Review: 'The Life & Times of Herbert Chapman', by Patrick Barclay

Portrait of a trailblazing manager who took Arsenal, and football, to new heights
  • @davidlister1

On 11 may 1925, an advertisement appeared for a job vacancy. It stated: “Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of Team Manager. He must be fully experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exhorbitant [sic] transfer fees need not apply.”

They don’t write them like that any more, sadly. The gentleman who got the job was Herbert Chapman. As it happens he did spend quite freely, but he also became a football legend, setting the hitherto mediocre Arsenal on the road to a hat trick of consecutive league championships (though he died too early to see all of them). 

Chapman was already famous. He had won a hat trick of championships managing Huddersfield, and one boyhood fan, Harold Wilson, carried a picture of Chapman’s Huddersfield team in his wallet through all his years in Downing Street. Chapman was decades rather than years ahead of his time. He used an on-field formation with an extra centre back which influenced the game in Brazil, he started the counter-attack game, he was the first to use numbers on shirts at the top level, the first to play competitive matches against European teams, the first to pick a foreign player (also one of the earliest to pick a black player), the first to argue for floodlights and regular evening matches, the first to insist that the manager not the chairman and directors be in sole charge of team selection and tactics. Ferguson, Shankly, Clough and the rest owed him a lot.

The son of a miner from a  Yorkshire pit village virtually invented the modern game. At the same time he managed to get the name of the Tube station outside the ground changed from Gillespie Road to Arsenal.

Why was it, though, that his fame stretched so far beyond the sport, that the streets at his 1934 funeral (he died at the age of 55 after contracting pneumonia) were lined with crowds four deep? What prompted the Jewish Chronicle to write an obituary saying “he was a great friend of the Jewish people” and the clergyman at his funeral to note that Chapman was “the man all England seemed to be mourning”? A biography was overdue.

Patrick Barclay, the Evening Standard’s football columnist, and football correspondent of The Independent in its early days, has approached the subject with a mixture of passion and assiduous research. He has the sportswriter’s unfailing tendency to crave the widest possible context (I’m not sure I need to know that when Chapman was a toddler in Sheffield, Billy the Kid and Jesse James were being shot in America) but when he applies the wider context to the evolution of football and to how the Britain of the time shaped the Chapman family, the results are extraordinarily rewarding. Barclay traces the first half century of the game so evocatively that one can almost believe he was at some of those early matches, and reminds us of the oddities of those days. I hadn’t realised that even as late as the 1927 Arsenal vs Cardiff Wembley cup final, the referee wore a bow-tie.

He is fascinating on football and the First World War, the Footballers’ Battalion (surely worth a book in itself) and the poignant last words of one fallen soldier to his comrade: “Goodbye, Mac. Best of luck, special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.” 

Such vignettes put this book above the normal sports biography. Barclay does indeed trace Chapman’s life from would-be mining engineer to footballer, then visionary manager with a penchant for plus-fours, at the same time an official in his church, a strange mixture of elitist and collectivist. He loved signing supreme talents but insisted no player be paid more than another. He improved life for the fans, modernising the Arsenal ground, and commissioning the famous art deco design for the stands, encouraging Jewish supporters and giving to Jewish charities. There remains an element of mystery as to what drove him (just as there does with today’s managers) but this book succeeds in being about more than Chapman. Barclay vividly and brilliantly conjures up a forgotten sporting age.

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