The post-war years (1945–66)

Arsenal adopted this red crest in 1949, which was a familiar sight until its replacement in 2002.

The war had claimed the lives of nine Arsenal first team players, the most of any top flight club, and the intervening time had cut short the careers of several others, including Bastin and Drake. Additionally, the debts from the construction of Highbury and the costs of repairing war damage were a heavy financial burden, and Arsenal struggled at first when competitive football resumed in 1946. They lost 6–1 on aggregate to West Ham United in the third round of the 1945–46 FA Cup, and upon the league’s resumption in 1946–47 the club finished 13th, their worst in 17 years. George Allison decided to retire from football at the end of that season, and was replaced by his assistant Tom Whittaker, a long-time servant of the club who had been trainer under Chapman.

Whittaker enjoyed immediate success, winning the League title in 1947–48; led by captain Joe Mercer‘s strong defence and with goals from attacking front two of Reg Lewisand Ronnie Rooke, Arsenal were top of the table from October until the season’s climax, winning by a seven point margin. However, given the age of the Arsenal side at the time (Rooke and Mercer were both over thirty, as were Denis and Leslie Compton), long-term success was not possible. In response, Whittaker had brought in younger players such as Doug LishmanAlex Forbes and Cliff Holton. Although Arsenal were unable to sustain any challenges for the League title, with the new blood they won the FA Cup in 1949–50, with Reg Lewis scoring both goals in a 2–0 win over Liverpool.

The 1951–52 season saw the club nearly win the Double, but ultimately end up empty-handed; a series of injuries and a fixture pile-up at the end of the season saw Arsenal lose their last two matches, including the title decider against eventual champions Manchester United at Old Trafford on the last day of the season; after losing 6–1, the Gunners finished third, equal on points with Tottenham. A week later, Arsenal played Newcastle United in the 1952 FA Cup Final, with several recovering players rushed back into the first team; Walley Barnes was taken off injured with a twisted knee after 35 minutes (no substitutes were allowed then), and ten-man Arsenal suffered further injuries to Holton, Roper and Daniel, so that by the end of the match they had only seven fit players on the pitch; with the numerical advantage in their favour, Newcastle won 1–0 with a goal from George Robledo.

Despite the disappointment of the previous season, Arsenal won their seventh League title in 1952–53; in one of the closest title races, they beat Preston North End to the title on goal average after finishing level on points. The title looked to be Preston’s after Arsenal lost to them 2–0 at Deepdale in the penultimate game of the season, but Arsenal came from behind to beat Burnley 3–2, to take the title on 0.099 of a goal. That proved to be Arsenal’s last trophy for seventeen years, as Arsenal’s fortunes began to wane, particularly after the unexpected death of Tom Whittaker in October 1956.

As the club’s fortunes declined, they found themselves unable to attract many stars (Welsh international goalkeeper Jack Kelsey being a notable exception), while up and coming players such as David Herdleft for more successful clubs. Jack Crayston and George Swindin, both former players, followed Whittaker but could not replicate his success. Apart from finishing third in 1958–59 and fifth in both 1955–56and 1956–57, Arsenal usually finished in mid-table. Nor did the club have much luck in the FA Cup — after reaching the final in 1951–52, Arsenal would not get beyond the quarter-finals again until 1970–71. To make matters worse for the club, Tottenham Hotspur won the Double in 1960–61.

In 1962, Arsenal made the bold but ultimately unsuccessful step of appointing former England and Wolves captain Billy Wright as manager, despite his lack of managerial experience and the fact he had no prior experience with the club. Like his two immediate predecessors, Wright was not very successful, although it was under his leadership that the club made their debut in European competition, in the 1963–64 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup after finishing seventh in 1962–63. In his final season, Arsenal finished 14th, their lowest position in 36 years, and recorded the lowest attendance at Highbury — 4,554 in a match against Leeds United on 5 May 1966. The only Arsenal player to figure in England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup-winning squad was George Eastham, who did not play at all during the tournament. Wright was dismissed by the Arsenal board in the summer of 1966, and was replaced by club physiotherapist Bertie Mee. Though the club’s directors did not know it at the time, Mee would turn around the club and lead them to success both in Europe and at home within the next five years.

 

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