Date: 12th February 2010 at 11:42am
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You may have picked up from last Friday`s article on Paul Vaessen that recently I`ve been taking a look into Arsenal careers that haven`t gone so well. Away from the glossy club magazine and assorted club DVDs and the Orwellian club website, there are stories to tell from people in our history that are sad, outrageous and sometimes downright tragic. You`ll be happy to know that the tragic story of Paul Vaessen is about as sombre as the stories get. Certainly in terms of personal tragedy. I was minded heavily of the next “enfant terrible” of Arsenal`s history during the January transfer window, when Le Grove style “I saw him on YouTube and therefore we must sign him or else I`ll cry and cry and cry until my eyeballs drop out” style badgering reaches fever pitch and the apocryphal theory that “new player= good player” postulates as fact. But sometimes a shiny new player with a big price tag and requisite reputation isn`t a bona fide guarantee of success or improvement. Which brings me onto the story of Bryn Jones.

Bryn Jones was a Welsh footballer in the 1930s. Throughout the early 30s he quietly forged a respectful career in the footballing backwaters of Ireland and Wales. But by 1933, his reputation as an excellent creative inside forward had reached England and caused Wolverhampton Wanderers to spend £1,500 to secure his services. He enjoyed a solid few seasons and became something of a terrace favourite at Molineux, gradually developing into one of Wolves` most sought after players. His star had reached something of a crescendo when he played a starring role in Wales` famous 2-1 victory over England in 1936. This was immediately followed by one of Wolves` most successful ever seasons when they had finished 5th in the 1936-37 season. Ears began to prick up and lascivious eyes began to take notice and his burgeoning eminence reached its height by the end of the 1937-38 season, when Wolves finished 2nd to the 1930s dominant force, the Arsenal. By this time, Arsenal`s all conquering side were beginning to reach the autumn of their years, none more so than Arsenal`s undoubted star turn and creative pivot, Alex James. By now, James was 37 years old and much like his most natural successor Bergkamp, had always relied on a swift football brain over any sort of pace. However, George Allison was fast reaching the realisation that a replacement would need to be found.

Where Arsene has been so astute in replacing his star players of seasons past, is that he has found and groomed their replacements before he has ushered the big reputations out of the door. Van Persie had been at Arsenal for two season prior to Bergkamp`s retirement, so the unbearable pressure of being appointed his direct replacement was lifted somewhat. However, Allison did not show this level of forethought. James needed replacing and an impatient Arsenal crowd, by now bred on a diet of constant success, salivated for a big name to step into James` trademark baggy shorts. Arsenal were known as ‘The Bank of England club` in those days due to Herbert Chapman`s penchant for capturing and attracting big names with big transfer fees (perhaps the only point on which he and Wenger drastically differ in their respective transformations of the club). It would appear in retrospect that Allison merely took a look at the side that finished immediately below Arsenal and signed their equivalent player. So in the summer of 1938, Arsenal signed Bryn Jones from Wolves for a then world record fee of £14,000. Not taking into account the hyper inflation of football`s transfer market, that translates into about £28.1m in today`s money. The fee was the cause of much discussion, to the point that a question was raised in the House of Commons as to the moral rectitude of such sums being spent on football players during a time of steep recession in England. Bryn Jones had been used to moderate success at a progressive football club having grown up in a Welsh mining village. He was now the most expensive signing in football`s history, in England`s most feared behemoths expected to replace the greatest British player of his generation amidst the bright lights of London.

Garcon, could I have one large portion of pressure with a side salad of expectation?

The expectation turned to adulation soon enough, scoring on his debut against Portsmouth, then in his next two games, Jones looked to be an instant hit and Arsenal`s big money gamble looked to be paying off. However, that was to be the summit of his Arsenal career. He only scored one more goal all season as an ageing Arsenal side slumped to 5th. Jones increasingly bore the brunt of the boo boys. For a side tat had been using to sweeping up silverware like it was going out of fashion with arguably the world`s finest player at the forefront of their success, the slump to 5th place proved to be less than acceptable for spoiled Arsenal fans. (Is any of this sounding a tad familiar yet?) In fact, the barrackers could be heard in even in Arsenal`s title winning seasons. Half back Eddie Hapgood later commented that dissenting voices were becoming gradually more vocal as Arsenal marched to three consecutive titles between 1933-35. In the 1934-35 season, the season in which Arsenal were to win their third consecutive league title, Hapgood commented that the groans from the crowd were beginning to enervate the players. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but there again, those that barrack and scathe the team at games in the present day will look similarly spoiled and selfish in a few years time I shouldn`t wonder. The pressures associated with watching a previously invincible side going through a natural flux was all too much for the supporters and most of their ire turned to Bryn Jones. He had become the voodoo doll for the side`s perceived inadequacies.

