Herbert Chapman Biography – Interview With Patrick Barclay

By Daniel Cowan
In Arsenal
Feb 14th, 2014
0 Comments

Much is made of the legendary British managers of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Brian Clough’s of the world, as well as the modern day legends in Ferguson and Wenger but little is known about the man that effectively made football management what it is today. A man forever immortalised at Arsenal, not just in bronze but in spirit and memory.

Renowned football writer Patrick Barclay makes it his mission in this book to tell Chapman’s story and hopefully, successfully in my opinion, illuminate his importance to the game and why he should be regarded, if not above, but at the very least at the same level as the legends that followed.

Barclay evocatively chronicles the turbulent period of Britain’s history Chapman lived with forensic detail that paints a picture not just of the life of Chapman but an elaborate spiders web of interlinking stories, people and history.

Despite this wonderful attention to detail, thorough research and careful assembly of the jigsaw of Chapman’s life Barclay states “Herbert Chapman lived through momentous times without ever leaving a clue as to how he viewed them”, which, in context of the book, rather wonderfully enables one to imagine the man as he was but still feel he is still a little elusive and enigmatic.

I cannot recommend this book enough to all football fans, not just ardent Arsenal supporters, as Chapman’s dedication and contribution to football was not just to the benefit of those clubs lucky enough to have employed him but to all football.

I was lucky enough to speak with Patrick Barclay in mid-February about this compelling read. Paddy was an extremely warm man to speak with, and generous too,  affording me much longer with him that I had agreed with the book publishers, and  his love for the book, the man and the fascinating times emanated from him.

Here is a transcript  of the first part of my interview with him for the Goonersphere Podcast:

What was your inspiration for writing about a manager who has been dead for over 80 years?

Well, I was asked to do it by a very senior executive of the publishers, Orion Group, who is an Arsenal fan. He might be embarrassed if I tell this story, his name is Alan Sansom and he is a season ticket holder, and he said to me “Look, I’m despairing of us ever winning a trophy again, we’re going to need cheering up at the Emirates and I’d love to wallow in a bit of nostalgia about Herbert Chapman” and asked me if I would like to write a book about him and I said yes. I wanted to write a book about someone who is no longer alive, I had written biographies of people who are still alive like Mourinho and Ferguson and the man kept changing as I was writing the book. I knew at least with Herbert that wouldn’t happen and I also wanted to bring in the history of the time as well. I wasn’t aware when I started the book of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War which coincides with it and it all just came together. The only thing that really went horribly wrong was Alan Sansom’s prognosis of Arsenal’s prospects and unless there is a dramatic collapse in the second half of the season, I think you are in severe danger of winning a trophy.

It would be nice. How did you get so much research material? Wouldn’t most of the people who knew Chapman personally have also passed on?

Yes, they have. There were two pieces of luck I had, I had read a few previous books on Chapman, pretty slim volumes, they were good reads but they weren’t very detailed but one of them was written in collaboration with one Ken Chapman who was very generously credited in the acknowledgements so I got in touch with Ken who is the nephew of Herbert, a great football fan, a fan of Sheffield Wednesday (who are still in the cup), a man in his 70s but very young and irreverent and a great bloke actually, and he has become a friend, well I say so, he’d probably laugh and snort if I say that, he’s a real Yorkshireman. He was fantastically generous with his time, his help and everything else and also with family history and so on even though he is writing a book on the history of the whole family but that didn’t put him off helping me in every way he could. He also put me in touch with another member of the family, a man called Peter Barwick, a chap who lives in Surrey. Another tremendous help was Lois Langton of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, a massive Arsenal fan, and she told me that her grandfather had seen Chapman’s Arsenal, he’s in his 90s, a great man, his name is Ron Jennings and he lives in Poole, Dorset. Lois took me down to see him, he’s a great bloke as well, really sharp, terrific recollection, so I was able to get a bit of atmosphere from each end of Chapman’s life if you like, from those two guys. The rest had to be done from books, from newspapers and deduction but we got there.

