Ronnie Rooke. Aged 35 and playing for Fulham after the second world war, he would be described as a ‘handful’ in the modern parlance for a striker. Alongside Jose Antonio Reyes and Brian Marwood, perhaps one of Arsenal’s finest short term signings to win us the league title. In a mere 94 games he would score 70 goals.
Standing in at 6’ 3” tall and weighing 15 stone, Ronnie could certainly buffet the defenders around him. Having originally started at Crystal Palace prior to World War two, he moved to Fulham, becoming their leading scorer for three consecutive seasons from 1936-39, in the war he served as a PT instructor in the RAF. After the war, he went back to Fulham.
After the second world war, British clubs would take part in series of the friendlies with the war allies in Russia. The team they would take on would be called Moscow Dynamo in the late winter of 1945.
One of the games would be against Arsenal. Unfortunately, due to damage done Highbury by incendiary bombs Arsenal played the friendly at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane. Arsenal had yet to have a full squad and had to invite 6 ‘guest’ players, which included Stan Mortensen and Stanley Matthews. It also included Ronnie Rooke who would score on his unofficial debut against the Russians, in a match that was famously described by The Mail as ‘the most farcical match which has ever been played’ due to the heavy fog.
Arsenal would lose an i’ll tempered game even though Rooke and Mortensen (2) had put Arsenal 3-1 up. The Russians felt:-
Rooke, had played ‘extremely roughly’. Back in Moscow, radio commentator Vadim Sinyavsky agreed with Izvestia’s view that the Dynamos’ playing style was ‘a game of much higher class’.
In December 1946 Rooke was signed by George Allison. The fee? £1,000 plus David Nelson & Cyril Grant* with Arsenal struggling in the league. Rooke had never played in the top Division, but scored the only goal on his debut at Highbury against Charlton (who would go on to win the F.A cup that year in the season of 1946-7). Whilst we had this bulking guy up front the wrong side of 30 we had a player at the back organising the defence in the magnificent Joe Mercer (another aging bargain).
It all really changed in that season after the war when George Allison signed Joe Mercer and Ronnie Rooke. I know it sounds crazy, but what was happening was that we were playing some good football but nobody was finishing them. Reg Lewis was the only one who was getting any goals. Jimmy Logie wasn’t expected to get any.
His new team-mates said of him ‘He looked like a real thug – almost a dead ringer for Reggie Kray – but in fact he was a teddy bear’ (Laurie Scott) whilst George Male said ‘I didn’t really think that Ronnie was Arsenal material at first. But the chap never stopped scoring.’
In Rooke’s first six games for the Arsenal, he would score an impressive 7 goals. In his first full season, in a struggling Arsenal team he would make 27 league and cup appearance scoring 24 goals. This would also be one of Arsenal’s few players to get a hat-trick over Manchester United in 1947 in a 6-2 win. Arsenal ended a disappointing 13th (still the best of the London teams).
In the close season George Allison had resigned and was replaced by Tom Whittaker. The following season Ronnie Rooke would push Arsenal to a title. Not to say he was the only player that hit form. Arsenal had signed Don Roper after Whittaker had been to see him 11 times at Southampton. Mercer Had been made Captain from George Male the previous season. Arsenal also had Walley Barnes, one of Wales finest full backs. Up front was Reg Lewis and behind them Jimmy Logie. A fantastic team.
If I look at Arsenal’s title winning teams, especially my favourites they would be 1989 and 1991. The reason? I like football for team work. Individual brilliance can be wonderful and the titles of 1998 was won by Dennis Bergkamp and 2004 maybe Thierry Henry individual displays won the League. But the 1989 and 1991 teams are like the 1947-8 was based on teamwork.
The season of 1947-8 would see Ronnie Rooke play all 42 league games scoring an amazing 33 goals. Outstanding games for Rooke? Maybe the four goals against Grimsby in an 8-0 win? A hat trick against Middlesbrough in a 7-0 win?
Arsenal won the league over Manchester United by 7 points, with a plus 49 goal difference, scoring 137 goals.
Ironically, in a season when we would win the league, Arsenal could not help but have perhaps an unmitigated disaster in the F.A Cup. Arsenal would play just one game losing to the now defunct Bradford Park Avenue at Highbury. Some things never change.
Rooke would play half the following season scoring 14 goals in 22 appearances before departing to manage Crystal Palace. Therefore, Rogue Ronnie Rooke: Arsenal’s greatest bargain that ever was at £1,000 for a return of 94 appearances and scoring 70 goals.
*Big thanks to The Arsenal historian Andy Kelly for this information.
I was contacted by Hayley Wright, the video blogger for Arseblog and Billy’s granddaughter, regarding Les Crang’s Rogues Gallery piece on Billy Wright. She is a lovely person and only wanted to make one correction and offer some other facts about her grandfather that we might find interesting. I publish them here without any further comment. You can follow Hayley on twitter @HayleyWright
Just one factual error:
- In the 1962-63 season, Arsenal reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, not fourth.
There may have been a few other things worth mentioning:
- Billy signed Bob Wilson from Wolves in 1963 when Bob was an amateur – you know the rest.
