On this day Dave Bowen made his first team début for Arsenal as Arsenal beat Wolverhampton 2-1 in front of 54,213 at Highbury. This was one of three games in four days – a traditional Easter format at this time.
The season 1950/51 saw the launch of the Arsenal career of two Welsh players, whose names ring through history: Jack Kelsey and Dave Bowen.
David Lloyd Bowen was born in Natyffyllon, near Maesteg on 7 June 1928. It is said that he won a pair of football boots won in a raffle and after that his life changed.
After training as a surveyor in south Wales, Dave and the family then moved to Northampton and he joined the local League club in 1947 – the start of a career that took him onto Arsenal, glory as captain of Wales, unbelievable success as a manager, and finally to become the man who is (I believe) one of only Arsenal player to have a stand named after him.
Dave was spotted as a player of potential by the son of Tom Whittaker while both were doing their National Service, and apart from spotting the talent of Dave, Whittaker junior also was drawn by the link formed between Arsenal and Northamptonshire’s two main clubs at the time, (Northampton Town and non-league Kettering)
Dave signed for Arsenal for £1000 in the summer recess of 1950 as a reserve wing half, and played his first game against Wolverhampton on March 24, 1951.
His first four years were made up of limited appearances (never more than 10) but in 1954/5 he made the breakthrough, with 21 games.
It was a season where the number six shirt was handed on from pillar to post. Shaw played the first game, and got no more games that season, Gording played there for the second game, then Dave Bowen. In November/December Forbes, the centre half took over for a while, but then he was dropped for Dave Bowen, who was finally replaced by Oakes for the last 9 games of the season.
In 1955/6 Dave Bowen started the season but was out for much of the winter with an injury, and in 56/7 an injury in the opening game took him out for a while – but at last he got his 30 games in this and the following season.
He also gained 19 caps for Wales, and captained Wales in the 1958 World Cup finals – and played in that team with John and Mel Charles, Cliff Jones, Ivor Allchurch and of course Jack Kelsey.
Wales drew all three matches in the group stages and so had a play off against Hungary which they won, before being beaten 1–0 by Brazil in the quarter finals (the Brazilian goal being scored by Pele). As such Dave Bowen and Jack Kelsey were the first two Arsenal players to go a world cup finals.
Being part of the “Long Sleep” under the management of Swindin and Wright Dave Bowen didn’t win any cups or league titles with Arsenal, but he did play for London in the final of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1958 – but was on the losing side as we were beaten 8-2 by Barcelona.
In July 1959, Dave Bowen returned to Northampton Town as player-manager for a fee of between £5000 and £7000 (depending on which report you read, but either way a nice profit for Arsenal), and after giving up the playing part of his job after the first season, achieved the impossible, having the team promoted from the fourth division to the first division in five seasons! And this despite Northampton having what some (including me) would regard as one of the three worst football grounds in post-war league history.
(It has been written that Dave should have been given the job of managing Arsenal instead of Billy Wright. But Arsenal had lived through the disaster of one ex-player who couldn’t hack it, and they were looking for someone more high profile – which is a great shame. Under Dave Bowen the Long Sleep at Arsenal might have been five years shorter).
But to return for a moment to the Northampton Town ground, this was shared with Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, and as a result it had only three sides from a football point of view. Two of these were ramshackle terraces while the main stand was in such a bad state that in the long overdue review of grounds following the Bradford fire, it was deemed unsafe (which those of us who had been in it new only too well) and was immediately demolished.
Quite how Dave Bowen managed to get the club into the first division for 1965/6 is today unimaginable, given the facilities and income the club had. Amazingly, with the addition of a temporary stand on the cricket side of the ground, they actually got 24,523 in the ground for the match v Fulham on 23 April 1966 (it could not possibly have been safe). But they also got the lowest crowd for a post-war league match: 942 for the 1984/5 game v Chester City – although this was long after Dave Bowen’s time at the club.
Everything about the ground was ludicrous. When new floodlights were installed in the 1980/1 season they failed when switched on for the first time, and the match was abandoned. The ground was finally closed on 12 October 1994.
Not surprisingly, having made it to the first division, Northampton headed back down the leagues as quickly as they had come up, as Dave had access to no finances to keep the club in the top leagues, and left in 1967, after a second successive relegation.
He was however still in charge of Wales, whom he managed between 1964 and 1974. He rejoined Northampton between 1969 and 1972 as general manager, and later secretary, while also working in journalism (as a reporter for the People), before finally retiring. His son Keith played for Northampton, Brentford and Colchester United.
Dave Bowen died in Northampton on 25 September 1995, at the early age of 67 – and this is where the naming of the stand comes in. The North Stand of Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium, the stadium that was built to replace the wreck of their previous home, is now named after him. Because of financial misdemeanours (which eventually led to Northamptonshire County Council being wound up and the county put under direct rule by the government) the ground was never finished – and Northampton Town still play in a three sided ground.
But I must say, it is nonetheless quite moving to see a stand named after one of Arsenal’s great players.