Whilst I was reading through the book, I felt there were a lot of similarities between Chapman and Wenger, with many of those similarities used as ammunition for Arsenal’s “failures” under Wenger in the past decade. How do you think Chapman would have been received, and operated, in this age of social media, oligarchs, benefactors and instant gratification?

Like you, I do see that comparison, I agree with you, Daniel. You can’t compare exactly like with like because he would have adapted to the age of oligarchs, social media and so on. I think he would have embraced social media, perhaps with some distaste  – I’m taking a liberty there, I can’t speak for him.

I think of the barracking he detested that you mentioned in the book and social media is a fantastic platform for the barracking of players.

I wondered about that and whether as the years went by and the cost of getting into football matches rose, he might have had second thoughts on that. And given that the proportion of a persons wages necessary to support football has risen to the extend that you’re almost entitled to barracking but that is entirely my theory. He was someone who moved with the times but he wouldn’t have liked that, he was fiercely protective of players – it’s interesting, I never really explored Arsène’s view on that, you’ve just given me an idea. I can’t see Arsène tweeting can you?

It’s difficult to say but the age of oligarchs is something I’m sure is something he would have embraced if it was for the greater good of Arsenal. He wanted Arsenal to be the biggest club in the world and he did make them the biggest club in the world – okay it’s only a matter of opinion because there was no European competition let alone a club world championship in his time although he wanted it – but they were generally accepted as the biggest club in the world, the state of the art club so he would have done anything that was necessary to maintain that status and if that meant leaping into bed with oligarchs I think he would have done it but only after a great deal of care and I guess, it’s a matter of opinion whether you think that’s what Arsenal have done.

From reading your book, where Arsène wouldn’t tweet, I get the impression that Chapman would have. He seemed to really embrace media, or at least the media of the time.

*Laughs* Yeah, he did. He was the first manager to use the press in such a blatant way and he did it right from the start – I think the press were considered an arm of the club, the local press in the days when he went to his first managerial job, as a player-manager, at Northampton Town after transferring from a North London club that plays in white – I say that because you’re going to have to have it, Daniel, whether you like it or not *Laughs*

You mean the Middlesex club?

*Laughs* Is that what you call them?

Well, they didn’t technically become a part of London until 1963 – that’s our stance and we’re sticking with it

(Jovially) I’m not coming on this medium and being politically correct, he played for Tottenham Hotspur for two season, and they probably wished they took him on as manager later but that’s another story.

Certainly the players and the managers he worked with a Tottenham influenced his managerial career

They did. One of the interesting things – sorry to digress – was that the player he came across, the former Tottenham player, Walter Tull, became a major signing of his for Northampton – he was of mixed-raced and in those days non-white players were few and far between but he got the best out of Walter Tull. So that was certainly a notable thing that happened to Chapman, also signing foreign players – he tried to sign the Austrian goalkeeper Rudi Hiden, but as with so many of his ideas he was prevented from carrying them out by either the FA or the Football League.

I guess, ironically, his time at Tottenham, the players he met and the coaches he worked with helped to shape the man that became one of Arsenal’s most successful ever managers and ironically 100 years later they have helped us buy our most expensive player ever. (Patrick laughs heartily) So thanks Tottenham.

That is true. I’ll give you another piece of irony, this is only my opinion but I am absolutely convinced of it, but you remember the great Tottenham double team and many of the great traditions that Tottenham cherish were founded on the Danny Blanchflower quote about football not just being about waiting for the other team to die of boredom, it’s about glory and doing things with a flourish and all through Wenger’s time at Arsenal it struck me there that never been a better reinterpretation of Bill Nicholson’s ideal that by Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. I even spoke with Bill about it before he died and he wasn’t a man given to the florid phrase but he winked and said of Arsenal’s football under Wenger “Pretty good isn’t it?” *laughs* and that’s about as effusive as Bill ever got.

You mentioned about moving with the times and we’ve made some comparisons with Arsène – the stick most used to beat Wenger with by his detractors over the past few years was the so-called “youth project” which was deemed a failure for the reported socialist wage structure but Chapman had a similar policy called collectivist – do you think that is something he still would have attempted even moving with the times?

