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GCR Books

Henry Norris at the Arsenal part 4: the proposed mergers with Tottenham and Chelsea.

by Tony Attwood

This series of articles covers the 17 years in which Henry Norris was involved with Arsenal football club.   The story so far:

Thus far the following has become clear:

a) By 1910 Arsenal were in severe financial difficulties because of declining crowds since the club gained promotion from the second division.

b) George Leavey, the club’s main benefactor had lent more money to Arsenal than he was now comfortable with, and wanted it back.  He was also the guarantor of the club paying its rent to the owner of the ground meaning he would still have liabilities even if the club folded.

c) The club had been destabilised by a clause in its articles of association which meant that anyone with just one share could stand to be elected as a director.  A new club had been formed in order to remove that clause.

d) Henry Norris of Fulham FC had expressed an interest in helping out, which had evolved into a plan involving ground sharing at Craven Cottage.

Throughout much of the 1909/10 season Arsenal had looked to be likely candidates for relegation, but a run of three wins, two draws and just one defeat in the final six games secured 18th place, and a continuation in the first division.

With the season concluding on 23 April, there was now time to focus totally on what sort of club Arsenal would be come 1 September when the 1910/11 season commenced.

In late April and early May 1910 it looked as though Woolwich Arsenal FC would be saved by its supporters in Woolwich – in fact a celebratory dinner even took place in late April to mark the club’s rescue by a group of local businessmen.  However, the share issue that was necessary for this rescue to work didn’t raise nearly enough money to pay the liquidated company’s debts, and George Leavey, increasingly anxious about the money he was owed by the club, took desperate measures.

Exactly when Leavey went, cap in hand, to the directors of Fulham FC suggesting that Woolwich Arsenal FC be absorbed into Fulham was a subject of much debate and anger later.  Residents of Plumstead accused Hall and Norris of having listened to Leavey as early as April – but it is certain that having arranged the friendly between Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham in February, Leavey was bound to have met Norris, one way or another.

But the serious talk, rather than the vague possibilities probably got going in mid-May 1910, because having got through the season and avoided relegation, Woolwich Arsenal now had to assure the Football League that they would be operating as a first division club next season.

What did emerge at this time was a more concrete plan for ground sharing at Craven Cottage, or the merger of the two clubs into one with Fulham Arsenal playing in the first division.  A deal which now included the paying off of Woolwich Arsenal’s debts to Leavey – and quite possibly other people as well.

This has all the hallmarks of Henry Norris – it was his sort of scheme, and as he had a reputation for with his property development business, he kept his cards close to his chest.

Now at this time there were no ground shares in existence, nor had there been any club amalgamations.   Accrington had become the first team to quit the league in 1893, and various others had followed, as new clubs had entered, but these were new developments.  Indeed it was not until the League’s AGM in the summer that a definitive statement was made about club amalgamations, where clubs could play and indeed which league they would play in.

However Arsenal were in no position to tell the League anything at first since on 12 May the club revealed that the deal with Fulham had come to nought and the club was now talking to the directors of the other two London league clubs: Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.   Also it was clear that the League was now putting pressure on Arsenal to establish if they could continue in the League so that the new season’s fixture list could be amended as appropriate if need be.

There were no absolute rules on what would happen if a club resigned in the close season, but there were two prime options:

First, Chelsea who had finished 19th and would thus have been relegated could remain in the 1st division and only Bolton would go down.  The top two in Division Two (Manchester City and Oldham) would come up as usual, and clubs from outside of the Football League would be invited to apply for what turned out to be two spare places in the second division (this because Grimsby had not been re-elected having come 19th in the second division, and had moved into the Midland League).

Second Bolton and Chelsea would go down to the Second Division, with Hull (the club that had come third in the second division in 1909/10) being promoted.

Thus the result of Arsenal’s situation had a widespread interest with Chelsea and Hull being directly implicated in possible solutions, and clubs outside the league realising there could be two places available in the league, rather than just one.

So what might Woolwich Arsenal have to say about joining up with Tottenham or Chelsea.

Arsenal’s rivalry with Tottenham was already well established even though the clubs’ grounds were over 20 miles apart and they had played their first match on 19 November 1887 – the start of a series of five friendlies played between the clubs.  However following a 10-1 drubbing of Tottenham by Arsenal in 1889, the games were abandoned for nearly six years, before resuming in 1896.

The first game – which was abandoned because of bad light, is reported in most accounts, but interesting the subsequent matches ending with the 10-1 are sometimes omitted, with many accounts jumping straight onto the United League matches that started in 1896.  Someone was busy re-writing history.

By this time Arsenal had become a Football League club, and it was not unknown for League clubs to try and make a little extra cash by playing in a secondary league.  The United League was not a reserve league, but it attracted smaller crowds and did not have the public appeal of the England-wide Football League.

However there was already history between the clubs because when Royal Arsenal turned professional in 1891 they had a need to provide regular competitive games to keep their fans’ interest in the game. A diet of friendlies against local rivals and the big northern teams was OK but these games were prone to being one-sided affairs or there was a risk of the opponents pulling out at short notice.

The Royal Arsenal committee had thus decided to test the water and opened discussions with their neighbours about forming a Southern League. The interested parties met in February 1892 and agreed to form a league consisting of 12 teams. Those 12 teams were: Chatham, Chiswick Park, Crouch End, Ilford, Luton, Marlow, Millwall, Old St Mark’s, Reading, Royal Arsenal, Swindon, Tottenham Hotspur, and West Herts.

