Bergkamp honoured, but what about Hapgood?

Bergkamp may not even have heard of Eddie Hapgood. Memories in English football, in sharp contrast with Italy’s, where bygone heroes are frequently recalled and praised, don’t care much about history, writes Brian Glanville.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at the Emirates Stadium in North London, I watched as Arsenal and their ecstatic fans paid tribute to Dennis Bergkamp; of whom a statue was unveiled outside the stand, shortly before the game. None was more forthcoming than the current long-serving Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, who said, after the game, “He changed the destiny of the club. He changed the way we play football.” During his distinguished spell at Arsenal, from season 1995-6 to season 2005-2006, Bergkamp won three League Championship medals and four FA Cup winners’ medals. At half-time, he gave an interview, modestly and engagingly, on the field, which was shown on the giant screen.

It wasn’t Wenger, in fact, who signed him. It is easily forgotten that the manager who brought him to the Gunners was in fact Bruce Rioch, who was dismissed the year before Wenger arrived from Greece; to the ignorant opposition of a group of self-important Arsenal fans, who talked about “Arsene Who?” when, in fact, he had already had much success at Monaco.

So Bergkamp’s well-deserved commemorating statue was added to a number of others featuring previous Arsenal heroes. But there was none of Eddie Hapgood and, by coincidence, shortly before Bergkamp’s celebration, I received a letter from Lynne Hapgood, Eddie’s daughter, who wanted to talk to me about him. This I readily did, since, as she knew, he had been one of my earliest football heroes, and the subject some years ago of a poignant interview for a BBC programme in the series ‘One Pair of Eyes’. The idea of the programme was that the subject was asked to nominate a series of interviewees who had been important to him; and Hapgood had been very important to me, virtually from my childhood.

In the first professional match I ever saw, as a 10-year-old at Wembley in January 1942, he captained England against Scotland from his familiar position of left-back. In all, he would play 43 times for England, including “unofficial” Wartime internationals, 34 of them as captain. England caps in those days were not as numerous as they are today, when someone such as David Beckham could even win them for a brief period on the field as a mere substitute. I went back to my boarding school, thrilled to get Hapgood’s autograph by post, drawing many crude pictures of that game and sending him laudatory letters till the master in charge stopped me. He never replied.

It was many decades later that I found myself travelling to Weymouth in Dorset to meet him. Having managed Blackburn Rovers immediately after the War, then modest Watford and non-League Bath City — whom he had successfully sued for libel after they had sacked him — he was reduced to running a hostel for apprentices of the Atomic Energy Authority. A sad anti-climax indeed to a career, which, had it taken place today, would have made him several times a millionaire.

By sheer chance, shortly before I went to Weymouth, a book called Arsenal From The Heart had appeared, the autobiography of one Bob Wall, who had risen from being an office boy at Arsenal to the position of chief executive, which he filled with an element of pompous self-satisfaction. In it, he alleged that just after the Second World War, Hapgood and another famous Gunner, right-half and future manager “Gentleman Jack” Crayston, had demanded benefits from the club, then amounting to about GBP650, substantial money then, and given every five years. But what Wall more than anybody should have known was that such benefits were optional, at the discretion of the club. No player could demand them.

Wall went on to state that Arsenal, then in serious debt after the War, refused such payment, whereupon Hapgood and Crayston appealed to the Football League and were turned down. When eventually offered the money by the club, they refused it.

Hapgood was horrified to hear this. He went into another room and returned with a file of letters. This showed that, short of money, he had written to the club with which he had won five Championship and two FA Cup medals in an exemplary career, asking them for financial help. To which they responded by offering him £30. He was almost tearfully distressed.

So I contacted the Football League, who told me they have no record of any such appeal, which I in turn told Bob Wall. When I asked him who had told him the story, he replied to my amazement, “Tom Whittaker”, for so long an iconic figure at Arsenal. First a player then as the trainer with “the magic hands” to whom sportsmen of all kinds, including the three times Wimbledon winner Fred Perry, came for treatment. Whittaker, who succeeded George Allison in 1947 with huge success as the Arsenal manager. Whittaker, whom Hapgood in his autobiography, Football Ambassador, had lauded as a father figure. I asked Wall if I might see the club’s minutes of the period involved, to which the inevitable reply was, “No, the Chairman wouldn’t like it.” To which he added, “You can write what you like, Brian, but Arsenal will not reply.” How could they?

In the event, I wrote a sulphurous piece about it in my Sunday newspaper column. Whittaker was dead. My theory was that if he had indeed told these lies about Eddie Hapgood, it was because he feared that Eddie, whose prestige at the time as a player and captain was immense, would be appointed Gunners’ manager rather than himself. Lynne Hapgood told me that her father often took her and his other children to see matches, but never Arsenal, whom he would not even mention.

Bergkamp may not even have heard of Eddie Hapgood. Memories in English football, in sharp contrast with Italy’s, where bygone heroes are frequently recalled and praised, don’t care much about history.

As for Bergkamp, he deserved the accolades he received that Saturday afternoon. His almost magical ball control, never more apparent than when at Newcastle he conjured up a goal of breath-taking virtuosity, so subtly contrived, initially with his back to the goal, that it almost defied description. He came to Arsenal from Internazionale of Milan, where he had been played up front, out of position, as he would be when he won his last Cup medal against Manchester United in Cardiff in 2005, where he looked so untypically ineffectual. A dour Arsenal scraped through that day on penalties, but Bergkamp at his best was a virtuoso.