An original, comprehensive and thoroughly researched account of Plymouth Argyle Football Club from its earliest roots to the present day.Important copyright conditions:
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THE HISTORY OF ARGYLE
An original account of Plymouth Argyle Football Club from its earliest roots to the present day
This is a printed representation of one chapter of GoS's History of Argyle (www.greensonscreen.co.uk/argylehistorymenu.asp), provided for ease of reading and personal retention. Inevitably it lacks links to associated pages, including match and player records, and its layout has been simplified to allow page breaks. Note also that Greens on Screen's online History of Argyle will be updated and new material added from time to time.
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Chapter 15: 1934-1939
The End of an Era
By 1934 Plymouth Argyle had become an established Second Division club with serious ambitions to reach the top flight, but five seasons later a second worldwide war meant the end of a football era.
Authors: Colin Parsons and Steve Dean
Date: 4 Jan 2014
In this chapter: 1934-35: Argyle an established Second Division side ... all change in the boardroom ... the search for money ... 1935-36: still aiming for the top ... 1936-37: a new main entrance ... 1937-38: the end of an Argyle era ... 1938-39: the first new manager for 28 years
1934-35: ARGYLE AN ESTABLISHED SECOND DIVISION SIDE
Jack Vidler, top scorer in 1934-35 and over 100 goals in his 10 years at Home Park
Plymouth Argyle had become an established second-tier side by the 1934-35 season, and even though the fixture list contained names like Manchester United, Newcastle and West Ham, the club and fans were optimistic about the campaign ahead. There was continued belief in the squad and considerable faith in Bob Jack, who declared himself content with the existing players – especially if they could stay free of injuries. The main concern was for the great Jack Leslie, who had missed most of the previous season after the lace of a ball had caused a serious eye injury. Goalkeeper George McKenzie from Scotland was the only significant new signing, although Harry Cann remained first choice, with Bill Harper also in reserve. The full-backs and half-backs remained the same and the forwards would again rely on Jimmy Cookson to score their goals.
Only one of the first ten games was won, a 6-4 victory over Hull City in the first home game of the season, which included a hat-trick for Jack Vidler. That poor early form was made worse by a knee injury to Cookson, the previous season's top scorer, which resulted in an operation to remove a cartilage and an absence from the first-team of over a year. However, the side hit good form, coinciding with the arrival of a new centre-half, Johnny McNeil, from Scottish junior football, and they won ten of their next fifteen matches, drawing another three. Not untypically, the Pilgrims then lost four games in a row before winning eight of their final thirteen. In the end, Argyle finished the season in a creditable eighth place, with Vidler rising to the opportunity presented by Cookson's long-term injury to finish as top scorer with 21 goals.
The legendary Jack Leslie [see also 'Stars of the Twenties' in Chapter 13]
Eleven players departed at the end of the season. Amongst them, Jack Pullen left the club because of injury, and George McKenzie and Jack Demellweek went to Southend to join Robert Jack's famous son, David - but by far the most notable departure was the unfortunate Jack Leslie. Despite high hopes at the start of the campaign, Leslie's eye injury prevented him from playing until the end of December, and that proved to be his only appearance of the season. It was a long, drawn-out and very sad end to his magnificent career with Argyle, and at the close of the season he was given a free transfer. Jack Leslie was one of the most popular players ever to wear the Argyle shirt, and his playing record in 14 seasons at the club speaks for itself - fourth in the all-time goalscoring list with 137 goals in 401 matches. But it was his left-flank partnership with Sammy Black that was perhaps the most remarkable achievement of all. The pair played together an astonishing 327 times, a partnership that was said to be the best in the whole of the Football League. Later that year, Leslie turned out as a centre-half for Truro City in the Plymouth & District League, and later became the landlord of a Truro pub.
The directors again reported a trading loss, but reduced to £1,650. Poor weather was a major factor in reduced revenue at the gate – falling by £1,321. Season ticket sales were down as were reserve team gates. In response there had been a cut in the overall wage bill and small savings in travelling and hotel bills. It was stated that the club had an overall debt of £6,000 and, by the end ofthe season, Bob Jack was forced to inform the players that the directors were struggling to find the money to pay their wages.
