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Feb 18, 2014

The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman

Rating:

There is something rather apt about the Herbert Chapman statue that stands outside the Emirates Stadium. While Thierry Henry and Tony Adams are around the corner -- soon to be joined by Dennis Bergkamp -- celebrating a goal from Arsenal's glorious past, Chapman is, with his arms folded behind his back, looking forward toward the club's present and future. Surveying the state-of-the-art ground, the former Gunners boss offers his silent approval to something that, many years ago, he planted the seed for; to something that, without his visionary contribution to the cause, would arguably not exist today.

And that revolutionary vision that Chapman showed, not just at Arsenal, but throughout his entire life and career, is encapsulated perfectly in Patrick Barclay's biography -- "The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman." As the book makes it its mission statement to point out, that vision has gone on to shape Chapman today as a man who may not be one of football's most remembered managers, but who is unquestionably one of the most important. So ahead of his time and contemporaries was he with his ideas and contributions to the game that upon his death, the book reveals, an obituary in the Times stated that even a novelist would reject his career as "too far-fetched."

And indeed it was. Barclay takes us on a fascinating ride as he profiles a man so at the forefront of innovation, it is hard to believe he is not a work of fiction. Who else in the history of the game can boast having argued for the introduction of -- or championed -- numbered shirts, European club competition, floodlit football, artificial pitches, feeder clubs, automatic promotion and a summer transfer window, to name just a few, at a time when English football, with its small island mentality, was stuck in its old ways? Chapman was a pioneer in the word's truest sense, and Barclay sums him up perfectly: "He did everything that football could ask of a mortal. Indeed he did more."

So extraordinary was Chapman's life that Barclay's role throughout the book is often merely as chief storyteller -- allowing his subject's tale to stand up and astonish by itself. Yet what the author does do, which makes this biography stand apart from its rivals, is to weave Chapman's story into the time in which he lived. This political and historical backdrop, which runs throughout, offers us an understanding of what exactly helped to mould and shape the man and the manager he became.

Historical events such as the First World War, the Depression and the rise of Fascism are prominent in the book, as they were in Chapman's life, and help give us a charming insight into a sport from a bygone age. Stories of a Hearts team enlisting into a "footballer's battalion" and heading to the trenches, or tales of how the regimes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler had an unhealthy influence on their nations' football teams, all help to shape our understanding of a very different era. That Chapman was, as Barclay puts it, "decades rather than years ahead of his time" among all of this is all the more remarkable.

On the pitch, Chapman was just as much a trendsetter as he was off it. Right from his early days as manager of Northampton Town, he was already starting to implement the counterattacking ideals that would later be fine-tuned into a devastating WM system, which would help revolutionise British football. With that came trophies, including multiple league titles and FA Cups at both Huddersfield and Arsenal -- to this day only Brian Clough has also managed two different teams to the title in the top division -- while he also laid the foundations for future success at both clubs after he had gone.

Chapman, though, was so much more than just a manager who won a few trophies. Part of his magic are the stories that helped inspire and fuel such achievements -- to which we are treated aplenty throughout the book. To name a few, the tale of how he got Bolton officials drunk enough to accept a lower offer for David Jack; his encounter with Mussolini while he was part-time England boss, and the way he bounced back after being banned by the Football Association for life from the sport. All serve to demonstrate what a remarkable man he really was, yet they are also a testament to Barclay's thorough research.

And it is down to Barclay's stellar work that when Chapman's premature death from pneumonia arrives at the age of 55 -- on the very same day as an Arsenal game -- we are left in such a heightened sense of utter disbelief. Disbelief that a man who had offered so much to the game, and one who had so much more to give, could be stolen from us so criminally early. Had he not been, who knows the heights he could have scaled.