Christmas 1952, my Dad read Forward Arsenal, seventy years later, it’s Christmas 2022 and I am reading my Dad’s copy of Forward Arsenal. I revisit the early history of Arsenal Football Club and reflect upon similarities and differences in football in general and Arsenal in particular.
Arsenal’s first motto was ‘forward’ and as Joy writes, ‘for Arsenal it is always forward.’ Forward Arsenal, explains the origins of an attacking approach to football and the early history of Arsenal. The book was published by Phoenix House Ltd in 1952 with the approval and cooperation of the club. The author Bernard Joy played as a centre-half for Arsenal and England, before becoming a sports journalist.
In this review, rather than going forwards, I want to go backwards to 1952 when Forward Arsenal, was first published. This review has been an emotional journey in that my Dad passed away in 2009 and my Mum in 2022. However, reading the book proved to be an informative and thought-provoking meditation on change and transformation. Football remains exceptionally forward looking; anticipating match results, identifying new players and predicting longer-term outcomes of competitions. However, looking back seventy years provides a window on both change and continuities. In rushing forwards, we shouldn’t forget the past.
My sixteen-year-old Dad was given Forward Arsenal for Christmas in 1952. Family legend has it that he spent all that Christmas enthusiastically reading this book from start to finish. Seventy years later, I decided that I would reprise my Dad’s experience and read his copy of the book for the first time over Christmas 2022. My Dad supported Arsenal, just as his Dad supported the club and just as I subsequently did. We were all born in Oswestry a small market town on the Wales/England border a town with a disproportionate number of Arsenal supporters. Why given the location and size of this market town did so many people support Arsenal?
Joy’s account of Arsenal runs from the very earliest Dial Square origins of the club up until 1952 with two managers playing a prominent role in his story; Herbert Chapman and Tom Whittaker.
Chapman groomed a young wing-half, Herbie Roberts, to take his (Jack Butler’s) place. Born in Oswestry and by trade a gunsmith, Roberts joined Arsenal for a mere £200 in December 1926, when twenty-one.
The successful Arsenal and international career of Herbie Roberts informed and further cemented Oswestry’s support for Arsenal. I have highlighted (red triangle) Herbie Roberts in the 1935/1936 photograph of Arsenal. My Mum gave this framed photograph to my Dad on his birthday, romantically writing on the back that 1936 was a very good year. It was the year that my Dad was born. Dad married Mum and later my sister and I were born as seventy years quietly passed by. Christmas 2022 was always going to be a bit different.
Dad gave me his 1952 copy of Forward Arsenal, many years ago, I treasured it, but confess that I’d never read it. When I was younger the book seemed to me like ancient history, relevant, yet not relevant enough. In 2022, much older and a little wiser, the book became relevant. Emotionally, the book offered me at a time of transition a means of sharing an experience with my Dad. Informatively, at a time of considerable change and transformation in football, the book offered a perspective from the past.
Whilst, sentimental I felt it would be meaningful to read the book at Christmas seventy years after my Dad had first read the book. I wanted it to be a reflective exercise and it took more time to read than for my Dad. Many friendly ghosts and memories accompanied my reading. My friend Jim a fellow Gooner who used to bring me his programmes after matches, sadly yet peacefully passed away over Christmas 2022. Writing this book review at times felt humbling, my role simply seemed to be to share the stories, the script had already been written.
Seventy years ago, the competing clubs were very different from today’s Premier League (think, Blackpool, Huddersfield and Preston) most of the names of players were new to me and even the labels for positions (half-backs, inside forwards, centre-halves and third-backs). Joy offers us a very enthusiastic game-by-game account of Arsenal’s progress through the first half of his history of the club. The book was well written, but it took time to read and write up this review because, in essence, I was time travelling through a very different terrain.