ALL CHANGE IN THE BOARDROOM
On 2nd April 1935, the death was announced of Mr John Dawson Spooner at his home in Yelverton at the age of 68. As well as an active member of the amateur club in the 1890s, John Dawson, a bachelor, helped his brothers form the professional club in 1903, and served on the board of directors for Plymouth Argyle's first three seasons. When the limited company was reformed in 1910, JD became a director once again, a role that he fulfilled for 25 years until his passing, although ill health had prevented him from attending board meetings in his final months. Whilst his brother Clarence was said to be the architect of the professional club, no one played a greater part in its development over the following 30 years than John Dawson Spooner.
Dramatic headlines in the Western Morning News.
Four weeks later, and four days before the final game of the season (at home to Manchester United), the remaining directors held a meeting at Home Park with a group of well-known local businessmen. After nearly four hours of deliberation, it was agreed that the current board of seven would stand down and be replaced by a new board of fifteen, the maximum allowed under the company's articles of association. Mr E. Elliot Square, a prominent solicitor in the city, had been Argyle's chairman for 16 seasons, steering the club from a season in the Southern League after the First World War to a well-established Football League club, which was now close to the First Division. Vice-chairman Alfred Gard, who had served as a director for 25 years, also stood down, as did Hubert Papps, a director since the war, but the four others were elected to the new board.
Lieutenant Colonel T.R. McCready was elected as Plymouth Argyle's new chairman. Born in Plymouth in 1883, Thomas Robert McCready served in the Machine Gun Corp in the First World War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and was mentioned in dispatches in April 1918 for his "distinguished and gallant services and devotion to duty". After the war he practised as a solicitor in Plymouth (although the 1911 census describes him as an accountant), and incidentally, one of his long-standing clients was the club's president, 'Archie' Ballard. Clarence Spooner stepped in as the new vice-chairman, some 30 years after his last time in the boardroom, so maintaining the Spooner name on the board.
After the landmark meeting, the newly-elected chairman explained that the burden of the club's long-term debt was in the region of £9,000, and with no means to provide summer wages or increase the playing strength, the old board had either to transfer some of their best players or reorganise the board to provide increased capital.
J. Clifford Tozer
The eleven new directors were all local sportsmen who also represented a wide range of business activity, and amongst them was James Clifford Tozer, the son of the founder of Messrs J.C. Tozer Ltd, the well-known Plymouth drapers and furnishers. In 1912, at just 23 years old, Clifford Tozer had been elected as a member of Devonport Borough Council, and in 1921 he became a Plymouth Borough councillor. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1929 and became Mayor of Plymouth for 1930-31. In 1937, two years after his elevation to the Argyle boardroom, he was selected to become an Alderman of the City of Plymouth. A year later he became Argyle's vice-chairman, followed six months on by his election as chairman, and in 1939 he was knighted by King George VI for his public and political services in Plymouth.
When football resumed after the Second World War, Alderman Sir J. Clifford Tozer JP continued as Argyle's chairman, and after Clarence Spooner's death in 1952, he became Argyle's president, a role he fulfilled for 16 years. He was also chairman of Plymouth's Reconstruction Committee and in 1952 was honoured with the Freedom of the City of Plymouth. Two years later he served as the city's Lord Mayor.
James Clifford Tozer died in 1970, the end of a life of outstanding public service, but also the end of 35 years of devotion to his football club, which began on that day in April 1935.
THE SEARCH FOR MONEY
The reconstituted board's urgent priority was to increase the football company's capital. At the annual shareholders' meeting on 28th June 1935, a resolution was unanimously adopted that the capital of the company be increased from £4,000 to £15,000 by the creation of 44,000 new Ordinary shares of five shillings each. A fortnight later a mass meeting was held in the Guildhall to launch the campaign. The board's slogan 'First Division Football for Plymouth' had fired the public's imagination, and the Guildhall, which had been decorated for the occasion in green and black by Messrs Dingle & Co, was packed to capacity and speeches had to be relayed to an estimated 1,000 in the square outside.
The Arsenal manager, Mr George Allison, was a guest speaker at the Guildhall.
Before the meeting opened there was a programme of community singing, led by Mr Harry Grose and assisted by the band of the Devon & Cornwall Heavy Brigade. Thomas McCready began a series of speeches, explaining that the purpose of the meeting was to direct the club's appeal to the citizens of Plymouth in general and to the business community in particular, and also to the body of supporters in Devon and Cornwall. After listing the broad intentions of the share sale, the chairman said it was the considered opinion of the directors that the additional share capital was absolutely necessary to place the company in a sound financial position and to secure First Division football for Plymouth. He explained that the company was incorporated in 1920 with a share capital of £1,000, which was considered to be sufficient for the Southern League team. A few years later the capital was increased to £4,000, but he had been unable to trace any serious attempt to actually raise it. When he took over as chairman of the board, the subscribed share capital amounted to only £2,016.
