A footballing genius

As the one who ghosted his autobiography, I knew so well that he existed in what you might call a cocoon of isolation. Not for him, however dazzling and important the goals he so often scored, the mass, ecstatic celebrations of the players who score today. Brian Glanville writes about one of his favourite Arsenal stars: Cliff Bastin.

The lavish Arsenal match programme for the recent home game against West Ham United devoted four pages, under the headline “Life With A Legend”, to the career of one of the club’s salient players: Cliff Bastin. A boy wonder — his initial nickname was “Boy Bastin” — who would eventually score 178 goals for them in 396 games, including 33 from the left wing, when Arsenal won the first division title in 1930/31. He was capped 21 times by England when international games were so much scarcer than today. And in 1934, prior to the World Cup finals in Italy, Hugo Meisl, the legendary commander of a famous Austrian national team, said that his team was too tired to win it but that if he could have just one player, then he could do so. That was Bastin.

Not that it would have made much difference to Bastin had he known. As the one who, as that programme recalls, ghosted his autobiography, I knew so well that he existed in what you might call a cocoon of isolation. Not for him, however dazzling and important the goals he so often scored, the mass, ecstatic celebrations of the players who score today. Having scored however superbly with his pace, skill and deadly left foot, he would simply get on with the game.

The Arsenal programme came to me for interview because as it said I got to know this most enigmatic of legends better than most. Deafness would exacerbate the tendency, but it was always there. Not least, when Bastin was 17 and the famed Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman, who transformed the club, taking it from struggling mediocrity to endless triumphs, travelled down to see and ideally sign Bastin in his native South West city of Exeter. Bastin was barely interested. Having initially failed in his quest in a lawyer’s office, Chapman followed Cliff all the way to his home and persisted with his mission. But Cliff, as he told me long afterwards, was more interested in going out to conclude a tennis match. At last when his mother came into the room and advised him to leave his local modest Exeter City for North London, Cliff signed.

The day he reported for training at Highbury and the commissionaire on the door enquired what he was there for, Cliff replied it was to play for Arsenal. Condescendingly the commissionaire assured him that one day when he was fully grown up he might do so. Eventually he was persuaded to let Cliff through.

For me, the book, Cliff Bastin Remembers, turned out against all my expectations and even wishes to be a virtual card to journalistic status. It was for me essentially an act of piety, a labour of love as a fervent Arsenal fan. Driving with my parents along the North Circular Road I would see a sign, ‘The Cliff Bastin Café’. Which prompted me, then 17 myself and a solicitor’s reluctant articled clerk, though already picking up a good deal of freelance work, to write to him suggesting I ghost his autobiography.

To my delight, I got a positive reply, thanking me for my glowing tribute to his career and telling me a firm called Findons had wanted to publish such a book on sale for only a shilling, which he regarded as something of an insult. So it was that we agreed to collaborate. On Saturday mornings, I would work at the British Museum Newspaper Library in suburban Colindale, looking up matches of the past. On Sunday evenings, I would meet him on the upper floor of the ‘Cliff Bastin Café’ where his wife would regale us with coffee and thick cheese sandwiches. That the book when it came out would prove highly controversial, caused Cliff to be called, quite erroneously, conceited and given abundant newspaper space — in the process putting my then 19 year old self on the map — had never occurred to me. Nowadays footballers and their ghosts throw in everything but the kitchen sink hoping through sensationalism for newspaper serialisation. I’d simply set down Cliff in his own thoughts and words and he pulled no punches.

Nowadays players without a tenth of his talent become millionaires but ironically enough in that period of the stifling maximum wage for one and all, Cliff didn’t believe that one player should earn more than any other. But he well knew his own high worth as a footballer and if that was taken as a form of conceit, then so be it. His outstanding record speaks for itself. At 19 years old, he’d won every honour the game could then afford and his goal scoring record for the Gunners stood for many years after the War, till it was finally broken by Ian Wright, who had a greater many more tournaments and matches to play in, and Thierry Henry.

Cliff Bastin in fact had never aspired to be an outside left. A schoolboy international inside forward, this was the position he preferred and indeed in the summer of 1934, he filled each role in turn for the touring England team, first in Rome where he scored England’s goal in a 1-1 draw, then in Switzerland, in each case with outstanding success. Increasing deafness, and even severe pain from his ears, blemished his last 1938/9 season before the War and when it came, he was unfit for military service and spent the War Years as an Air Raid Warden. If he had been called up he would in all probability simply have gone into the RAF or Army Physical Training Corps, the Government being anxious to keep footballers at home to improve civilian morale under the Nazi bombing.

Turned by Herbert Chapman into an outside left he found an ideal partner in the brilliant little Scottish inside left Alex James, whom Chapman had in that same summer of 1929 signed from Preston North End. James was the inspiration of a formidably successful Arsenal team, but he didn’t take kindly, I discovered when meeting him, to what Cliff had said about him in the book, which suggested that he might have made more of his achievements with a better background. Cliff, he told me resentfully, the one time I met him, in the Arsenal Press room, “wasn’t that good”

And the book also upset Bryn Jones, bought for a record GBP14,000 to be James’ successor, whom Cliff felt to be — and wrote so — not up to the job. To my dismay and despair the book was initially turned down by the then very successful Sporting Handbooks, published when all seemed set fair with the encouragement of their editor.

After long delays, the little firm Ettrick Press finally agreed to take it on and it emerged in December 1950 to a furore of controversy. Tom Whittaker the “magic hands” ex-trainer of Arsenal, by then its manager, lied to me when I went to see him at Highbury, asserting, though he had written a generous foreword, that he’d never seen the book, though Cliff had actually brought him early copies. That sparked contention involving the publishers, Cliff and myself, till Cliff realised I was not at fault. But in future, he wrote, “watch your step at Highbury.”