The Arsenal Stadium Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS 'No one had tackled Doyce. He had been alone when he fell. He had simply folded up like a jack-knife and slipped to the ...

About The Author

Leonard Gribble

LEONARD GRIBBLE (1908-1985) was a prolific writer from Devon who wrote under several pseudonyms including Leo Grex and Piers Marlowe. ...

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I

History Is Made at Highbury

 

There was a sudden, expectant hush as Tom Whittaker walked into the dressing-room of the Arsenal team at Highbury, that same hush he has been greeted with for years, on every Arsenal home-match day.

“The boss wants to see you all upstairs in a quarter of an hour,” he announced.

“O.K., Tom.”

“Sure.”

“Righto, Tom.”

Life, suspended for a few moments for the almost traditional announcement, flowed again. The eleven first-team players idling in the dressing-room, waiting for the time when they can start changing, picked up the scraps of conversation they had let fall when the trainer entered.

One of the trainer’s assistants, standing by a table near the door into the main corridor, continued with his task of quartering a lemon. He let the knife he was using rattle against the table’s top. On to a cracked plate he poured a pile of sugar-coated squares of chewing gum.

“Just what I was looking for,” said a soft Welsh voice.

A couple of the chewing-gum squares disappeared behind Bryn Jones’s white teeth.

The assistant might not have heard or noticed. He was whistling under his breath and seemed intent on the tune.

“Hey, Bryn, what did you draw in the sweep?”

Britain’s highest-priced soccer star turned to satisfy the curiosity of his namesake from Aberdare. Leslie Jones’s round face was frowning reflectively. Beside him sat Bremner, on a seat that extended round three of the white-tiled walls. The forward was watching Swindin as the goalkeeper sat contemplating the green squares of the floor.

“What’s the matter?” he called, causing the goalkeeper to look up and grin.

“He’s looking for the double six,” said Ted Drake, his full-toned Hampshire voice pleasant to the ear.

“And looks like he’s only got the double blank,” chimed in Jack Crayston, brushing his curly hair with his left hand.

There was a general laugh from those in earshot. The speakers were well known for the strong domino school they formed on the journeys to away matches.

Light banter was flung to and fro, like a practice ball, but it was all on the surface, concealing each man’s true thoughts, masking his real feelings; and somehow it did not quite rob the atmosphere of tension, which was reflected in the earnestness on Cliff Bastin’s face as he read the team lists on the notice-board, in the slightly nervous gesture of Bernard Joy’s hands as he fingered his “lucky” tie, in the springy motions of Eddie Hapgood as he argued some point with his team partner George Male, and turned to throw a word at Alf Kirchen, the muscular winger.

The droning whistle of the assistant at the table near the door changed key as he set out a dozen cups and piled loaf sugar on to a plate.

That last tense quarter of an hour of inaction passed slowly. There was an audible sigh of relief when Whittaker said, “All right, lads, upstairs.”

The eleven members of that day’s “first” team filed through a narrow door, trooped up a flight of stairs, passed along a wide corridor, and entered a comfortably furnished room where George Allison—the “boss” to every player on the Arsenal Football Club’s books—was waiting, hands in trousers pockets, keen eyes watchful under contracted brows.

When the door was closed and the men had ranged themselves before the shining desk, the clear, modulated voice known to millions of sport-lovers all over the British Isles spoke.

“To-day,” George Allison told the team that only the previous season had won the soccer crown, “you’re going to play an historic match. You’re going to stand representative, as it were, of the best qualities of professional football in this country. You’re going to play the Trojans, the finest amateur side in Great Britain, the team that has captured the national imagination because of its clean, clever play. Now, I’m not going to tell you how to play. You know that. I’m just going to ask you to remember two things.”

He paused, searched the faces turned towards him.

“First,”  he added, “not  to let down the game.  Second, not to let down your club. I don’t ask anything else of you.”

The quiet, measured tones stopped. From an open box on his desk the speaker took a Turkish cigarette and fitted it into a holder.

Softly, as from a great distance, came the muted strains of a band playing to the thousands of spectators filling the stands. Outside the Stadium it was a bright, keen day, one of those invigorating Saturdays when the lion and the lamb of March seem content with each other’s company. Tawny sunshine, brittle as thin glass in the fresh but not boisterous wind, touched the fresh green of the field’s turf with pale gilt.