Mr McCready went on to explain why, in his view, the club had found it difficult to make ends meet. When Argyle secured promotion to the Second Division in 1930, a spirit of optimism prevailed and that was the opportunity to obtain more capital, but "a glorious opportunity was lost". The directors at the time considered that an immediate and large expenditure was required to cope with Second Division football, and they incurred liabilities of up to £12,000 in building the necessary new Home Park stands. His point was that the stands were essential, but the money for them should have come out of capital and not out of revenue. Whilst the directors judged that the revenue from bigger attendances would be sufficient to provide for that heavy capital charge, the result was there was very little money left for anything else. With the burden of bank charges and the decrease in gates because of the economic climate and especially bad weather that season, the directors found themselves in the position that they could no longer find the money to support a team worthy of a Second Division football club. In April they were in great difficulty. There was no hope of any revenue until the following season, and they had to face a large debt to local tradesmen, the payment of summer wages and the need to strengthen weak spots in the team, in addition to the "horrible bugbear" of the bank overdraft. The football club's only realisable assets were the transfer values of its players, and transfer was the only alternative at that time. "This was suicide; it was murder," Mr McCready declared. "If the transfers had been accomplished it would have set back Plymouth Argyle for so many years that it would be extremely doubtful if it had any chance of recovery."
The scenes of enthusiasm that marked the reception of speeches were eclipsed only by the remarkable manner in which the invitation to take up new shares was accepted. A representative from Messrs Dilleigh & Co rose from the body of the hall and offered to take up £100 worth of shares. He was immediately followed by a Spooners' representative, who pledged to purchase £150 worth. This was the signal for a succession of similar actions from the floor, which continued for half an hour, and approximately 6,000 shares, representing a value of £1,500, were taken before the meeting closed.
Three months later the chairman described the response to the share appeal as "wretchedly disappointing". 260 applications had been received for 8,817 shares to the total value of £2,204 5s. Mr McCready added: "It was anticipated that many of the business firms in Plymouth would have supported the club's appeal more generously. Only a few firms have come up to expectation." The Western Morning News commented that the business community of Plymouth, by their lack of response, did not appreciate the value of the Argyle club to the trade of Plymouth, and reported that some firms that had refused had benefited considerably from the activities of the club.
1935-36: STILL AIMING FOR THE TOP
Whilst we think of Robert Jack as Argyle's manager, his actual title was secretary-manager, reflecting his enormous appetite for work and his wide range of administrative activities over and above the management of the team. The new directors, clear in their ambition for First Division football, set about a review of the backroom staff - many of whom were of 'advancing' years - and one of their first actions was to appoint A.H. Cole as assistant-secretary, effectively an understudy for the administration aspects of the manager's work. Bob Cole, a civil servant, had been Propaganda Secretary of the Supporters' Club (what we might think of as advertising/marketing in today's terms) and was one of its founder-members. Other changes followed, including the departure of Tommy Haynes, the former Argyle FC player who retired after 25 years as chief trainer. Bill Harper was appointed in his place. New players included Bill Gooney, a wing half from Sheffield United and once captain of England Schoolboys, and Jackie Smith from Barnsley, who was a talented player despite his lack of inches. Arthur Eggleston arrived from Bury to add punch to the forward line.
Argyle at Port Vale in September 1935.
Back row: Septimus Atterbury (trainer), Bill Gooney, Harry Roberts, Arthur Davies, Jimmy Rae, Tommy Black, Tommy Grozier.
Front row: David Robbie, Jackie Smith, Jack Vidler, Robert Jack (manager), Arthur Eggleston, Len Rich, Johnny McNeil.
