Football: Jack the jewel of Highbury

The Anniversary: Seventy years ago, the first pounds 10,000 footballer made his debut for Arsenal

Norman Fox
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:59

IT WAS typical of British football's first entrepreneur, the Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, that having entreated the Football League to put a limit on transfer fees but having been rejected, he paid Bolton Wanderers a record amount in 1928 for 29-year-old David Jack, who was to become essential to Arsenal's inter-war period of trophy winning.

Chapman's first approach to Bolton had been met with the message that although almost all of their players were available for transfer, Jack was not among them. This later turned to news that an offer of not less than pounds 13,000 could change their minds. Chapman needed to prove that the results he had achieved at Huddersfield, where he had won two successive championships, could be repeated in London. Jack had a goalscoring record that, in spite of his age, made him worth a transfer fee generally thought to be absurd.

Chapman suggested meeting the Bolton directors in the lounge bar of an hotel. He deliberately arrived early and arranged with the waiter to serve gin and tonics and whisky and dry ginger, though he was not to have the gin nor his assistant the whisky while his guests would be given doubles. The meeting became ever more convivial and by 2am Jack's price had dropped. Bolton's officials seemed to remember it was pounds 11,800, but Chapman clearly recalled it was pounds 10,890.

Jack, a tall, elegant inside forward, had started his career at Plymouth Argyle, where his father was manager, but he was Bolton-born and played for them with distinction from 1921. He had become the first goalscorer at the first Wembley FA Cup final in 1923, taking his chance only two minutes after the match had eventually kicked off following the crowd-clearing work of the policeman on a white horse. He also scored the winning goal in the 1926 final for Bolton against Manchester City.

Although he won only a meagre nine caps for England, he more than repaid Chapman for his confidence in almost doubling the previous transfer record and entrusting him with replacing Charlie Buchan. Jack and Alex James were the final links in a chain of signings that turned Arsenal into the great team of the Thirties. Because of Chapman's conversion from thinking that high transfer fees would ruin the game, Arsenal also became the biggest spenders.

By repute Jack was tough and obstinate - probably one of the reasons why he won so few caps. However, the fee troubled him. He felt under heavy pressure to improve on his previous goalscoring achievements. His debut at Newcastle emphasised his nervous reaction. Arsenal had suffered a run of five away matches without a win. However, although his own performance was far from memorable, it was not subjected to scrutiny because Herbie Roberts marked Hughie Gallacher out of the match and Arsenal won. But Jack continued to struggle for his true form and was often heckled by the crowds.

In his fourth season after leaving Huddersfield, Chapman was still dissatisfied with his team and wanted a hard-working inside-forward. He was granted his wish when Preston put James on the transfer list. But even with James and Jack it took time for the Arsenal attack to work. In the end, though, it certainly did, the club winning the FA Cup in 1930. Jack played in that final and again in 1932. He also won championship medals in 1931 and 1933 before finally losing his place to Ray Bowden in the 1933-34 season.

His primary skill was to run directly at an opponent and swerve so far so quickly that he appeared to give himself enormous space. In one match for Arsenal against Aston Villa it was reported that in spite of touching the ball not more than three times, he beat four players, then the goalkeeper, before scoring. His stamina was never questioned although his dislike of hard training was well known. He served Chapman well in the tactics the great man evolved.

Chapman's defensive formation counteracted the new offside law (two defenders between the forward and goalkeeper) by having a centre half-back, Roberts, acting as a third defender. In spite of his talent for scoring, Jack was required to fill the gap left by the absence of one of the half-backs. It was a system that was to last for more than 30 years.

After his playing career ended Jack became a manager with Southend, Middlesbrough and Shelbourne. He died in 1958.

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