‘Red Letter Days’
By Dan Betts
Review of Jon Spurling’s recently released Arsenal book
Dante Alighieri, the author and philosopher who penned 'The Divine Comedy', is quoted as saying "There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time when miserable". Seeing how our beloved Arsenal are plunged in the depths of a currently mediocre season, a window to view more halcyon times may bring about more storm-clouds. However, Jon Spurling's book - Red Letter Days - dissipates any negativity as you become more engrossed by his writing.
There is currently a plethora of Arsenal-related reading material awaiting your keen eyes. Each one has its merits. If you happen to invest in this book, the first thing to do is flick to the back of this meaty tome to the bibliography. This indicates how much time and resource Spurling has dedicated in order to provide the most in-depth and well-researched effort he could. The book benefits from a gargantuan number of credible sources and a steadfast application.
Because of Arsenal's vibrant, rich and ultimately extensive history, it would be criminal for fans merely to offer a doff of the cap to some herculean past events that the club have gone through. As alluded to in the book, so many moments that have restructured our club for the better were at the mercy of the 'sliding-doors' effect - irrelevant occurrences that have taken the fate of our club on a greater tangent rather than a more lugubrious path. Indeed, the common thread that is entwined within the pages is that the glory-days, trophy-wins and headline grabbing events that served as the foundation for the modern day superclub we know today - if not for a lucky touch off Steve Nicol, or by 0.099 of a goal - we could have had a very different Arsenal.
The book’s chapters are in chronological order and the journey starts off in the mould of a detective novel as the author details how scarce the information is on Henry Norris, the man painted as a cutthroat with precious few scruples who set aside the rules in order to boost his coffers and his pride by means of promoting his club Woolwich Arsenal to the First Division. Spurling has a talent for the revelatory, and I lost count of the number of times I expressed surprise as yet another preconceived idea I had regarding our history fell by the wayside.
Thanks to his tireless work in the field of research, Spurling casts Norris in an entirely different light. A successful businessman such as he was (as well as a journalist, freemason, Colonel and an MP) doesn't rise to the positions he occupied without being a little ruthless, but his introduction to the Arsenal board saved the club. Suffering from low attendance and lower interest levels from locals, his notion to up roots to the other side of the Thames not only kept the club alive but rescued us from swimming in a mire of insignificance. He sold our star player at the very beginning of his time at the helm - risking the ire of the few fans that attended - to give Woolwich Arsenal enough sustenance to continue operations. It is pointed out he kept injured soldiers who returned from battle in work. Not quite the villain of the piece after all. The author suggests that whilst he doesn't have a bronze effigy standing outside the Emirates, he surely ranks among the most important people in our entire history. I happen to agree. How could I not? When the manifesto is so eloquent and stacked with good reason, I surrender to it willingly. This wasn't the last time that 'facts' stored in my brain were forced to evacuate as Spurling rewrote what I thought I knew.
The entry chapter regarding Norris fascinated me and had my attention in a headlock. Spurling then shone his all-seeing gaze upon Charlie Buchan. Not one of the 32 greats that currently adorn the exterior of our vast stadium - but it is championed that he is perhaps our most important signing. My mind screamed "heresy!" as visions of Bergkamp, Henry, Wright and other luminaries of the Cannon flashed by. Spurling once more uses sound reasoning as he so fluently writes about how Buchan - despite staying for just three seasons and not lifting one item of silverware - brought with him a dazzling spotlight which in turn reaped greater attention from the media. His razor-sharp tactical mind was just as much responsible for the glut of trophies in the 1930s as Herbert Chapman was. He was lauded as a great thinker on the pitch and the reporters adored him. He ruffled more than a few feathers but the cornerstones for our success which put us on the map and firmly established us were partially laid by Buchan. Cue my gasps of disbelief as I read. I always thought it was Chapman who was the man solely responsible for grabbing our beleaguered club by the collar and dragging us into the future. What more surprises lay in store within these reams of paper?
The next couple of chapters rightfully focus on the Herbert Chapman era, from his most astute signings to the leaps in thinking he took. It is widely known that he introduced the white sleeves to our now famous red and white shirts, but as to the reason why, I was none the wiser. Step forward Spurling to colour me surprised once more. It was to enhance the players’ peripheral vision on the field. Chapman was driven, and his eagerness to find any edge over opponents led him to think outside of what was a very rigid box back then. Chapman sadly passed away in 1934, but his last act was to earmark a potential signing, one who would go on to plunder goals aplenty - Ted Drake.
The book reveals that Drake was very much in the mould of a rough and ready striker willing to put his head or any other available part in the way of danger for the chance to get a goal. The most candid highlight though was reading about how Drake and Bastin did not enjoy the warmest of relationships as Bastin thought of Drake as playing football the wrong way. This was gold.
The book then serenely takes you on a brilliant tour of more austere times. From when Highbury was damaged in WWII and we ground-shared with Tottenham (shudder), we then nibble on some delicious nuggets of information. Of particular note was the part where we signed 32-year-old Joe Mercer and 35-year-old Ronnie Rooke. These players were viewed as has-beens and crocks. To highlight this, Mercer's former boss as Joe left his club informed the papers that "he won't last six months at Arsenal". He played on for another eight years. While Spurling does a delightful job of describing in detail the knocks and pains these players suffered, he also leaves you with an indelible reminder of how valuable their inputs were. If it weren't for the underwhelming capture of these two journeymen, it is surmised that Arsenal would have been relegated. So thank you, Ronnie Rooke and Joe Mercer!