- Billy signed former England player Don Howe from West Bromwich Albion for £40,000 in 1964. Howe played for two more seasons at full-back before retiring and then becoming first-team coach at Highbury. As coach, he was influential in Arsenal winning the European Fairs Cup in 1970 and the League and FA Cup double a year later.
- Most of the 1970/71 Double Winning side made their debuts under Billy.
- Arsenal also won the FA Youth Cup for the first time under Billy. They achieved this in 1966, his final year as manager, having been beaten finalists the previous season.
- Billy was the first manager to install undersoil heating at Highbury in the summer of 1963. It happened after a famously terrible winter when countless matches were postponed all over the country.
Billy Wright was Arsenal’s manager from 1962-1966 and is often the forgotten man of Arsenal history. Predominantly, Billy Wright is remembered for his time at Wolverhampton Wanderers and England captain as a elegant centre half. For Wolves he would make 541 appearances between 1939-59, as well as a world record (at the time) of 105 caps (90 as captain) for England between 1946-59.
Billy Wright’s international career was maybe best remembered for being the captain in 1953 in the 6-3 home defeat to Hungary. Of their third goal it was said:-
Their third was a goal of rare beauty and mesmerising skill, the ‘Galloping Major’ Puskas expertly dragging the ball away from Billy Wright “with the art of a bullfighter”, according to Sewell, before crashing a shot high into the roof of the net. “Wright rushed into that tackle like a man racing to the wrong fire,” surmised Geoffrey Green in the Times the next day.
Billy Wright, prior to joining Arsenal had been working with the England youth and under 23 team (a precursor to the under 21’s side) and had been strongly tipped to take over the full international team in due course from Walter Winterbottom. Unfortunately, the manager from small, provincial, Ipswich Town had won the title in 1961-2; he was called Alf Ramsey and was making waves for the England job.
Walter Winterbottom resigned after the 1962 World Cup, and the papers had Alf Ramsey as favourite for the job, with Billy Wright second favourite. In the end, obviously, Alf took the job, but Billy Wright was certainly held in high esteem by both the press and the F.A. His near appointment would also underline that Billy Wright had more of an affinity with the young players at the time.
After the 1961-2 season, the Arsenal manager and ex-player George Swindin resigned from the post finishing a disappointing 10th in the league and losing in the 4th round of F.A Cup, away to Manchester United. Worse, in 1960-1 Spurs had won the double and followed it up in the season of 1961-2 winning the F.A Cup.
Everyone spoke well of him. Not the least of the recommendations was that he was still an idol of the football-minded lads had all over the country and the Arsenal board believed he would attract young talent to Highbury.
Billy Wright started the pre-season by trying to improve the forward line, signing an ‘English’ striker from Italy (Spurs had done it the previous year with Jimmy Greaves). This would be the legendary Joe Baker, who was bought from Torino for £70,000. Joe Baker was a diminutive striker from Scotland, but born in Liverpool, becoming the first Scottish based player to play for England.
Jon Spurling in his excellent chapter on Billy Wright in Red Letter Day said:-
The Gunners began the 1962/63 campaign well, winning matches against Leyton Orient and Birmingham. Before game three, a Highbury contest with Manchester United, Wright walked down the tunnel, saw the expectant 62,308 crowd and returned to the dressing room, barely able to contain his excitement. Baker recalled, ‘Billy told us, “This is what Arsenal is about. Packed crowds, sunshine, playing teams like Manchester United, and (he leant over and rubbed my sleeve between his forefingers) these lovely red and white shirts. Beautiful. Now go and win boys.”’ His team went down 3-1, and didn’t win again for six matches.
The first season under Billy Wright would end with Arsenal finishing a commendable 7th in the league. They would lose in the fourth round of the F.A cup to Liverpool, at home. In many ways it was actually a fairly impressive first season with Arsenal getting into Europe for the first time in their history.
Going forward Arsenal looked impressive, scoring 86 goals. Unfortunately, at the back, Arsenal conceded 77 goals. Joe Baker would score an impressive 31 league and cup goals, scoring a hat trick in the final home game against Fulham. Baker had formed an impressive partnership with Geoff Strong, who had scored 21 league and cup goals. Although Wright had done ok in his first season, Spurs had won the European Cup Winners Cup.
Arsenal, were nothing if not interesting during Billy Wright’s first season: at White Hart Lane, Arsenal played out a 4-4 draw, they also beat Wolves 5-4, and drew with Blackburn 5-5. Wright felt Arsenal needed a new defensive pair and captain the following season. So Billy Wright infamously went out and bought a new centre half. Ian Ure for a fee of £62,500 from from Dundee. At the time it seemed a great signing, as Dundee in the season of 1961-2 had won the Scottish title, and the following year made the Semi-final of the European Cup. Unfortunately, he wasn’t that good on the ground. Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, famously called Jeff Blockley ‘”an incompetent to rival Ian Ure”.
Billy Wright had made me club captain at the age of twenty the year before, and though I was honoured to be given the job, I knew I was too young and inexperienced. I think Billy Wright saw me as a reincarnation of himself, a centre-half who was destined to lead the side from an early age. With senior players like Joe Baker, George Eastham [who took over the captaincy in 1963-4] and Geoff Strong around, I did not find it easy.’
