Obituary: George Male

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BY COMMON consent in the 1930s, George Male was the best right- back in England, some said the finest in the world, and to the majority of British football fans in an era before the expertise of overseas players had impinged on the national consciousness, it amounted to the same thing anyway.

The last surviving regular member of Arsenal's imperious pre-war team, which lifted four League titles and the FA Cup in the space of six seasons, he captained both club and country and was renowned for his sportsmanship and modesty, even in an era when such qualities were not in short supply.

Male's name will be linked forever to that of Eddie Hapgood, his full- back partner at Highbury and another man to skipper the Gunners and England. Like so many famous sporting pairs, they offered a sharp contrast both in character and in the way they went about their business. Where Male was unassuming and calm, favouring a simple, solid, archetypally hard but fair style of play, the more ambitious Hapgood was a volatile extrovert, all elegant poise and smooth technique. They complemented each other ideally.

George Male was born in West Ham and represented the Hammers at schoolboy level before taking a job in insurance and playing his football for a local amateur team, Clapton of the Isthmian League. However, his potential was spotted by Arsenal and he signed amateur forms for the north Londoners in November 1929, turning professional six months later.

His progress was rapid and in December 1930 he made his senior debut, at left half, in a swingeing 7-1 home victory over Blackpool. That season was to end with the Gunners winning the League Championship for the first time in their history, and although Male made insufficient appearances to qualify for a medal, he was soon to make up for it with a vengeance.

First, though, would come disappointment when an injury-induced team reshuffle secured him a place at Wembley for the 1932 FA Cup Final, only for Newcastle United to triumph thanks to a famously controversial goal.

Next came a crucial crossroads in the Male career. Hitherto the solidly- built Eastender had been a competent but hardly outstanding wing-half, a fact recognised by his manger, the inspirational but often intimidating Herbert Chapman. At the outset of the 1932/33 campaign, Arsenal had a problem at right back and the great man summoned Male to his presence, announcing portentously: "George, you are going to be a right-back". Then, without awaiting a reply, he proceeded to work on the modest 22-year-old's self-esteem.

Many years later Male recalled: "By the time I got out of that room, I wasn't merely convinced that I was a full-blown right-back, I knew without doubt that I was the best right-back in the country!" It was a typical example of Chapman's mesmeric power over his players, illustrating a key constituent in the benevolently despotic personality of one of the most successful soccer bosses the game has known. In this case, Chapman's wisdom in decreeing a change of position was evident immediately. Male settled into his new role as if born to it and within a few months had been called up for an international trial.

Come 1933/34, arguably the finest English club side of the first half of the 20th century was approaching its prime. That term Male didn't miss a match as Arsenal, employing the then-innovative "stopper" defensive method and with bounteously gifted forwards such as Alex James and Cliff Bastin a joy to behold, won the first of three successive titles. In 1936, they lifted the FA Cup, with Male performing majestically in the 1-0 final victory over Sheffield United, and two years later took yet another championship.

On the international front, Male had received his first cap in 1934, one of seven Gunners involved in the so-called "Battle of Highbury", in which England defeated the World Cup holders Italy by three goals to two. The match was for the unofficial championship of the world because, at that time, England didn't deign to enter the tournament, instead allowing the foreigners to fight it out amongst themselves before challenging the winners. In the event it was a brutally physical affair and a supremely trying baptism for Male, but one from which he emerged with credit for his characteristic coolness under extreme provocation.

Thereafter he played a further 18 times for his country, including a spell as captain towards the end of the decade, and but for the Second World War, which began when Male was 29 and at his peak, it is likely that his caps total would have been considerably higher.

After the conflict, during which he served with the RAF in Palestine, Male returned to first-team duty and although he managed only intermittent outings, having reached a grand old age in footballing terms, his eight games in 1947/48 made him the first man to figure in six title-winning campaigns. When he finished, in a 8-0 trouncing of Grimsby Town that May, he had represented the Gunners in 314 senior matches (without scoring a goal), in addition to 181 games for the club in wartime competition.

Reaching the end of his playing career did not signal Male's departure from Highbury, however. He became a coach, guiding first the juniors and then the reserves, a firm but kindly and avuncular figure who rejoiced in the affection of his young charges. After that he earned further respect as a shrewd talent-spotter - the 1970s star Charlie George was his best- known discovery - and he went on to serve Arsenal in various administrative roles. He retired in 1975, living in Yorkshire, then joining his son in Canada.

The last of Chapman's magnificent side to stop playing, and the last to die, George Male was never the most feted of Gunners, but he was one of the worthiest.

Ivan Ponting

Charles George Male, footballer: born London 8 May 1910; played for Arsenal 1929-48; capped 19 times for England 1934-39; married (one son); died 19 February 1998.