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GCR Books

1919: The Arsenal pre-season after the war

By Tony Attwood

After war had been declared in 1914, the Football League continued to play  out the 1914/15 season.  Recruiting officers and local Mayors (including Henry Norris) attended matches trying to persuade young men as they entered and left the ground (and indeed at half time) to sign up (conscription having not yet started).

And attendances dropped.

In some senses the season fizzled out, but was marked at its close by the biggest match fixing scandal of the League’s history, which started on 2 April 1915 as Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-0.  Both clubs were found guilty of match fixing, but neither received any punishment.  The sheer audacity and clubbyness of the northern teams who thought they could flagrantly fix matches so that northern clubs stayed in the first division while the only two southern clubs in the top division were relegated was enhanced by the refusal of the northern dominated League to do anything about it.

Matters were further confused by the decision of the League to expand its operation, with two more clubs in each division.  With the war concluded but with the war time leagues continuing for the rest of 1918/19  the clubs had plenty of time to consider their response to the match fixing, and what they would do about expansion.

There were no fixed rules either for dealing with match fixing nor for extending the league.  The last time league extension had happened was at the end of the 1904/5 season, again with two more clubs added in each league.  The routine was set that clubs would vote on the applications for places and  hat time around they voted that no club was to be relegated from division 1,   Doncaster were ejected from Division 2, and they were replaced by Clapton Orient, Stockport, Leeds City, Hull and Chelsea.  But this was just an arrangement to solve that expansion, not a precedent, and indeed in the 1905 setting there was no issue of match fixing to consider.

On the issue of match fixing, apart from the crimes of the two clubs involved, this meant that Chelsea faced relegation as a direct result of the criminal conspiracy between Liverpool and Man U.  The other relegated London team (Tottenham) were not affected by the match fixing as they would have been relegated whatever the result of the fixed match.

On 10 March 1919 at the Special General Meeting of the Football League it was agreed that Chelsea should be elected to the first division for the forthcoming season as it would be intolerable that they should be relegated because of a fixed match – but outrageously no punishment was meted out on Liverpool and Man U who could have been expelled from the league for their crimes – or at the very least relegated.  

But in return for that everyone was required to keep quiet about match fixing.   A vote thereafter elected Arsenal to the remaining new place in the league.   Andy Kelly’s previous article on these events (see the link above) set out everything in the fullest detail and is essential reading for anyone interested in the events of 1919 in football.

And so, knowing which league they were going to be in, Arsenal, like every other team started finding new recruits with so many players killed or injured in the war, or now too old to continue.

One particularly interesting point can be noted on 22 March 1919 when Clem Voysey played his first match for Arsenal in a London Combination (the war time league) game against West Ham.  Arsenal won 3-2 in front of 20,000.

The following saturday Arsenal beat Tottenham 1-0.  It was technically an away match, but Tottenham’s ground was shut for the duration and they played all their games at Highbury.

It is an interesting point: while in more recent times Tottenham supporters have been presented an image of being outraged by the events of 1919 suggesting that Arsenal fixed their promotion at the expense of Tottenham, at the time the clubs were continuing to co-habit quite peacefully and one can find no suggestion in any contemporary reports that there was significant animosity between the clubs over the issue.  And this most certainly was not because of any reluctance of people to comment vigorously on such matters – the issue of the failure by the FA to compensate Tom Whittaker when an injury playing for England ended his football playing career was answered in the most forthright terms by Sir Henry Norris in the club programme.  People were not afraid to comment in the post-war era.

As for Voysey, later in his career there were two investigations into his contractual arrangements at Arsenal and the club was found guilty of paying a “signing on” fee although the evidence was extremely dubious.  (See 22 March link above).

But back in the spring of 1919 there was also played the London Victory Cup which included both Fulham and Arsenal.

Lt Col Sir Henry Norris (as he was by then following the award of his titles in relation to his war work) was a director of both clubs and found himself in an odd position when on 31 March 1919 Arsenal appealed against Fulham’s victory in the London Victory Cup on the grounds that Fulham had knowingly played not one, but half a team’s worth of ineligible players.  

On 4 April the complaint against Fulham by Sir Henry over their playing unregistered players was heard by the Committee of the London Combination.

10 April 1919: The Committee of the London Combination ordered the game between Fulham and Arsenal to be replayed on this day.  However a set of appeals and counter appeals resulted in a final Fulham appeal being heard without Sir Henry being told about it!

At the same time on 10 April 1919 Leslie Knighton joined Arsenal as the post-war manager.  He remained in post until 1925 although towards the end of his tenure Arsenal struggled against relegation and he was relieved of his duties in 1925 to be replaced by Chapman.

