INTERVIEW: LAYTH YOUSIF
Herbert Chapman was one of the game’s great innovators – a man of principle who changed the face of football management and led clubs as different as Huddersfield Town and Arsenal to unparalleled success. We caught up with Patrick Barclay to find about his new biography of the master tactician…
Patrick, congratulations on your new book, The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman. Did you uncover a lot of new research about Chapman or was this project a case of finally documenting his extraordinary story in one place?
It was somewhat frustrating to spend an inordinate amount of time on research to uncover something you think is new, only to discover that it is already in the public domain. For the book, something I did find out was that the story of Chapman and the Gin and Tonic story [Chapman reportedly plied the Directors of Bolton Wanderers with gin and tonic in negotiations to sign David Jack whilst he - unknown to them - drank water] did not happen the way it was portrayed – even though the myth is far more romantic!
What also happened was that I found out a great new story about Chapman which I learnt a week after the book was published. I hope to include it in the book if I am lucky enough to have it go to paperback version later this year.
You have been very popular with Arsenal fans since the book has been published – do you have any plans to replicate this with the other team that Chapman was indelibly linked with, Huddersfield Town?
The response from Arsenal fans has been great. It makes it hard for me as a neutral when the reaction has been overwhelming in terms of interest from Arsenal supporters in the book. I have had IASA and AST nights which have been very enjoyable. In terms of Huddersfield I did an evening at the ground recently to talk about Chapman. What I would also like to do is go to Kiveton Park, his birthplace and where he spent his formative years and talk to some young people there to gauge their thoughts on Chapman – as he has been somewhat forgotten there. He is remembered far more at Arsenal. You only have to look at his statue and bust and in the club museum to understand that.
Chapman is famous for being an innovator – on and off the pitch – but did he also have a lot of ideas that fell flat?
Many of his ideas weren’t implemented by the FA. For example, he proposed an England manager in the sense that we would know it today – someone who has sole responsibility for picking the team – not a committee as it was back then. Only a full 28 years later, when they employed Alf Ramsey, did the FA make the change. Of course they had people like Walter Winterbottom before that, but it wasn’t the same as the suggestion made by Chapman.
He also advocated floodlights, synthetic pitches – although he talked of rubber ones to protect his players from injury and stress on the joints – and numbered shirts, but it wasn’t until after his death that the FA allowed numbers.
He did feel that when a team changes a manager for fear of relegation, the practice invariably failed to work – something a lot of Premier League clubs would privately concur with, no doubt – and this was 80 years before today.
But he suggested, to ease the fears of relegation and managerial change, that he would replace the bottom 11 teams in the top division with the top 11 teams of the second division every season. Thinking about it I would say that would have been his worst idea.
My only frustration in terms of the book, not of the writing but of information on Chapman was the lack of information on his Trade Unionism…
Yes, I agree. Considering his brother was active in Trades Unionism – not in terms of Bob Crow Trades Unionism but in representing the working man – the fact there is virtually nothing on what Chapman thought or felt is frustrating. It was a different age where people were not encouraged to show their feelings or reveal too much of their inner thoughts – and Chapman as a football man would never have been asked his views on non-football subjects.
Yet it is interesting that all his players were members of the Union at Huddersfield whereas none were at Arsenal. So much so that the PFA, who have always been a strong Union wrote a letter to one of the Arsenal players who was the PFA representative at the club asking why none of the players was a member. Unfortunately that letter was destroyed so we have no way of knowing – which is frustrating.
Describe Herbert Chapman in four words.
Tactful. Innovative. God-fearing. Genius.
More generally, what do you enjoy more about writing a book, the research or the writing itself?
That’s the easiest question I’ve ever had to answer! As you will know, being a journalist and someone who writes for a living, the research is infinitely more enjoyable! Writing is hell. People who write occasionally ask how can that be? To that I reply – what’s the hardest thing about going on holiday? Writing the postcards home!
How do you circumvent task avoidance when it comes to sitting down and working?
I don’t. Task avoidance is anything I can think of. Eating, reading, going to the toilet – anything that involves evading writing. I only write when you get that feeling in your stomach that forces you to write, and then you do it. And of course it’s fine once you get started. But, yes task avoidance involves many things.
How much does luck play a part when writing and conducting research? I read that when you were writing your book on Jose Mourinho you covered the Sporting Lisbon v Newcastle UEFA Cup game and by chance you found out that the manager in the hotel you were staying at had been taught by Mourinho at school!
You’re absolutely right, luck does play a big part. When I was writing the Chapman book I met an Arsenal fan whose grandfather watched Chapman’s Arsenal team and she took me down to meet him. He was still very alert and bright – and actually said that he would rather watch football under Arsene Wenger’s best teams than under Herbert Chapman’s. Luck does play a part.
A notable journalist once said to a friend of mine that when he entered the industry some football reporters used to earn more than the players, and as such the dynamic in the relationship between the two trades was completely different – which led to drastically different results in terms of copy. Would you agree?
Yes. Without a doubt. It’s hard to talk to Premier League footballers about other things. For example if I say that I bought a new sofa from IKEA most Premiership footballers will say: “What’s IKEA?” If they need a new sofa they would probably get someone to design it for them – or rebuild their house to incorporate a £20,000 sofa…so it makes it hard to establish any common ground.
How would you say football writing has changed since you first entered the profession?
Football writing has changed immensely from when I started. Back then, once you had got your quotes and filed your copy that was it, more or less. Now you have to check the website and perhaps write further pieces, so the workload has increased substantially whereas the money has fallen, if anything. Of course the ‘star’ journalists such as Martin Samuel and Henry Winter would be on six figures, the rest somewhat less. Per ‘unit’ – as it were – pay for journalists has fallen dramatically.