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GCR Books

The collapse of Woolwich Arsenal: how the rescue took shape.

This is part 5 of the Henry Norris Files – the complete story of Henry Norris at Arsenal.  The previous sections are

Part 1. How Arsenal fell from grace.

Part 2: heading for liquidation and the first thought of moving elsewhere

Part 3: March and April 1910 – the crisis deepens

Part 4: the proposed mergers with Tottenham and Chelsea.


Part 5: How the rescue took shape.

by Tony Attwood

Arsenal had played their last league game of the 1909/10 season on 23 April and they then had two friendlies to play before the teams finally packed up for the summer.

On 28 April 1910 Arsenal arranged a friendly away to Colchester (where they won 3-2) in front of just 1000 spectators.  The team was a mixture of first team and up and coming reserve team players.   Two days later the reserve side lost 2-3 away to Ilford.  No crowd total is recorded.

Then, in an interesting move (given what subsequently happened), on 5 May 1910 Henry Norris and Charlie Buchan entered discussions for Buchan to transfer from Woolwich Arsenal to play for Fulham, under a contract that allowed Buchan to carry on with his teacher training course at the same time.

Buchan had played  some reserve matches  for Woolwich Arsenal in 1910 but didn’t settle in the side, and I am not sure that he actually had a contract with Arsenal.  Certainly Arsenal’s financial problems might suggest not, and by early May Buchan seems to have been doing the rounds looking for a new club.

According to Buchan, in a subsequent newspaper piece, Norris did not handle the negotiations well, making Buchan an offer of £1/10/- a week (£1. 50p).  Buchan rejected this contemptuously announcing that Bury had already offered him twice as much, and there the matter was then dropped.   And yet Buchan didn’t go to Bury since he obviously had an interest in staying in London to continue his studies, and instead moved to Leyton for one season before making his name as a centre forward the following year at Sunderland.

Then, unexpectedly, on 7 May 1910 King Edward VII died; the mourning period throwing a spanner in the works of Arsenal’s attempt to restructure the club as it was deemed unseemly for any official commercial activity to continue until after the funeral.

But as we saw in the last article, George Leavey did continue trying to raise awareness in Arsenal’s new share issue.  However on 11 May he admitted that he had not got enough local people to buy shares in the club, and would search for others from outside the area who might be persuaded to buy.  This resulted in approaches to Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.

As we also noted before, although a new club to take over the assets of the old club had to be formed by 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.  Seen from this point of view the matter really was in Leavey’s hands as he was the only creditor likely to pull the plug on any proposed deal – and he knew that if he did, he would probably get precious little back from his investment in Arsenal, with it then no longer being an active first division club.

It was against this background that on Friday 13 May representatives of the Football League had a discussion about Woolwich Arsenal’s problems at its management committee meeting.

The Committee  decided it needed to have more information before attempting to resolve what kind of financial rescue of Woolwich Arsenal it would sanction.  Obviously it would be happy if Woolwich Arsenal FC found a new sponsor to clear the debts, and thus carried on as the same club, and it would not have much of a problem with the club going into voluntary liquidation and then being reformed.   But the talk of the involvement with other clubs was troubling, and it seems there was little in the rule book of the day that would actually prohibit such a move.  However the League clearly had the right to reject any out of the ordinary proposals that were not covered by the rule book, if the committee saw fit so to do.

The management committee therefore decided to hold a second meeting at which representatives of both Fulham FC and Woolwich Arsenal FC would explain in more detail what (if anything) they were proposing.  This meeting took place at the Imperial Hotel in London on Wednesday 18 May 1910, with J J Bentley, Charles Sutcliffe and T Harris representing the Football League Management Committee.  George Leavey attended on behalf of Arsenal as the lead benefactor of the club.  It is unclear who attended on behalf of Fulham, and that shows that the meeting was primarily organised to ask Leavey what Arsenal intended to do next season.

But at such a meeting it seems highly unlikely for Norris and Hall not to be there also.  After all, if anyone was going to provide the money to rescue Arsenal, it was difficult to see who it was going to be if it were not Norris and Hall either acting alone, or acting on behalf of Fulham FC.

