The Battle of Highbury

It took place in its alarming violence at the Arsenal Stadium in November 1934. No. I didn’t see it, being only three years old at that time, but I have studied it at length from both sides of the fence, the English and the Italian. By Brian Glanville.

Recently remembered, though hardly celebrated, has been the so-called ‘Battle of Highbury’ on its 89th anniversary. It took place in its alarming violence at the Arsenal Stadium in November 1934. No. I didn’t see it, being only three years old at that time, but I have studied it at length from both sides of the fence, the English and the Italian. Having been something of a protegee as a young journalist of Vittorio Pozzo, the grand old man of Italian football, winner of two World Cups, ironically enough an anglophile, who learned his soccer tactics as a poor student in England before the First World War, making acquaintances of such contemporary giants of the game as Steve Bloomer, that prolific goal scorer, and Charlie Roberts, the Manchester United centre half, and early champion of players’ rights.

Thus while England from the change in the offside law in 1925 onwards, the way led by Arsenal, ditched the old methods for the counter-attacking third back game, Italy under Pozzo continued with the attacking centre half and half backs on the flanks.

Italy arrived in London as the 1934 World Cup holders, having achieved a somewhat unpopular victory against the Czechs in Rome. England, not a member of FIFA then, had not competed. A succession of injuries to England’s original choices saw to it that Arsenal had no fewer than seven of their men in the England team.

As luck, good or bad, would have it, the match was barely two minutes old when Ted Drake, Arsenal’s powerful and prolific centre forward, kicked Luisito Monti, the Italian centre half, on the top of the foot, breaking a toe and leaving him in agonising pain, though he stayed on the field for a while before limping off the field, asserting, “He kicked me deliberately.” Leaving Italy down to 10 men: there were no substitutions then. Many years afterwards, Drake strongly denied to me that he had done anything of that sort and I believed him: not least because the incident happened so early in the game before there was any bad blood.

Drake also told me that for the first 20 minutes, “We were playing the best football it was possible to play. You could not play any better.”

The irony of Monti’s injury was that it was a classic instance of the biter bit for Monti, in his previous turbulent days in Argentina, had been a notorious thug. It was thus bizarre to see a magazine account of the conflict in London refer to the England left half Wilf Copping as a thug because he had been guilty of using the banned two-footed tackle. And getting away with it.

Eddie Hapgood, England’s left back that day, who had his nose deliberately broken when elbowed by the Italian player Serantoni, later wrote, “Wilf Copping’s two-footed tackle was causing them furiously to think.” Illegal it undoubtedly was, but it paled into insignificance by comparison with the violence of the Italians. Draker, punched on the chin, simply turned his back and walked away. “We were playing for England,” he told me, “and we had to take it.” As for Pozzo, he said the Italians were retaliating.

The following day in the ‘Daily Mail’ the famous sports cartoonist Tom Webster wrote, “With England three up, the good old Latin temperament exerted itself and soon there were so many English bodies lying all over the field that our selectors must have wondered if they had picked more than eleven players. In conclusion we were very glad when the whistle blew because you never know when the Latin temperament is going to leave the field and set about the spectators.”

The caption was illustrated with the drawing of a tiny spectator cowering from the assault of a huge pair of boots pleading, “Can I go now, you’ve kicked me twice.” For Pozzo, “We were retaliating.”

As for Monti, the Argentine had a record of brutality as long as your arm. There was a notorious match, an alleged friendly, in Buenos Aires, when, playing for a selected team against touring Chelsea, when spectators ended the game with a pitch invasion, he extended his hand to Rodgers of Chelsea and then kicked him so hard a doctor had to be called. That was in 1929. A year later when Uruguay staged the World Cup the French centre half Pinel said he never came near Monti without receiving a blow of some kind. Yet in the final versus Uruguay he froze, intimidated according to team-mates by a death threat.

England did in fact dominate the early stages at Highbury. Eric Brook, England’s muscular left winger, had a penalty saved by the resilient Italian goalkeeper Cerasoli. But Brook headed England into the lead and then scored directly from a free-kick, Cerasoli having arrogantly waved away his proposed “wall”. Cerasoli sat on the ball and wouldn’t let it go. Drake got England’s third with Hapgood off the field having his broken nose set by Arsenal’s renowned trainer, later manager, Tom Whittaker.

Yet after half-time things changed radically. As the ‘Times’ neatly put it, “Players who had formerly run wild began to run into position.” Giuseppe Meazza, the Italian centre forward, a supremely talented attacker, scored twice and only the agility of the England and Arsenal goalkeeper Frank Moss deprived Italy of a draw.

On England’s right wing, largely anonymous, figured the 19-year-old Stoke City outside right Stanley Matthews, plainly intimidated by the surrounding violence. Which memorably and so mistakenly induced the ‘Daily Mail’ sports columnist Geoffrey Simpson to write, “I saw Matthews play just as moderately in the recent inter League match. Exhibiting the same slowness and hesitation.

Perhaps he lacks the big match temperament.” Perhaps! For, long brilliant years to come Matthews would be bewildering left backs for club and country, still a star well into his late 40s, hero of the so-called ‘Matthews Final’ of 1953 when he made the last gasp goal for his club Blackpool — Stoke had let him go — to win the medal which had eluded him in two previous finals.

Olsen, the Swedish referee, spoke neither English nor Italian and speedily lost control. “The Italians were very excitable,” he said. “When they learn to control themselves they will be a great side. I had to warn two of the defenders repeatedly but whether they understood me or not I don’t know. I hope they did.”

Some hope! “Only an expert eye,” said a member of England’s selection committee, “could appreciate the outrage upon sport.” Should England continue to play against “players unable to distinguish between which is right and that which is wrong?” Not till 1939 did England play Italy again, in Milan, when Silvio Piola punched a goal.