Arsenal and the Cold War

In October 1954, a very special game of football was played. Billed as a friendly, the political stakes could hardly have been higher. Welcome to IBWM, Nick Wright.

On the morning of October 3rd 1954 two aircraft carrying sixteen players and seven officials from Arsenal Football Club departed Northolt Airport in Greater London. They were headed for Moscow, where they would become the first British team to play in Soviet Russia. Stalin had died the previous year, but crossing the Iron Curtain remained a step into the unknown. Originally scheduled to arrive in the Russian capital that evening, Arsenal were held up for a night in Minsk – some four hundred miles from their destination - due to bad weather conditions.

An arduous journey was to be followed by an even more painful ordeal. On October 5th, as part of increased efforts to strengthen relations between the British and Soviet people, Arsenal were due to play the Soviet Top League’s reigning Champions, Dynamo Moscow, in a showpiece friendly match. Despite the fixture’s ‘friendly’ billing, Arsenal, English title winners in 1953, ended up on the receiving end of an embarrassing 5-0 thrashing.

Greeted with bouquets of flowers at Moscow airport, the travel-weary Arsenal players finally arrived at the Hotel Moskva in Red Square just twenty-four hours before kick-off. The match had been described locally as ‘Russia’s soccer match of the century’, and journalist Patrick Sergeant depicted the hysteria which had gripped the city in the Daily Mail on October 4th : “the struggle for tickets here has to be seen to be believed,” he wrote. “The town is agog about the match, and queues are expected to form from 3am tomorrow morning.”

It seemed as if the whole of Moscow was eagerly awaiting its first glimpse of English football. A crowd of 75,000 would be crammed into Dynamo’s stadium, far exceeding its official capacity of 64,500.

Mikhail Yakushins' Dynamo, with an average age of just 22, were a formidable outfit. Their line-up boasted several Soviet internationals, including goalkeeping legend Lev Yashin. Indeed, the Russians were clear favourites to win the match against an ageing Arsenal side spearheaded by the lumbering 34-year-old Tommy Lawton up front. Patrick Sergeant, however, was undeterred from backing the Gunners at odds of 10-1. “It may be old hope long dying, but I feel that if Arsenal can shoot first-time and fulfil their own positional defence, I may be collecting a lot of roubles on Tuesday night,” he declared smugly in his match preview.

October 5th arrived and the Arsenal players and staff negotiated the Moscow traffic to the stadium with the help of a police escort. ‘Long live friendship between the peoples of England and the Soviet Union!’ read a banner displayed outside the away dressing room.

National anthems were sung and speeches were made to rapturous applause as the Union Jack and Hammer and Sickle flew side by side overhead. A British parliamentary delegation looked on from the stands as Arsenal took to the field for their warm up accompanied by the baritone voice of African-American singer (and known Communist) Paul Robeson booming out over the stadium loudspeaker. “The Russians apparently like jazz”, noted Michael Davie in The Observer. Meanwhile, the crowd sounded its appreciation as wing-half Alex Forbes jokingly danced over the ball in time to the music.

The match got underway and despite rarely threatening the Dynamo goal, the visitors held their own admirably until the forty-fourth minute, when Vladimir Ilyev evaded a crowd of defenders inside the Arsenal box and shot low past the despairing Jack Kelsey.

Despite Arsenal’s encouraging start, the second half was a different story, as the nimble Russians ran rings around their tiring opponents. Ilyev headed in his and Dynamo’s second from a free kick just after the break, before three further goals were added in the closing fifteen minutes. The pre-match Soviet hospitality was nowhere to be seen as Arsenal were ripped apart.

Among the spectators was Daily Herald reporter Clifford Webb. He recalled the ironic applause and laughter Arsenal were subjected to by the Moscow crowd during their abject second half showing. “They are asking how old is Tommy Lawton and how old are some of the other Arsenal players, because they seem so tired”, joked his interpreter. “He’s too old and slow,” cackled one spectator, “is this the best team England could find?”

It wasn’t all bad for Lawton, however. To mark his 35th birthday the day after the match, Soviet officials presented him with champagne and an enormous cake at the team’s hotel.

Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker, perhaps conscious of his diplomatic responsibilities, was effusive in his praise of the hosts: “The Russians played more like a team that any I have ever seen,” he told the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star). “It was impossible to single out any one player for special praise because they played so much as a team. They were certainly faster than us, moving very much quicker en bloc.”

Back home the headlines were unforgiving. “Arsenal run down in Dynamoland!” screamed the Daily Herald. “We shall leave Moscow with sour memories from an occasion that was ill advised from the start,” wrote the dejected Clifford Webb. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, went with “Outplayed Arsenal get the Moscow whistle – crowd chuckle at 5-0 defeat.”

After returning to London, full-back Walley Barnes broke ranks by abandoning diplomacy to vent his frustration in the now defunct Sunday newspaper, Reynolds News. He blamed the difficult journey and lack of sleep for Arsenal’s defeat. The Gunners were due to host Dynamo’s city rivals Spartak at Highbury on November 9 in another ‘goodwill friendly’. For Barnes, however, that match represented an opportunity to get even with the Russians. “They’ll take it all back!” he vowed. “You can’t see the chip on my shoulder,” he added, “but take my word for it, I’ve got one there.”

Unfortunately for Barnes, they lost that one too, 2-1.

Arsenal’s clash with Dynamo Moscow was intended as a monument to peaceful coexistence between the Soviet Union and the West, but it did not take long for relations to turn sour once more. As the Cold War rumbled on for another 35 years, Arsenal were left to wonder why they’d bothered.

Full highlights of the match can be viewed here. IBWM recommends that you bookmark this page.

You can follow Nick on twitter @nicholaspwright and read more from him at his blog.

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