The Forgotten Pioneers of Football: Herbert Chapman

Jamie WardSenior Analyst IJanuary 2, 2009

There have been a great many ambassadors for the beautiful game, with some of them changing football for the better and leaving behind a legacy that is still present in the modern era. Some are championed on the world stage, but others are forgotten and disappear with little mention.

Herbert Chapman

Born in Yorkshire in 1878, Chapman was a post-war footballer who never made any great impact on the sport as a player. Despite signing for 11 different clubs; he managed very few first team appearances between 1895 and 1909.

He spent his first six years playing as an amateur, which meant he was limited to only signing for teams in places he could find work. He spent time in the lower leagues and saw interest from many clubs due to his strength as a player and robustness as a professional.

He signed his first professional contract for Northampton Town in 1901 and became their top scorer with 14 goals in 22 appearances in his first season. A great FA Cup display against Sheffield United led to them approaching Chapman. He agreed to the move but only if he could return to amateur status in order to utilise his engineering qualifications.

He struggled to hold down a place at United and was sold for £300 to Notts County in 1903, where he signed on as a professional again but made a disappointing seven appearances in two years.

After a £70 transfer to Tottenham in 1905, Chapman struggled to make an impact, scoring 14 goals in two seasons and failing to hold down a regular place in the team. At this point, he felt it was time to retire and take up a full-time career as an engineer.

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This decision was short-lived as he was offered to rejoin Northampton Town as a player and as their manager. The move would prove to be the right one as he went on to become a very successful manager, influencing football in such a way that his ideas are still commonplace in the modern game today.

The Legacy

The game at the start of the 19th century usually involved board members picking and choosing the team and its tactics. Chapman was considered one of the very first managers—similar to the modern version—who picked his own team and implemented his own tactics.

He was a manager who believed in physical fitness and was one of the very first to introduce diet and fitness regimes, bringing in masseurs and physiotherapists to increase the well-being and stamina of his players.

He introduced weekly team meetings, and encouraged communication involving tactics and bonding sessions that included golf.

A massive supporter of continental football, Chapman would regularly encourage special games against European teams, taking his club on tours of Europe during the summer. He was also one of the very first managers to consider buying black and foreign players to bring to England.

He had championed the idea of a European club competition some 20 years before the first European club competition was brought into effect.

After attending a game in Belgium in 1930, he pioneered the use of floodlights in England. Chapman had a major influence on the building of Highbury during its construction and made sure floodlights were erected—despite only being allowed for use during training games.

He oversaw construction and planning of the Highbury stadium in many areas, including the placement of the clock in the Clock End stand and the design of the scoreboard and turnstiles.

It is also claimed he was involved in the renaming of the local tube station from Gillespie Road to Arsenal—which is still the only tube station to be named after a football club.

Chapman also came up with the hoops on the socks of the Arsenal kit to aid players to find teammates, and he brightened the shade of red and added white sleeves to make a bolder and more striking football kit.

The 1930 FA Cup final witnessed a first when both teams came out side by side, due to the involvement of Chapman. This tradition is still present today.


Football during Herbert Chapman’s era was considered incredibly unorganised. Teams rarely employed tactics during games. He was disappointed when his team completely dominated a game but still lost heavily.

Chapman would comment that no team made any attempt to organise a victory and he remarked that there was an incredibly small amount of communication amongst teammates.

He began to create a tactical framework that asked for a higher work rate from his players and a more organised squad that some had commented looked more like a machine than a team.

Football at the time used just two defenders, three midfielders, and five forwards. Chapman required that his midfielders dropped farther back to allow space for his forwards to play without congestion.

His defenders were now required to play the ball out from the back and on the floor to the midfielders instead of the commonplace approach of hoofing it up the pitch to the opponent’s penalty area, hoping to find a teammate.

His framework created a much stronger defensive unit that played football on the ground. He wanted a quick counter-attacking system that relied on quick wingers who cut inside from the wing, a fast, short passing game and balls to the feet of the strikers instead of over the top.

Chapman had said that an opposing team was at its most vulnerable just after an attack had broken down. This is when they had most of their players in an opponent’s half and were out of position.

Northampton Town

Before Chapman’s arrival as manager of Northampton Town, they had finished bottom of the Southern League two seasons in a row. With his new revolutionary tactical ideas and a host of new signings to utilise the system to its fullest—Chapman led Northampton to the league title in the 1908-09 season.

With three impressive top-four finishes over the coming seasons and worthy displays in the FA Cup against first division teams from the Football League, Chapman was desperate to get Northampton into the professional division and compete against the very best.

The Football League was still in its infancy and there was no relegation or promotion system in place that would have allowed Northampton to naturally progress after their Southern League title.

Chapman’s answer to this was a proposal to create a new two-division system called the Football Alliance. It would run underneath the Football League and would allow promotion from the top division of the new Football Alliance into the bottom of the professional Football League.

This would have taken on the identity of the modern four-tier system, which was first implemented in 1921.

On his first attempt, the Football League refused the proposal and Chapman was left to ply his trade in the non-league divisions with Northampton.

