Herbert Chapman and Leeds City

Corinthian attitudes and coaching greatness don’t run together: all of the great managers seem to have an exhaust trail of money, questionable money. For Revie it was undenied allegations of bribery in the early 1960s, then the undercover contract from the Arabian peninsular that took him from the England job. For Venables, it was his own extra-curricular business dealings, then his command of incredible contracts at insecure clubs on the way down, to whom he’d be the angel of death. For Clough, it was bungs, left uninvestigated owing to his ill health, but before that it was a pay-off from Leeds. For George Graham, it was Rune Haage; for Alex Ferguson, it was his own son. British football has a long, long record of failing to reward the talents of the men who made it what it was, diverting the takings by means legal but unlovely into the pockets of the board. Even now, when players are finally being compensated (some would say, wildly over-compensated) managers aren’t seen as quite so deserving, as the ugly reaction to Sven Goran Erickson’s last FA deal showed. Money, or the lack of it, or the quiet mis-use of it, has always been a footballing theme, and it was to shape the career of Herbert Chapman in fundamental ways. He’s in my financial list too; for Herbert Chapman, it was Leeds City.

That’s not a typo; Leeds City were a small football league club of the Edwardian era that struggled to compete for its audience with successful local rugby league clubs. (Chapman, who managed Leeds City, was prone to finding himself in rugby towns. His first managerial post was with Northampton Town, and he’d have his first substantial success at Huddersfield. Arsenal, and London, were a slightly different matter, as capital cities usually are). In the late Victorian and Edwardian period, every football club was new in terms of how we’d understand the term, and ideas of history and tradition hadn’t taken hold. What you did, as a new club competing for to win crowds was to make it into the Football League, by means fair or foul, and what you did to achieve that was build your stadium. You made a high-risk investment in your superstructure. If it came off, then you would do extremely well financially, eventually. If it didn’t, you’d go straight to the wall.

Leeds City were as involved as anyone. In 1900, the most powerful club in the area were Hunslet – you haven’t heard of them because they were unable to keep hold of a venue. The failure of Hunslet, and, a couple of years later, Holbeck Rugby Club, left the field open for a new football club and a ground – Elland Road – on which to base it. There was still much debate as to whether Leeds and the area could sustain enough interest to make a club viable, but in the first season of soccer, local rugby attendances halved. Leeds City floated as a limited company, and built the Scratching Stand at Elland Road, which would survive into the Revie era.

They, like Chelsea at the exact same time, were determined to make it into the League at the earliest possible moment. The Stamford Bridge outfit literally boozed their way in through the door, and began life as a League Club, something unimaginable now. Leeds City had to wait a few months more, and started off in the West Yorkshire League, which they treated with complete contempt, saving all their love for a series of exhibition matches against top Football League sides. They were elected into an expanded Football League Division Two within a year, alongside fellow wannabes Chelsea, Hull City, Stockport County, and a London club, Clapton Orient. Suddenly those names look a little less quaint and traditional, and more signals of aggressive, shouldering intent, the baptismal names of the bully clubs who pushed themselves to the front forever as the game took shape in the early years of the twentieth century.

You built your stadium, took the fans from other local clubs, made it into the League, then breathed a huge sigh of relief before addressing the arrival of the huge bill all this activity had generated. Paying for all of this was going to require strong measures – strong measures that would utterly change the way football developed in Britain. It was to pay the wages of the likes of Archibald Leitch, architect of Villa Park, Ibrox, Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane, the Cottage at Fulham, and Huddersfield’s Leeds Road ground (of which much, much more anon) that the Football League introduced a maximum wage in 1901.

Until the introduction of the maximum wage, which was very much the act of smaller, newer clubs, professional players received what amounted to the market rate for their services. Sometimes the means of delivery of that market rate were obscure – top clubs were adept at finding lucrative local jobs for their players, or else simply pushed cash at them under the counter. Plus ca change. In its early days, the Football League clubs sucked in the best players in Britain, and the top clubs did so more than the others. In the first thirteen years of the League, only three clubs shared out ten of the titles. The Premiership has relearned that lesson: money buys the best managers, and the best players, and thus the trophies.

It wasn’t just the cap on wages. A player could only achieve a transfer to another club with the permission of his existing side. As the Kingaby case of 1901 was to demonstrate, this wasn’t always forthcoming. (Kingaby was an Aston Villa player seeking a transfer. Villa refused, and he sued them on the grounds of restraint of trade. He mishandled his case, alleging malice on the part of Villa, and lost.) Until 1910, it was possible for a player whose League career was in limbo, with a club refusing to release his registration, to take refuge in the Southern League, or, earlier, in Scotland, but these escape routes were closed one by one. It’s an interesting example of workers’ rights actually eroding as the twentieth century got into its stride. The golden age of football, from the players’ point of view, began with the legalisation of professionalism in 1885 and lasted only sixteen years.

For the likes of a Chapman, who was interested in bringing success to a club in terms of trophies and not just in terms of audience revenue, the structure of the Edwardian and post Great War game posed severe problems. Some kind of corruption, however defined, had been made inevitable. But that same structure sheds light on the kind of person Chapman was in early life. His professional career, as we’ve seen, was astonishingly peripatetic for his time. His arrival as a professional at Northampton Town coincided with the arrival of the minimum wage in 1901. In the next four years, he played for Sheffield United, Notts County, and then Spurs (of the Southern League, which may or may not have been significant). For three Football League clubs to agree to his departure in three or four years shows the manager as player – like Clough, like Ferguson, like O’Neill, a difficult underling, a restless employee, a pain in the neck – who, given the chance to lead, fits the hole they’re in for the first time.