Argyle beat West Ham 4-1 at Home Park in October 1935. The Pilgrims dominated the game and Cookson scored with an early goal. West Ham's possession was mainly limited to belting long balls upfield. However, they equalised and, with five minutes to go, looked like securing a draw. Cookson scored again and Black and Vidler put away two more goals in the last two minutes. In the following January Argyle played Chelsea away in the Cup. The game coincided with the mourning of the death of King George V. Both teams wore black arm bands and there was a two-minute silence before the kick-off and the singing of "Abide With Me" by the crowd of 53,703. Two thousand fans made the journey from Plymouth and saw an excellent display of football from the visitors. However, this was not reflected in the score. Chelsea went 3-0 ahead despite playing much less attractive football, especially during the first half. Harry Cann received an injury but Argyle still managed to 'draw' the second half 1-1. Vidler scored 12 minutes from the end and Sammy Black missed a penalty.
The Pilgrims finished the 1935-36 season in 7th place, one position and two points better than the previous year. Sammy Black was again top scorer with 16 goals – four ahead of Eggleston and twice as many as Vidler. Gate receipts were up, as was the revenue from season tickets. The directors continued to complain about the iniquitously high level of entertainment Tax – nearly £3,500. There was still an overall loss because of the relatively high net cost of transfers but Archie Ballard again stepped in with generous donations.
1936-37: A NEW MAIN ENTRANCE
The main entrance plate, still in place today.
Over 21,000 saw Argyle beat Doncaster Rovers 7-0 in their first home game of the 1936-37 season, including a hat-trick for Jackie Smith. Perhaps just as impressive was their first sight of the club's brand-new main entrance, which had been erected over the summer months. The impressive facade, which contained 17 turnstiles, three pairs of exits gates and a ticket box, was approved by the Plymouth Corporation in the February and was expected to cost £300. PAFC's president, Mr A.C. Ballard, pledged £100 and the Supporters' Club, of whom he was also president, agreed to fund the rest on condition that a plate be erected to recognise their contribution. At their annual meeting in September, the cost was reported to have been twice the expectation, but to honour the words of the plate, the Supporters' Club committee agreed to meet the balance of the cost as and when funds permitted.
Above: Home Park's iconic main entrance, built in 1936 and pictured here in the early 1950s.
Below: The main entrance in 2013, shortly before its planned demolition. There seems to be substantial change, but most is superficial. However, note the absence of brickwork above the exit gates - this was removed in 2005, presumably for safety reasons, at a time when repair could not be justified because Phase 2 (the new south side) was 'imminent'.
A section of the massive crowd for the game with Aston Villa. In the background is the Ballard extension of the grandstand, which hit the headlines a few months later.
Argyle's emphatic win in their first home game of the season was their only victory in their first six fixtures, but eleven games then followed without a defeat. Argyle's often-stated record attendance occurred on 10th October 1936 when they drew 2-2 with Aston Villa in front of a recorded gate of 43,596 ('often-stated' but unfortunately unclear - doubts remain about the attendance for the FA Cup game against Huddersfield three seasons before - see the final paragraphs of chapter 14 for a detailed analysis of the evidence). Trains arrived throughout the morning from all over Devon and Cornwall, and even Somerset. The match was preceded by community singing to a song sheet reminiscent of a Wembley Cup Final. The Argyle goals were scored by Sammy Black and Jack Connor. Also in that side was Tommy Black - no relation of Sammy - who had played just one game for Arsenal when he turned out in an FA Cup tie and conceded the penalty which led to Arsenal's defeat, whereupon he was told he would never play for the club again! He went on to play 162 matches for Argyle before he left for Southend in 1939. The draw with Villa was a creditable result since Argyle played for three quarters of the game with ten men and Roberts hobbling on the left wing. The Villa side were full of internationals but were not bonding as a side or playing with expected enthusiasm. In the final half-hour Argyle hit the post and bar and two goal-bound shots were saved by Biddlestone but Villa held out.
On the left, queues for the Villa game at the new main entrance. On the right, fans moved some of the old turnstiles from the back of the stand to get a better view. You can't but feel for that poor lad!
In February 1937, Argyle played the corresponding away game at Villa Park. It was an extraordinary game, with Argyle losing 5-4 in front of 50,000 spectators, 3,000 of whom were from Plymouth. Argyle led 3-0 after half an hour but Villa came back to draw level three minutes after half-time. Argyle once again went ahead with a 25 yard goal from Hunter following a dribble by Vidler. From then on the Argyle defence took a battering. Villa equalised but Argyle held out until the 87th minute; Rae was hesitant in the tackle, Haycock centred and Houghton crouched on his knee to head in at the near upright. Incidentally, nine years later Villa's Haycock played one game for Argyle as a war-time guest in the transitional Football League South season.
