The great dictator

Few football men can be claimed to have died as a result of their desire for power and few had as lasting an impact as Herbert Chapman, as Barney Ronay explains

“In this business you’ve got to be a dictator or you haven’t a chance,” Brian Clough remarked on his appointment as Hartlepools United manager in 1965. It is temp­­ting to wonder whom Clough might have had in mind as a dictatorial role model in 1965. Mao Tse-Tung? Leonid Brezhnev? Charlie Chaplin? More likely, however, Clough was briefly visualising himself as a stocky, dapper man with a large-brimmed hat and the look of a prosperous northern greengrocer.

Herbert Chapman, the last man before Clough to lead two different clubs to the League title, remains the most influential manager in the history of English football. He revolutionised the role, creating an essential footballing archetype and introducing the notion that an employee from outside the owning classes could take charge of almost every aspect of a club. Clough may have gone on to become a dictator; Bill Shankly may have established a “bastion of invincibility” at Anfield; and Matt Busby may have eng­ineered an enduring personality cult at Old Trafford. But none of it would have have been possible without Chapman, who staged a trailblazing coup de boardroom during his nine years in charge at Arsenal.

“I am going to make this the greatest club in the world,” Chapman announced on taking up the post at Highbury – a remarkable piece of chutzpah at a club yet to win a major honour and also in view of his own lowly status as a mere secretary-manager. Until the end of the First World War, little regard had been paid to coaches in English football, often not even meriting a mention in programmes or match reports. Subsequently the secretary-manager became a slightly more prominent figure, providing a link between directors and trainer (a medicine ball-toting PE teach­er type). However, when it came to signing players or even team selection, directors would always have the final say. Chapman altered this dynamic fundamentally, establishing him­self – through a combination of opportunity, ambition and genial bloody-mindedness – as the central figure in the club’s dealings on and off the field. When future record-goalscorer Cliff Bastin joined in 1929, it was Chapman who travelled to Exeter to oversee the signing of the 17-year-old at his parents’ house, establishing accepted kitchen-table photo-opportunity protocol for all intent on signing a small-town starlet.

Like most successful managers, Chapman had an unremarkable playing career. A sturdy inside forward (described, variously, as “lacking in skill” and “slow”), he turned professional late in his career with Northampton Town, where he be­came known more for his distinctive yellow boots than any great playing feats, before moving to Tottenham. He took his first step into management at Northampton, al­though the way in which he came by the job, offered the post out of the blue by a team-mate who had chang­ed his mind about taking it, says much for the primitive hierarchy of a game still only 25 years into its lifetime as a professional sport.

Having been at Leeds City up to 1919, Chapman took over Huddersfield in 1921. Remarkably, given their resources, he won the FA Cup and the League title twice. They completed their hat-trick after he left for Ars­enal in 1925, for a position initially ad­vertised with the proviso “those interested in spending large amounts of money need not apply”. In fact Chapman spent lavishly, as tactics and personnel, once subject to a quasi-feudal directorial veto, were for the first time placed firmly in the hands of the manager. Arsenal won three League titles during his time in charge and during the early 1930s “The Machine”, as they became known, were considered footballing invincibles, so advanced were their tactics, fitness and organisation.

Chapman cultivated a charismatically dic­tatorial presence, although the team’s success is often attributed to his unprecedented democratisation of the dressing room. Where footballers had previously been employed in an essentially menial capacity, Chapman gave them a presence and a voice, encouraging them to contribute to regular team discussions and even to express their ideas on a tactics chalkboard – now part of standard managerial equipment, invented by Chap­man. Players such as Bastin and Herbert Roberts responded to his tactical theories, switching from ac­customed positions to innovative roles within the prototype 4-4-2 formation Chapman developed in response to the two-man offside rule, which was introduced in 1925. Chapman, in partnership with defender Charlie Buchan, is credited with devising the flat back four, the direct passing style and the midfield “pressing” game that are still the blueprint for the way football is played in England. This innovation completed Chap­man’s dismantling of the tradition of boardroom interference in team mat­ters, establishing for the first time the notion of the manager as a fiercely territorial individual, ans­werable only for his team’s results.

The genially acerbic Chapman was also considered a master of man-management (“Chapman knew when to blow you up and when to blow you down,” revealed Alec Jackson), perhaps because until then the con­cept had barely existed. He was also a formidable authoritarian, publicly sacking chief trainer George Hardy in the middle of a cup tie for ordering a player to move upfield and unwittingly in­terfering with a tactical plan. When Alex James, a vital member of midfield, fell out with his manager over pay increases, he was informed he was being sent on a cruise. James arrived at the docks only to find that he was booked on a tramp steam­er – a primitive cargo ship – on to which, under Chap­man’s orders, he was unceremoniously packed. Even areas such as the marketing of what we would today call the club brand came under Chapman’s aegis. It was the manager’s idea to lobby for the renaming of nearby Gillespie Road tube station as “Arsenal” and he was also a driving force behind such innovations as a white ball, numbers on players’ shirts, rubber studs and even floodlights: journalists were invited to watch an Arsenal practice game lit by lanterns dangling from trees after Chapman had seen a night match in Austria illuminated by 40 sets of car headlights.

Oddly, it was his insistence on maintaining his grasp over every aspect of the club that led to his premature death in 1934. Ignoring a heavy cold, he travelled to Guildford to watch a third-team game on a freezing January night and abruptly died of pneumonia.

The managerial power-base Chap­man constructed is now being eroded. The boardroom is striking back. Where Chapman’s assumption of power was innovative and galvanising in its time, Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps the last great managerial auto­crat, is currently portrayed in many quarters as a foot­balling dinosaur, an impediment to the expansionist arc of what is now a very business-driven concern. In truth a state of affairs that permitted the novice David O’Leary to spend over £80 million in two years as Leeds manager is simply untenable. The stakes have become too high. Money, as it tends to, is in the process of turning some­thing freakish and distinctly eccentric – the Napol­eonic climate of English football management, a breed­ing ground for monstrous hu­bris and ram-shackle and often completely un­ex­pected suc­cesses – into a far more orderly concern. Like an am­bitious middle-manager, Chapman’s High­bury heir Arsène Wenger works hand in hand with his directors. Visibly indistinguishable to the untrained eye, they share the vocabulary of acquisition and pur­chase, the same tailoring and the notion of man­aging not just dreams of dominance but a portfolio of assets.

On England’s 1933 trip to Italy the touring party, including Chapman and Bastin, were pre­sented to Benito Mussolini. So impressed was Bastin by Il Duce’s personal magnetism that he reported that the architect of modern Italy and one of the most imposing statesmen of the century had even managed to over­shadow Chapman himself. On a somewhat smaller scale, Chapman provided the impetus for a flourishing in the power vacuum beneath the boardroom similar to that of a hothouse pre-war European nation state. In the process he helped create an environment peopled by pipe-smoking visionaries, boot-room mega­lomaniacs, and wild-eyed, green rugby-shirted bully-boys – one that already seems like a thing of the past.

From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month