The craziest season in English football: when the champions got relegated and ‘Lucky Arsenal’ annoyed the nation
“If it were possible to stage-manage a football season, skilfully building the actions of the play up to a tremendous climax, that which occurred on Saturday would stand as the perfect example of contrariness.”
Lancashire Evening Post, May 1938
In August 1937, Dixie Dean told the Daily Mail: “This threatens to be the most open campaign we’ve ever seen. Half a dozen clubs stand a good chance of winning it, and any one of 10 clubs could go down.” Dean was right.
Tight finishes at both ends of the table, surprise pacesetters, arguably the worst title winners ever, doping allegations, player meltdowns, the start of the TV revolution and the champions in freefall – all in the tumultuous 1937/38 season.
Title favourites were Major Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, aiming to win the league for the first time. Banned from a pre-season tour due to their ‘over-vigorous’ play the previous season, Buckley’s men – with skipper Stan Cullis setting the standard – buzzed with confidence.
Perhaps it was due to the ‘secret remedy’ Buckley had given his players. In June, Buckley had been approached by chemist Menzies Sharp, who had studied the experiments of French quack Serge Voronoff. The eccentric doctor had made a name for himself grafting the testicles of young sheep and goats onto older ones, claiming the older animals regained their vigour as a result. Believing his players could benefit, Buckley chose to undergo a four-month course of 12 injections taken from monkey glands.
Feeling “hugely invigorated” by the process, Buckley elected to pump his players full of the stuff. Doubters claimed it was a placebo, yet it seemed to work. Only two players, Dicky Dorsett and Don Bilton, refused the treatment and the supposedly monkey-powered Wolves looked to be on their way to a maiden league title.
First, though, they had to wait for a surprise challenge to peter out: that of Brentford, who stayed in the title hunt until the last fortnight of the season. The Times claimed: “London clubs like Brentford and Charlton, whose attendances didn’t suffer due to the economic crises of the early 1930s, could now supplant northern giants like Huddersfield and Newcastle, whose fortunes have declined in the last decade.”
Buckley, however, was caustic about the Bees from the start, saying: “They’ve done well up to a point, but they won’t keep it going. I don’t think they have the quality or the depth of character.”
After his side defeated Wolves 2-1 at Griffin Park in September, Brentford manager Harry Curtis suggested in reply that Buckley “keep his impertinent comments to himself... I thought they were taught to do that in the army”. Who needs Arsene and Jose?
With inside forward Bryn Jones pulling the strings and striker Dennis Westcott rattling in the goals, Wolves’ form helped them hammer Leicester 10-1 in April. Having heard of their rivals’ monkey gland antics, Foxes officials complained to their MP, Abraham Lyons, who demanded a government inquiry. When Minister of Health Walter Elliot rejected the proposal, Labour MP Manny Shinwell suggested Conservative ministers be put on the gland treatment themselves.
The players had received injections for six weeks at the start of the season, but the effect appeared to wear off at the worst possible moment. In the penultimate game of the season Wolves won their game in hand, meaning a draw away to Sunderland would be enough to pip Arsenal to the title, but they came unstuck at Roker Park, the 10-man Black Cats winning 1-0. “The amount of effort that Sunderland put in was quite staggering,” said Jones. “Anyone would have thought that they had taken energy pills to help them…”
After learning of Arsenal’s title-clinching win at Highbury, several Wolves players dissolved into tears, only to be met by Buckley’s sharp rebuke. “The Major told us only conscientious objectors and men of poor character cried,” striker Dorsett later said. “He told us to sit in silence for a while and pull ourselves together.”
“I did an interview at the start of the season,” recalled Gunners defender George Male, “where I suggested we were some way off winning the league. The manager George Allison wasn’t best pleased. He pulled me into his office and told me not to be so defeatist. But I just couldn’t see how the team was good for much more, to be honest.”
Legends of the ’30s David Jack and Alex James were gone, and Coventry’s Leslie Jones was the club’s only signing of note. “I didn’t hold out any chance for us, not without Alex James in midfield,” battle-worn striker Ted Drake explained. “To my mind, the quality of player just wasn’t there.”
Arsenal started the season well, hammering Wolves 5-0 in September and scoring 12 goals in their first three games. But just two wins in 12 followed, leading former Gunner Charlie Buchan to write in the Daily Mail: “Their decline is one of the surprise features of an amazing season, and one that is most unwelcome. The game cannot afford to have a poor Arsenal because there is no other team capable of supplanting them.”
As if to confirm Arsenal’s fall from grace, Drake’s injuries multiplied. He was hospitalised in April after being knocked out at Brentford. “Drake has been so often in the Royal Northern Hospital that he almost needs a permanent bed there to use whenever necessary,” said Allison.
Booed following a home defeat by Brentford, the normally avuncular Allison – who had praised the league’s surprise pacesetters (beating the Gunners home and away) as “worthy title contenders” – indulged in a few mind games, making enquiries for Bees forwards Jack Holliday and Billy Scott. Rebuffing the approach, Brentford manager Curtis claimed Allison had “tried to unsettle us at a key stage of the season”.
The Gunners felt the pressure. Forward Cliff Bastin, already losing his hearing, wanted a break. “I needed to get away from the thought of football,” he recalled. “It tires the brain… I’m not thinking quite so quickly as I was 12 months ago. It’s not a question of losing interest in the game; it’s a matter of snap.” George Swindin remembered Allison giving him three days off to “go fishing in the middle of nowhere... the pressure of winning, as you live through it, can be enormous”.
Yet Arsenal clawed themselves back into the title race. The crunch match came at Deepdale against high-flying Preston North End. The Yorkshire Evening Post didn’t rate the Gunners’ chances: “Arsenal experienced such a bad Easter, and their forwards are so out of form, that it seems certain Preston will win and occupy top spot.”
Arsenal won 3-1 in the mud. The 40,000 who saw Arsenal’s title-deciding final match at home to Bolton watched their team win 5-0. The man of the moment was pint-sized forward Eddie Carr. He played only 12 times for the Gunners and a knee injury at the start of the following campaign ended his Highbury career, but the seven goals that he scored at the tail-end of 1937/38 proved to be instrumental in his side winning the league.
Upon hearing Wolves had lost – they’d kicked off 15 minutes before Arsenal – the players dropped to their knees and were carried off the pitch. It’d been a draining experience. Arsenal’s 52 points from 42 games was the joint-lowest total for league champions. Adjusting for a 38-match season and three points for a win, their tally today would have been 66 points – some 15 fewer than Leicester managed in 2015/16.