Five-nil in Moscow, but spies feared Arsenal had lost more than a match
Archive story of how the Gunners got caught up in some sneaky Cold War propaganda
03 April, 2020 — By Richard Osley
Arsenal arrive at Vnukovo airport, Moscow, in October 1954
IT was a heavy defeat but when Arsenal were thrashed 5-0 by Dynamo Moscow in the strained Cold War climate of the 1950s, Foreign Office spies feared the Gunners had lost more than a football match.
A web of once-secret correspondence sent between officials in London and Moscow went on to reveal how the government was left embarrassed by Arsenal’s poor performance in the showcase “friendly” fixture in October 1954.
You can find the files at the National Record Office in Kew, and they show how embassy staff in Moscow feared the worst when under-performing Arsenal were cherry-picked to become the first English club team to play in Russia.
Months before the match, worried letters were zipping backwards and forwards across Europe.
They included warnings that the Russians might try to wear out the Arsenal players with an energy-sapping sightseeing tour of Moscow.
At the time, Arsenal were one of England’s most famous teams after a series of pre-war championship triumphs. But in the 1950s they were experiencing a dire slump in form. Foreign Office officials believed the Gunners had been invited because they were likely to lose.
Fearing they would also lose the game of one-upmanship with the Russians, officials considered drafting in talented players from other English clubs to play against Dynamo, then emerging as one of Europe’s most technically gifted teams.
But a despatch from the British Embassy in Moscow, sent as early as February 1954 to the Foreign Office in London, said: “Arsenal are bound to be beaten. If Arsenal are going out, I think it would be better if they are represented by a strictly Arsenal team.
“We can then take the line after their inevitable defeat that it was only a British club team and not something which might be represented as an English (national) side.”
In the run-up to the contest – labelled the Match of the Century by the then Arsenal boss Tom Whittaker – officials normally concerned with political affairs became curiously drawn into team tactics.
In June, a so-called “expert member of staff” at the British Embassy in Moscow, who appears to have been little more than a civil servant with an interest in football, sent home his assessment of Dynamo tactics.
“The long pass is not often used,” the correspondence reads. “Forwards rarely shoot from a long way out but shooting is generally accurate.”
An even more curious despatch followed the next month when Foreign Office staff warned that the Russians could use dirty tricks.
AGR Rouse, the British Ambassador in Moscow, said: “Apart from the usual hazards of soccer, the Arsenal football team will no doubt be exposed to the hospitality meted out to all honoured guests in the Soviet Union.
“Members of the French and Danish team who have played here recently complained – after their defeats – that their hosts had entertained them so royally before games that they had been in no state to play football afterwards.”
Concern switched to BBC commentator Raymond Glendenning, a famous name in the history of sports reporting.
He was warned by the Foreign Office to be on his guard. Another secret file said: “The Russians could quote his commentary out of context.”
The match itself – played on October 5, 1954 – turned out as predicted: Arsenal were trounced.
A Foreign Office analysis compiled the day after the match made “gloomy reading”, according to one official.
In 2004, Arsenal’s players were accused of unruly behaviour in the so-called Battle of the Buffet at Old Trafford after losing 2-0 to Manchester United.
Fifty years earlier, the Gunners, it appears, also misbehaved at a buffet in Moscow. When they should have been enjoying a display by acrobats and a puppet show, the players were giving their opponents the cold shoulder.
The Gunners gave their counterparts gifts of club ties and received semi-precious ural stone in return. But the mood was clearly tense.
Analysis by Mr Rouse, dispatched home on October 6, said: “The Russian interpreter gave quite an arbitrary version of [Arsenal director] Mr Joyce’s speech. Joyce said something to this effect: ‘You have given us a good hiding. When we go back we shall put in some practice then give you a good beating.’
“The Russian listeners heard: ‘You have given us a good lesson and we have learnt much from you. We shall go on learning so we shall be able to play better when we next meet each other’.”
A further report from the embassy arrived in Britain on October 8 – again it made grim reading for officials still embarrassed by Arsenal’s performance.
“It was regrettable that they were guilty of a number of fouls of which the crowd naturally showed disapproval,” it said.
The eye-opening analysis of the reception for players added: “Relations between the teams appeared to be bad. In fact, it was almost impossible to induce them to talk to each other.”
The 5-0 defeat is then placed in the context of wider relations between Britain and Russia.
Clearly disgusted with the whole affair, the ambassador summed up what he believed were the political consequences of Arsenal’s loss.
His analysis, never made public, was compiled without the awareness of Arsenal players and staff.
He said: “We can only say that this first visit of a British football team to the Soviet Union did nothing to enhance British prestige in the field of sport or improve Anglo-Soviet relations, and that its main effect was to minister to Russian self-satisfaction and to their conviction of their superiority over us, even in fields in which we are traditionally expert.”