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too much 'times': not enough 'life'
on 29 January 2014
I bought this book because I wanted to learn more about Herbert Chapman, who was Britain’s most successful football manager of the first half of the 20th century. At Huddersfield Town, which was one of England’s smallest First Division clubs with low attendances in a rugby league stronghold, he built a team that won Division One three times in succession – although he left in 1925, before the third title had been won, attracted by the greater rewards available at Arsenal. He was not an overnight success at Arsenal, who stayed in mid-table for several years while he rebuilt the team, but in 1931 he led them to be the first Southern club to win Division One, and they went on to be champions four times in five years – although Chapman died of pneumonia in 1934, midway through this run of success. Chapman is also credited with popularising the use of a ‘back three’, introducing a 3-2-2-3 formation instead of the previous 2-3-5.
This book is entitled ‘the life and times of Herbert Chapman’, and I was frustrated that it contained too much general history and not enough about the teams Chapman built. Some of the additional material about early 20th century football was fascinating – I was interested to read about some of the footballers who served in the First World War, and was particularly interested to read about the 1915 match-fixing scandal which led to Division One being expanded from 20 to 22 clubs. But I already have a reasonable knowledge of more general British history, and I could have done without some of Barclay’s more remote dissertations – for example, those about Elgar, Oscar Wilde and Sir Oswald Mosley. Instead of wasting space on these three non-footballing figures, I would have preferred him to have devoted more space to the story of how Chapman’s teams won their Division One titles (and possibly to what happened to the players in later life). Additionally, although Barclay is keen to praise Chapman for introducing a third defender, he glosses over the way that Chapman’s system was superseded in the 1960s when most teams began playing with a back four. The use of two central defenders, with two other defenders playing wider to mark any wingers, is effectively a reversion to the pre-Chapman system whereby the two full-backs stayed in the centre of the defence and the two wing-halves marked the opposing wingers.
This is quite an interesting book, but it could have been so much better if Barclay had not been so self-indulgent in going off on quite so many tangents.