Chapman became what was then often known as secretary-manager of Leeds City in 1912. It was his second such job, and he was coming in on the back of a reasonably successful spell at Northampton Town. Secretary-managers were expected to act as go-betweens, as a diplomatic link between the board of a club and the players. They were usually expected to take care of a substantial amount of the buying and selling of players: Chapman’s predecessor at Leeds City, Frank Scott-Walford, had coped with Leeds’ precarious finances by relying on players from his previous club, Brighton. Tactical nous was not expected – players were meant to be the experts at actually playing, after all – but a secretary-manager was to foster good team relations and team spirit.

Although Chapman picked a good time to turn up at Leeds – the financial instability of the Scott-Walford period had seen the club (still only six years old, remember) almost go out of business, but investment from the board had been forthcoming. Nevertheless, Chapman’s Leeds City went straight into a financial scandal. Chapman had signed three new players – Billy Scott, George Law and Evelyn Lintott. It was agreed by Leeds that they’d be paid the full maximum wage, £208 for the year. The problem was that two months had already elapsed since the end of their previous playing contracts, meaning, in effect, that they were being paid more than the maximum wage for that year. Aston Villa had done the same, and been punished, and Leeds, on realising the situation they were in, reported themselves to the League. That was honesty, and the punishment was mild, but the situation was absurd for an ambitious manager. The rules were being silently broken in every direction; clean hands meant empty hands.

We like to think that we live in an era of ever-accelerating change, but I doubt Chapman would agree. When he was born, photography had been around for about thirty years, and it was still a complex, elite affair. He was a player by the time the automobile was invented – and about to turn professional when Marylebone Station was opened in London. If he travelled by road as a young man, it was on macadamed roads – tarred surfaces arrived shortly before he took over at Northampton Town – and, in cities, hotels pressed to have the roads outside paved with wood or rubber to muffle the sounds of hooves and win a quiet night’s sleep for their guests. When Chelsea joined the League in 1905, basement slaughterhouses still persisted in the vicinity. The whole vast Victorian infrastructure that crumbled from under us in the 1970s was brand spanking new, and so was the telephone, the typewriter, the mass-market newspaper. By the time Chapman arrived at Arsenal, the Kingston bypass was open, and radio commentary of games routine. The miniskirt had come and gone for the first time; “dogfights” no longer actually involved dogs.

More time has elapsed between now and Charlie George’s FA Cup Final winner for Arsenal than divided Arsenal’s election to the Football League and their winning their first title under Chapman. Highbury wasn’t the venerable, elegant old stadium subject to tears and nostalgia: it was as new as the Flying Scotsman (no, newer) and almost as glamorous. Almost as glamorous: by then, the early fears of the FA about professionalism had all proven prescient, and the game had become financially-driven, commercialised, working class, a focus for mob behaviour and as gimcrack as the kind of glittering gin palaces for whose sake square-spectacled architects now lie down in the road.

To put it another way, over the course of Chapman’s career, English poetry went from Tennyson to Ezra Pound, from the warmly populist and musical to the deliberately elitist. Football, despite the FA’s best efforts, took precisely the opposite course. And that’s unusual and interesting. The jazz that had already peaked by the time Chapman arrived at Arsenal went, as Larkin said, from Lascaux to Pollock in fifty years. It did that without ever escaping its lower class origins. Football, trapped in its milieux by the maximum wage, made no equivalent move – in fact skill, subtlety and panache became objects of suspicion. In football, Tennyson to Pound, Lascaux to Pollock, happened overseas, in Uruguay, Brazil, and Italy. Thank goodness English football had Lowry, at least (and it really did: he painted at least one matchday scene).

Leeds City’s real moment of truth came in the aftermath of the Great War. Chapman was still involved in war work at the time, at the Barnbow Munitions Factory, and is likely not to have been directly involved. In Chapman’s absence, the club took to infighting, especially between his stand-in successor and former assistant George Cripps, and the new chairman of the board, Joseph Connor. The financial situation of the club declined, and in 1917 only the intervention of the Football League encouraged the board to continue rather than winding the club up. In the meantime, Leeds were making illegal payments to guest players (normal League life had been suspended in 1915, and the game had been on a war footing ever since).

Chapman’s return in 1918 seemed to have calmed matters down somewhat, but the renewal of the contract of a disaffected player (Cripps had not been popular and hadn’t taken Chapman’s return well) Charles Copeland brought down the roof. Copeland had been demanding the doubling of his pre-War wages, and attempted to blackmail the board by threatening to blow the whistle on the club’s illegal payments. The board called Copeland’s bluff, giving him a free transfer to Coventry (of all places). Unfortunately, Copeland had made sure to come away with documentary evidence of his allegations, and took Leeds City to the authorities. A joint FA-Football League enquiry resulted in the closure of the club. City probably mishandled the enquiry, but nevertheless the decision was still a shockingly harsh one – the charges against them hadn’t, in the end been entirely substantiated, and (as in the Manchester City scandal of 1905) the sense of “but for the grace of God” was palpable at other clubs.

With five others, Chapman was banned from football management. He was out of the game for two years, until Huddersfield Town persuaded the Football League to allow his appointment with them. Chapman appears to have taken his ban on the chin, which would have been out of character for such a force of nature and not what would have been expected. However, he’d already resigned from Leeds by the time of the enquiry, and was working in a management capacity at the Olympia oil and cake mills in Selby of Joseph Watson & Son. Presumably, having a future already mapped out outside football (as a player, he’d always kept a career outside the game going) suspension had less of a sting. And so, it took the closure of the mills, and Huddersfield’s intervention, to prevent the loss to football of the man who would prove the greatest visionary and manager of the first half of the twentieth century. He joined Huddersfield in 1921, and had 12 years left to live.