Herbert Chapman – Making Football Great

The beautiful game is one of the most played and watched sports in the world. It’s loved by people from many different backgrounds, with many different stories and many different lives. But had it not been for a man from Yorkshire the sport as we know it may have been very different. Numbered shirts? European Club Competitions? Floodlights? They were all championed by this man. Not only that, he introduced new tactics and training schemes.

Herbert Chapman was born in 1878 and was 1 of 11 children. His father was a coal miner and instead of following in his fathers’ footsteps, he decided to use his intelligence and a win a place in then named Sheffield Technical College, to study mining engineering. But as his family was a sporting one it wasn’t long before he took up football, playing mostly as an amateur and because his club depended on finding a job nearby, he was predominantly a journeyman.

He played for 7 clubs before he finally turned professional in 1901, joining Northampton after impressing in a match for Worksop Town. 8 years and 4 moves later he decided to hang up his boots after his stint at Tottenham (He cost them £70!)  to focus on his engineering career, after saying he’d had a “good innings”. However, he changed his mind and chose to become player-manager at former club, Northampton. It was his managerial career that would be the making of him; it would make him a true football icon and innovator.

After Northampton he went on to manage Leeds City (now known as United). The season prior to Chapman’s arrival they finished 19th in the second division, and after a couple of signings and a few disappointing performance in the middle of some great ones, Leeds finished 6th. Chapman was credited with changing their fortunes and not only that, the attendance at Elland Road rose from 8,000 to just over 13,ooo – mainly due to the clubs newly found attacking prowess. Herbert Chapman had promised to win promotion and came close in his second season, finishing 4th – just a few points off the promotion places. League football was later suspended for the war and after a few controversies and illegal financial activities, Leeds were ejected from the Football League and Herbert was banned.

In 1921 after working during his ban he became assistant manager of Huddersfield but was soon elected as boss. He signed unknown 18-year old George Brown, who went on to be Huddersfield’s all-time top goalscorer and in his first year, he won the clubs first ever major trophy, the FA Cup. They performed worse in the league however, and Chapman strengthened his squad again. He employed a huge scouting network to make it easier to sign players and having control over the entire business of the team helped him: he could install and use the tactics from the first team in the reserves and 3rd team to make it easier for the backup players to intergrate should they need to. He wanted his sides to play quick, counter-attacking football with a strong defence. He opted for fluid movement with short passing, and wanted his wingers to run with the ball, weaving in and out of the opposing defenders. This new system that Huddersfield adopted under Chapman’s leadership won them their 1st ever league title in 1923-24 season. They retained their title the following season and Herbert’s philosophy helped the side become the first title-winning team to not concede more than 2 goals in any game throughout the whole campaign.

He wanted to win his 3rd successive title but after an ad was placed in the newspaper that Arsenal were looking for sacked manager Leslie Knighton’s replacement, he replied. The ad read:

Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of team manager. He must be experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exorbitant transfer fees need not apply.

Herbert Chapman responded and soon become the Arsenal boss – the club where he introduced the WM tactics after the offside law was introduced.

Many teams used the same tactics but Chapman’s nous made him the master of this tactic combining it with his on-pitch philosophy. On his system Chapman said:  “The most opportune time for scoring is immediately after repelling an attack, because opponents are then strung out in the wrong half of the field.” The new arrangement at Arsenal guided them from fighting relegation to 2nd place in just one season, although Arsenal went on to float around mid-table. Chapman couldn’t find the right players and declared a five-year plan and vowed to make Arsenal “the greatest club in the world”. His five-year plan was bang on as 5 years after his declaration Arsenal won the FA Cup. The infrastructure was built and Arsenal went on to dominate English football. The system he’d introduced was the main reason, his philosophy had been learnt and the club were the greatest. After wining the league in1931-32 Chapman became the first manager in charge of England in Europe, advising on tactics but not picking the side overseeing a draw with Italy and win over Switzerland.

He returned to Arsenal and went into the 33-34 season looking to win the title again, and they started well. After a good start Arsenal were 4 points clear at the top after a draw against Birmingham, which was unfortunately Herbert’s last game in charge before his death from pneumonia.

He left behind a legacy. His innovation and intelligence was the ultimate gift to football and he’s famous for changing the fortunes of Huddersfield and Arsenal. Perhaps if he hadn’t responded to the newspaper ad Arsenal may not have reached the heights they have done. He was a stickler for hard work and determination and the training techniques he implemented were based on tough, physical work but also maintaining the quick football he so badly wanted his teams to play. His legacy will live forever and all he has done for the sport will be appreciated indefinitely. A legend in every sense of the word.


Written by: Ryan (@RealYoungGunner)

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