Obituary: Ray Bowden

Ivan Ponting
Monday 28 September 1998 23:02

RAY BOWDEN was paid perhaps the ultimate footballing compliment in March 1933 when the most successful manager the English game had then known asked him to replace a star performer in one of the greatest of all club sides.

The Arsenal boss Herbert Chapman was keen for the mild- mannered Cornishman, then plying his trade with Second Division Plymouth Argyle, to succeed the brilliant but ageing inside-forward David Jack in a Gunners team which was on the verge of lifting the Championship and which would sweep all before it as the decade progressed. So keen, in fact, that when Bowden refused his first approach, he made another, and another, agreement finally being secured on Chapman's third visit to Devon.

Such apparent reluctance to embrace the big time might seem peculiar to observers of the cash carnival that football has become in the 1990s, but in an era when all players received a maximum wage, a transfer did not have the same financial implications that it has today. Eight pounds a week was still only eight pounds a week, whether it emanated from the gleaming marble halls of Highbury or the more modest surroundings of Home Park.

Still, the manager's persistence paid off and Bowden, who cost pounds 4,500 and was Chapman's last major signing before his premature death in 1934, immediately justified the great man's judgement by helping Arsenal to clinch that term's title, though he had arrived too late for a medal.

He made up for that in comprehensive manner, playing a significant role as his new club went on to complete a Championship hat-trick over the next two campaigns. In addition, he took part in the 1936 PA Cup Final triumph over Sheffield United, won six England caps and enjoyed two outings for the Football League.

Bowden was a graceful ball- player whose slender, almost frail build belied a sinewy strength, although he would have made more than his 136 league and Cup appearances for the Gunners but for a nagging vulnerability to ankle injuries. His passing was smooth and thoughtful, making him a regular creator of goals for others as well as scoring 47 of his own in League and Cup competition.

He formed a productive right-wing partnership with the dashing Joe Hulme and became an able if often unobtrusive foil for the rest of a sumptuous forward line consisting of Ted Drake, Mex James and Cliff Bastin. All his England honours were earned during his Arsenal sojourn, the highlight of his two-year international career being the so-called Battle of Highbury in 1934, when he helped to defeat the world champions, Italy. The game - in which he played alongside no less than six of his club colleagues, a record - earned its lurid tag when the visitors, apparently misconstruing the intent of a vigorous early challenge from the ultra-competitive Drake, resorted to brutal tactics.

Bowden, who had worked as a solicitor's clerk on leaving school, came to the notice of Plymouth Argyle after netting ten times in an amateur match for his native Looe. He joined the Pilgrims in 1926 and won a Division Three (South) title gong in 1929/30 before Chapman persuaded him that he had a glittering future in north London.

In 1937 George Allison, Chapman's successor, opted to reshuffle his side and Bowden was sold to Second Division Newcastle United for pounds 5,000. The West Countryman enjoyed his time with the Tynesiders, for whom he scored a hat-trick against Swansea on the day before England declared war on Germany. The last surviving major contributor to Arsenal's remarkable achievements in the 1930s saw his professional soccer career end with the outbreak of hostilities and later he returned to Plymouth, where he became a sports outfitter.

Edwin Raymond Bowden, footballer: born Looe, Cornwall 13 September 1909; played for Plymouth Argyle 1926-33, Arsenal 1933-37, Newcastle United 1937-39; won six England caps 1934-36; married (one son); died Plymouth, Devon 23 September 1998.

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