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Herbert Chapman

Sir Matt Busby and Bob Paisley are frequently cited as greats of football management, the father figures of their clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, and defining managers of their eras.

If we go slightly further back, to the 1920s and 1930s, then we find a football giant of equal stature who is still held by Arsenal Football club to be the man who made them what they are today. Several historians and football experts have gone further and suggested that Herbert Chapman, a miner’s son from Kiveton Park, became the greatest football manager of all time.

This short page cannot be anything towards a comprehensive discussion of Herbert’s life, his achievements or contribution to the sport of football. However, we hope it provides an insight into what was a truly impressive life.

It’s difficult to understand Herbert, his standards, qualities or motivations, without paying attention to the village where he spent his formative years and the family in which he grew up. The Chapman Family were prominent in Kiveton Park, at both the pit and in the community; successive generations displayed the motivations that characterised Herbert’s sporting achievements. From their home at 17, Old Rows, emerged a trade union leader, prominent local councillor, two professional footballers, including Herbert in his younger years.

Herbert Chapman stood out as a player, partly because of his bright yellow boots, but also because he was begun to demonstrate the qualities that would see him shine during his managerial career. However, as a player he had little on his brother Henry, who played for Sheffield Wednesday, Hull and a number of other clubs. Harry, as he was affectionately known, was an inside right, in todays terms, a right sided midfielder. He was also more powerfully built than his elder brother.

Herbert played at several clubs. He turned professional at Northampton and later returned to the club to launch his managerial career. He also played for Sheffield United, Notts County and Spurs. It’s revealing of the nature of football in those years that wherever those yellow boots took him, Herbert had to also find work. He worked as an engineer and used skills he had learnt at Sheffield Technical College. Winning a place at the college had been a commendable achievement in itself in those years for a young man from a Kiveton mining family.

Herbert took up the post of player-manager at Northampton Town for the 1906-7 season. His achievements were considerable as he quickly adapted to a new role as manager.

Herbert found success but also problems as Manager of Leeds City. The club won almost everything in the makeshift competitions amidst the First World War but there was post-war controversy and downfall. Football was wracked by scandal in this era. Eight Liverpool and Manchester United players were even banned for match fixing. Leeds City were accused of making dubious payments to players. This accusation was hardly defused when the club refused to open up their accounts for scrutiny.

Leeds City Football Club was dissolved in 1919. Its players were sold off at a farcical open auction and most club officials were banned for life. Herbert, at his canny best, pointed to his scrupulous management of a nearby munitions factory, suggesting that given his conscientious contribution to the war effort he could hardly have been expected to notice such wrongdoings at the club.

The end of Leeds City marked the start of a lean period in Herbert’s life. Returning to the coal industry in which many of his family were still employed, he managed a coking plant at Selby and was even unemployed for a short while. But just as the inter-war depression began and thousands were thrown out of work, Herbert found a new job, as Secretary and then Manager of Huddersfield Town, a team performing at a level which could be described as little more than mediocre level.

The Chapman golden touch that had graced Herbert’s time at both Northampton and the early years at Leeds hadn’t left him. His involvement with Huddersfield coincided in what can only be described as a golden era that remains unrivalled in the club’s history.

Things began with the 1922 FA Cup victory, the last final before moving to the newly built Wembley. This was the start of a feat only seen three times since, one of which was also to be by Herbert’s design. Huddersfield Town won three consecutive top-flight titles: in 1924, 1925 and 1926.

The 1926 victory, secured while his own village of Kiveton Park was wracked by the General Strike, was down to Herbert’s management but he had already left Huddersfield for pastures new. He journeyed south to the capital, where he had spent some time playing for Spurs before the 1914 war. He was now in London to manage Spurs’ fierce rivals: Arsenal.

The vacant Manager’s position at Highbury was advertised in Athletic News, which Herbert must have read with bemused interest considering he had already been approached and offered a friendly golden handshake of some £2,000. Herbert took the post and became a truly household name in British sport.

Arsenal didn’t enjoy the immediate honeymoon period Chapman had sparked at his previous clubs. They finished second in the season that Herbert joined and slumped to something close to a mid-table mire of mediocrity for the rest of the decade. It should also be noted that just a few months after arriving in London, Herbert’s brother John, prominent trade unionist in Kiveton Park, died and the pit stood to in his memory.

On the quiet, things were starting to happen at Arsenal. Shrewd investments were made, such as bringing in Eddie Hapgood and Alex James - eyebrows were raised but these men were to be instrumental in later success. Several players purchased were already at the top of their game and fame, including Charlie Buchan, Tom Parker and Jack Lambert. Herbert spent something like £25,000 in those first few seasons at Highbury. Herbert wasn’t just spending money he was doing something more. He was moulding the club around him, pushing for innovative changes that are now seen as part and parcel of top-flight football management. At the time these were revolutionary.

Herbert had a canny side, a quick-witted shrewdness that saw him seldom outdone in transfer dealing. Bolton must have thought they’d struck it lucky when Herbert showed an interest in one of their players. Invited for transfer discussions, legend has it that Herbert quietly arranged for an attentive barman to serve him and his assistant Jock Tait a plentiful supply of gin and tonics and whisky dries - without the gin or whisky. Drinks for the Bolton contingent were suitably potent to ensure the player’s price was cut considerably.

Herbert courted the press. His charismatic, gentle but somehow powerful and enticing presence comes across in a several newsreels and ‘talkie’ productions that can be watched online by searching the British Pathe archive. This was something that his former players would remember of Herbert, his ability to imbue them with confidence by his sheer presence.

Herbert is best known for his tactical know how, his responses to rule changes in the 1920s were pragmatic and innovative. The tactical changes he introduced to the Arsenal teams of the late 1920s have survived the test of time and contribute to much modern football strategy, whether on the sunny beaches of Rio or cold mid-week fixtures on the pitches at Kiveton Park, across the railway from where the pit once stood.

Arsenal won the Cup in 1930 for the first time in a while. They followed this up with league titles in 1933, 1934 and 1935. Herbert had once again achieved what he had at Huddersfield, and what no other team except Liverpool in the 1980s and Manchester United in the 1990s have achieved since – to win a sought-after hat-trick of league titles.

Herbert was a successful manager, of which there can be no doubt. What really made him famous was the much wider legacy that his management had, which was to last long after illness cut short his life in 1935. Many footballing innovations have been put down to Herbert, ranging from new formations, white footballs, European-wide competitions and much more.

Such innovations and tactical know-how are the legacies Herbert left for the sport of football. However, he should be remembered first and foremost for his managerial ability, strength of character and sheer determination. A miner’s son from Kiveton Park worked his way up to being undoubtedly the greatest football manager of the first half of the twentieth century and perhaps of all time – an impressive feat indeed.

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