Herbert Chapman at Huddersfield Town

Although Herbert Chapman is still the only manager to have won a hat trick of titles at two different clubs, along with FA Cups, he was not a man who stayed anywhere very long. No Busby, Shankly, Stein or Ferguson he; his stint at Town lasted barely six years, and at the time of his death, he’d been at Arsenal for eight. (Arsenal’s last title of their three came after Chapman had passed on). Good managers are good managers straight away: they tend not to improve on the job to any great degree. None of my list of the top managers in football history begins his career with disorientation and disaster. In every case, their arrival at their first significant club is marked by that club’s immediate and sharp improvement. It’s something the clubs never forget. Here are two Huddersfield Town chants. The first is from the Chapman era:

There’s a team that is dear to its followers,
Their colours are bright blue and white,
They’re a team of renown, they’re the pride of the town,
And the game of Football is their delight.
All the while upon the field of play,
Thousands gladly cheer them on their way,
Often you can hear them say,
Who can beat the town today?

Then the bells shall ring so merrily,
Every goal shall be a memory,
So town play up and bring the cup,
Back to Huddersfield.


And this is from today:

Those were the days my friend,
We thought they’d never end,
We won the league three times in a row,
We won the FA Cup,
And now we’re going up,
We are the Town,
Oh yes we are the Town.

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There’s something very strange about the Huddersfield treble: no one seems to care about it anymore. It’s Chapman-and-Arsenal, if it’s anything, and Huddersfield are seen as the men in long shorts and ’20s film stock fog on whom the genius cut his managerial teeth. No one you know can name one player from the Huddersfield side, but all of you can come up with at least two who collected medals at pre-War Arsenal. (And those two will be Cliff “Boy” Bastin and Alex James).

Courtesy of British Pathe, whose site is excellent (you can preview in full every single one of their newsreels from the ’20s onwards) and incredibly frustrating (they make it as hard as possible for you to do so) we can watch this forgotten Town team train, play (winning the FA Cup against Preston in 1922 1-0 via the penalty spot; losing 4-0 to Bradford City a few months later) and bring the Cup home. The last of these is in some ways the most interesting. Archaeologists sometimes talk of the longue duree, the tendency of rituals and group behaviours to persist over enormous reaches of time, and here we see football’s longue duree in action, Huddersfield doing the equivalent of erecting Stonehenge by riding past the elegant public buildings of their prosperous mill town on an open top motorbus, dangling the Cup from the front. A charabanc follows close behind, quite obviously converted from a Great War army truck, and a brass band provides music.

It’s all a little bit better than nothing. As the team congregate on the steps of the Town Hall, there’s a man among them who looks a little like Chapman – prematurely aged into the thickset, bald, broadly confident man of his Arsenal team pictures. But he’s far from the centre of attention: the FA Cup is Huddersfield’s first trophy, and he’s not yet the Napoleon he was about to become.

We lack any film of Chapman himself that’s of any real use in getting closer to what he was, what he was like and what drove him. There’s a film of Arsenal preparing for an FA Cup Final in which he stars – from Pathe again, only this time with sound (the lost hum of industrial London can be detected in the background, quite different from the city soundscape of today). Chapman steps forward to introduce his team – the team he’s built to be the Newcastle United of the south! The team who gave England seven team members against Italy! and you wait for him to reveal everything in inflection, nuance and posture as he makes his way down the line of stars (and a motley crew they look too, coming from the time before fashion met sport). I have to admit that the first time I watched this clip, I held my breath at this point. Chapman, talking to me from the grave over a gap of seventy-two years.

Chapman steps forward, puts a hand to his throat, apologises for being husky today, hands the introductions over to his coach, and takes himself back out of sight.

It’s football’s equivalent of the “Wow!” signal.