Date: 15th January 2011 at 12:25pm
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In my Ipswich match report I spoke of my astonishment that Arsenal fans appeared to be so surprised that the fixture became such a devilish one. History shows that top level sides rarely get anything other than a very tough game away at sides further down the league pyramid. So it transpired that 68 years ago this weekend, Arsenal fell victim to what is widely considered to be the biggest cup upset in English football history. The Arsenal endured a heartbreaking season in 1931-32, finishing second in the league by two points and controversially losing the 1932 F.A. Cup Final 2-1 to Newcastle. The Magpies equaliser in the game still rankles as one of the great injustices the club has suffered with Jimmy Richardson taking the ball a good yard over the touchline before supplying the cross for Jack Allen to score. Eddie Hapgood`s dislocated shoulder meant Arsenal played the majority of that final with ten men. However, their next Cup engagement with Third Division South side Walsall, some eight months later was no such tale of cursed luck. Just a tale of woe and humiliation.

When Arsenal drew Walsall, for once, the almost infallible Chapman erred. He underestimated his opponents. Whilst it is true that a bout of influenza at the club had broken out, laying low Bob John, Jack Lambert and captain Eddie Hapgood, the truth is that at least one of the three could have played and probably would have had it been a league fixture. Joe Hulme was left out and actually spent the afternoon of the Walsall match playing for the Arsenal reserves! But Chapman was not just guilty of taking Walsall lightly with those he left out; he took several risks with the reserve players that came in. Reserve striker Charlie Walsh was allotted the task of filling in for the prolific Jack Lambert. (Lambert was the 1930s equivalent of Alan Smith, very much top dog in the forward department at this point, until the arrival of Ted Drake in 1934). Walsh had never played a league fixture. He never did either. Chapman asked the young Walsh whether he was ready to play against Walsall. “I`m ready to give you the game of my life” came the earnest reply. But Chapman should have realised that the words were somewhat fallacious when Walsh, so racked with nerves, put his boots on over his day socks and suspenders. Walsh had a chance to put Arsenal in the lead in the first half when a Cliff Bastin cross floated towards him as he stood unmarked in the area, but the cumbersome Walsh misjudged the flight of the ball and it hit his shoulder. Eager to atone for his error, another Bastin cross came over five minutes later, sailing perfectly towards the head of David Jack, but Walsh took the ball off his head and ended up missing the crossbar by miles.

Young amateur footballer Billy Warnes replaced Joe Hulme and found himself easily intimidated by Walsall`s industrial tactics. (Arsenal racked up ten free kicks in the first eleven minutes). But the most catastrophic team selection was for Chapman to select young Scottish left half Tommy Black in place of the commanding skipper Hapgood. Fourteen days after the Walsall match Black was making his debut for Plymouth Argyle and never set foot in Highbury again after the afternoon of January 14th, 1933. As the game kicked off at Fellows Park, the Saddlers set their stall out early with a series of heavy challenges- largely aimed at Gunners heavyweights Alex James and Cliff Bastin. Bastin in particular took umbrage at the rough treatment, remarking in his autobiography some years later: the Third Division footballer may not be a soccer artist, but when it comes to the heavy tackle, he ranks with the best.” He also added “Arsenal disliked playing Third Division sides for they would fling themselves into the game with reckless abandon, and the gashed bruised legs of the Arsenal players would bear grim testimony to their misguided enthusiasm”.

Walsall`s plan was to survive until half time, which they managed, aided by some poor finishing from Walsh and the usually deadly David Jack, who was scuppered in a one on one by Saddlers goalie John Cunningham. The Daily Mirror`s match report remarked that, “The Londoners were completely unsettled and their craft failed against the bustle and energy of the Black Country men. Jack and James tried desperately hard to set the “machine” going, but always the Arsenal found themselves robbed of the ball.” On 60 minutes, with Arsenal still labouring, Walsall won a corner, which was swung into the box by Coward and the beautifully named Gilbert Allsop rose above Tommy Black to head the ball into the roof of the net to send Fellows Park into a cacophony of delight. The Gunners were shaken and seven minutes later, Wally Sheppard raced into the area and the inexperienced Tommy Black committed a rash tackle, giving the referee no option but to point to the spot. Sheppard dusted himself down and smashed his spot kick past Frank Moss. With a two goal lead to cling to, the Saddlers did not surrender an inch and Arsenal could not find so much as a sniff of a chance to get back into the game. Acclaimed Arsenal historian Bernard Joy remarked how the home side were “aided by the narrow ground, which was made more cramped by the encroachment of spectators on the touchlines.”

The result sent shockwaves through English football. Arsenal were about to secure three straight league titles and were at the peak of their powers. The Daily Mirror report concluded that “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.” Whilst Walsall`s team of amateurs and journeymen were feted as heroes, Arsenal`s cavalcade of stars were left to lick their wounds. Chapman banned rookie left back Tommy Black from Highbury and sold him to Plymouth. Barnes and Walsh never played another professional match. The shock result caused a sea change in the support too; reared on success, the Arsenal crowd became ever more vicious. David Jack took to chain smoking before matches such was the expectation. George Male said some years later: “When we lost at Walsall, that`s when I first noticed a real change. We won the league that year but the crowd were still quick to get on our backs if things didn`t go according to script at home. We started to realise that even winning the league was no longer considered a vintage year.” The game planted the first seed of doubt in Chapman`s mind too and in late 1933, he confided in assistant Bob Wall that he felt the team needed rebuilding. Chapman indulged a yearlong pursuit of Ted Drake in the wake of Arsenal`s profligacy at Fellows Park, a search which was concluded by his successor George Allison. But Chapman died in January 1934 and never got the chance to see his rebuilding work through. (It`s widely suspected that George Allison pretty much followed Chapman`s plans through to a tee though). Cup upsets are a feature of any big club`s history and many Arsenal fans will recoil in horror at the names of York City, Walsall (in 1983 at Highbury, Terry Neill`s last game in charge) and Wrexham. But this first cut, back in 1933, runs the deepest shade of red in Arsenal`s history.

The teams that day were:
Walsall (Blue and White)- 1 Cunningham, 2 Bennett, 3 Bird, 4 Reed, 5 Leslie, 6 Salt, 7 Coward, 8 Ball, 9 Alsop, 10 Sheppard, 11 Lee.

Arsenal (White Shirts)- 1 Moss, 2 Male, 3 Black, 4 Hill, 5 Roberts, 6 John, 7 Warnes, 8 Jack, 9 Lambert, 10 James, 11.Bastin.

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