On one or two corners those standing stamped their feet, but more from good-natured impatience than from cold. The seventy-odd thousand that had jam-packed themselves into the Stadium ground were a holiday crowd, and the way they sang the popular choruses played by the band left no doubt as to the altitude of their spirits.

They had come to see a football game that would make history, the friendly clash between the League Champions and the amateur team that had, in a surprisingly short space, captured for itself much of the glory of the old-time Corinthians. Whatever happened, they would see a keen game, a worthy struggle.

The crowd knew that, and the knowledge was balm to its impatience.

Meanwhile, in the visitors’ dressing-room, Francis Kindilett, the proud manager of the Trojans, echoed the feelings expressed by George Allison to the Arsenal players.

“You’re up against the stiffest proposition you’ve ever tackled,” he told his team. “A professional side with a great record, a great tradition, and, above all, a great spirit to win. Do your best, boys. I can’t ask more of you, but I’m personally confident that your best is good enough. That’s all—and good luck.”

He nodded to the Trojan trainer, George Raille, to take over, and opened his copy of the red-covered programme. It was a great moment for him as he read the line-up of the teams; in a way, the fulfilment of a dream. For several years he had worked hard, in season and out, to prove that Britain could produce an amateur team capable of ranking with the best of the country’s professional elevens. He had done it. His team of carpenters and electricians, chemists and insurance brokers, clerks and salesmen had justified the boasts he had made.

And now the men of Troy, in their blue shirts, with the white horse on the chest, were matched against the red-and-white shirts of the Arsenal.

There was a slight mist before his eyes as he read through the teams again:

 

ARSENAL

Swindin

Male                                  Hapgood

Crayston                           Bernard Joy                     Leslie Jones

Kirchen        Bremner           Drake        Bryn Jones         Bastin

• • •

• • •

Garrow       Wellock            Bredge            Jeuner        Setchley

Smith                        Chulley                      Doyce

Crieff                                   Morring

Torburn

TROJANS

 

He knew in his heart that, whatever the outcome of  the day’s battle—and that battle would be spirited, hard-fought—the men of Troy would not be disgraced. Manager Kindilett was comforted by a great confidence in his team’s will-to-win.

At half-past two the Stadium was a hive of bustle and serious activity.

In the dressing-rooms freshly laundered shirts, shorts, and socks were taken from pegs. Players tried on boots, kicked the front studs against the heated green-tiled floor, to make them fit comfortably, oiled their limbs, padded their socks with cotton-wool lashed tight with rolls of bandage.

Tom Whittaker, a serious expression on his face, drew  a bandage round Bastin’s left ankle, another round Leslie Jones’s right ankle, and found time to look at Swindin’s arm—that unfortunate left arm that, shortly before Christmas, had been snapped by a kick from Hapgood in a grim tussle with Manchester United.

George Raille, alert, intent, worked hard in the visitors’ dressing-room, offering a word of advice here, massaging a limb there. He stopped before Doyce, the right half, who had joined the Trojans only a week before, and was the least-known quantity in the team.

“Don’t forget, Doyce. Feed your forwards. Keep up, and keep attacking.”

The right half ’s face—handsome in an effeminate way—changed expression, became sulky, obdurate.

“You don’t have to teach me twice times two, Raille.”

There was a deliberate sneer to the words, but the trainer passed on, his under lip caught between his teeth. Morring, the large-framed right back, who had watched the scene, drew closer to Doyce. He was in socks and shorts, and his hairy chest had the tautness of a drum.

“For God’s sake snap out of it!” he said. “Don’t go on the field carrying a chip on your shoulder.”

For a moment the two men eyed each other with acknowl- edged bitterness.

“Go to hell!” muttered Doyce, turning away.

Morring went back to his seat and took his shirt from the peg. There was a hard, inscrutable look in his eyes.

Six minutes later the crowd of more than seventy thousand roared itself hoarse as the teams ran on to the field.

“Here they come!”

“Up the Gunners!”

“Come on the Trojans! Troy! Troy!”

The shouting died, wavered like surf dragging on a shingly beach, then swelled to the roar of foaming breakers as Chulley and Hapgood, the two captains, bent over a coin spun by the referee and the former pointed to the southern goal. Troy had won the toss.

