly shrewd move was to persuade the London Electric Railway, in 1932, to change the name of their Piccadilly Line station, adjacent to Highbury, from the mundane Gillespie Road to the charismatic Arsenal. The sculptor Jacob Epstein famously cast a bronze bust in tribute and current Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, said, “Herbert Chapman stands out today as quite simply the greatest visionary the English game has ever seen”.
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Small and stocky, with deep set eyes, Herbert Chapman (1878–1934), football manager, was born on January 19 in a small mining village, between Worksop and Sheffield, in Yorkshire. Chapman was one of six boys and a girl born to John, a coalminer, and Emma. The young Herbert attended a local elementary school and, as fashion dictated in the 1890s, became a keen footballer.
After his school days Chapman was apprenticed at the local colliery and began a course in mining engineering at Sheffield Technical College. While still an amateur, working by day and studying at night, he played for Rochdale, Grimsby Town, Swindon Town, Sheppey United, and Worksop Town. In 1901 he signed professional forms with Northampton Town of the southern league and a year later moved to Sheffield United. Between 1902 and 1905 he played for Notts County, returned to Northampton and finally transferred to Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of £70.
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On September 12, 1905, Chapman married Annie Bennett Poxon, a colliers daughter and elementary school teacher. The couple lived in north London, and Mrs Chapman was a supply teacher at the Silver Street School in Edmonton. Chapman was fond of his family – the pair had four children – and when asked by a journalist what had been his proudest moment, he replied that it was when his son had qualified as a solicitor.
In a similar vain to the way his footballing vocation emerged, Chapman accidentally fell into management. He wrote: “When I arrived at the end of my playing career I had no intention of remaining in the game. I had been trained as a mining engineer, and I intended to go back to work.
“What I believed was to be my last match for Tottenham Hotspur was against Brighton, and if I remember rightly I scored two goals from centre forward.”
Mixing his sports he regarded his time as a player as “a thoroughly good innings, and had no regrets... But how curiously is one’s life shaped”.
His manager at Tottenham, Walter Bull, had been due to leave the club and take up the reins at Northampton. However, post-match, post-bath, just as Chapman began to dress, Bull told him, “I have decided to stay on another season with the Spurs” and continued, “you will have to take my place at Northampton”. Chapman did.
He later recalled: “Football had eaten deep into me and – well, my re-entry into mining engineering might be postponed for another year.”
It wasn’t. For the rest of his life he would strive to innovate and modernise every aspect of the game and, for good measure, establish himself as one of the truly outstanding managers of the English game. His modus operandi was to take small or flailing clubs and catapult them to gleaming trophies making fans proud and feeling part of a special community of privileged supporters.
During his five years (1907–1912) as manager of Northampton Town, Chapman made a strong impression, leading the club to the top of the Southern League. This success continued at Huddersfield Town, which he managed between 1921 and 1925, a period that saw an FA Cup and two League Championship victories.
In May 1925 Chapman responded to an advertisement by Arsenal Football Club searching for a team manager, insisting that ‘Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exorbitant transfer fees need not apply’.
At the time the club were struggling in the first division. Chapman quickly charmed and persuaded their dictatorial chairman, Sir Henry Norris, to revise his ideas on transfers, most spectacularly by signing the experienced forward Charlie Buchan from Sunderland.
Chapman built a new team for a new era, though it took four years to secure the right players. A second place and a cup final defeat were followed by victory at Wembley in 1930 against his old team Huddersfield, both a sign of and a prelude to the triumphs to follow. Over the next five years from 1930 Arsenal won four league titles, including three in succession (to equal Huddersfield’s record), and in the other year, 1931–2, finished runners-up in both league and cup. These were the years which confirmed Herbert Chapman’s reputation as the first and greatest modern football manager.
In 1926 Chapman and his family moved into a newly built house at 6 Haslemere Avenue, Hendon, where the plaque now stands. Their neighbour was the music-hall comedian Harry Relph (1867–1928), better known as ‘Little Tich’. The time at the address saw unrivalled professional success but also highlights Chapman’s influence on the game at large. He planted the seeds which would shape and encourage the sport. Among his many innovations were the introduction of rubber studs on boots, numbers on players’ shirts and floodlit matches.
On one occasion Chapman found himself on a secret scouting mission and wrote of how he won a cigar.
“There is on my desk at Highbury a cigar,” he said. “I smoke very little, but I shall smoke this cigar, because I feel that I deserve it.”
The manager was to travel “somewhere in the north” in order to potentially sign a bright young prospect. One of his colleagues suggested that he should not be “discovered” for fear “Arsenal were after the transfer of a certain player”. Chapman noted he was “very doubtful whether I could carry out my mission secretly, but I made a friendly bet of a cigar that I would succeed”.
He continued: “It was a wretched day and one which made me realise the comfort of a warm bedroom and a cup of tea at half-time. I need hardly say that I attempted no disguise, but I stopped the taxi-cab 100 yards from the ground and walked the rest of the way. It was raining and bitterly cold. I paid for a seat, passing through the turnstile as an ordinary spectator, and I was sorry for the people out in the open.”
Later he said: “As I reflect on my adventure it seems remarkable that, though I was on a well-beaten football track all the time, I did not meet anyone I knew. I do not propose to spoil the story by disclosing my whereabouts, but I may say that I might just as well have stayed at home.”
In the words of the scout’s familiar reports – “The player would not suit the Arsenal”. However Chapman enjoyed his ‘winning cigar’.
Chapman’s envious commitment led to his death when a cold turned to pneumonia and he died suddenly at his Hendon home on January 6, 1934, after watching Arsenal reserves at Guildford.
He was buried four days later at St Mary’s, where he ushered, in Hendon.