The problem was, Jones was a modest and humble man. Jeff Harris commented in his book Arsenal`s Who`s Who, “The quiet, modest, self evasive, lonely figure could not cope with the intense pressure of the media spotlight even though his good positional awareness and splendid ball control were there for everyone to behold.’ Jones` feeling of isolation was allegedly redoubled by his team mates, who openly questioned his ability to step into James` shoes. Another ageing star of the team, Cliff Bastin, later wrote in his autobiography, “I thought at the time it was a bad signing and subsequent events did nothing to alter my views.” Jones was a taciturn, shy man transplanted into a side of massive egos who had won every accolade the game had to offer. His difficulty in the dressing rooms pervaded onto the pitch, evidently none of his team mate`s trusted him and he would find the ball difficult to come by in matches. (Think Henry refusing to pass to Reyes for a good 18 months). He did enjoy the support of his manager though, Allison, perhaps persuaded by the fact that he had written the cheque for the transfer fee, felt Jones simply needed more time to adapt to Arsenal`s counter attacking style of play.

After an anonymous performance in a 2-1 home defeat to Derby County, Allison decided to take Jones out of the firing line and gave him a run out in a Tuesday afternoon reserve match against Derby County reserves at Highbury. Allison felt Jones needed a few matches out of the spotlight to re-energise his confidence and acclimatise to Arsenal`s style. However, the best laid of plans were scuppered when over 35,000 people turned up at Highbury to see him play for the Reserves. The young Welshman simply could not escape from the overbearing spotlight and his performances crumbled around the wreckage of supporter expectation and his inability to puncture the old boys` network in the dressing room. Jones` first season ended with him scoring 4 goals in 30 appearances. To complete his misery, Jones` old club Wolves finished 3rd, eight points above Arsenal. They were not suffering without him. However, towards the end of the season, once it was clear Arsenal`s quest for the title was a futile gesture, the pressure on Jones lifted somewhat and he actually finished the season very strongly, to the point that his team mates began to accept him and the supporters abated their badgering slightly. There were high hopes for him for the 1939-40 season.

Of course, the 1939-40 season never actually happened, with the declaration of World War 2 in September 1939. Bryn Jones served in the British Royal Artillery in Italy and North Africa for the duration of the conflict. By the time league football resumed in 1946, Jones was 34 years old and the best years of his career had been swallowed in the dreadful conflict that had engulfed Europe and the world between 1939 and 1945. In the 1946-47 season, Jones was one of Arsenal`s better performers, but little interest was shown in his personal form as an Arsenal side that had lost most of the all conquering side of the 1930s to age and affliction, finished 13th. In the following season, Jimmy Logie was signed and Jones lost his place in the side, playing only seven times as Arsenal recaptured the league title in 1947-48. It appeared that his personal form was always diametrically opposed to that of his side. In 1949, Arsenal undertook a tour of Brazil, in a friendly match with Vasco de Gama, fans invaded the pitch and the Welsh winger was accidentally hit on the head by a Brazilian police officer. On Doctor`s advice, he retired from football as a result of that blow, aged 37. He had scored 7 goals in 74 games for Arsenal, a record dwarfed by his tally of 52 goals in 163 games as an inside forward for Wolves. Jones briefly coached at Norwich City until 1951, after which he ran a small newsagent`s in the Highbury area. He died in October, 1985. His old Arsenal team mate Bernard Joy later observed, “Jones’s modesty was the barrier to achieving the key role Arsenal had intended for him. He could not regard the spotlight as a challenge to produce his best; all the time it irked him, making him self-conscious and uneasy.” It is therefore somewhat ironic, I think, that he chose not to return home to Wales upon retirement, but ran a small corner shop just two miles away from the ground where he had flattered to deceive. The allure of Highbury was still with him in his old age, he just preferred to observe it anonymously from afar.LD.