There is plenty of detail in Forward Arsenal and inevitably the accuracy of details, has been queried (please see the AISA Arsenal History Society link). However, I do not want to replay the details of the book but instead, share two themes. Firstly, aspects of football have completely changed from seventy years ago, offering a fascinating window to witness such changes. The second theme is slightly contradictory in that some aspects of football in general and Arsenal, in particular, haven’t changed that much.
How were football and Arsenal different over seventy years ago?
This early history of Arsenal offers a means to contrast and appreciate how different the fast-moving and forward-looking football of today is from the past.
Football media we take for granted didn’t exist In the 1930s/1940s, there was neither the internet nor television and far less radio coverage of the game. Newspapers were the main media channel with far larger readerships and influence. This was the way people including the players learnt the fortunes of their club. Joy at one point refers to the Arsenal players buying papers as they boarded the London train only to learn that they were no longer top of the First Division (today’s Premier League). Also, he tells the story of Arsenal players boarding a train after a Huddersfield game and not knowing if they had won the Championship (First Division). Denis Compton slipped off the train at Doncaster to buy some papers. He shouted to his teammates that based on the scores of their rivals they had won the Championship. Arsenal played Cardiff City in the FA Cup in 1927 with one of the Arsenal directors providing the BBC commentary. This appears very different, although perhaps not so different as Pat Nevin with his Chelsea connections doing BBC commentaries.
An era of genteel criticism Criticism from supporters appeared to be genteel in this era. In the 1938/39 season Arsenal struggled financially and lost at home to Derby County with supporters showing their disapproval by singing the popular song.
No more money in the bank. What’s to do about it? Let’s put out the lights and go to sleep.
It’s difficult to reconcile such quiet resignation with the emotions of football supporters today. Joy didn’t dodge criticising the limitations of fellow football players, but this was always tempered with a humanistic acknowledgement of the strengths of that player. Football commentators today sound far more polarized, in wanting to highlight either the strength or the weakness of a player. Perhaps I am getting old but there is some good in everyone.
Very different stimulants Today, performance-enhancing stimulants are rightly banned from professional football, but this wasn’t always the case. Pep pills were used in an attempt to improve team performance. Joy tells the story of Arsenal players taking pep pills before a West Ham game in the 1924/25 season, however, this game had to be abandoned due to fog.
The pills left a bitter taste, a raging thirst and pent-up energy for which there was no outlet.
Forward Arsenal, documents very early international club matches. The story is told of Moscow Dynamo playing Arsenal at Highbury. The custom was to provide tea at half-time, but Moscow Dynamo feared that their tea might have been drugged, so apparently, they drank vodka instead.
Very late fixture changes Today, supporters rightly complain about fixture changes made at the behest of television companies. In the 1920s, the involvement of the Pools Promoters was problematic. The Football League’s objection was using fixtures without their authority and they declared war on them.
As a reprisal, they scrapped the original fixtures and the fresh matches were kept secret until the Friday, clubs being told before then only whether they were away or home. The idea was clumsy, irritating and more harmful to the League than to the Pools. It was dropped after a fortnight.
Very different footballing injuries Leg breaks, ankle sprains etc, are timeless, but reading Forward Arsenal, reveals some very different maladies. For example, Doug Lishman being run down and suffering from boils. Also, there is something beautiful about Joe Mercer’s wife Norah contacting Arsenal stating “Joe won’t be fit for Saturday, I’m afraid” she said. “He’s ill in bed with a heavy cold.”
Too many matches This is a complaint in the modern game, but such complaints seem petty when compared with how many games there used to be. In 1952, Joy writes about Arsenal holding on to a goalless draw at Blackpool, but going down to Bolton 2:0 the next day, with Joe Mercer playing his sixth match in ten days (no wonder he took to his bed).
What aspects of football and Arsenal FC endure over time?
Forward Arsenal, as well as, highlighting changes, enables us to appreciate footballing continuities.
Is he Arsenal? In the introduction, Joy offers insights into what Arsenal looked for in a potential new player.
There is a most cautious vetting of a man in whose transfer Arsenal are interested; not only is his form watched over a series of matches but his background, both football and personal, is also investigated. “Is he Arsenal?” is the query.