Yes, I do think so. I think that he did believe in that. There were some players – Alex James, one of the greatest players to ever play for Arsenal was paid more than other players but not by Arsenal because that was illegal, he was paid by Selfridges where had a very cushy job, he was paid by the London Evening News where he had a very cushy column, not that I can talk, I seem to have a cushy column in a London Evening paper – there were ways of getting around certain things but he really believed in that collectivism.

The problem I think at Arsenal, and this is a personal opinion, is the gap between the good players, the Vieira’s, the Henry’s and the players who really weren’t good enough for Arsenal, you know who they were, the players of the era that followed – the gap in wages – I used to watch Gervinho play, now I’ve gone and named one haven’t I, and think that guy is picking up £80,000 a week and he really shouldn’t be in the shirt. You can’t compare times but Chapman was pretty ruthless with the ones that didn’t measure up. It was a different age and the clubs had more power and Chapman had an awful lot more power than Wenger had, I’ve give you an example – in 1932, arguably the biggest cup shock of all time when Walsall beat Arsenal and knocked them out…

He played quite a few younger players

He did, this is just one of a million things he did that no-one else did – he rotated, brought in a few younger players, some fringe players. One of them had an absolute nightmare, lost his rag and gave away a penalty that sealed Arsenal’s fate and on the train home Chapman took him aside and said don’t coming in on Monday, we’ll send your boots in the post. Along with his boots came a transfer to Plymouth Argyle – Wenger might have felt like doing it a couple of times, he might have felt like doing it to Mathieu Flamini after Southampton, I would have done if I was an Arsenal fan but that option isn’t open in these rather more enlightened times.

You spoke about his ruthlessness and I also picked up on his perfectionism in the book. One example where after a 7-1 victory he is remembered by the players for only speaking about the goal they conceded. How would translate into the modern game and do you think there is a top-level manager that shares that attitude towards perfectionism?

Yes. Ferguson, Wenger – I think the best ones all do. I think it is a managerial penneth, I don’t know if it still is but it used to be don’t lavish too much praise because it softens your players up just give them a reminder of the things they’ve done wrong. And on that particular occasion you mentioned, Chapman went the whole hog didn’t he? I mean the players, even then, were absolutely flabbergasted he didn’t congratulate them. I think they were away from home that day, it was an incredible result but that was his perfectionism. He did like perfectionism, that’s why he kept buying centre-forwards. He plenty of good ones but he kept changing them.

I think he would have liked Olivier Giroud by the way, because he works hard and scores goals. I’ll tell you who I think is the modern centre-forward Chapman would have loved and it’s Didier Drogba, I’m sorry to tell you that because I know he was the slaughter-man of Arsenal on more than one occasion but I feel his combination of goals, power, drive and work-rate would have gladdened Chapman.

I think most Arsenal fans would begrudgingly admit they would have liked him too and I think there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction when they heard reports we could have had him for £500,000 a couple of years before Chelsea signed him for £24m.

Really? Is that so? I must say that, not that Wenger needs me to come to his defence, but he probably has the best record of any manager in the transfer market. Look at the increase in value of the likes of Koscielny, it’s almost back to the good old days. He bought van Persie for £2m and sold him for £24m, that’s £22m on him. He made big profit on Overmars, Petit, Toure, Anelka – we are talking massive sums on these players. It’s a really good record in the transfer market. David Moyes isn’t bad either at a slightly lower level. He did very well with Jagielka, made £20m on Lescott. Wenger has dropped a few clangers but they all do, Ferguson has dropped a few clangers and Moyes is having to ship them out as we speak.

That’s part one of my 40 minute interview with Patrick. I will post the second half of this transcript early next week. If you can’t wait you can listen to the interview in full on the Goonersphere Podcast

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I am a South London born Gooner now living in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex. I'm a husband, daddy, podcaster, trainer enthusiast and aspiring author. My work is my passion and for that I will always be grateful. Here is where I write my thoughts and views on Arsenal Football Club, the greatest team the world has ever seen.

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