Arthur Johnson: the Irishman who taught Real Madrid how to play football

Arthur Johnson: the Irishman who taught Real Madrid how to play football

Many British sports historians revel, much to the frustration of international fans, in their nation’s role establishing the rules of the beautiful game and sharing it with the rest of Europe. Though this claim isn’t entirely accurate across the continent, it does ring true for Spain.

The earliest kickabouts on the Iberian Peninsula were between British expatriates and locals. It was these early matches that saw the establishment of many of Spain’s earliest football clubs, with each club often featuring some kind of English influence that helped the club grow.

Some of the most famous examples of these early British influences came in the form of players and managers such as Fred Pentland, who played a massive role in the early histories of clubs such as Athletic Club and Atlético Madrid, or Patrick O’Connell, who won Real Betis their first and only league title and proved a guiding light for Barcelona during the Civil War. 

It seems that every club in Spain has some sort of English connection, though some celebrate their British heritage more than others. Perhaps as a consequence of being consistently successful, many decisive figures across Real Madrid’s history don’t get the credit they deserve. One such figure who slides into this category is Arthur Johnson.

Johnson is credited by the club as their first goal scorer in official competition, their first manager, and appears to be among the first figures to instil the competitive spirit that defines Real’s game today. 

Like O’Connell, Arthur Johnson was born in Dublin, in August 1879, a time when Ireland was still part of the British Empire. His political leanings are unknown, though judging from the accounts of him from his friends in Madrid, Johnson appears to have identified as English. He first moved to Spain in search of work and eventually got a job with an engineering firm in Madrid, helping build the city’s first sewer system. 

Before moving to Madrid, Johnson had enjoyed a prolific amateur football career, playing as a forward, centre-half and goalkeeper. He even supposedly played for the famed Corinthian FC in England, though he doesn’t appear in the club’s sketchy official records. Regardless of that, when Johnson joined Madrid FC in 1902, he quickly became the team’s key figure.

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Julián Palacios, a former president of the club and Johnson’s strike partner, claimed that the Englishman was “the only one who knew what he was doing” while a Spanish friend of Johnson claimed he “knew more about the game than anybody else”. At the ripe old age of 24, Johnson was among the oldest players in the team – the squad’s average age was 19 and featured a 16-year old Pedro Parages amongst the starters – hence he took it upon himself to “teach the players the rudiments of the game”.

At the time when Johnson moved to Madrid, football was still in its infancy across the country. Palacios provided an insight into the average football match at the time: “We had referees sometimes, but few of them agreed on the rules. They all had their own versions of the game and frankly it was easier to play without them. We wasted a lot of time smoking and drinking. [There was] a goalkeeper who used to sit on a chair in front of the goal-line drinking lemonade and just relaxing. When we attacked he’d throw the chair behind the line and put on this really serious expression.”

In an attempt to improve his own team’s conduct and the game generally, Johnson wrote out four principles for the game in fluent Spanish. These principles were later published in the Heraldo del Sport, a sports newspaper at the time. The article was entitled “The Instructions for the Good Development of Football”. In this short piece, Johnson suggested that a game shouldn’t start until each team had chosen their respective bosses so he could order and evenly distribute the players across the pitch, Johnson hoped that this would “prevent the excessive talk and discussions that currently exist”.

His second principle was that players should stick to their positions and not swap with their teammates. Johnson claimed this would prevent confusion and allow players to learn their teammates’ position so they could help them when in trouble. The Englishman claimed that players constantly swapping position was not football, something which a certain Dutch midfielder and manager would take issue with in later years.

Johnson’s third and fourth principles are rather more straightforward, suggesting that players bring the ball back into play quicker and pass it when they can.

Johnson was made club captain soon after and he continued to have a profound influence on the young Madrid side. He was the first to suggest that Madrid line-up in all-white kits, and in May 1902 he led the team out for their first official match against Barcelona. Madrid were competing the Coronation Cup – now the Copa del Rey – alongside four other sides in New Foot Ball Club, Vizcaya (now Athletic Club), Barcelona and Español (now Espanyol).

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Barcelona had been founded just a few years prior to Madrid and their experience showed as they took a quick 2-0 lead. Following the second, Johnson received a pass from Madrid defender Giralt and smashed the ball inside Barcelona’s near post. It was Madrid FC’s first goal as an official institute, however it proved to be nothing more than a consultation as the Catalans eased into the final 3-1. 

