Let’s be honest, we all love a bit of giant-killing in the FA Cup, don’t we? That is, of course, so long as it isn’t our particular team on the wrong end of David’s slingshot. Over the years, there have been many famous – or should that be infamous – occasions when the ‘mighty’ have been cut down to size by a team who, on any other day, wouldn’t be on the same pitch as their more illustrious opponents. Who can forget Ronnie Radford’s goal for Hereford United against Newcastle, the outside left wheeling away in celebration, both arms aloft. What about Bobby Crawford rolling back the years to down Don Revie’s Leeds United for Colchester. Even last year, the then non-league side Lincoln City visited Premier League Burnley and came away with a famous victory. All these, plus many more you can probably conjure up from memory, are worthy of a place in the pantheon of momentus cup upsets, but arguably, the greatest ‘turn up for the books’ happened way back in 1933, on a cold January afternoon in the industrial heart of the Black Country in what is now the West Midlands.
Arsenal were the grandees of football at the time. Although not reigning league champions at the time of the game, they were the biggest – and certainly grandest – club in the country. Walsall, their opponents in the Third Round of the FA Cup, were a struggling Third Division club, whose idea of success was avoiding relegation to the fourth tier. Arsenal had lifted the FA Cup in 1930, won the league the following year and been runners-up in 1932. Four short months after visiting Walsall’s compact Fellows Park ground, they would be lauded as English champions again. It was a crown they would retain for the following two years as well, completing a hat-trick of titles. The man in charge at highbury was the incomparable Herbert Chapman who had been manager of Huddersfield Town, the only other club to complete a hat-trick of titles at the time. It’s a feat that would not be repeated for another forty or so years.
Arsenal were the best team in the land, with the best manager and a collection of star players that included David Jack, at the time Britain’s costliest player, Alex James who had excelled for his country as one of Scotland’s ‘Wembley Wizards’ a few years earlier and Cliff Bastin, who would become the Gunners’ record goal-scorer; a honour he held until Ian Wright upped the mark in 1997. On the other hand, Walsall’s haul of silverware since the beginning of the twentieth century had been restricted to lifting the Staffordshire Senior Cup, on a single occasion, in 1929. The difference in the pedigrees of the two clubs could hardly have been more marked. It was almost universally accepted that the draw offered the North London club a comfortable passage to the next round, but at least Walsall would make a bit of cash from the encounter, eh?
When the teams for the game were announced it was immediately clear that the indefatigable Chapman had taken the common view of the game. Indeed, some reports suggest that the Gunners’ manager had reacted with undisguised satisfaction to reports that a local Walsall leather manufacturer had told the press that the bill for Arsenal’s boots, £87, was £18 more than it had cost Chapman’s opposite number, Bill Slade, to assemble the entire Walsall team. Perhaps there were warning signs though that things may not be all flowing in the right direction for the First Division aristocrats from North London.
It was always going to be the case that, in January especially, the pitch at the Fellows Park ground was likely to be as much mud as grass and hardly conducive to flowing football plus, with a raucous 25,000 strong home crowd driving their players on to bring these ‘fancy London-types’ down to size, the going would anything but smooth. Additionally, the Gunners’ recent form had seen them suffer a significant wobble, perhaps encouraging Chapman to prioritise, by protecting some of his stars for upcoming league encounters, as they had lost their last three away games.
Three Arsenal regulars were absent from the side selected by the Chapman. The redoubtable Welsh defender Bob John, who was in his eleventh year with the club for whom he would turn out in more than 420 league games was missing. Front man Jack Lambert was also absent. The man who had been Chapman’s number one choice at centre-forward was as robust as they came, and although this would be his last year with the Gunners before Chapman recruited Ted Drake to take his place, an Arsenal team without Lambert leading the line, especially in the sort of ‘mud and nettles’ encounter in prospect, was clearly weaker for his absence. Finally, and perhaps the biggest miss of all, was the Arsenal skipper, Eddie Hapgood. The Bristolian full-back, in the middle of a 17-year career at Highbury, was the epitome of the inspirational team captain and one of Chapman’s most favoured player. Whether it was true, or merely a ruse to cover embarrassment afterwards, but stories came out that there had been a bout of influenza at the club and all three had been laid low by the disease.
So many years later, it’s difficult to ascertain whether that was the case or not, but if the game had been an important league encounter, surely at least one of the missing trio would have turned out. Perhaps the truth of the matter is best illustrated by another absentee from the regular team selection. Joe Hulme was a flighty right-winger, a goal-scorer who formed an impressive tandem of wide men with Bastin on the opposite flank, Hulme was born in Stafford, just over twenty miles from Walsall’s ground, and whilst his team-mates laboured in the Black Country, he was chosen instead to turn out for Arsenal’s reserve team. Surely, if John, Lambert and Hapgood were genuinely bed-ridden with the ‘flu, it’s unlikely that Chapman would have chosen to be without Hulme as well. More likely perhaps is that Chapman had weighed up the prospects of the game and decided to indulge in what in modern parlance is described as ‘squad rotation.’