I’m not sure exactly how the voting was set up but Tottenham finished at the bottom of the list with only 1 vote (presumably their own).

The Southern League finally got going in 1894, without Tottenham; they eventually joined it in 1896. At the time the Southern League was formed of two divisions. Tottenham were elected into the First Division. I’ve not found any records of the rules of elections into the Southern League but I assume that clubs of a certain size could be elected directly into the top division. But there was promotion and relegation between the two divisions so it seems a bit strange that they weren’t put into the Second Division.

After 12 years in the Southern League Tottenham decided to try their chances with the big boys and in February 1908 Tottenham (along with QPR) made it known that they would apply to join the Football League.

QPR were justified in their application as they were runaway winners of the Southern League. Tottenham eventually finished 7th (and this was by virtue of a goal average 0.01 better than Northampton).

However by this time the Southern League was fed up with its members applying to join the Football League only to come back with their tails between their legs when they were unsuccessful and causing the Southern League administration problems such as re-arranging the fixture lists. So, at the 1908 AGM the members agreed that any team wishing to resign from the Southern League had to do so by December of the season that they wanted to resign. They then expelled Tottenham and QPR.   A newspaper cutting about Tottenham’s expulsion is here.

Tottenham finally joined the League in 1908, and won promotion in their first season, thus playing Arsenal for the first time in a Football League match in 1909/10.  They finished one point and three places above Arsenal in their inaugeral season.

Arsenal and Tottenham played their first match on 19 November 1887 – the start of a series of five friendlies played between the clubs.  However following a 10-1 drubbing of Tottenham by Arsenal in 1889, the games were abandoned for nearly six years, before resuming in 1896.

By this time Arsenal had become a Football League club, and it was not unknown for League clubs to try and make a little extra cash by playing in a secondary league: the Southern District Combination, in which Tottenham also now played.

In just such a league match played at the end of the season against Tottenham in 1900 matters boiled over and the game was abandoned after 65 minutes after the referee took offence at the constant barrage of “coarse chaff and vulgar rebukes” that he and one of the Tottenham players were receiving from all parts of the ground.  After having one man expelled from the ground for “foul criticism” in the first half, he was further insulted (or so he felt) and then left the ground with 25 minutes remaining!

The ref then reported the incident to the FA, whose minutes show that the Woolwich Arsenal was strongly censured for not taking more decided action to prevent bad language being used on the ground.  They were also ordered to publish special notices warning that any repetition would result in the closing of the Manor Ground.  (At the same time the FA suggested to the ref that it would have been better if he had stopped the game and enabled the authorities to deal with the crowd).

The next time Woolwich Arsenal ran into trouble with officialdom was 1902 and again it was with Tottenham.  In a reserve match the Tottenham goal keeper Charlie Williams, moved into the crowd that was standing behind his goal and hit a spectator.   His defence was that the man in the crowd was using “foul and insulting language” towards him.

Today I wonder what punishment a keeper would get for that – but in 1902 things were different and he got two weeks’ suspension.  The club again got a warning that any repetition of bad language would result in the ground being closed.

The cause of the problem was that Williams had played for Arsenal in 1893 but seemingly even then he was unpopular as a player, and left Arsenal for this reason.

In 1904 Woolwich Arsenal reserves played Tottenham reserves and during the game the Tottenham player Chalmers assaulted the Arsenal player Thorpe.  The crowd turned on the Tottenham team, and even gathered around the dressing rooms after the match shouting abuse, until the team had left the ground.

However it is noticeable that with the exception of certain matches against Tottenham, the derby matches against Millwall and Chelsea were seen as local rivalry.  True there were on occasions “howls and catcalls from one little corner”  but the derbies were seen as colourful and exciting occasions rather than times at which the police had to be called in and decent citizens had to lock themselves in their houses out of fear.

Meanwhile Tottenham had managed to become elected to the Southern League but as we have seen both clubs met via the United League and as a result, over the years the games between Arsenal and Tottenham had grown in interest.  By 8 April 1898 a United League game at White Hart Lane attracted 14,500 fans and the crowd size continued to grow.  The first Football League match between the two at Plumstead on 4 December 1909 attracted 18,000 while the return game on 16 April brought 39,800 to WHL.

Chelsea, on the other hand, had entered directly into the Football League upon being formed in 1905 – having first applied for the Southern League (only to find Tottenham rejecting their application and persuading the rest of the League to turn them down), and started playing Arsenal in 1907 in the first division.

These matches attracted full houses, with even bigger crowds than the Tottenham-Arsenal games, the first game on 9 November 1907 seeing 65,000 in Stamford Bridge and on 7 March 30,000 at the Manor Ground.

We have no record of Chelsea’s response to Arsenal’s overtures, but Tottenham were reported at the time to be interested in doing some sort of deal with Arsenal.

Meanwhile under the rules of the Finance Act the deadline of May 13th was set for the sale of shares in the new company and it was stated that if there is no sale of the shares by then, the club would resign from the League and be wound up, unless of course whether it had made a deal with Chelsea, Tottenham or anyone else which allowed it to keep going.

To clarify this last point, although a new club could not be formed after 13 May, there was nothing to stop the existing club continuing – if it could convince the Football League that it had a sound financial base.  The matter really was in Leavey’s hands as he was the only creditor likely to pull the plug – and he knew that if he did, he would get precious little back from his investment in Arsenal, with it then no longer being a first division club.

Leavey, more than anyone else, needed the club to be passed on to others as a going concern.


The story continues…

This is one of a number of series that the Arsenal History Society has researched and published.  A full list is given on the home page of this site.

 

 

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