Leeds City

In 1912, Chapman got his chance to manage in the professional league when Leeds City asked Northampton Town if they could sign Chapman as their manager.

The Football League system at the time did not include relegation and if a club finished in the bottom three, they had to submit a request to stay in the league. After a 19th-placed finish the season prior, Leeds City were in this situation when Chapman took over and he was instrumental in regaining their status to the league for the next season.

On signing, Chapman promised he would ensure Leeds were promoted to the first division within two seasons.

With an eighth-place finish and 70 goals in his first season in charge, attendances doubled, bringing in considerably larger revenues for the club. In their next season, Leeds City just missed out on promotion in to the first division by just two points.

Despite not fulfilling his promise, the board were extremely happy with the progress of the squad and the newfound support that it brought.

The outbreak of the First World War put an end to Chapman’s promotion hopes. With attendances down and key players away fighting, his team could only manage 15th place.

Once professional football had been suspended, Chapman took up a position as the manager of a munitions factory in Barnbow. With Leeds City now playing in regional competitions and under the guidance of two of the club's directors, they relied on guest appearances to maintain the team.

Once the war had finished, Chapman resumed his position as the club's manager only to suddenly resign in 1918 with no explanation and move to Selby, where he became a superintendent at an oil works.

Leeds City were expelled from the Football League in 1919 due to alleged illegal payments to guest players during the war. The directors of the club, which included Chapman, were given a lifetime ban from the game.

After the expulsion from the Football League, Leeds City as a club was dissolved and their players were sold on. Elland Road was bought by the new club, Leeds United.

Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield offered the assistant manager's job to Chapman after he had been made redundant at the oil works in Selby. They backed him in his efforts to overturn his lifetime ban and he was successfully reinstated after it was highlighted that Chapman had not been at the club during the alleged incidents of foul play.

Within one month of being made assistant manager, Chapman was appointed as manager and his first season in charge brought the FA Cup to Huddersfield for the first time in their history.

Huddersfield’s new manager started to take more control at the club and ensured that the reserve teams played in the same style as the first team in order to allow for a smooth transition when moving up from the reserves.

He now had every player at the club utilising the new tactics he had honed at previous managerial positions, and with the added improvements by Chapman to the scouting department, the right players were being found that slotted into his system perfectly.

With his new squad now playing just how he wanted them to, he led Huddersfield to their first ever league title, with the club going on to successfully defending their title the following season.

With his belief that a successful team is built around a strong defence, Huddersfield won their second title without conceding more than two goals in every match—a feat that had not been achieved by a title winning team before.


After an advert in the newspaper advertising the vacant manager's position at Arsenal, Chapman gave up the opportunity to lead Huddersfield to a third straight title victory—something which had never been achieved up until that point—instead, choosing the bigger crowds and higher wages at Arsenal.

In 1925, the offside law was modified to allow just one defender between the attacker and the goalkeeper instead of needing two defenders to remain onside.

This led to several teams revamping the old 2-3-5 formation with one of the three midfielders brought back in to the heart of defence to create a back line of three. Two attackers were dropped back to help the other two midfielders and the 3-4-3 formation was born.

Under the management of Chapman, the revitalised Arsenal team reached their first ever FA Cup final in 1927, losing 1-0 to Cardiff City thanks to a goalkeeping error.

After the sacking of one of Arsenal's directors due to a wage cap violation scandal, Chapman began to take more control of the club’s business as a whole—due to the appointment of a more submissive director—and was now in place to take the club in his preferred direction.

For most of his managerial career, Chapman was well known for finding young talented players and he signed a great deal of English internationals before they made it big.

He was seen as a very astute and clever man when it came to negotiating for a player’s fee and one of his co-workers retold his memory of one such negotiation:

“We arrived at the hotel half-an-hour early. Chapman immediately went into the lounge bar. He called the waiter, placed two pound notes in his hand and said: 'George, this is Mr. Wall, my assistant. He will drink whisky and dry ginger. I will drink gin and tonic. We shall be joined by guests. They will drink whatever they like. See that our guests are given double of everything, but Mr Wall's whisky and dry ginger will contain no whisky, and my gin and tonic will contain no gin.”

Chapman had managed to reduce the £13,000 asking price—double the record transfer fee at that time—bringing the final fee down to £10,000.

With the club moving in the direction Chapman had wanted and the right players picked by him and playing to his revolutionary tactics, he led Arsenal to their first ever trophy when they won the FA Cup in 1930.

Arsenal went on to win their first ever league title in the 1930-31 season, single-handedly down to the incredible work of Herbert Chapman. They still hold the club record for most goals scored in a title-winning season with 127.

The fast flowing counter-attacking football centred on a strong defensive unit that had been championed by Chapman was now hitting perfection and he laid the foundations for Arsenal to become the dominant team in England for the next 10 seasons.

Unfortunately, Herbert Chapman would not get to witness his hard work at Arsenal as he died from pneumonia in 1934.

His Arsenal team went on to win back to back Football League titles soon after his passing and his legacy is still alive today in so many different areas of the beautiful game.

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