It’s not an entirely outrageous suggestion. Travelling to the industrial heart of the Midlands, Chapman would have been expecting a challenge from the Saddlers based more on the robust and physical approach demanded by a heavily mudded pitch unused to the feel of the velvet touch on its less than verdant surface. Protecting a number of players from the sort of industrial hammering that otherwise takes place in the foundries and steel works around the Walsall area, whilst still having sufficient ’guns’ in his ‘arsenal’ to see the club safely into the net round would have been an enticing option. If the theory is valid, it’s certainly given further credence by the players Chapman selected.
Charlie Walsh was a 22-year-old centre forward with the club and had yet to play in a league game for Arsenal. He would not do so afterwards either. The 1932-33 season would be his last there before being shipped out to Brentford where he made just ten league appearances, netting three goals, before being forced to retire through injury. It was however to Walsh that Chapman turned to replace Lambert. Walsh was keen and ambitious, but by any measure hardly an adequate replacement for the regular leader of the line. The young forward was clearly nervous and when an early cross from Bastin arrowed towards his head, Walsh’s anxiety got the better of him as he missed the contact with his forehead and the ball bounced away after hitting his shoulder. Then, over-eager to compensate for his error, the next cross from Bastin seemed destined for David Jack, but the inelegant Walsh took the ball away from his team-mate and ballooned a header high over the bar.
Hulme was replaced by Bailly Warnes, an amateur player who was quickly intimidated by the roughhouse tackling of Walsall’s defence, and Hapgood’s place went to the ill-fortuned Tommy Black, whose performance during the game would convince Chapman that the Scot should never play for the club again. In fact, he was never to set foot inside Highbury again and two weeks later was making his debut for Plymouth Argyle, where he would stay for six years before playing out his career at Southend United. If Arsenal were to suffer the ignominy of perhaps the greatest FA Cup shock of all time, for the players brought in to replace the ‘flu victims, their fate was worse. None of Black, Walsh or Warnes ever played another professional game for the club.
When the game got underway, both teams were wearing unfamiliar colours. At this time, when there was a colour clash, it was the home team that changed strip, and Walsall emerged from the dressing-room wearing a set of Coventry City blue-and-white striped shirts, and Arsenal were donned in white shirts and black shorts – it wasn’t only the players in the shirts that looked unlike an Arsenal team.
Beneath the slate grey sky that always seemed to cloak the area, even in the supposed heights of summer, and this time of year was far removed from that, the Walsall players immediately put their opponents on notice that this was going to be a physical examination of their resolve and determination, rather than one predicated on pure footballing skills. Robust challenges flew in with painful regularity and particular attention was focused on the creative talents of James and Bastin. Chapman’s decision to pare down his team of stars had made targeting of the dangerous elements of Arsenal’s team a much easier task than if there had been a full array of stars to brighten up the wintery afternoon, and the home team tucked into their task with eagerness. It brought a stream of early free-kicks for the visitors, but none produced anything tangible. In his autobiography, ‘Cliff Bastin Remembers’ the outside left would recall the rough treatment meted out to him and his colleagues in the early minutes of the game at Fellows Park. Talking of such games, he lamented that, “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”. It wasn’t complimentary, and it was hardly intended to be.
For all that, the tactic served Walsall’s game plan of disrupting the early flow of the visitors’ game. Concede early against Arsenal, and Walsall’s goose would have been well and truly cooked, but the longer they could keep the game scoreless, the more home confidence would rise, and tension in their opponents’ line-up would increase. The ungainly Walsh and the usually reliable Jack had squandered opportunities, the latter even faced home goalkeeper, John Cunningham in a one-on-one situation but failed to convert. At the break Walsall had held their illustrious visitors at bay. The Daily Mirror match report neatly summed up the play at that stage, “The Londoners were completely unsettled and their craft failed against the bustle and energy of the Black Country men.”
The second half started in similar fashion, but as the hour mark was reached, the constant chasing and harrying of their opponents began to take a toll on the home players’ wearying limbs. It started to look like Arsenal would wear down the stubborn resistance of the home team and, in the final half-hour of the game, come cantering through with the necessary goals. James and Bastin were looking more dangerous, and a goal seemed to be on the way. It was, but not at the end everyone was expecting.
With less than 30 minutes to play, a rare Walsall sally forward brought a corner-kick to the Saddlers. Coward crossed and Striker Gil Alsop wrote his name into footballing history as he rose above the hapless Tommy Black to head past Frank Moss and, incredibly, put Walsall a goal ahead against the mighty Arsenal. The home fans erupted in delight and the stadium rocked with an explosion of euphoria. Arsenal had been labouring for most of the game but, just as they seemed to be gaining a meaningful ascendency, the unlikely, the improbable, the borderline impossible, had happened. Now they needed to step things up or face an unprecedented humiliation.
