Other side of Arsenal

In his first managerial years at Arsenal, Tom Whittaker had much success, instantly winning the first division title, after a parlous 1946/47 season for the club in which at one time relegation loomed.

Recently published and beautifully produced has been my `Arsenal Stadium History', chronicling the years at Highbury from 1913 to 2006. But, since it is the official publication there were certain stories which I could not include, though I have detailed them elsewhere. Two of them concern the sainted Tom Whittaker.

Both as exceptional trainer and as manager Tom has a central part in Arsenal's story. His own is a somewhat romantic one. A qualified engineer from the North East of England, he was a left-half of moderate ability when, in 1925, he went to Australia on a Football Association tour. There, he suffered an appalling knee injury which crippled him and put an abrupt end to his playing career while still in his twenties.

But he had two great pieces of luck. The first was that on the long voyage home, he met a woman who, hearing of his plight, told him of a remarkable surgeon in Liverpool who specialised in tricky operations to the limbs. The second was that when he returned to Highbury it was to find the legendary Herbert Chapman now in managerial charge. Chapman, ever kind and humane, sent him to the surgeon, whose unusual methods at least enabled Whittaker to walk again even if he would never be able to play. But Chapman had another card up his sleeve.

One day, he told Whittaker he was going to make him the greatest trainer there had ever been, and it happened. In those days, before the invention of such treatments as ultra sound and deep diathermy, much depended on the healing skills of a trainer and Whittaker turned out to have them in abundance. So much so that sportsmen of every kind came to Highbury for treatment including the famed tennis player Fred Perry, the last Englishman to win the singles at Wimbledon.

The players adored Whittaker, a second father figure after Herbert Chapman, who died prematurely in March 1934. He was succeeded by George Allison then a director and an Arsenal fan — and journalist — since before the 1914-18 World War. He was a supreme publicist but his knowledge of soccer was scant and his relations with his players often unhappy. In such situations they would turn to benevolent Whittaker.

When Allison finally resigned in 1947, Whittaker was a natural choice to take over and in his first managerial years he had much success, instantly winning the first division title, after a parlous 1946/47 season for the club in which at one time relegation loomed. In 1950 the Gunners won the FA Cup for the first time since 1936.

Yet there was another less positive side to Whittaker and I encountered it as a 19-year-old journalist in 1951. I'd written or rather "ghosted" my first book, `Cliff Bastin Remembers', the autobiography of one of the foremost Arsenal stars, supreme goal-scorer and left-winger, of the inter-War years. Tom had supplied the foreword. To my surprise, since I had simply put down exactly what Bastin in his forthright way thought, the book proved controversial and had extensive newspaper and magazine coverage. Going to Highbury to interview Whittaker, I was surprised, when I asked him what he thought of the book, to be told that he had never seen it: "I believe Cliff brought a couple of copies to the ground."

When the publishers heard this they were incensed; they'd given Cliff, they told me, special early copies; and they wrote to rebuke him. In return they had a letter rebuking me for telling them things untrue. I myself wrote to Cliff fully accepting his explanation and got a letter, my last ever from him, saying he quite understood my good faith; but he had heard Whittaker had said he wished he had never written the foreword. His final sentence read: "But in future, watch your step at Highbury." Whittaker had lied.

Far more serious was the Eddie Hapgood affair. Eddie, left-back and captain of pre-War Arsenal, had been my own particular hero. He himself had idolised Whittaker. In 1969 there appeared a book called `Arsenal from the Heart' by Bob Wall, who had crawled his way up from being Chapman's office boy to chief executive. The book alleged that at the end of the War, Hapgood and the former right-half and future Gunners' Manager "Gentleman" Jack Crayston had demanded benefit payments, been refused and had appealed unsuccessfully to the Football League. Then, when Arsenal, in better financial shape, had offered them the money, they had turned it down. Wall should have smelt a rat immediately. Such benefit payments, some �750 for each five years' of service, were purely optional, at the clubs' discretion. As luck had it, I was then due to go down to Weymouth in south west England to interview Eddie for a television programme I was making for the BBC series, `One Pair Of Eyes'. He was then in charge of a hostel for apprentices of the Atomic Agency. When I told him this tale he was horrified, and produced a folder of correspondence with Arsenal. Having lost his last managerial job at little Bath City, he had written to Arsenal asking for help, as he had never had a benefit. They sent him �30!

I told Wall of this and also told him that the Football League had no record of any such appeal. Where had he got the story? Answer: from Tom Whittaker! Was this because Whittaker, hoping to manage Arsenal, had feared opposition from Hapgood, whose reputation was still then so large? I asked to see the club's minutes. "The chairman wouldn't like it," countered Wall. "You can write whatever you like, Brian, and Arsenal will not reply." I did and they didn't.