The teams lined up. Drake stood with the ball at rest against his right foot. The referee glanced up the field, taking in the crowded stands, the positioned players, the hovering linesmen, and raised the whistle to his mouth.

As its shrill note swept across the field the Arsenal centre-forward lifted the ball to his right, and Bremner pounced on it, turned, and raced forward. As the blue-shirted Smith ran in to tackle close the ball ran truly to Kirchen, who paused only to steady it, then was away.

The quick-moving, progressive advance brought a shout from the crowd. The game was on.

Every eye watched as Arsenal made that first lunge goal-wards, clean, deft, sure, as though they were going to hammer flat the Trojan defence.

But that defence was malleable. The hammer-blow was hard, calculated and timed, but it made no impression. Clever co-ordination of Crieff and Chulley left Torburn free to strut between his posts, swinging his long arms.

The crowd had received their first clear impression of the play. Professional and amateur, the teams were evenly matched. There was every prospect of the struggle becoming Olympic.

Then happened one of those hazards of football that frequently upset form and players. With Troy returning the pressure, and Bredge and Setchley giving Hapgood and Joy plenty of work, the ball suddenly ran loose in mid-field, where the watchful Bryn Jones snapped it up, like a gift from the soccer gods. Five foot six of scheming wizardry retained possession of the ball, swept it back towards the Trojan half, and released it in a long cross-drive to the waiting Drake.

Chulley was alive to the danger, and rushed to do battle, but the Arsenal centre-forward had secured a valuable half-second, due to Bryn Jones’s perfect timing, and had raced through, with the Trojan centre-half in close pursuit.

Another roar rose from the thousands of throats, ringed the field.

Torburn came out of his goal, hunched like a fighter, elbows back and braced, reducing the shooting angle offered to the Arsenal forward. Chulley appeared to leap in the air, but Drake’s right foot had pushed out suddenly, lifting the ball, and sending it flying across the goal, with the racing Morring unable to do anything to impede him.

Valiantly the Trojan goalkeeper flung himself upward and sideways in a desperate effort to get his fingers to the catapulted ball, but his hand was inches from it as it shot past him and landed just inside the far goal-post.

“Goal!”

“Good old Ted!”

Bredge kicked off, and the game went on. But somehow that quick, snap goal seemed to upset the Trojan machine, slowed it down. Good football was played, but the play always returned to a mid-field scramble. The remainder of that first half never attained the playing peak of those early minutes. Raids by both sides were broken up, smothered, Doyce playing a strong defensive game for the Trojans, Hapgood and Joy allowing no roving forward scope in the Arsenal area. When the whistle blew, at half-past three, the score was still 1–0 in Arsenal’s favour.

As the teams filed through the glass-enclosed trainers’ stand and along the corridor to their respective dressing-rooms one of the commissionaires caught the Trojan trainer’s attention.

“This package was brought by District Messenger about a quarter of an hour ago,” he said, handing Raille a brown-paper parcel addressed to Doyce.

“All right,” said the trainer. “I’ll take it in. Thanks.”

In the dressing-room he gave the package to Doyce, who was sucking a piece of lemon.

“For you. Came by District Messenger.”

He handed over the package and passed on. The right half frowned, scrutinized the inked address, and tore off the wrapping-paper. No one paid any attention to him. Raille was rubbing Setchley’s leg with liniment and advising Bredge on how to scheme a successful raid on the Arsenal goal immediately after the kick-off.

In the Arsenal dressing-room Tom Whittaker was giving his charges some advice. But he was smiling, and there was a good measure of chaff with his seeded words. There had been no first-half débâcle. The amateurs had been held.

“Hold them after the kick-off, lads,” he wound up. “Ten to one they’ll start off with a rush. But hold them.”

He was right. When Troy kicked off there was no mistaking their purpose. They were out to raid the Arsenal goal and put the count level.

Wellock, the fast-moving inside left, came up from playing a defensive game, kicked the ball away from a scramble, and ran forward with it. Beating his man, he drove the ball hard across to Setchley, on the far wing. The winger, with clever anticipation, had placed himself well. As the ball shot across to him he alighted on it with the precision of a gull snatching a crumb. A twist of his foot, and the ball was steadied. A touch, and he was away.