The following season, Arsenal had qualified for Europe for the first time. If anything can underline Billy Wright’s time at Arsenal, it could perhaps be the European expedition. Why? Well, it was short, the results showed a team that yo-yo’d, and was also a money loser (though that was hardly Wright’s fault).
In the first round of the European Fairs Cup, Arsenal faced Danish team Stævnet. Hardly a big tie. Arsenal went to Denmark and won 7-1, with Baker and Strong both scoring hat-tricks. In the next leg, Arsenal’s first tie at Highbury, it would attract just 13,569 fans. Arsenal 3-2 to Stævnet.
In the next round we faced RFC Liège. Hardly the biggest tie in the world. Arsenal then drew 1-1 at Highbury (an attendance of 22,003) but in the next tie, Arsenal would lose 3-1. The European expedition was turning financially disastrous, with Bob Wall stating:-
In January 1968, Mr.Denis Hill-Wood, our chairman, stated that, if Arsenal qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs cup, he and his colleagues would have to think seriously whether to accept an invitation to play in Europe.
When Arsene Wenger talks about 4th place in the Premier League being like a trophy, many of us agree. As a revenue stream via television rights, advertising and tickets, one cannot doubt its importance. But back in the 1960’s things were different. There were no cheap flights or many travelling fans then. Bob Wall explained that the first time Arsenal had played in Europe in 1963 they had played Staevnet of Denmark and lost to R.F.C Liege, writing ‘when we came to work out all our expenses and income, we discovered we had lost money’.
Over the next 3 season, Arsenal would go into steady decline. In his last season of 1965-6, Arsenal would end a disappointing 14th and be knocked out the F.A Cup in the third round, 3-0 to Blackburn (who would finish bottom of the 1st division by the end of the season). Billy Wright struggled at Arsenal.
I remember the Wright must go season. It was bad enough going to Blackburn and losing 3-0 in the Cup. Then the friday I read in the paper : Baker and Eastham can go. I cried. They were my heroes, you know. Putting them on the transfer list! With Billy Wright, even though I was only 14 or whatever, I knew we wouldn’t win anything with him. I mean, 105 caps, he was a good player and a decent man. But we have to have him out: Wright must go. Saying that though, there was this incredible mixture. There was an intense loyalty that 65-66 season as well.. There was a big game against Liverpool and the chant stated: The Arsenal! The Arsenal! It was actually written about in the papers. We were having a terrible time. We lost 1-0. But I remember the crowd keeping the chant going. I mean, as supporters we don’t have the chance to say : Look we know you’re a decent bloke and we don’t want to do this to you. But we can see this team is crap and it’s getting worse. Our lives are at stake here. So Wright must go.
The season would conclude with the infamous game against Leeds United in may 1966, when Arsenal would lose 3-0 in front of a crowd of 4,554.
Some of those present in the North Bank danced around a bonfire at the front of the terrace, and in the East Stand one bugle-carrying supporter played the ‘Last Post’.
Ironically, ten weeks later England won the World Cup and Billy Wright was sacked by Arsenal. One wonders, if Wright had been manager, would England have won the World Cup?
So where did it go wrong for Billy Wright? For many, it was that Wright was never ‘an Arsenal man’. In other words, he had never been a player at the club and aware of the club. It was said that Wright would come into Arsenal and see the Herbert Chapman bust and shake his fist at it. Ironically, the rumour with George Graham was that he wanted his own bust (and why has he not?) next to Herbert Chapman. Two different characters, two different approaches.
Billy was also not helped by the players at times with Ian Ure saying of his tenure as manager:-
Billy wasn’t a good manager. He wasn’t hard enough and he didn’t have the willpower to get the players to work together. Forwards played as forwards, and midfielders purely as midfielders. The groups didn’t help each other out. Some players simply played for themselves.
Peter Storey also says in his biography that Billy Wright struggled with the pressure and was often found passed out in the changing room and often sided with the more senior players (read Joe Baker and George Eastham), although he gave the youngsters opportunities to get experience.
To me, the reason for the Larkin quote at the top of the page, is (and it is only an opinion), I feel he was a man from a different era. Billy was a 1940’s and 1950’s man. A period when players were deferential to their peers, but by the 1960’s society plus football was changing. George Eastham, in pushing through his transfer to Arsenal from Newcastle in 1960 had seen that, when it came to wages, there was no glass ceiling. Players were now assets and not slave labour as previously. Also, football and management had become more ‘professional’ and certainly more aggressive. Don Revie’s team at Leeds a case in point. Ian Ure pointed out in the 1968 League Cup final, under Bertie Mee, Arsenal took exception to Leeds dirty tactics and hit back. Something Wright would not have done.
Wright’s biographer Norman Giller claims that the former manager’s ‘fingerprints were all over Arsenal’s 1971 Double team’. Radford and Sammels both recount Wright’s decency and kindness to them personally as they began to make their way in the game. But it takes far more than the occasional kind word in a footballer’s ear to make a great manager.