11 April 1919 Sir Henry Norris wrote an open letter complaining about the behaviour of the London Combination’s committee, in relation to their holding an appeal hearing without him present to represent Arsenal’s position.

14 April 1919.  Athletic News published the Norris complaint about the London Combination.  Sir Henry resigned from Fulham as a director for the 2nd and final time (date unclear but certainly between 11 April and 21 April 1919

Also on 14 April Arthur Hutchins and Ernie Williamson were signed from Croydon Common.  The Common were the only Southern League team not to return to league football after the first world war, and although the details are unclear it seems Henry Norris may have had a significant involvement with the club, or at least been a financial supporter of the club.  As he gradually focussed totally on Arsenal it seems he moved away from whatever his involvement had been in the Common and the club simply didn’t return after the war.

19 April 1919:   By the ultimate of ironies the semi final of the highly controversial London Victory Cup (involving Fulham whose counter appeals had been successful without Sir Henry present, was played at, of all places, Highbury.   

The London Combination games finished on 21 April and with the league getting ready to resume on 30 August, on 25 April 1919 The London Combination (the capital’s war time league) met to vote itself out of existence.  But it seems, within the meeting itself, the club membership changed their minds, and instead voted to keep the league and make it the capital’s reserve league.

Thereafter there were a number of post-season friendlies

  • 26 April: Brentford  3 Arsenal 3
  • 3 May West Ham  0 Arsenal 1
  • 10 MAy Arsenal 3 West Ham 2
  • 17 May Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2
  • 24 May Arsenal 0 Tottenham 0

While 33,000 had attended the final London Combination game against Tottenham crowds for these post-season friendlies were all under 10,000 showing that the London supporters considered the Combination to be a “proper” league and the friendlies of lesser interest.

The last game on 24 May 1919  is of note for although hostilities  between the clubs over Arsenal’s move north had been ended even before Tottenham started using Highbury for wartime games, we might have expected that the bad feeling had reopened 10 weeks before this game due to Arsenal’s election to the first division and Tottenham’s relegation.  This friendly, quite unnecessary, and unlikely to have been played if there had been hostilities is just one more sign that there was no problem at the time between the clubs.  The anger such as it was, emerged much later.

So the season had ended, ready to start again on 30 August 1919 after a gap of four years.  Arsenal, now securely back for all time (although of course no one knew it then) in the top league went a hunting for top league players.

24 May 1919: Daniel Burgess signed from Goldenhill Wanderers and made his league debut on 1 September 1919 in a league match against Liverpool.

26 July 1919: Henry White signed from Brentford.  He was Arsenal’s top scorer with 16 goals in 1919/20 and again in the 1921/2 season when he got 19.  He also had a trial for England.

27 August 1919: Joseph Toner joined from Belfast United for £200.  He was an occasional player in each of the years under Knighton’s management, and was moved on after Chapman arrived.

The opening team on 30 August 1919 incuded Blyth, Rutherford and Shaw – the only three players who played in the last game of the 1914/15 season and in the first game of the 1919/20 season.  Other players like Bradshaw had been at the club and played in the league before the war, but not in that last game of the season – but only these three could be called the “First and Last Men”.

Thus Arsenal started the longest run in the top division in the history of English football by coincidence playing the same team that they played in their first league game.  The match was lost 0-1 to Newcastle.  It was also the first match as manager for Leslie Knighton plus the first appearance of Alfred Baker, Henry White and Ernie Williamson.

Other players who had joined the club at various stages in the war years gradually emerged including John (“Jack”) ButlerJoseph TonerFrederick Pagnam signed from Liverpool, (an important player to note as he disproved the “Knighton Thesis” that his teams struggled in the first division because Sir Henry Norris would not let him spend more than £1000 on a player – he cost £1500.  He was also the player who refused to stay silent about Liverpool’s match fixing, and as a result should be remembered as an absolute Arsenal hero).

I won’t record each individual first match from here on, but one should not be missed: 27 October 1919, Tom Whittaker joined Arsenal from the army.  He went on to become a first team player, trainer, coach and ultimately title winning manager.

We are now of course way past the start of the season, the usual remit of this series, but I will add these final dates…

Sometimes between 1 – 5 December 1919 The Arsenal FC became Arsenal FC.  And on 6 December 1919: 50,000 come to Highbury for the first time to see 1-1 draw with Chelsea.  Things were moving – although, as always in football it took a bit of time.

From the Pre-season files

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