It’s something we all take for granted as you step from the train to platform yet without Herbert Chapman, you would be setting foot into Gillespie Road tube station. A small highlight of how far ahead of his time Chapman really was, how well suited to the Premier League era of modern football he would have been. Few, if any, managers have such an acute grasp of brand awareness even now in this marketing age. Patrick Barclay seeks to contextualise Chapman’s life, both as he lived it and the influence through the decades since his untimely death.
You need to take a step back at this point to appreciate how times have changed. The modern football supremo is expected to pass on tattle, focus on the personalities but offer the blandest of thoughts; Chapman offered his views on tactics and the future of the game in his newspaper column and he would, I think, have approved of Barclay, one of the foremost football journalists of his generation, writing this biography. The work reflects the assiduous research he conducted, the involvement of not just the family but also those such as Darren Epstein, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews with a keen interest in exploring Arsenal’s rich history.
His influence is felt at the club to this day, not just in the bronze which sat majestically in Highbury’s marble halls. Like George Graham before him, Arsène Wenger is a keen student of Chapman’s ways with their philosophies being almost interchangeable, from their attacking instincts to the egalitarian wage structure.. Any poll to divine who is the club’s most influential manager tends to be skewed by the first hand knowledge of Wenger’s reign but his predecessor’s impact is laid clear here. The tactical innovations, floodlight football, competitive European club football; the list goes on as the extraordinary vision of the man unfurls.
But it is worth remembering that he was already a successful manager when he joined Arsenal in 1925. At then non-league Northampton Town, he argued for the current relegation and promotion to the Football League from a pyramid system below the professional game. He moved to Leeds City and having overseen their re-election to the League, he led them to higher placings before the intervention of World War I. During this time, Chapman was working in a factory and not involved with the Yorkshire club but when their financial irregularities came to light, he was still banned for life. That was successfully appealed and in 1921, he returned as Huddersfield Town’s assistant manager, quickly rising to take full control as manager. It was the beginning of their heyday, as they won the FA Cup and three consecutive League titles, two of which were under Chapman’s guidance.
His arrival at Arsenal signalled the club’s most successful spell yet but it wasn’t immediate, taking five years during which time he signed a number of those who would be pivotal in the 1930s. Buchan, Jack, Hulme, Parker, Bastin, Hapgood and James were all Chapman signings as the club began its ascent to the peak of the English game. It was largely in part due to him taking more control over the business of the club following Sir Henry Norris’ fall from grace. He was the first managerial autocrat in the club’s history but he would not be the last.
As much as there is an elusivity about the man, a sense of how he was perceived comes as his funeral cortège is greeted by crowds four-deep. It is the sort of reception a key political figure might expect today without the open divisiveness. Chapman was a man of the people, evidenced as he delivered his sermons from the pulpit at Islington Chapel to be acclaimed as “a friend of the Jewish people” by The Jewish Chronicle with his passing. He did not care for passports when it came to football, thwarted by the insularity of the British Establishment in trying to sign Austrian Rudy Hiden in 1930, circumventing the rules for Gerard Keyser to become the first Dutch player in English football.
This is a well-written and authoritative documentary of Chapman’s life and a must-read for anyone with an interest in Arsenal Football Club
Click on this link to buy The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman: The Story of One of Football’s Most Influential Figures.