Football: Wing wonder Bastin converted master tactics into goals

Ken Jones considers the reasons for the potency of Arsenal's striking legend
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The Independent Online
When Cliff Bastin died, aged 79, in 1991, obituaries touched on the key role he had in the application of an innovative strategy that established Arsenal at the forefront of English football.

It must be difficult for supporters today to imagine a method that required wingers to figure regularly on the score sheet, but in the 1932- 33 season alone Bastin and Joe Hulme got 53 of 118 goals that brought Arsenal the second of five championships in eight seasons.

Devised by one of the game's great thinkers, Herbert Chapman, who became manager in 1925 after leading Huddersfield to three successive championships, Arsenal's style proved almost unstoppable. Credited with introducing the "stopper" centre-half, Chapman built on his theory that a team can see too much of the ball. Arsenal sucked in the opposition and then launched devastating counter-attacks.

The master-stroke in this was Chapman's conversion of Alex James from the dribbling inside- forward he had been at Preston to an artful midfield provider for Arsenal's raiders. Nobody benefited more from the Scottish international's quick thinking than Bastin, who was only 16 when Arsenal spotted him playing for Exeter City at Watford.

The journalist and broadcaster George Allison, who became Arsenal's manager on Chapman's death in 1934, was a director when Bastin first came to the club's attention. In an autobiography, published in 1948, Allison wrote: "The day Herbert Chapman and I set out for Watford [to watch a Watford player] was one of the luckiest days in Arsenal's history... our attention began to be riveted by one of the Exeter players. He was a pink-cheeked, fair-haired, stockily built youngster, whose appearance suggested that he should have been playing in a school team rather than with seasoned professionals. We had heard whispers of him before, but in football one hears many whispers concerning boy wonders, and we had not then given him serious thought. Now, after 20 minutes, he was the one player on the field in whom we had any interest. Our one thought was: How can we get this lad for Arsenal?"

His mind made up, Chapman spoke to Exeter about Bastin immediately the game was over. It was agreed that he would join Arsenal for pounds 2,000 on his 17th birthday, the minimum age for a boy turning professional. The transfer was completed in 1929 and by his 21st birthday Bastin had won all the honours then available: championship and FA Cup- winners medals and, in 1932, the first of 21 England caps.

Probably, as a boy, I saw Bastin turn out in war-time football, but I don't remember anything about him. However, one summer during that time I spent a holiday on a farm in Essex, close to Shoeburyness where James was stationed in the Royal Artillery. He came frequently to the farm and sometimes people about the place persuaded him to speak about football. One of the things I remember him telling them was that Bastin suffered from deafness. Another was that Arsenal's system meant that Bastin did not have what was known in those days as a partner: no inside-left, because James operated from a deep position.

Because there is no visual evidence and the players involved are long gone, we are left to imagine how Arsenal's attacks in the early and mid-1930s were built and carried out. Bastin and Hulme wide, Jack Lambert, later replaced by Ted Drake, a force through the middle; James deep, the other inside-forward - to begin with David Jack,then Ray Bowden- an attacking auxiliary.

Leaving Bastin without support on his side of the field might have caused problems for other teams but for Arsenal it was encouragement to expand their attacking options. Many of their goals resulted from two passes, James to Hulme and a centre to Bastin. The tough Yorkshire miner Wilf Copping, recruited from Leeds to stiffen Arsenal's midfield, spoke of James hitting long diagonal passes that Bastin would collect at speed when coming across the front of opposing right-backs. "Alex often didn't try to pass inside the full-back, over his head or to Cliff's feet. He'd drive the ball straight at him. An unexpected move it made Cliff very difficult to mark and brought him many goals. He had a tremendous shot and could be relied on to hit the target."

Bastin's marvellous career was foreshortened by worsening deafness and knee injuries. He retired with that record of 178 Arsenal goals Ian Wright is close to overtaking. There is no other comparison between them. Bastin was not the last of the goalscoring wingers but by all accounts there were none better.