Herbert Chapman - Arsenal’s greatest manager

If you married Brian Clough’s confidence, Sir Alex Ferguson’s stubbornness and Arsene Wenger’s innovation, then threw in the motivational skills and man management of all three, you’d have the perfect football manager.

You’d have Herbert Chapman.

The Yorkshireman retains an almost mythical status among Arsenal followers with a bust at Highbury which was delicately relocated to the Emirates Stadium, a reminder of why the club is where it is today.

The image of an avuncular man with a round face framing a jolly, but slightly, enigmatic expression is as familiar a symbol of the club as the distinctive red and white shirts.

They’ve even named a pub after him on the Holloway Road.

And don’t dismiss the man – dead for almost 80 years – as nothing more than a relic from a distant bygone era.

His own innovations, it can be easily argued, cast a sizeable shadow over Wenger’s. And Clough’s and Ferguson’s too.

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This was a man who advocated white footballs long before they were the norm. Ditto shirt numbers, despite voracious opposition from the Football Association.

The suits at Lancaster Gate even briefly ordered down another of his great ideas because, they claimed, it undermined the referee; a 45-minute clock at Highbury visible to all and sundry.

He was bordering on the fanatical in his pursuit of floodlit football, after seeing a night game on the continent. He even installed temporary lights at Highbury for training.

The FA, unsurprisingly, took a dim view – literally. It would be nearly 20 years after Chapman’s untimely death in January 1934 from pneumonia, aged just 55, before his vision of football under artificial light was realised at the old stadium.

Speaking of Highbury, his success funded its refurbishment to an Art Deco masterpiece. He also, predictably, worked closely with the architects on its design, although he did not live long enough to see it in its full glory.

Long before then, however, he had been light years ahead of anyone when it came to diversity in football. He signed one of the first ever black footballers, Walter Tull, when he was manager of Northampton Town in 1911, despite much sniping over the colour of Tull’s skin.

In 1930 he even signed Arsenal’s first foreigner, the Dutch goalkeeper Gerard Keyser, this only after failing in his bid to sign the world’s best custodian, Austrian Rudy Hiden.

Chapman also managed to famously to persuade London Underground to change the name of Gillespie Road tube to plain and simple Arsenal – putting the club on the map in the most literal of senses.

So all of this makes the re-release of a book of his thoughts rather compelling.

‘Herbert Chapman On Football’ was first published shortly after his death in 1934.

A selection of his finest articles written for the Sunday Express, it is one of the most fascinating football publications for many a year. Thankfully it has not been lost.

The most striking aspect of the book is the relevance it has to the modern game.

He criticises ‘big-time Charlie’ footballers not pulling their weight, and has concerns over the England set-up (he was calling for a full-time England manager a quarter of a century before those bright sparks at the FA acted on his advice).

Indeed, 80 years ago he suggested England’s elite players should meet up for training camps when possible to foster some kind of club spirit within the international squad.

The FA dismissed the idea.

One column has a delightful segment in which he calls on his players not to chain smoke or eat too many sweets – but his dated message of over-indulgence rings as true today as it did in 1930.

He even laments the heavy fixture schedule during Christmas and New Year (sound familiar?) and also, even in those days when players were paid a relative pittance compared to the modern millionaire, argues players ultimately have the power to decide their own future.

“The footballer is always master of his own destiny. He has his contract and no club can force him to break it,” he wrote.

The prose, as you would expect, is a little flowery at times. But the sentiment comes through loud and clear. Take his views on ‘problem’ players.

“There are unfortunately … those who perhaps because of the indolent lives they are ready to live, refuse to observe the code of discipline which must be observed in every club and make themselves an intolerable nuisance,” wrote Chapman.

“I fear they create a false impression (of the professional footballer) in the public mind.”

Then again, some things have clearly changed.

“The social standing of the professional is much higher than it used to be,” he wrote. “Most of them are well educated and intelligent, and they resent the intrusion of one who does not conduct himself properly.”

The great man, however, remains one of football’s few, true, geniuses. And as for those famous Arsenal shirts, guess who added those white sleeves to make them more distinctive…

l Herbert Chapman On Football – The Reflections Of Arsenal’s Greatest Ever Manager’ is available from www.gcrbooks.co.uk.