It also seems likely that William Allen of Fulham was present because the proposal that George Leavey put forward was that Norris, Hall and Allen would become directors of a new company to run Woolwich Arsenal FC in Woolwich.

Now to understand fully how this went we must realise that at this stage, many of the rules about what clubs could and could not do were simply devised as time went by.  The rule book of the Football League was far from complete, and it included nothing about ground sharing, or come to that, the issue of gentlemen being directors of more than one club at a time.

So the management committee effectively made up a lot of the rules as they went along, and if they thought these rules were important enough they wrote the precedent which evolved from events into the rule book to be taken note of in the future.

But we must also recognise that the management committee wanted a solution – and preferably a simple solution that allowed Arsenal to keep going.  The club was in difficulty, but it had wide support, and although crowd numbers were down, for a while Arsenal had been the club with the second highest attendance record in the league.  What’s more, the League wanted more of a base within the south, not least to ensure that the Southern League did not come to challenge it.  Indeed it was this desire that had led the Football League to give Chelsea a place in the Football League (after the Southern League turned them down following Tottenham’s objections) when the club had only just formed in 1905.

This lack of precedent and lack of rules now made for a curious game.  The League wanted Arsenal to survive, as everyone knew that an Arsenal doing well could get big crowds, and that to lose Arsenal would be to lose one of their three prime London teams.

To cover the fact that the League in reality had very few cards to play, the men on its Management Committee decided to play hardball, and started out by ruling out both ground sharing and merger.   Leavey was probably ready for this and so came up with an alternative ploy: that there was nothing in the rules to stop the directors of one club also being directors of another club.

This outflanked the Management Committee who had seemingly played their two main cards at the off.   It was clear that if they did not agree to this approach, Arsenal would fall, and for the League that really was, as noted above, unthinkable.   So the League agreed to three Fulham directors becoming Arsenal directors, but only for one year.

Clearly the League had overplayed its hand.  What then if Arsenal were still in a bad way in a year?  The only way out would be to allow Arsenal to move to a new area.  There was nothing in the rules to say they could not, and the League were acutely aware that Millwall, Arsenal’s nearest neighbours of any significance, were at this very moment moving across the river with Southern League approval.  And so that was the deal.  The Fulham directors would work hard to keep Arsenal afloat and would guarantee to keep Arsenal at Plumstead for a year.   After that a move would be allowed.

It is unlikely that the Fulham men had not foreseen this as a possible outcome, and it was self-evident that the League would bend further in a year if that were the only way to keep Arsenal going.   But although Hall and Norris signed up to the deal Allen dropped out.   Norris and Hall were now to run Arsenal with Leavey.

According to Athletic News of the two men left William Hall as the prime mover but it was Norris who was the PR front for the operation.  Norris was a regular contributor to local newspapers and a man never short of an opinion to give.  He would make sure the story was told from Arsenal and Fulham’s point of view.

On 13 May it was confirmed that the share offer had failed, and the directors of the proposed new company started to return the share applications.  This was confirmed in the Times the following day.   But although there had been agreement by the League, there was still a feeling that there was more to come, and within days rumours were circulating that Tottenham, Chelsea and Rangers FC were trying to buy shares in Woolwich Arsenal FC.

The lack of certainty as to exactly how matters were to play out, and the need for the League not to lose one of its most famous clubs clearly made the Management Committee rather anxious and even though an agreement had been reached and signed off by the Committee, on 18 May there was a further meeting between the interested parties to resolve the matter more clearly – a meeting in which Henry Norris clearly played a leading part.

From what we know of this meeting it is clear that Norris knew he was in a position of strength because he outlined plans that he knew that the Management Committee would reject.

The first offer was, in effect, downright cheeky.  Henry Norris offered first to buy Woolwich Arsenal and pay off the creditors creating a new club, Fulham Arsenal, which would play in the first division playing at Craven Cottage.

When they was thrown out, as of course he knew it would be, he back came the already rejected plan of ground sharing.   This time it was the Arsenal representatives at the meeting who turned it down, although clearly they now had no power, since their share issue had failed and without the Fulham directors the club would be wound up within a matter of days.   Indeed quite what Leavey would have done at that point if Norris and Hall had got up and left the meeting, of course we have no idea, but it would have left Leavey bankrupt.