There’s little doubt that the Gunners were seriously affected by the set-back though, and the players thrown into the fray by Chapman looked particularly vulnerable. Walsh had missed chances and his confidence was on the floor. Warnes had been virtually absent throughout the game and it had been Black’s error that allowed Alsop to score, but even worse was to follow for the unfortunate defender.
Just seven minutes after the opening goal, now with renewed energy in their legs after the adrenalin rush of the goal, Walsall attacked again. Bill Sheppard raced into the box, ball at his feet. Black, probably feeling committed to make up for the goal, threw himself into an ill-advised tackle and brought down the home player. It was a clear penalty. Sheppard had yet to score for Walsall, having just arrived at the club from Coventry City. Whether it was the comfort of wearing his old club’s shirts, or an assured confidence, he recovered from the tumble and drove the spot-kick past Moss.
Incredibly Walsall were two clear and now there was less than 20 minutes to play. Reports of the game suggest that in the remaining time, although Arsenal huffed and puffed, there was very little prospect of them blowing Walsall’s wall down. Cunningham emerged at the final whistle with a clean sheet and the Saddlers, little Walsall, had made FA Cup history, downing the mighty Arsenal.
The crowd streamed onto the pitch, carrying their local heroes from the scene of their triumph to the relative quietness of the dressing rooms. As someone who has personally been into the inner sanctum at the old Fellows Park ground, I can testify that both the distance between the ‘home’ and ‘away’ dressing rooms and the less than robust construction of the structure are insufficient to offer soundproofing of either the vociferous celebrations of the harsh recriminations that were being carried out in those two rooms. Reports suggest that Chapman was waiting for his players just inside then ‘tunnel’ and the tongue-lashing continued for some while after the dressing-room door had been closed behind him.
The Daily Mirror described the result as the, “sensation of the century.” Walsall were a team of journeymen and semi-professionals. Arsenal were regarded as being at the peak of their powers and, at the end of the day despite Chapman’s apparent tinkering with his starting eleven, his team should have been comfortably capable of beating the Third Division side, but they weren’t. The Arsenal historian, Bernard Joy, offered up some kind of explanation by deriding the Fellows Park pitch as being both “narrow” and “cramped” by spectators. It may well have been the case, but such observations are hardly sufficient to explain away the defeat. That said though, towards the end of the game, with so much of the play at the other end of the pitch as Arsenal forlornly pressed for a goal, the area around Moss’s goal was covered with Walsall fans awaiting the final whistle to invade the pitch. Entreaties for them to step back and at least stay beyond the white lines were hopeful rather than effective.
Sometimes, defeats such as this are brushed away as ‘freak results’ by the bigger clubs, who then go on to pick the momentum of their progress and push on. Goliath, back on his feet, and swatting David away as if a troubling insect. For Herbert Chapman and Arsenal however, despite going on to win the title and then retain it twice more, this was not the case. The defeat left an indelible mark on the club.
As well as the unfortunate trio of Black – whom Chapman buttonholed on the train back to London from the Midlands after the defeat and told the player that “he would never play for Arsenal again, he had let our reputation down, and he need never come to the ground again, his boots would be sent round with the transfer forms!” – Warnes and Walsh being removed from the club’s roster, Chapman resolved on a more vigorous overhaul of his squad. A seed of doubt had been planted in his mind.
Players, too, felt the seismic change in the club and its attitude. David Jack reportedly took to chain-smoking as the pressure to succeed mounted, and a support rarely unsated by success sought solace only in repeated victories, whilst any slight slip or stumble brought roars of disapproval. Full-back George Male whose estimable skills had been insufficient to cover his regular missing partner at the back, Hapgood, would later relate that “When we lost at Walsall, that`s when I first noticed a real change.” Success was now not only expected, it was required. “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.” The pursuit of Drake became even more urgent, but it was a task that Chapman couldn’t complete. The manager died in 1934, just a week short of the anniversary of the defeat at the age of just 55, and it was left to his successor to bring the forward to Highbury.
For Walsall, the result changed little in the long-run. They were eliminated in the next round of the cup, losing 2-0 to Manchester City and finished fifth in the Third Division (North) standings at the end of the season. For the Midlands club’s hero of the hour, Gil Alsop, however, things were different. Put into the spotlight by his goal against the Gunners, the forward then reeled off two seasons of spectacular goal-scoring. In 1933-34, he netted 40, and topped that the following season, scoring 48. It led to a move across the Midland to First Division West Bromwich Albion, although it was hardly a good career move for the 27-year-old. He only played one league game in his two years at The Hawthorns, before moving on to Ipswich Town where he flourished much more netting 30 league goals in 39 games, before returning to Walsall to see out his career.
After hanging up his boots, Alsop stayed at Fellows Park for a further 20 years, working in the background, and the club named an area of Fellows Park in his honour. He also remained a regular spectator at the ground, right up until his death in 1992. In his two spells at Fellows Park, Alsop scored 226 goals, but surely none of them would be remembered as well as the one he nodded home when Walsall downed Arsenal in the greatest FA Cup shock of all time.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ website).