Herbert Chapman Part II: Something Restless About the Man

Forgive me if with these Chapman posts I’m just throwing down ideas as they come. There’ll be a disjointed and unfinished feel to them for the time being.
Put together a list of the top coaches in football history and the similarities between them become obvious. If they’re British, they’ll come from the north or from Scotland, and will have their roots in mining. They’ll usually have played the game professionally in their youth. They’ll either have been unspectacular lower-league players, or frustrated top-level players. They’ll have had more than the usual amount of education given their peers, or they’ll be autodictats, or just above-averagely intelligent. They’ll be extremely articulate and flexible in their dealings with players.

There doesn’t seem to be much to say about their places of birth, however. Herbert Chapman was born in 1878, in a place called Kiveton Park, which is just outside Sheffield. It’s a tiny place even now, ignored by some road atlases, and in 1878 it was all about mining. It’s not a famous football town, although nowhere was famous for football in 1878. By comparison, Bill Shankly was born in Glenbuck, a small, Scottish mining community in Ayrshire; Bob Paisley was born in Hetton-le-Hole, Sunderland; Brian Clough was born in a semi-detached house in Middlesborough; Matt Busby was born in Orbiston, another small mining town. Aside from the fact that these are men from the north, the size, and football significance of their place of birth show no fixed pattern – save for the prevalence of shipbuilding and mining.
Being born in 1878 meant that Chapman was ten years old – and surely already playing – by the time the Football League went into its inaugural season. By the time he was fifteen, the team from over the way, Sheffield Wednesday, were playing in the First Division. By the time he was twenty, the first great football grounds (e.g. Villa Park) were beginning to be built. The sense I am getting is that his formative years saw a developing, changing game, one without tradition or history but just as capable of enthralling young people as it is now. Unlike his contemporaries, there’s no hint in Herbert Chapman’s career that he had any interest in that growth and development stopping: there was no point at which he felt ready to declare the whole thing fully grown and finished. His mind was still as bright and full of fresh ideas in his mid-40s, at the age when most men have developed a kind of comfort with the status quo and are apt to see change as decay.

There’s also a sense that he was a hard man to satisfy. His early career was peripatetic by modern working class standards, let alone those of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As an amateur, working as a colliery engineer, he signed for Stalybridge Rovers in 1897. Before signing as a professional for Northampton Town in 1900, he’d played for Stalybridge, Rochdale, Grimsby Town, Swindon Town, Sheppey United, and Worksop Town. In seven professional years, he played for Northampton Town, Sheffield United, Notts County, Northampton again and then Tottenham Hotspur. Whilst at Spurs, he married a Kiveton woman who by that stage was working as a supply teacher in Edmonton, North London (a woman after his own gypsy heart, perhaps). Before he became a manager, and a married man, Chapman criss-crossed England constantly, never happy to stay in one place. It would have taken unusual effort, determination and courage to do so in the employment conditions of the day, and in the face of the retain-and-transfer system run by the clubs at the time, the system that left him at the end of his playing career at Tottenham Hotspur.
It was an interesting time to be at Spurs. They were still a non-league side at that point (they’d be elected to the League in 1908, some years after becoming the last non-league team to win the FA Cup. They’d won in 1901, by which stage the feat was almost as staggering as it would be today). Most clubs then were young and historyless: Spurs were just over twenty years old, and had only been at White Hart Lane for six. Chapman’s last stop in his playing career was at just the kind of upcoming but unfashionable team from a relative footballing backwater (as London was then) that he’d achieve so much as a manager.

Unfashionable teams and great managers go together. Chapman would manage Northampton Town first – a rugby town, whose principle industries were railways and shoes. Then, Leeds City, a team whose crowds were kept low by the prominence locally of Rugby League. Then Huddersfield, another rugby town whose football team had done virtually nothing with themselves – and then Arsenal, a London club at a time when no team south of Birmingham had won a league title.

Compare that to Busby, taking over Manchester United when they were very much the second club in Manchester and at a time when their home ground was a crumpled Luftwaffe ruin. Or compare it to Shankly, arriving at Second Division Liverpool twelve years after their last League title (and their only title in 36 years). Or Alex Ferguson, taking over at Aberdeen, and, later on, at a Manchester United that had become stranded as everyone’s favourite mid-table drunken cup club. Or Alf Ramsey, at Ipswich (of all places). Or Jock Stein, arriving like an elephant-sized dose of pure adrenalin at Dunfermline Athletic and then Hibernian, and then, of course… Before Stein, Celtic had always enjoyed enormous success: he merely made what went before him take on that uncosmopolitan backwater look.
There’s a hint of tautology in saying that great managers take unfashionable clubs and give them their history – after all, that’s how they are noticed. Who is to say that there haven’t been dozens of mute inglorious Mourinhos, hid from our eyes by the glare of their already famous, fashionable clubs? Hasn’t something rather like that happened to Bob Paisley?

Watching Martin O’Neill now nevertheless suggests to me that the best coaches look for a clear stage for themselves. They know their own ability, and they want to be able to display it. They require total control over their clubs – another Chapman innovation, and not something available to Busby’s successor, for example. It is incredibly rare for a new manager to continue the success of a great one. That’s partly because the great coaches go looking for the chance to build on rubble. Build on good foundations, and you end up like Paisley, forever overshadowed by your less successful, but charismatically great, predecessor. Being overshadowed rather suited Paisley. It wouldn’t have done for Chapman.

2 Replies to “Herbert Chapman Part II: Something Restless About the Man”

  1. I admit that I write from great ignorance, but I’d be inlined to argue that Shankly was the best of the post-war club managers because he alone built something that continued to succeed after him. On that argument, it is too early to judge Wenger and, excepting his Aberdeen years, Ferguson.

  2. The flywheel effect visible in clubs in the seasons after the departure of good coaches is a fascinating subject in itself. At least, I think so.

    Shankly’s successor, Paisley, is on my own shortlist of the best British coaches, but he is very much the exception that proves the rule in so many instances. At the moment, I tend to the opinion that Shankly had taken Liverpool to parity with a small number of top English clubs – Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester City and United, Spurs and Everton, all of whom won similar amounts of silverware over the same period. Which left Paisley to take them into the stratosphere and created the myth of the bootroom (and it is that, a myth).

    I should add that Shankly is on the list too – not least for epitomising every middle class journalist’s wet dream of the working class manager.

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