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‘Association football is not so rich in personalities that it can afford to lose such a man as Mr. Herbert Chapman, the Arsenal manager, who died suddenly at his home at Hendon on Saturday after a short illness. He was only 55 years of age and, much as he had accomplished, he had such vitality and determination that there seemed even more for him to do in the future’. The Times, Monday January 8th 1934.
Herbert Chapman was born on 19 January 1878 in Kiveton Park a village not far from Sheffield. His father was a coalminer. Twenty years later, the census for 1901 reveals that Herbert was employed as a weighbridge clerk at the local colliery. As an amateur he played as an inside-forward for Stalybridge, Rochdale, Grimsby, Swindon Town, Sheppey United and Worksop. In 1901 he turned professional with Northampton Town, later moving to Sheffield United, Notts County, and Tottenham before returning to Northampton as player-manager in 1907. Tottenham Hotspur, and Northampton Town the team he eventually player-managed. He was not a great footballer but his understanding of tactics and strategy would make him one of the legendry managers of the game. He arrived at Huddersfield Town in 1919 when the club were in the middle of a crisis. Within a few years they had won the F.A. Cup (1922) and would win the championship for the following two years. After his departure for Arsenal, the team he had formed went on to win the 1925-6 championship, for an unprecedented third consecutive season.
It took some time to turn Arsenal’s fortunes around. At Arsenal, Chapman implemented a new strategy, originally suggested by player Charlie Buchan, that ruthlessly exploited a June 1925 change to the offside-law. The change had reduced the number of opposition players that an attacker needed between himself and the goal-line from three to two. Buchan's idea was to move the centre-half from a roaming position in midfield to a "stopper" position in defence. With one forward brought back into midfield, this changed the usual formation from 2-3-5 to 3-3-4, or a "WM", so called after the shape it formed spelled out the letters. This meant the offside trap was no longer the responsibility of the two full-backs, but the single central defender, while the full-backs were pushed wider to cover the wings.
Although Arsenal finished second in 1925-6, they spend the rest of the decade in mid-table. The only significant event during this early phase of Chapman's time at Arsenal was a famous defeat to Cardiff City in the 1927 F.A. Cup. By the early Thirties, however, Arsenal had established themselves as one of the most fearsome attacking sides in the First Division. He combined revolutionary tactics with high profile signings including David Jack Eddie Hapgood and Alex James.
Arsenal’s first trophy under Chapman’s management was the F.A.Cup in 1930 against his old club Huddersfield Town. They won the League the following season, becoming the first club from London to do so. Two years later they followed it up with the 1932-3 title. In January 1934, despite suffering from a chill, the manager insisted on watching his third team in action at Guildford. Pneumonia claimed him just three days later. According to the writer of his obituary in The Times: ‘The full effect of his influence on the game cannot be gauged yet, and it also remains to be seen whether or not there will be disciples who will carry on his work of popularizing football, making it attractive to the shilling-paying public’.
Chapman is now considered one of the games greatest and most significant managers. So formidable was the team that Chapman built at Arsenal that they went on to win the League in 1934 and 1935 titles. In many ways he is the founding father of Arsenal as a major force in English Football.
His influence spread wider than north London. Chapman was one of the first football managers to take full charge of the team, rather than letting board members pick the side. He was an early advocate of floodlights, white footballs and numbered shirts. The tradition of both teams walking out together at the F.A.Cup Final was started in 1930, due to Chapman’s involvement with both clubs.
In 2003 Chapman was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in recognition of his impact as a manager. A blue plaque commemorating Chapman was also unveiled in March 2005, at 6 Haslemere Avenue, London, where he lived from 1926 until his death.