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Billy Blyth: Arsenal’s first film star

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By Tony Attwood

This is the final entry in our series of articles about players who played 100 or more games for Woolwich Arsenal.

This final article takes us to a group of players in the 100+ club who we have covered before.  I’m listing them with links to those earlier articles so that this becomes a definitive list of all the 100+ appearance players for Woolwich Arsenal.

These players have been written about here either because they played in the fateful year of 1910, or because they played in the last ever match at Plumstead – both of which events have been covered in series of their own on the site.  (Most of the series have page indexes of their own, listed on the home page).

Here’s the list – and as always in this sequence I am covering players in the order in which they started playing for the club, not the order in which they achieved their 100 games.

Joe Shaw

Charles Henry Lewis

David Greenaway

Angus McKinnon

John “Pat” Flanagan

And I think that is just about that.  The next player who played over 100 games for the club was Alex Graham but here we come to a problem, because of his 166 league games well under 100 were played for Woolwich Arsenal.  The majority were played for The Arsenal, and Arsenal – but he’s covered anyway because of his appearance in the final match at Plumstead.

After Alex Graham, the next player to reach over 100 games for Woolwich Arsenal and its successors was Jock Rutherford who again played well under 100 games for Woolwich Arsenal.

Beyond that is Billy Blyth.  Now if you are an avid follower of this august site, you will know that we’ve determined that the name Woolwich Arsenal FC changed to The Arsenal at some time between 20 and 23 April 1914.  See the article on how the name of the club changed for full details.

But William Naismith “Billy” Blyth (born in Dalkeith on 17 June 1895 and died 1 July 1968), played for the first time on 21 November 1914 by which time we were The Arsenal FC.

I’m including a brief sketch of Billy below because there are two things that leaps out from his football biography, which are different from all the players biographies I have written about before.   For here was a man who played for Arsenal in an FA cup final, and who appeared in what was probably the first football movie.

You’ll know, if you’ve been paying attention, that Woolwich Arsenal never won a trophy of major significance.  The club was promoted from division II of the Football League by coming second, and appeared in two consecutive FA Cup semi-finals, but that was it.  The only honours we have been able to record thus far are for players who appeared for their country, mostly in internationals against other “home” nations.  Billy Blyth is our link to the next era.

Billy played for Wemyss Athletic (a junior club), and Manchester City before coming to Arsenal in May 1914.  After making 12 appearances in 1914/15 and the break for the first world war (where he served his country with honour in France) he established himself as a regular, and got to be known as a high-energy midfield player playing inside left or left half.

He played 314 league games, finishing in 1928, scoring 45 goals for the club, and played in our first ever Cup Final in 1927 against Cardiff City.  Including cup games he made 343 appearances and scored 51 goals.

He then moved on to Birmingham City and played for one season for them, before returning to Arsenal (although I don’t know in what capacity – he did not play for the first team again).  However he did have a role in the movie “The Great Game” which was filmed in 1930, largely at Chelsea’s ground.

As this was just about the first movie (as opposed to a film of a game) which involved an Arsenal player, it deserves a little mention, I think (remembering that it pre-dated the Arsenal Stadium Mystery by nine years).

The plot of The Great Game looks hackneyed to us now, but at the time it contained elements that would have the audience nodding with interest and acknowledgement.  A young footballer plays for a struggling side that goes on a great cup run.  He falls for the daughter of the chairman (who is against young players coming into the team, and wants to play only established stars), does get into the team despite all the odds, and wins the Cup.  The film also has the first appearance on screen of Rex Harrison.

The final Arsenal involvement for Billy Blyth must have been short because shortly after the completion of the film he moved to Scotland, and ran a public house in Port Seton in East Lothian, before retiring to Worthing in Sussex where he died aged 73.

And with that this series of articles ends.

What next?  I was thinking of doing the first season at Highbury, or maybe the first season back in division one, but in the last few days another thought has emerged.

I’m currently working with several readers of this site on a book: “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” which I hope to have published by later this year.  In doing that book one name keeps popping up: George Allison.   If you have read “Making the Arsenal” you’ll know that this future manager of the club had connections with us going back to the early days of the 20th century.   What’s more, as we have discovered in the research for the book, he did a few rather strange things.

I don’t want to pre-empt what will be one of the highlights in the book (we really have turned up some amazing findings) so I thought maybe a review of his managerial career would be good – simply because I don’t think there are any books on him.

I really do take notice of comments when plotting where this site goes, so if you have thoughts, do let me know.  I’ll decide where we go next within a day or so.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and commenting on this series – and all the other series we’ve done here.   Without you there wouldn’t be much point.

Tony Attwood

13 Jan 2011.

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