Jack Connor, who was was brought in from Airdrieonians as the new centre-forward at the start of the season, ended as top scorer with 17 of the team's 73 goals. The Pilgrims finished in 5th place, their fourth consecutive improvement, and if it had not have been for Newcastle's slightly better goal average, would have equalled the best-ever position of 1931-32. What's more, with just one win in their final seven games and a finish that was only six points off a promotion place, we can only wonder what might have been.
1937-38: THE END OF AN ARGYLE ERA
1937-38 proved to be an extraordinary season in the history of the club. On the pitch, Bob Jack's philosophy was simple; he believed that Scottish junior football was the best breeding ground for football talent and much of his recruitment was from north of the border – and Plymouth was always an attraction because it offered employment in the dockyard to players after their career in football was over. At the start of the season he considered that Argyle had as good a chance as any of promotion, and he must have been encouraged by the first game, a 4-0 win over Fulham in front of nearly 25,000 at Home Park. But by October, Argyle were doing badly and a local paper attributed much of the problem to the lack of a goal-scoring centre-forward: "In four games Argyle have experimented with four centre-forwards yet they are no nearer a solution to their problem." By the end of the year the Pilgrims had won just four games out of 22, and in the new year lost to Division Three (North) side New Brighton in the FA Cup.
By mid-January they were tipped, along with Swansea Town, as candidates for relegation – a prediction denied vehemently by the manager: "I am not permitted to broadcast any forecast as to what two clubs will eventually be doomed to relegation but, if I were, Argyle would not be one of them". Things improved when Charlie Fletcher, transferred from Burnley earlier in the season, was switched to centre-forward and began to score goals – starting with two against his old club. Thankfully Argyle's fortunes revived and they finished the 1937-38 season just below midway in the table, having won six and drawn three of their final ten games. Bill Hullett, signed from Everton earlier in the season, finished as top scorer with ten goals in only eleven starts, including a hat-trick against Southampton in the final match of the season, all with his head.
Bill Hullett scoring the first of his hat-trick in the last game of the season at home to Southampton.
But despite many months of worry, the main drama of the season came off the pitch. In the November, Mr McCready surprisingly resigned as chairman and Clarence Spooner took his place, with Clifford Tozer as vice-chairman. However, Mr Spooner, one of the founders of Plymouth Argyle, made it clear that he would only accept the position temporarily, and six months later Alderman Tozer stepped up and Mr Spooner took his place as vice-chairman. Then, in the final months of the season, came three events that shook the club to the core.
HOME PARK ON FIRE
Employing nearly a half a mile of hoses, the Fire Brigade fights the blaze in the grandstand extension.
Just after 10pm on Wednesday, 9th March 1938, Mr J. Horton, Argyle's groundsman, heard a tremendous crackling and at first thought the buses at the Milehouse depot were making a great deal of noise. He ran out of his house, saw the glare over Home Park and rushed to summon the fire brigade. From his house in Peverell Park Road, manager Bob Jack also saw the glare, and later said he thought the whole place was ablaze.
That afternoon at Home Park, Argyle had played out a 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur in front of nearly 16,000 spectators. At 8pm the groundsman had made his final inspection and found everything in order, but in the following two hours, the extension to the main stand, funded by Archie Ballard in 1931, caught fire. The so-called Ballard extension was at the west end of the grandstand, its roof extending in line with the main structure, and was built as a standing terrace for 3,000 spectators. When the fire brigade arrived, they faced searing heat. Most of the wooden flooring was ablaze and the galvanised roof and sides of the stand became white hot so that as hoses were played on the structure, dense clouds of steam enveloped the fire fighters. Sparks and a glare were reported as far afield as Crownhill and Mannamead, and a crowd assembled to watch the drama. Most of the wooden terraces were destroyed, as was the refreshment area beneath, but the firemen were able to contain the blaze so that the main grandstand was saved. A cigarette end was believed to be the cause, with a strong wind blowing into that corner being the trigger for smouldering timber to burst into flames.
