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Poor starts to the season? Try this one…

By Tony Attwood

November 6th, 1909.  The world looks bleak.

Arsenal are bottom of the league division I, having never been relegated in their history.  Their record so far is is played 11, drawn 1, won 2, lost 8.

There was light on the horizon at the start of the day, as after a terrible run of results with a defence that just seemed happy to let the ball go into the goal to give themselves a break, Woolwich Arsenal had beaten Everton at home 1-0.

True they lost they next match away 0-1 to Manchester U, but Manchester were a top club having won league and cup in the last couple of years.  Now on Saturday November 6th 1909 came Bradford City.

This was Bradford City’s top era.   Just six years old, they had been elected into the 2nd division in the year they were founded, and had won promotion to the first division in 1908.  In this season they were destined to end up 7th  just six points behind Liverpool in second place.  (Their city rivals Bradford were formed in 1907, did one year in the Southern League and then joined the second division in 1908).

In the rest of England, Woolworths opened their first store, and it was announced that next year the Earth would pass through the tail of Haley’s Comet.

So, it was a day of mild hope for the Arsenal, as 10,000 turned up at the Manor Ground to watch Woolwich play Bradford City.  There was also some hope in that the team for once did not include any one-game wonders – people who just turned up once or twice and then were never seen again.   True we still had the centre half Thomson playing at centre forward, but otherwise it was at least a team who had got to know each other.

But sadly not well enough.  I can find no reports on the game, save the score which was 1-0 to Bradford.  Another defeat, and next up was Sheffield Wednesday away.  It was all looking fairly terrible.

In fact the season 1909/1910 turned out to be the most adventurous in the history of Woolwich Arsenal, and  the most monumental in the whole history of Arsenal FC.   If you would like to read the whole story, as a story (not as dry history I would add) you’ll probably enjoy MAKING THE ARSENAL.  It tells the story of the club through that tumultuous period through the eyes of a Fleet Street journalist who stumbles on the strangest plot ever to engage the club.

The omens were poor.  Our record was played 12, drawn 1, won 2, lost the rest.  Bottom of the league.

Worse, only five members of the team who played on the opening day of the season in September were still playing.

One player McDonald was playing his second game for us.  He had played as left back and was now playing right back.

Steven and McKellar were playing at inside right and centre forward and each were playing their first game for the club.  McKellar made a limited impact, being dropped after this game and going on only to make 3 appearances all season.  After that he left the club and there is no record of his ever appearing in professional football again.

Robert Steven, or Robert Stevens depending on which source you use for your history, was also a one season man, playing seven times and scoring just the once.  He came from Rangers, and again after the Woolwich experience, gave up professional football.

This one season wonder stuff was catching, because Duncan McDonald was in the same boat, although he got more games and was not one season in the absolute strictest sense.

He played 25 games in 1909/10 and one in 1910/11, officially described as a right back (he only played once at left back).  Never scored, and went on to play at West Hartlepool – although I have no data on how he did there.

What we can see is a mess and a muddle.  Unsettled team, and not even a real squad system – just players who had clearly played in Scotland, turning up at Woolwich Arsenal, and being given a game or two, before being released, presumably to find a job in the armaments factory.

Quite a contrast to the opposition.

The Wednesday had joined the First Division in 1900 and stayed there up to the outbreak of war.  They had already won the league twice and won the FA Cup twice – the most recent in 1907.   Woolwich Arsenal, you may recall, had won nothing by this stage.

The result – a draw, 1-1.  A bit better than might be feared.  The heavy defeats of the previous month seemed to be over and our last three games had been

  • Won 1-0
  • Lost 0-1
  • Lost 0-1

Not great, but different from that awful run in October (see earlier copies of this blog for more details) when we just gifted goal after goal after goal.

But what no one knew as they got the train back to London on Saturday night was that in a small way this was a turning point.  It wasn’t all going to be sweetness and light from this point on, but the morning of the game against Sheffield Wednesday on November 13th was the lowest point of the season.   From here on there was only one way to go.

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Making the Arsenal

Full details of the novel which tells the story of Arsenal’s collapse and birth as a new club in 1910.  Details here. A new book on Woolwich Arsenal FC is in preparation.

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