…On this day in 1937
“Butcher” Boulton downed most of the Arsenal defence
Frank Boulton puts paid to Herbie Roberts’ season and Arsenal’s slim title challenge in just three punches during a League game against West Brom.
In an unprecedented series of events he managed to not only hospitalise Roberts, but knock out Hapgood and hit Crayston.
Arsenal versus West Bromwich Albion
Date: Saturday 3 April 1937
Competition: Football League Division One
Davidson 26, Nelson 39
West Bromwich Albion 0
Arsenal: F Boulton, G Male, E Hapgood, J Crayston, H Roberts, W Copping, A Kirchen, C Bastin, R Bowden, R Davidson, D Nelson
West Bromwich Albion: J Adams, R Finch, C E Shaw, J Murphy, A Ridyard, J Rix, J Mahon, S Heaselgrave, W G Richardson, W Boyes, W Robbins.
Arsenal went into the game chasing the title in direct competition with Manchester City and Charlton. Opponents West Bromwich Albion had, a month earlier, defeated the Gunners 3-1 in the quarter-final of the FA Cup in a tie that produced the record Hawthorns attendance of 64,815, which still stands today.
Unsurprisingly West Brom had their eye on the impending semi-final which was scheduled for the next week and generally played as though they were looking not to get injured for the forthcoming big game. Consequently WBA did not put too much pressure on the home side.
Little happened in the opening twenty or so minutes until Arsenal’s self imposed reduction in numbers which was caused by a moment of sheer comedy, though it is doubtful that the recipient saw it in the same way.
After twenty five minutes Frank Boulton, the Arsenal goalkeeper, accidentally punched his own centre-half Herbie Roberts with a right hook. He dashed out to clear a shot by Walter Robbins but his fist not only knocked the ball out of shape, it followed through and caught Roberts in the groin.
Roberts, soon after his contact with Boulton’s fist, went limping off the pitch, and spent the rest of Saturday in the Royal Northern hospital, and he stayed in for observation.
Just after Roberts had left the pitch for the dressing room, an unmarked Bobby Davidson found by a throw-in slipped in a neat little cross shot from the edge of the penalty area which gave Arsenal the lead.
Margate-trained David Nelson, made an impressive first Highbury appearance in the first team at outside-left which he marked by scoring a goal. A couple of minutes before half time a Ray Bowden cross was met perfectly as he hit a full blooded volley past James Adams in the WBA goal to double the Gunners lead.
There were no more goals and the match at Highbury was more like a rehearsal than the real thing with most of the play concentrated in midfield. The visitors showed glimpses of genius in attack, their right wing often carried the ball into the danger zone but there was a lack of deadly seriousness when they got within shooting range.
A makeshift Arsenal defence, with Crayston in Roberts’ place at centre-half, kept out whatever the WBA forwards did manage to muster.
Boulton was soon at it again lunging out at a couple of threatening high balls. First he smacked Hapgood who was out for the count but was revived after a faceful of cold water administered from the sponge.
Then Crayston was lucky to receive just a bloody nose in the same manner; maybe Boulton’s heart wasn’t in it at this point!
Thankfully both could carry on, though Hapgood required a stint on the sidelines before he could come back on.
George Male was the only defender who managed to keep out of the way of the marauding Boulton and he remained sturdy in defence. It was probably wise for the keeper to also avoid the other defensive minded player: Wilf Copping!
Up front Ray Bowden in the middle supplied the artistry, Alf Kirchen the power, and Nelson and Davidson the fizz.
After this game Arsenal were top of the League but Manchester City had two games in hand; Boulton’s antics had put a serious dent in the hopes Arsenal had in their title challenge.
They were already short of Ted Drake who was on the injury list and unable to play for the rest of the season. As it turned out they had also lost their defensive talisman for the remaining games, with Roberts being ruled unfit.
In the Daily Express on 5 April the reporter noted that:
“Boulton of course, was upset. One could hardly blame him. His explanation was that in dealing with these shots, he had both eyes fixed firmly on the ball”.
Roberts may have raised a wry smile at that quote, though probably not at the time.
George Allison took to referring to the three injured players collectively as the ‘Boulton Wanderers’.
Frank Boulton was signed during the season in October 1936 from Bath City. In the following 1937-38 season he made 15 appearances which was just enough to gain a winners medal in the Gunners fifth League Championship win of the 1930s.
As part of the Boulton transfer fee Arsenal agreed to play a game at Bath in aid of the club, so the Bath Coronation Cup was born where the Gunners played Portsmouth in Bath on 19 April 1937.
While at the game a journalist visited the Arsenal dressing room to see Boulton. As he could not be found the pressman asked where he was. Compton replied “you mean Butcher Boulton?…A player who tries to kill half his own side…must be a butcher.”
This had added resonance as his trade was actually that of a butcher and had obviously been the butt of merciless dressing room jokes about his bizarre antics at the start of the month.
At retirement from football Boulton became a butcher in Swindon
The rest of the 1936-37 season:
In the final four games Arsenal only picked up three points including an effective four pointer defeat the next weekend to the eventual champions Manchester City. City managed to do the double over Arsenal in this season, and the Gunners dropped to third when all the games were played.
Additionally, while Arsenal were losing at Manchester City, WBA lost at Highbury the next weekend in the FA Cup semi-final to Preston North End.
Arsenal 1936-37 Season Facts:
The final piece of Herbert Chapman’s dream of upgrading Highbury was completed, as the East Stand was opened on 24 October 1936.
Sadly he was not to see it built, but the famous bronze Chapman bust was unveiled in the marble halls earlier in the week on 22 October 1936. This was commissioned by the Chapman Pals, a group of supporters dedicated to the memory of their friend Herbert Chapman.
At the end of the season Alex James, arguably Arsenal’s greatest ever player, retired.
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- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal – crowd behaviour at the early matches