ROBERT JACK'S REIGN COMES TO AN END
Just 24 hours after the grandstand fire - quite remarkable timing in itself - came more shocking news; Robert Jack announced that he would be severing his connection with the club at the end of the season. The papers said that he resigned, but the reason was never made clear, and for a man who had delivered nearly three decades of success with Argyle and who without doubt loved the club, it was particularly odd because he emphasised that he was not retiring from the game and expected remain in football for many years to come. 'Tamar' in the Western Morning News said: "I do not know what has led Mr Jack to tender his resignation - that is the secret of those very closely connected with the club." Some felt that he had been somewhat ungraciously pushed aside by the directors and was, not unsurprisingly, disenchanted by the decision, but his public position was one of loyalty. "There are no differences between the directors and myself", he said. "Supported by the determined endeavour of the players and everyone concerned, I feel confident that the club which I have loved and for which I have worked for so many years will emerge safely from the danger of relegation, irrespective of the bad luck which has adversely affected many matches. If I felt otherwise any thought of parting would not have entered my mind."
Robert Jack in the late 1930s
Reacting to the news, Argyle's chairman, Clarence Spooner, said: "It is with sincere regret that I learn of Mr Jack's impending resignation. We have been together as football enthusiasts for many years, and I shall always look back with happy recollections on Mr Jack's association with Plymouth Argyle."
Vice-chairman J. Clifford Tozer heaped praise on the outgoing manager: "Mr Robert Jack's resignation will most certainly cause considerable surprise among many thousands of followers of Association football, not only in the West, but in all parts of England and Scotland. There can be few men better known in the football world than Robert Jack. For over 30 years he has been closely associated with the Plymouth Argyle club, and his severance at the end of the season will be regretted. In no small measure the success of the club in the past has been due to his personal interest, activities and judgement. Always of genial disposition, he will be missed by the directors of the club. Personally I have always considered Robert Jack as a real friend. I shall miss him, and this feeling, I know, is shared by many."
A testimonial was arranged for Bob Jack on May 4th. Initially this was to be against an international eleven but was eventually against Brentford, then of the First Division. The night before, Mr and Mrs Jack were the principal guests at the Supporters' Club annual dinner and dance and as a final parting, some 350 attendees joined hands in the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne'. Bob Jack and his wife were said to be greatly affected.
Whatever the reason for his departure and despite his intention to stay in football, Jack had little involvement with the game after leaving Home Park, apart from some scouting for his son David, by then the manager of Southend United. He also wrote a regular article for the Football Herald, but his main love, post-'retirement', was bowls. He had in fact been a keen player for many years, and as a member of the Sir Francis Drake Bowling Club in Mannamead, had helped to put the region on the map by playing regularly for the English International Bowls team and also winning the English Singles Championship in 1926.
Robert Jack, probably the greatest name in the club's history, before or since, died on 6th May 1943 at the age of 67. With him to the end was his old friend and playing partner at Bolton, and at Argyle in the professional club's early days, Jock Wright. The family mourners at Ilford Crematorium in London included his widow and three sons - David, Rollo and Donald. Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, Rollo Jack, who in those war-time years was the club's acting secretary-manager, scattered his father's ashes over the Home Park pitch. There could have been no more fitting end.
Thanks to his great-grandson in Australia, a rare photo of Robert Jack and his three sons, (left to right) Donald, David and Rollo, taken circa 1920.
SAMMY BLACK'S 14TH AND FINAL SEASON
Sammy Black, the greatest of them all.
After 14 seasons in green and black, 491 appearances (only topped by Kevin Hodges) and 182 goals (Argyle's highest goalscorer by some margin), few would argue that Sammy Black is not the greatest of them all. He scored in double figures in every one of his first ten seasons and was top scorer in five of them - not bad for a winger. At just 5ft 6in and sporting size four boots, he epitomised the winger of the day - small, fast, tricky, and with dazzling skills. He rarely tracked back and his heading ability was guaranteed to amuse, but wingers of his era were not expected to do anything other than terrorise full-backs. It was his eye for goal that made him stand out; he could shoot with either foot and many of his goals came from unlikely angles. Black was the darling of the Argyle crowd and his ten-year partnership with inside-left Jack Leslie was famous across the country - their clever exchanges would leave defenders chasing shadows.
During those years, Sam scored more goals than any other winger in English League football and was described as the best winger never to play for Scotland. But time was catching up on the the 'Mighty Atom', and after an injury at West Ham in October 1936 and an operation that followed, he missed the rest of the season. In 1937-38 he played just ten games, some at inside-forward, with his last appearance - although no one knew it at the time - against Swansea Town on January 26th, 1938. If ever there was a sign that Sammy's time was up, it was that in his final season, he failed to score.