Many of Johnson’s appearances following the defeat to Barcelona appear to have been in goal. He started there in December of the same year in a 9-2 thrashing of New Foot Ball Club. In April 1903, Madrid FC played in their first Coronation Cup final against the holders Vizcaya. Johnson once again started in goal and things seemed to be going smoothly at half-time with his team up 2-0.

However, the second half proved to be disastrous for Madrid as they surrendered their lead and lost 3-2. Johnson was at fault for at least one of the goals, losing track of the ball as depicted in a famous photo of the final. The image of Johnson with his back to the ball soon became the cover of a local magazine, though the picture suggests he knew what he was doing rather than having made a mistake, something that would have undoubtedly been a relief to Madrid’s English skipper. 

Johnson disappeared off the club records during the glory years between 1905 and 1910, when Madrid won four Coronation Cups in succession. It is presumed that he returned to the UK for work, something which was not uncommon in those early amatuer days, especially considering Johnson had married in April 1902. He returned to Spain in 1910, however he promptly decided to hang up his boots and became Madrid’s first manager. 

Unfortunately, Johnson’s time in charge of Madrid was marred by institutional crisis. In 1904, the club had been forced to fuse with another Madrid outfit named Moderno after a number of the club’s key players had defected to Español Madrid, a trend that would continue well into Johnson’s time as a manager.

Madrid’s instability was added to on the pitch with old foe Vizcaya greatly improved since their consecutive cup defeats to Madrid at the close of the decade, and Barcelona returning to the competition for the first time since 1902. As a result, much of Johnson’s decade-long reign at the club was spent playing third fiddle to Basque and Catalan opponents, something that would have undoubtedly frustrated both the manager and the small fan base the club had accumulated.  

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Nevertheless, Johnson did oversee some positives during his time in charge of the club. Madrid continued to dominated the regional scene, winning five titles, though they obviously struggled to replicate that form when it mattered. In 1912, Madrid moved to a new stadium, the O’Donnell Stadium, adding to the Irish flavour already present at the club. Johnson also oversaw the introduction of a number of key figures into the first team set-up, including future president Santiago Bernabéu. 

In 1916, Los Blancos finally reached the final of the Coronation Cup, their first since 1908, having beaten Barcelona in controversial circumstances in the semi-final. The furore surrounded an old tradition regarding the selection of referees for cup games. In a demonstration of good faith and mutual trust, a local referee would generally take charge of the game; in this instance it was former Madrid player Berraondo.

The semi-final was in its fourth replay at the grounds of Athletic Madrid and, after three draws, Barcelona were 2-1 up at half-time after the go-ahead goal had been heavily disputed by Madrid. The second half saw the Catalans disintegrate as Johnson’s team scored four unanswered goals and missed a penalty. In frustration, Barcelona allegedly began to get rough and, come the full time whistle, accused the referee of bias. In the end, the win mattered little as Madrid were swept away in the final in Barcelona, losing 4-0 to the newly named Athletic Club de Bilbao. 

Undeterred, Madrid reached the final the following year, again under controversial circumstances. This time it was in a third game replay against Barcelona’s city rivals, Español, which saw fans flood the pitch at full-time and knock the Basque referee out with a wooden chair.  Johnson’s side were able to get the job done against Basque opponents, seeing off Arenas de Getxo 2-1 in the final. It would be the club’s last piece of major silverware until 1932, although Madrid did make the final occasionally throughout the intervening period. 

Johnson missed Madrid’s royal patronage in 1920 with work once again dragging him abroad. He had started travelling from Madrid to Camino de Valverde, 11km away, for a Liverpool-based chemicals company he worked for. The job eventually dragged him away from Spain altogether and he moved to Merseyside towards the end of the decade. He died of pneumonia in 1929 aged just 56. 

To this day, only Miguel Muñoz has managed more games than Arthur Johnson did, and though the former’s trophy count speaks for itself, few men can claim to have had more influence on Madrid than Johnson. It was the Dubliner who thought them how to play football and was one of their first true leaders. For that, he deserves much more recognition than he currently receives. 

By Kristofer McCormack @K_mc06

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