The manner in which football has come leaps and bounds over the years only makes the progress tougher to trace. A lot of times, the vital checkpoints in the journey to the current situation gets blurred. Many who have been key to bringing the game to where it is don’t really get as much attention as they should.
One such individual was Herbert Chapman. Many fans who’ve watched the game over the decades would know the name. But many newer fans may have never heard of him.
Chapman existed in an era where football wasn’t as influential as it is today. People’s perception of the game wasn’t dictated by how much they earned out of it by their betting slips. The game and the players today are often a part of this huge industry that thrives on making money out of them through betting.
While betting did exist back then too, it wasn’t as prominent as it is today and there was certainly no such thing as sports betting tips from professional betting tipsters online. But having said that, Chapman’s contributions to the game did make an indirect impact on how much money the bookies earned.
Born in 1878 in a mining village called Sheffield, Chapman was hardly a famous footballer. He had spells with the likes of Rochdale, Grimsby Town, Ashton North End and even had a brief stint with Sheffield United. A lot of his career had seen him play semi-professional football until he had joined Northampton Town in 1901.
But it was during a brief spell after his first stint at Northampton had things had taken a different turn for him. During his time in North London, Chapman was also pursuing studies in mining. He had joined Spurs in 1905 and it had started out well. He got eleven goals in their 1905-06 season, only to see his abilities fade from the second season onwards.
In around 1907, Chapman thought his time at the club was up. In fact, he had made up his mind about retiring from the game. This time would coincide with Northampton losing their manager and Chapman recommending a Spurs teammate in Walter Bull for the job. But a huge change of fortune saw Chapman come out of retirement and become Northampton’s player-manager himself.
Chapman would take over the job only one a temporary and part-time basis. As he was also working as a mining engineer during this time.
In his very first managerial step, Chapman came up with a tactical innovation that the game had not seen back then. He had noticed that teams had the habit of defending deeper and organising themselves. Through that, Chapman invented the idea of inviting the opposition forward and counter-attacking them.
This style helped Northampton avoid relegation from the Southern League and they won the title in the next season with a tally of record 55 points.
In 1910, Chapman’s Northampton caused a huge upset in the FA Cup by knocking Sheffield Wednesday out. They held Newcastle United to a 1-1 draw in the next season.
The Northampton Echo spoke of his playing style as: “The forwards… wove no fancy patterns but, given the ball, straight they sped for goal. Just a brief run, enough to draw part of the defence towards the spot, and over it went with almost amazing accuracy to the other side of the field. There the operation was repeated.”
Herbert’s move to Leeds City came in the summer of 1912 after he had left many at the club impressed by his nous. After having finished 19th in the 1911-12 season, Herbert got Leeds up to sixth in the Second Division. It was hailed as a huge achievement by many.
It was at Leeds that Herbert brought in the idea of the player’s presenting their tactical ideas to the manager. It wasn’t just about him, it was about the team as a whole. It was a democratic process and not a personality cult. That increased the tactical intelligence of players and didn’t just improve their physical skill.
The club finished fourth in the 1913-14 season, but further progress was derailed by the First World War. During this phase, Leeds had to rely on guest players as most of their own players were serving in the army. In 1916, Chapman himself became a manager of a munitions factory at Barnbow. He became the manager of that factory, as thirty people worked under him.
After the war, Leeds were found guilty of financial issues with regards to the payments made to guest players. Chapman would escape any fine on the excuse that he wasn’t aware of what had happened as he himself was serving the army. The club was expelled from the Football League in October 1919 and five club officials were banned.
It was after this that Herbert became the assistant manager to Huddersfield Town boss Ambrose Langley. But after about a month, Chapman became the full secretary-manager by replacing Langley.
Playing in a bigger club worked to Chapman’s advantage. Using the club’s wide scouting network, he signed players that suited his counter-attacking system. He had the chance to make much more influential signings that he couldn’t have made otherwise.
In the 1922-23 season, the Terriers finished third and won the title in the 1923-24 season. He made only one signing in the summer of 1924, retaining the title in 1925. But when the season ended, Chapman was keen on strengthening his side. But Arsenal were looking for a replacement for Leslie Knighton.
The Gunners were willing to double his salary and London attracted Chapman. Despite the club having been in the relegation zone for the last two seasons, he made the move.
It was at Arsenal that a big tactical invention was seen. And it coincided with the change in the offside rule. Chapman changed his formation from a 2-3-5 to a 3-4-3, dropping a midfielder into the defence. The idea was to create an offside trap through an extra defender and lure the opposition even further.
This tactical invention was followed by many other clubs like Spurs and Queens Park. Arsenal finished second behind Huddersfield themselves in 1926 and reached the final of the FA Cup in 1927. While he didn’t any of the two titles, it was seen to be part of the process.
It was around this time that one of Arsenal’s directors had been banned due to wage cap violation. Chapman had to take hold of that hole in the club’s structure and decided to make more business-related decisions. This allowed Chapman more control of the club. He could take the club into the direction he wanted.
He signed multiple players who went onto England internationals, making full use of the money at his disposal. With his revolutionary tactics, right players and control of the club, Chapman led Arsenal to their first-ever trophy when they won the FA Cup in 1930.
In the 1930-31 season, they won the first division title. They scored a record 127 goals- a number that is still a record. He had laid down the foundation for the club to years to come. While Chapman did meet a demise in 1934 due to pneumonia, Arsenal won the title twice in the remaining decade.
While his contributions to the clubs as a whole were immense, Chapman’s impact exceeded that. He was the first one in England to recommend the use of flashlights in the game. He had taken this idea after having watched a game at night with Hugo Meisl in 1930. Lights were installed at Hihbhury’s West Stand in 1932.
Chapman also advocated the use of shirt numberings and using white footballs for recognition. Not just that, but it was Chapman who had sparked the tradition for both teams to walk out together in the FA Cup final. It first happened in Arsenal’s FA Cup final of 1930 and continues to happen till date.
It is criminal that many things that Chapman did back in the day aren’t exactly seen as an achievement by many today. It could be a case of them taking all of it for granted, but Chapman’s contributions have been invaluable. One can only hope that they don’t get dusted by passing time.