With Bob Jack gone, Black was offered new terms at the end of the 1937-38 season - £4 per week plus £3 when in the first team - but he turned them down and was placed on the transfer list for £1,000, much to the dismay of the fans. Although Ipswich showed some interest, there were no firm offers and the fee was gradually reduced over the following months until it stood at £250. It seems a remarkably small fee for a player with such a fine career, but in those days, few clubs would take a chance on a player over 30 years old. Still there were no offers, but Sammy kept himself fit and ready by training with Plymouth Albion and kicking rugby balls. In November 1938, having had no income for nearly seven months, he wrote to the club to plead for a free transfer. The directors agreed to a nominal fee, believed to be £100, and within days a deal was agreed with Queens Park Rangers, arranged by 'Spectator', the football writer for the Sunday Independent, who was an old friend of the QPR manager, William Birrell. Very oddly, in all his years in football, Birrell had never seen Black play, but trusted the journalist's opinion that the winger had three or four years left in him. Sammy Black made just five appearances for QPR before war called time on League football. All told, a sad end to a wonderful career.
1938-39: THE FIRST NEW MANAGER FOR 28 YEARS
Argyle's new manager, Jack Tresadern.
We can only imagine the atmosphere at Home Park in the summer of 1938. Bob Jack's impact and influence must have pervaded at every turn, but the great man had gone. The players returned to pre-season training to be greeted by a new man, Mr Jack Tresadern, Argyle's first new manager for 28 years.
Jack Tresadern had been appointed in the closing weeks of the old season. His wealth of football experience had impressed the board of directors, who announced the appointment at the game at Luton Town on April 9th. Vice-chairman Clifford Tozer said that the selection was made from a very large number of applications from Scotland, Wales and all parts of England, and even from France and Holland, and pointed out that Argyle was a club with a high reputation in the football world and was popular wherever it went. Mr Tresadern had resigned from the manager's job at Tottenham Hotspur to join Argyle, and Alderman Tozer emphasised that the new man not only had considerable experience in football management, but thoroughly understood the game.
In his playing days, Jack Tresadern played for West Ham United and was capped for England at left-half. He also appeared in the historic first FA Cup Final at Wembley, playing against Bob Jack's son David, who at that time was with Bolton Wanderers. Tresadern moved on to Burnley and then joined Northampton Town as player-manager. Five years later he was appointed as Crystal Palace's manager, and another five years on, in 1935, he became manager of Spurs.
However impressive Jack Tresadern's credentials were, Bob Jack was always going to be a hard act to follow. Amongst the new manager's first signings were Dave Thomas from Romford and Ernie Smith from Nottingham Forest. Argyle had already begun to lose its reputation as an English club with a Scottish flavour.
The team photo for 1938-39: 31 players and trainer Bill Harper, with the new manager firmly in charge.
Harry Cann pushes the ball over the bar in front of 32,000 at Millwall in late September, with Johnny McNeil and Sammy Kirkwood (behind) looking on. Note the square woodwork in those days. Argyle lost 3-0, the result typifying the early form - wins at home and defeats away.
Early attendances were encouraging, with nearly 45,000 watching the first two games at Home Park. In the second, Argyle beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1, with both goals from another new boy, Jackie Wharton. He was an 18-year-old winger, who was the subject of a microphone plea by the manager before the game, asking for the 26,000 crowd's indulgence on account of Wharton's youth and possible debut nerves. But there was no stage fright - Wharton scored his first with an accomplished header after just one minute. West Brom drew level on 33 minutes but the debutant scored the winner on the hour. It originated with a right wing run and cross by Smith which was turned in by the youngster, after goalkeeper Adams had collapsed in a heap on the end of someone's boot. The 'keeper left the field for the next 15 minutes, returning with a bandaged head. The story is a reminder of how tough the game was in those days, as is the report of what happened next: "Then Jackie Smith was in the wars, a collision with a defender dislocating his shoulder, although he resumed after a few minutes' treatment."
