Born in Heavitree in Exeter, Bastin played schoolboy football within Exeter, and for Devon County boys, and also helped with the two local junior sides, St. Mark’s and St. James’. He started his career at Exeter City, making his Football League debut for the club at Coventry City in April 1928, at the age of 16 years and one month. Despite only playing 17 games and scoring 6 goals in his time at Exeter, he was spotted by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman in a match against Watford; Chapman was attending to keep tabs on a Watford player, but the 17-year-old Bastin’s ability was so evident that Chapman decided to sign him in May 1929 for a £2,000 fee.
Bastin played the rest of his career at Arsenal, and formed an integral part of the side that dominated English football in the 1930’s. He scored 178 goals in 395 games, which made him Arsenal’s all-time top goalscorer from 1939 until 1997, when his total was surpassed by Ian Wright. In 2005 Thierry Henry passed both Bastin and Wright’s totals, thus meaning Bastin is currently (as of January 2017) Arsenal’s third-top goalscorer of all time. His record of 150 league goals for Arsenal stood for slightly longer, until it was equalled by Thierry Henry on 14th January 2006 and surpassed on 1st February in the same year.
Bastin made his debut against Everton on 5th October 1929 and was immediately a first team regular, making 21 appearances that season. He went on to be a near ever-present in the side over the next decade, playing over 35 matches for every season up to and including 1937-38. His youth earned him the nickname “Boy Bastin”, but despite his age Bastin’s play was characterised by a remarkable coolness, and deadly precision in front of goal; he also became Arsenal’s regular penalty taker. Bastin’s scoring feats are all the more remarkable considering he played on the left wing rather than as centre forward; at the time Arsenal’s strategy depended heavily on their wingers cutting into the penalty box, and the supply of passes from Alex James was the source of many of his goals.
With Arsenal, Bastin won the FA Cup twice, in 1930 and 1936, and the First Division Championship five times, in 1930-31, 1932-33, 1933-34, 1934-35 and 1937-38; by the age of nineteen he had won a League title, FA Cup and been capped for England, when he made his debut in November 1931 in a 3-1 win against Wales at Anfield making him the youngest player ever to do all three. He played in Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday in the Charity Shield at Stamford Bridge in October 1930. Bastin also finished as Arsenal top scorer twice (1932-33 and 1933-34, with 33 and 15 respectively) though after centre-forward Ted Drake arrived in March 1934, Bastin was no longer Arsenal’s number one target man.
With Drake scoring the lion’s share of the goals and Alex James increasingly unavailable due to injury and age, Bastin was moved to inside-forward to replace James for much of the 1935-36 season, which saw Arsenal drop to sixth; Bastin still scored 17 goals, including six in Arsenal’s run to the 1936 FA Cup Final, which they won 1-0. After a stint at right half to cover for Jack Crayston, Bastin was eventually restored to the left wing and scored 17 goals in the 1937-38 title-winning season. An injury to his right leg ruled him out of much of the 1938-39 season, the last one played before the outbreak of World War Two.
During his career Bastin also played for England between 1931 and 1938, winning 21 caps and scoring 12 goals. Highlights of his England career included the famous “Battle of Highbury”, where England defeated 1934 World Cup winners Italy 3-2, and a notorious match against Germany in Berlin in 1938, when the England team was ordered to give the Nazi salute before the match. Bastin may have won more caps but faced competition from Eric Brook. He also made 4 appearances for The Football League.
The Second World War intervened when Bastin was 27, thus cutting short what should have been the peak of his career. Bastin was excused military service as he failed the army hearing test owing to his increasing deafness. Thus, during the War, he served as an ARP Warden, being stationed on top of Highbury stadium with Tom Whittaker. He also played matches in the war-time league to boost civilian morale. In 1941, Fascist Italy’s propaganda broadcast on Rome Radio, contained a bizarre claim that Bastin had been captured in the Battle of Crete, and was being detained in Italy; the Italians were seemingly unaware that Bastin was deaf and had been excused service.
Bastin’s injured leg had hampered his performances in wartime matches, and would ultimately curtail his career. After the War was over, Bastin, by now in his thirties, would only play seven more times (failing to score in any of them) before retiring in January 1947. A stand at St James Park, Exeter’s home ground, is named in his honour and in 2009 he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
NB England captain Tom Cooper introduces King George VI to Arsenal’s Cliff Bastin, watched by Birmingham City’s Lew Stoker (right of Cooper) and debutant Sunderland forward Raich Carter (left of Bastin) before England played Scotland at Wembley on 14th April 1934. England won the match 3-0, Bastin scoring the opening goal.