Charlie Buchan's heritage

CHARLIE BUCHAN captained and inspired a previously mediocre Arsenal team and also invented the revolutionary Third Back game.-

A celebrated inside-right in his time, Buchan was so clever that lesser fry found it hard to play alongside him; hence the paltry number of England caps he was awarded.

In something of a coincidence, the English Heritage book, commemorating `Charlie Buchan's Football Monthly', appeared almost concurrently with my own `The Arsenal Stadium History', which has much to say about Buchan and his huge contribution to the game at large and to the Gunners in particular. I knew all about him even as an eight-year-old as my Irish father, an Arsenal fan, was wont to eulogise him. Buchan, he would tell me — a celebrated inside-right in his time — was so clever that lesser fry found it hard to play alongside him; hence the paltry number of England caps he was awarded.

My father, ever the great romantic, also insisted that in 1925 it was Charlie who brought the incomparable manager Herbert Chapman from Huddersfield to Highbury when in fact it was the other way around. Chapman lured Charlie away from Sunderland, where he had flourished both before and after the Great War in which he had served and, thank Heavens, survived the brutal carnage of the trenches.

In fact he had initially been with the old Woolwich Arsenal — where his Scottish father worked — as a pre-War amateur. A skinflint manager denied him 11 shillings' expenses and off he went, playing for the non-League London club Leyton, thence North East to Sunderland and to sustained success. Leslie Knighton, the Gunners' manager before Chapman, tried hard to sign Buchan but the domineering Chairman Sir Henry Norris wouldn't foot the bill. So Chapman, more persuasive with Morris, got him in a unique deal which guaranteed Sunderland �100, big money then, for every goal he scored. He scored freely.

Not only did Buchan captain and inspire a previously mediocre Arsenal team, he even invented the revolutionary Third Back game though the credit has often been given to Chapman. Since Charlie told me the story himself, I'm sure he was the true innovator. The offside law had just been changed and when the Gunners, early that season, went to Newcastle United, they were thrashed, 7-0. Something had urgently to be done. Buchan suggested the roaming centre-half be made into a third-back or stopper, the full-backs pushed out on to the flanks, the wing halves pulled into the middle though irrationally enough, they would go on being called wing halves for years to come.

The scheme was tried the following Monday at West Ham and worked impressively, Arsenal winning with ease. And so the new system was born which would sweep and for better or for worse transform English soccer.

A dull writer and a pedestrian broadcaster, Charlie, however, for many years, was a very prominent media figure, whatever his drawbacks. He wrote an enjoyable autobiography, `A lifetime in football,' every sentence a paragraph, every paragraph a sentence. I have an especially vivid memory of listening to one of his popular five-minute 7.25 Saturday evening broadcasts in Florence.

That was in 1952 when, aged 21, I had just gone to live in Italy; in a Florentine `pensione'. My American forces radio wasn't working then, and the only way I could hear Charlie's invaluable five minutes was on a wireless owned by the melancholy young American painter Jay. The walls of her dismally dark room were festooned with dismally dark paintings. She prowled around wearing what looked like a khaki shroud which she had bought in North Africa.

When I came in that Saturday evening she was kneeling before the radio, in an evident state of crisis, ripping up her own pictures. A bizarre point counterpoint ensued. "And although Derek Dooley didn't score," intoned Charlie, RIP! "I think you're most insensitive!"

"He did help his team to get a point in a two-two draw at Highbury." To be frank, Charles Buchan's monthly hardly merited a "heritage" commemoration, even if he himself, in football terms did. Though the magazine actually reached a remarkable circulation peak of over 220,000 copies, little now bears re-reading.

Even those pieces by the joint editor John Thompson, previously a competent and readable chief football correspondent for the `Daily Mirror', seem sententious and dull. In his day little Leslie Yates, a Tottenham Hotspur and Tottenham district man through and through, who even had a Pressroom dedicated to him by Spurs, was a busy provider of soccer news paragraphs to many papers, especially in the provinces. But here, struggling with a monthly deadline, his items are of a staggering banality; he even tells you where certain players mean to take their families on summer holiday!

Personally, I have mixed feelings about my own dealings with the magazine. I remember Leslie himself telling me how useful it must have been to them to fill space in several issues with my `Footballer's Who's Who' guide. They promised me that the following year they'd bring it out as a small book — as had happened originally when first published. Then they curtly wrote to me to say it wasn't going to happen. I'd got nothing in writing. As a young freelancer I was hardly in a position to take them to court.

Simon Inglis, the competent editor, author of exhaustive books on football stadium, provides in his preface and various interventions the best writing in the book, but is scathing about what fiction was published. I never knew they used any at all. Yet, the magazine survived till 1971, a decade after I'd published a short story collection `A Bad Streak', to ecstatic reviews for its football stories. Resulting in a whole week of them being published in London's `Evening Standard', advertised on top of the little green vans which used to distribute the paper round London. In retrospect, rather a pity.