Merely stating that these brilliant facts and revelatory sentences piqued my interest would do a great disservice to the author. My eyebrows suffered from RSI as every page had repeated eyebrow-raisers, such as the fact that, even before a ball was kicked in the 1950 FA Cup campaign, George Swindin predicted we would be drawn at home four times and win the cup. His teammates ridiculed him for his ridiculous prophecy but as the results and draws occurred they all soon stopped the jibes. It happened just as he said. How peculiar. When I read such things, it often strikes me how difficult it must have been for the author to seek such material out of the past. Spurling must have either burnt out his retinas at various libraries or fashioned a rudimentary time-travel machine, for the pages seem born from the time he writes of.
I could wax lyrical over the section he writes about the 1953 title-winning campaign. How we won by the slenderest of margins, about the gentleman's conduct that not only seems a stranger to the modern game but put one hand on the trophy, or even our manager going on a disappearing act midway through the final game - but to do this would be to talk through a gripping movie while you watched or to tell you of an upcoming twist before you viewed it. Trust me though; this isn't a book which you can skim through. To do that is to risk missing out on an unearthing of truly enlightening happenings. They add colour to what is previously grey, and lure you to read on to dig up more. The author is more than willing to divulge more mental treasure as you read on.
We touch upon Whittaker, from him to Billy Wright and his rudderless tenure as we stop upon every highlight and trough along the way to the present day. From there we come to Bertie Mee, former physio turned Arsenal Manager. Spurling highlights his mastery of delegation as the reason why he brought success back to Arsenal after a barren run so long that if it happened now it would leave social media in a foaming mass. Mee realised his strengths but acknowledged his shortcomings, and his masterstroke to bring in Sexton and later Howe was behind Arsenal getting back on the glory trail. I devoured the pages as I read about the Fairs Cup campaign of 1970 and the defining 1971 Double season. We visit briefly the 'Jinx of McLintock' and gaze upon what is viewed as the most important match of the entire Double campaign. The book once more not only taught but entertained.
The author focuses in turn on the titanic moments we all know of but looks upon them from a different viewpoint. When reading the book, each occasion is scrutinised from different stances and then a wholly different outcome is offered. It is utterly refreshing to read and showcases perfectly the zealous nature through which the author must have undertaken the writing of this book.
Sprinkled liberally throughout are facts that simply astonish, data that rips apart any notions you once had and then expressively shows you what 'actually' occurred. The book not only acted as a tutor but as a paper Yoda - a sage voice showing you the light and the correct path. A regular sound was that of synapses within my grey matter snapping apart and forging new connections as things I thought I knew were hastily connected to different conclusions.
The vast number of sources Spurling talked to, the mammoth amount of reading he must have undertaken, is completely evident as you voyage across the tides of Arsenal's annals. It isn't solely serene waters the book sails through - the turbulent murky depths are also focused on. The prosperous eras of Messrs Graham and Wenger aren't only for donning the rose-tinted spectacles. Graham's enduring obsession, his defensive mindset, led to the destruction of the very strength that brought so much success and this is made all the more edifying by the raft of first-hand inputs from squad-members who endured this taciturn approach. Wenger and his perceived lack of tactical adjustment for the strength of oppositions are touched upon by not only the astute scribe but by former pupils of Wengerball. The book treads not upon any path of allegiance other than the bridleway of truth and it is better for it.
Most teachers would tell you - in between sighs of futility - that the key to learning is to make sure the intended target is not aware they are learning, to make the learning fun. This book is the undoubted GrandMaster Flash when it comes to this. Along this fruitful journey, I had not only learned a host of new factoids about Arsenal, but I had retained them - which in my recent years is becoming increasingly hard. I take this as a sign of how much I enjoyed every morsel the author served up. History was never my forte at school, attempting to cram up on the potato famine and Glasgow housing problems left me with a listless feeling and daydreams of freedom that didn't involve spuds. I never liked spuds. This book though, took me by the proverbial hand on the most vibrant, eclectic and simply pleasurable stroll through the events that directly constructed Arsenal.
I could go on and keep trying to illustrate in my rudimentary style how this book incorporates not only the keypoints of Arsenal as a whole but so many revealing ideas, theories and facts that every single page acts as a sentry guarding a treasure trove of surprises and mind-treats. It truly was a pleasure reading each and every paragraph.
I implore you - if you wish to deepen your connection to Arsenal and learn what makes other clubs look upon our history and ways with envious glances - then you must purchase Red Letter Days. Spurling has surely cornered the market with this effort and I struggle to think of how he could have bettered it. Sans pictures of Alexis's partner - I'm nonplussed.
9th December 2014 09:00:00
Comments and Reaction
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Roy 16:15pm 9th Dec 2014
Ok Dan, it's on the Xmas list. And thanks for giving me a chuckle with " a barren run so long that if it happened now it would leave social media in a foaming mass". Best place for a lot of it ! - Post No. 66422
Rob 21:26pm 9th Dec 2014
Have ordered my copy. Never met JS or know anyone who knows him. But his book 'Highbury The Story of Arsenal in London N5' was nothing sort of magnificent. Definitive I say ! And if this is as good, then it will make an excellent Christmas read and something to take our collective minds off other things. - Post No. 66432
Dan 22:19pm 15th Dec 2014
Glad you both enjoyed the review, but you'll enjoy the book more! - Post No. 66862
27th April 2017
Online Ed: Arsenal leave it late v Leicester in front of subdued crowd