And so the final fall back position agreed at the previous meeting came into being.   A new board of directors for Woolwich Arsenal would be formed including George Leavey, Henry Norris and William Hall.   Norris and Hall were to act in a personal capacity, not as directors of Fulham, meaning that they had to carry out their duties as directors of the company in the best interests of Woolwich Arsenal FC, without considering the wishes or interests of Fulham FC.   They now had one year to come up with a new viable, stable Woolwich Arsenal.  If it was a success at the Manor Ground then it would of course stay there.  If not, like Millwall, it could move.

But let us stop for a moment and see what sort of club Fulham was at this point.  While Arsenal were struggling (but in the end surviving) near the foot of division 1, Fulham were very much mid-table division 2.  Here is how the league table looked at the end of the 1909/10 season.

Pld W D L F A G.Av Pts
1 Manchester City 38 23 8 7 81 40 2.025 54
2 Oldham Athletic 38 23 7 8 79 39 2.026 53
3 Hull City 38 23 7 8 80 46 1.739 53
4 Derby County 38 22 9 7 72 47 1.532 53
5 Leicester Fosse 38 20 4 14 79 58 1.362 44
6 Glossop North End 38 18 7 13 64 57 1.123 43
7 Fulham 38 14 13 11 51 43 1.186 41
8 Wolverhampton Wanderers 38 17 6 15 64 63 1.016 40
9 Barnsley 38 16 7 15 62 59 1.051 39
10 Bradford Park Avenue 38 17 4 17 64 59 1.085 38
11 West Bromwich Albion 38 16 5 17 58 56 1.036 37
12 Blackpool 38 14 8 16 50 52 0.962 36
13 Stockport County 38 13 8 17 50 47 1.064 34
14 Burnley 38 14 6 18 62 61 1.016 34
15 Lincoln City 38 10 11 17 42 69 0.609 31
16 Leyton Orient 38 12 6 20 37 60 0.617 30
17 Leeds City 38 10 7 21 46 80 0.575 27
18 Gainsborough Trinity 38 10 6 22 33 75 0.440 26
19 Grimsby Town 38 9 6 23 50 77 0.649 24
20 Birmingham City 38 8 7 23 42 78 0.538 23

It is also worth looking at the attendance figures for the season and comparing the position of Fulham and Woolwich Arsenal.

 

Pos Club Div Average  Rise or fall
1 Chelsea 1 28.545 -2,0%
2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 27.560 36,1%
3 Newcastle United 1 24.825 -15,3%
4 Liverpool 1 21.620 22,4%
5 Aston Villa 1 21.125 11,5%
6 Bradford City 1 20.640 -5,6%
7 Everton 1 19.110 -17,0%
8 Manchester United 1 18.740 3,3%
9 Manchester City 2 18.540 -5,7%
10 Fulham 2 14.300 -12,5%
11 Sheffield United 1 13.840 9,6%
12 Blackburn Rovers 1 13.805 -6,4%
13 Bolton Wanderers 1 12.445 -3,2%
14 Oldham Athletic 2 11.780 -4,2%
15 Sunderland 1 11.615 -23,8%
16 Middlesbrough 1 11.230 -20,1%
17 Bristol City 1 10.990 -8,5%
18 West Bromwich Albion 2 10.975 -29,3%
19 Sheffield Wednesday 1 10.720 -16,5%
20 Arsenal 1 10.395 -20,2%

Looked at this way, Arsenal needed Fulham, for their crowds had fallen by another 20% and were down from a high of 19,980 in 1904/5.  In other words Arsenal’s income had shrunk by about half in just five years.

True, Fulham’s attendance had also declined, but Fulham were now getting crowds 40% larger than Arsenal, while playing in a lower division.   One can see the attraction of the possibility of Fulham (or come to that Fulham Arsenal) in the First Division.  If they were getting 14,300 in a modest year in the Second Division, what could they get in the First?

The story continues in the next episode.

 

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