At the time of writing Arsenal have just signed Leandro Trossard from Brighton. Mikel Arteta responds to press questions about Trossard’s professionalism.
We are very confident we are signing the right person and the right player. We know the player, we obviously dig into the experiences and the personality and the relationship he had at other clubs.
As a supporter in recent years, I have witnessed Arsenal signing quality players, who are not necessarily the most expensive. Thankfully, these days, they do seem to meet the – is he Arsenal criteria, once again.
Searching for a winning football team formula is timeless. Which players and positions, the balance between, defence and attack? Reading about Arsenal over decades highlights the centrality of this quest for the winning formula. Arsenal in the Chapman/Whittaker era was a highly innovative team and frequently very successful. The dilemma was that once Arsenal’s innovations had been emulated by other clubs the competitive advantage was lost. In recent years, the ‘high press’ has been regarded as a winning formula, but other teams learn such formulas and the quest has to begin again.
Defence begins in attack and the attack begins in defence I remember Arsene Wenger sharing this mantra in a television interview. I liked the sound of this, assuming that it was an element of his footballing philosophy. However, this verbatim quotation attributed to Tom Whittaker in the Board Room at Maine Road in 1946, highlights the history and centrality of such beliefs in Arsenal’s football philosophy.
“But our forwards are part of our defence” he said, “and our defence part of our attack”.
Joy warns against imitating the soccer Czars of the past This warning appears on the very final page of Forward Arsenal, which concludes and was published in 1952. Throughout the book, he appears troubled by these soccer Czars. His concerns appear to relate to the involvement of Czars in team/recruitment matters and their glorying in the power conferred by controlling a great team. Seventy years later his warnings appear prophetic and even more relevant today in Premier League football, than when he was writing.
Thankfully, ‘fighting qualities’ and ‘team spirit’ currently define Arsenal FC. Forward Arsenal opens with this sentence ‘fighting qualities and team spirit are the most essential features of an Arsenal team.’ In fairness, these qualities are the essentials of any football team. In the case of Arsenal, their absence was evident towards the end of the Arsene Wenger era, but thankfully they have returned.
In 1952 my Dad experienced Joy at Christmas and seventy years later I experienced Joy at Christmas in 2022. A few years ago, Arsenal struggled and Joy highlighted how this sometimes happened to Arsenal in the early years. In looking at football over time, rather than in the immediate moment, you witness the cyclical nature of football fortunes. I am old enough to remember Man Utd being relegated and the lengthy wilderness years of Man City. Although, I wasn’t born when Tottenham Hotspur last won the First Division/Premier League.
Football and Arsenal need forward-looking expectations of the next match, just as they did in 1952. However, these expectations can be complemented with backwards-looking accounts of footballing history. Herbie Roberts didn’t just represent Arsenal and England, he also represented the hopes and dreams of the town of Oswestry. Stories about my Dad, his Dad, my Mum, and my friend Jim are all part of a larger Arsenal story. At the time of writing Arsenal are redeveloping the Emirates with careful attention being paid to the importance of Arsenal’s history.
Early in December 2022, I visited Armoury Square to see a memorial stone I had laid to remember my Dad. On a very frosty morning, it was a heart-warming sight. Equally moving was the sight of the many other stones and the human stories that they represent.
In the Drake/Whittaker glory years Arsenal were often top of the table. When I was reading Forward Arsenal, Arsenal were top of the Premier League and they still are as I conclude writing up this emotional review. This is a source of joy for every Arsenal supporter. Forward Arsenal, documents footballing fortunes ebbing and flowing, but seventy years later the memories and the stories still remain.
The Arsenal website offers plenty of information about the history of the football club.
Forward Arsenal, is listed as one of 50 books to build your Arsenal library.
There is never a single history, but multiple accounts of history. In this spirit, I acknowledge the AISA Arsenal History Society’s factual concerns with Forward Arsenal.