But the watchful Leslie Jones was not idle. The Arsenal left half rushed forward to encounter, only to find Setchley ready for him. With a beautiful body swerve he avoided the wing stopper, and turned in. Bredge, who had moved up, was also ready, hovering for a pass.

A low, grass-cutting drive sent the ball to the centre-forward’s waiting feet. Bredge turned to the right, advancing, well aware that Bernard Joy was bearing down on him, prepared to wreck a fine forward movement and to smother his advance. But Bredge was a schemer. He had held that forward line together for months, and he worked like part of a perfectly timed machine. He appeared to dawdle, and the crowd caught its breath.

Shouts of “Get on with it!” rose.

Then a swift side-swerve carried the nimble centre-forward round the Arsenal centre-half. Clear of that looming menace, Bredge did not hesitate.

He sent in a smashing first-timer.

It was a beautiful shot, but Swindin’s keen eyes saw its flight, and the goalkeeper’s hands got to the ball, but he could not hold it. Hapgood, playing his customary back-on-the-line defence, dropped back as the goalkeeper made an effort to retrieve the still travelling ball.

But the luck was Troy’s.

Bredge, following up his first shot, got his foot to the ball again, with Swindin out of position. Again the ball sailed towards the yawning net. It would have been a certain goal but for Hapgood’s right fist. Unable to get head or foot to the ball, the left back punched it over the cross-bar.

As the whistle blew for the penalty kick the shouts of the crowd were deafening.

“Come on the Trojans!”

“Troy! Troy!”

But there was sudden silence as Chulley, the Trojan captain, placed the ball for Doyce to take the penalty kick. Between the goal-posts Swindin crouched, tense as a cougar, eyes on the ball.

Doyce took a short run, and the ball rose as though released by a powerful spring. Swindin leapt like a salmon from a stream, but he had no real chance against a ball that was travelling with eye-defeating speed from the instant it left the Trojan sharp-shooter’s foot.

“Goal!”

“It is!”

“Troy! Troy!”

One all.

The crowd was roused. The amateurs had staved off a threatening rot. They were now fighting like worthy challengers of champions. The crowd was reassured. This was going to be a full ninety-minute game.

The teams lined up again. As the whistle blew Drake flicked the ball to Bryn Jones, who sent it sharply across to Bremner. The Arsenal forward line went goalwards with a bound, forced a breach in the Trojan half-back line, only to find the amateurs’ rearguard sound, dependable. A long kick from Crieff sent the ball dropping to the feet of a Trojan forward, who trapped it neatly, and shot away.

Necks in the stands craned eagerly forward. It was a breakaway. Would it be a second Trojan goal? Had the amateurs really found their match-winning form?

However, before the Trojan forwards could position themselves for another raiding swoop on the Arsenal defence the referee’s whistle shrilled.

Back in mid-field Doyce, the Trojan right half who had shot the penalty goal, lay doubled up.

Raille, in his hand a dripping sponge and a clean towel, ran out. The crowd, silent, wondering, watched as a brief consultation was held over the prone player. But something serious had happened. Doyce made no attempt to get up. He lay there, making no movement.

The crowd realized that he was out of the game, and a murmur like a new-sprung breeze wafted round the ground.

A stretcher was brought on to the field. Players crowded round as Doyce was lifted on to it. When the stretcher-bearers moved away with the game’s casualty a sudden wave of hand-clapping circled the field. Doyce had played strongly in the first half, and he had scored for the amateurs.

The crowd, sporty, fair in its judgment, was giving the injured man his due.

The referee’s whistle returned the remaining players to the game, and again the ball rose in a swift arc. But the murmur of the crowd did not die. Heads leaned together and chins wagged. Throughout the great throng one question was being asked.

What had happened?

No one had tackled Doyce. He had been alone when he fell. He had simply folded up like a jack-knife and slipped to the ground.

What had happened?

Reviews of

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery: A British Library Crime Classic

“Those who appreciate solid prose, masterful pacing, and authors who play fair with their readers will hope to see more reissues from the undeservedly obscure Gribble (1908–1985) in the British Library Crime Classics series.”

Publishers Weekly

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