I should probably start today’s Retro Match with a bit of a disclaimer. I’ve not watched this one back.
A cursory search on YouTube didn’t bring anything up for the 14th January, 1933 unsurprisingly. It did, however, remind me Walsall also beat Arsenal in the League Cup of ’83-’84 – but we will save that for another day.
Today is all about reflecting back on Walsall, then of the Third Division North, beating the mighty Arsenal, the previous season’s First Division runners up, 2-0 in the FA Cup Third Round.
It was the greatest FA Cup shock in history and even now, nearly 100 years later, could still put up a pretty worthy argument to still be called so.
Before we get into the football, let’s try and, er, remind ourselves of what else was happening in the world at this time.
January 1933 saw the unveiling of the London Underground map, designed by Harry Beck. This was well-timed, given that a couple of months earlier had seen Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman successfully get the name of Gillespie Road tube station changed to Arsenal (Highbury Hill).
The England cricket team were well on the way to winning the Ashes Down Under, thanks in no small part to the controversial Bodyline approach. Later that year, the first modern sighting of the Loch Ness Monster would be recorded and Churchill warned anyone listening that Germany might be up to no good again.
The previous football season, 1931-32, has seen Everton win the First Division for the fourth time and Newcastle United win the FA Cup for the third occasion. A 17-year-old Stanley Matthews had made his professional debut for Stoke City in a 2-1 win over Bury.
There is no doubt that in this moment in football history, Arsenal were one of the greatest sides around. The legendary Chapman was in charge, and boy was he in charge, having moved from Huddersfield in the summer of 1925. At Huddersfield, Chapman had won back-to-back First Division titles and was preparing an assault on record-breaking third in a row when Arsenal’s job advert in the Athletic News caught his eye.
The temptation of playing in front of much larger crowds and double his Huddersfield salary was enough to see Chapman move south – making the promise of turning the Arsenal into “the Newcastle of the south” (something, critics might say Mikel Arteta is currently in the process of doing in the modern-day).
Chapman’s arrival matched that of a change in the offside law and Arsenal were probably the finest exponent of reacting to that change – the W-M formation being used with devastating effect.
Arsenal finished second to Huddersfield in Chapman’s first season and it took them until the 1930-31 season to win the First Division, having won the 1930 FA Cup. But, all would agree that Arsenal were revolutionary in this journey – their fast-paced counter-attacking football feeling relatively unique.
Come January 1933, the Gunners were well on track for winning their second First Division title under Chapman and will have certainly been eyeing up the possibility of a Double. They arrived at Walsall’s Fellows Park top of the table but with five first-team regulars missing due injury or flu.
As you would expect, lots of information on this match is not readily available but the excellent angryofislington.com has a fine piece where there’s some narrative on it added from old Arsenal programmes.
But first, let’s deal with the result – Walsall beat Arsenal 2-0. Over 11,000 people saw the lower division side topple a club that had won the FA Cup, the First Division, been runners up and were about to win the title again that same season. Second-half goals from Gilbert Alsop and Bill Sheppard secured a result that is still the biggest in their history.
But, more interestingly – how and what was the fallout?
Bob Wall, the club’s secretary at the time, was interviewed in a club programme 50 years after the event. He suggested that the ‘flu’ was not the real reason that Arsenal travelled to Walsall with a weakened side – more a case of Chapman assuming the game would be easy and it was an opportunity to test some younger players for the future. Wall was of the opinion that the players were out of their depth – as the result would prove.
One player, Tommy Black, who was in for Eddie Hapgood, gave away the crucial penalty when the Gunners were 1-0 down and never played for the club again – Chapman telling him to never be seen at Highbury again on the train home. He was sold to Plymouth the next week.
That said, the team selected still included the likes of Cliff Bastin, Alex James and Frank Moss – even with four untried players, the Arsenal losing was still a huge shock making Highbury a place you wanted to avoid the next Monday.
Unfortunately for club legend Denis Compton, the very next Monday was his first day at the club.
Wall’s interview appeared in the Arsenal programme for an FA Cup Fifth Round match against Walsall on February 18, 1978. Arsenal won that match comfortably 4-1 and went on to the final, losing 1-0 to Ipswich.
The Daily Mail, never ones to undercook a situation, said:
‘The crowd were almost mad with excitement and the players were carried shoulder high off the field. Thus a struggling Third Division team created a sensation of the century.’
So, what happened to the four players being tested to see if they were up to the Arsenal levels?
Tony Atwood of the Woolwich Arsenal blog commented on this point in December 2012:
One of the four (Norman Sidey) did pass the test and played twice more for the first team that season, and ultimately played 45 times for the club. For the other three it was both their first and last game.
Billy Warnes joined Arsenal as an amateur in 1925 and signing as a professional on 29 June 1929. He played in 25 of the 29 reserve games that season before Walsall, leaving the club at the end of the season to go to Norwich City.
Charlie Walsh also joined Arsenal as an amateur and signed as a professional on 11 May 1931. He played in 17 of the reserve games that season before Walsall but left the club almost immediately afterwards, joining Brentford on 27 January 1933.
Tommy Black joined Arsenal on 4 July 1931 from Strathclyde. He was by no means a regular even in the reserves, playing just 16 games that season before Walsall. He was transferred to Plymouth Argyle six days after the Walsall game.
Arsenal recovered – they went on to win the First Division. Chapman, however, died of pneumonia a year later – but his legacy lived on around Highbury for generations to come.
As for Walsall, this remains their finest moment to this day.
Walsall: Cunningham, Bennett, Bird, Reed, Leslie, Salt, Coward, Ball, Alsop, Sheppard, Lee.
Arsenal: Moss, Male, Black, Hill, Roberts, Sidley, Warnes, Jack, Walsh, James, Bastin.