Away at Norwich a week later there occurred the famous incident of the pigeon, which Jimmy Hunter apparently tripped over just as he was about to shoot. In October Argyle drew 0-0 at home to Manchester City, after an outstanding goalkeeping display by the future England International Frank Swift, who received a standing ovation from the crowd. Tresadern continued to tinker with the forward line, and in the thirteen matches before 12th November he had played four inside-rights, five outside-lefts and seven inside-lefts. Pleas were made for Sammy Black's return, including one from a parson in Leeds. However, Argyle had managed to remain unbeaten at home, until a 1-0 defeat by Bury on November 19th.
Argyle secured a surprising 4-3 away win at Luton in January, after Boxing Day and New Year's Eve defeats at home to Coventry and away to West Brom, and a 0-3 defeat by Sunderland in the FA Cup. Argyle's hero at Kenilworth Road was Fred Mitcheson, who scored a hat-trick in the first 11 minutes of the second half. The ground was a mud bath and Luton played into the visitors' hands by trying to play close football. Argyle, on the other hand, were much more direct.
Centre-forward Dave Thomas runs to meet a cross against Luton, with a few hardy souls on an open terrace looking on.
The bad weather continued and on the following Saturday, Argyle were home to Norwich. The game started despite the rain that had kept the crowd down to 6,942, and in wet and slippery conditions, Argyle went into a one goal lead on 14 minutes when Archer took a free kick that struck the underside of the bar before the back of the net. Then the weather got worse. Much of the midfield area was barren of grass and, therefore, a sea of mud. No one could see the lines and water was splashing everywhere – much to the amusement of the crowd. When the game was finally abandoned at half-time there was no real surprise. Indeed the announcement was followed by another downpour. This was the first abandoned game at Home Park that anyone could remember and ruled out the first home goal scored by Argyle for nearly two months. Happily, when the game was replayed in the final week of the season, Argyle won by the same score.
By mid-February Argyle were languishing fifth from bottom of the division, still not having secured a home win since November. They eventually beat Bradford Park Avenue 4-1 on February 25th, with goals from Hunter (2), Thomas and Kirkwood. Early March saw a 2-1 victory at Fulham, but the manner won few friends. A string of free-kicks resulted in constant booing by the home supporters – especially of Sam Kirkwood. The referee had to speak to players from both sides and, at one stage, a Fulham fan ran onto the pitch in protest at Argyle's strong-arm tactics, which had reduced Fulham to ten men.
In March the directors could not resist Manchester United's approaches, and sold centre-forward Bill Hullett (this season's top scorer with 10 goals) and outside-right Tommy Dougan to Manchester United for over £5,000, but brought in Bob Royston from Southport for £1,000. Later in March, Jack Tresadern gave a debut to right-half Ellis Stuttard, another of his summer signings. The 18-year-old could not possibly have imagined that this was the beginning of a 44-year association with the club, including two spells as manager.
Overall it was not a successful season but Argyle did win three of their last four games to finish in 15th place. They were never in serious threat of relegation but two decades of relative success were clearly in the past and the team needed to be re-built. Scoring goals continued to be Argyle's problem, with just 49 in 43 games, the second lowest in the division. Concern over standards at the club was growing and there was an emergency meeting of the Shareholders' Association. Indeed, at the Shareholders' AGM at the Farley Hotel in July 1939, there was little short of hostility from some. One said: "I have been watching football for years, and I think last season Argyle had the worst team they have ever had." Another said: "If they had the team at heart they would say: 'We have failed and we will give way to allow others to do better.'" There was general support for the manager, but criticism of the directors and concern about the heavy loss of over £4,000 over the year.
The directors reacted strongly by pruning the staff more severely than ever before. When the retained list was announced there were only 23 names on it, from a total of 41 professionals. Harry Cann and Jack Vidler were placed on the transfer list together with Fred Mitcheson (£1,500), Tommy Black (£1,000), Tommy Ryan (£650), Wilf Chitty (£750) and Jim McColgan (£250), and free transfers were offered to 12 players. This would ensure a saving of £100 per week on the summer wage bill of £2,500. The loss of Jack Vidler after 12 years of service was particularly sad and the free transfer for ‘Tod' Sloan indicated that it was unlikely that the 'A' team (the third XI) would continue. It was recognised that the whole forward line would have to be recast and there was talk of 'big money' needed for new forwards. There were even rumours that Ray Bowden wanted to come back to the club, and other names were also being mentioned. However, by the end of April, none of the existing players had actually signed the contracts offered to them. By the summer of 1939, war clouds hung over Europe and football assumed less importance in the minds of the general public, and the players began to think of their possible future outside the game.
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