Biographer Patrick Barclay: 'I wish I'd been able to meet Herbert Chapman'

Given that the post-Christmas weeks are for good reason a quiet period in sports book publishing, the timing for the release of the first major biography of Herbert Chapman in the first week of January will have struck many as curious.

The January 6 publication date for Patrick Barclay's life of one of the great pioneers of English football was not a random choice, however.  It marked the 80th anniversary of Chapman's premature death, at the height of his powers, when a cold he had picked up during a trip home to his native South Yorkshire turned with frightening speed into pneumonia, to which he succumbed in scarcely more than 48 hours.

Chapman was not quite 56.   It was 1934 and he had since 1925 been the manager of Arsenal, having earned recognition in the game for winning the League title twice and the FA Cup with Huddersfield Town before being tempted by an offer from the Highbury hierarchy to double his salary. By the early 1930s, Chapman had transformed Arsenal.  Threatened with relegation and without a major trophy in their history when he took charge, the Gunners won the FA Cup in 1929-30, followed by the First Division championship in 1930-31 and again in 1932-33.

His death came on the day of a game, ironically against Sheffield United, the team he had favoured as he grew up. In a subdued atmosphere at Highbury, Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw, although ultimately they were not diverted from their purpose and not only did they retain the title in 1933-34, they won it again the following year.

Chapman's successes set him apart, yet it was not so much the fact of his achievement as how it came about that was his legacy to the game.  He was the first to insist that the manager, rather than directors or committee men, should be in charge of selection, and the first to appreciate that teams might be better served by planning their tactics in advance.

With the encouragement of Charlie Buchan, whom he had signed from Sunderland, he honed the 'WM' formation, replacing the traditional 2-3-5 with 3-2-2-3, partially to counter a change in the offside law and partly to facilitate the counter-attacking style that Chapman effectively invented and which became Arsenal's hallmark.



Writing in BACKPASS magazine, Barclay explained that his biographies of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, both of which won critical acclaim, suffered from the continuing success of his subjects, which meant they were soon in need of revision and updating.

Barclay's literary agent, David Luxton, asked him if he would fancy taking on a third book, to which he replied: "Yes, as long as it is about a dead man.

"The story of Mourinho, especially, was compiled with research on his early life on one side of the desk and a growing pile of newspaper cuttings on the other," Barclay said. "The yearning was for a project less organic.  And yet the subject had to matter to a large number of people. Luxton -- bless him -- came up with the idea of Herbert Chapman."

Barclay found his research so rewarding, he confesses, that he began after a while to wish Chapman were not dead, so that he might meet him in person.

"I'm not being sentimental in saying that the writing soon lost any commercial motive and became a labour of love.  There were times when, after only my late mother, Chapman was the human being whose reincarnation I craved...a hopeless impulse to meet him born of a mixture of affection and curiosity."

The reviews include this appreciation from David Lister, writing in The Independent.

'Patrick Barclay, the Evening Standard’s football columnist, and football correspondent of The Independent in its early days, has approached the subject with a mixture of passion and assiduous research. He has the sportswriter’s unfailing tendency to crave the widest possible context (I’m not sure I need to know that when Chapman was a toddler in Sheffield, Billy the Kid and Jesse James were being shot in America) but when he applies the wider context to the evolution of football and to how the Britain of the time shaped the Chapman family, the results are extraordinarily rewarding. Barclay traces the first half century of the game so evocatively that one can almost believe he was at some of those early matches, and reminds us of the oddities of those days. I hadn’t realised that even as late as the 1927 Arsenal vs Cardiff Wembley cup final, the referee wore a bow-tie.

He is fascinating on football and the First World War, the Footballers’ Battalion (surely worth a book in itself) and the poignant last words of one fallen soldier to his comrade: “Goodbye, Mac. Best of luck, special love to my sweetheart Mary Jane and best regards to the lads at Orient.”

Such vignettes put this book above the normal sports biography. Barclay does indeed trace Chapman’s life from would-be mining engineer to footballer, then visionary manager with a penchant for plus-fours, at the same time an official in his church, a strange mixture of elitist and collectivist. He loved signing supreme talents but insisted no player be paid more than another. He improved life for the fans, modernising the Arsenal ground, and commissioning the famous art deco design for the stands, encouraging Jewish supporters and giving to Jewish charities. There remains an element of mystery as to what drove him (just as there does with today’s managers) but this book succeeds in being about more than Chapman. Barclay vividly and brilliantly conjures up a forgotten sporting age.'

The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman: The Story of One of Football's Most Influential Figures, by Patrick Barclay (W&N), can be purchased here from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

Chapman's own thoughts on the game, Chapman on Football, a collection of his columns from the Sunday Express, has been reprinted by GCR Books (available from Amazon and WHSmith) and in facsimile form by Robert Blatchford Publishing (Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith).

To find out more about BACKPASS magazine, visit



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