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The "fixed" promotion, the corruption and the match fixing. How the Football League does business

There was a rather strange comment on our sister site Untold Arsenal this week in which an Aston Villa fan said that Arsenal supporters have no right to comment on Villa  when in fact Arsenal had bribed their way into the first division in 1919.

I must admit I thought that the old Tiny Totts propaganda on that topic had been put to bed a long time ago and that supporters didn’t just repeat the old line.  But it seems not.

So although the prime business of this site is Arsenal 100 years ago I’ll deviate a little and give some background into Arsenal’s last ever promotion to the First Division, in 1919.

In the final pre-war season, the First and Second Divisions of the Football League were made up of 20 clubs each, as they had been since the last upgrade at the end of the 1904/5 season.

Everyone wanted more games so it was agreed to increase each division by two clubs, thus creating four more games per club.   (There was no third division at this time – that came quite a bit later).

The first thing the League did was look back to the summer of 1905 – the last upgrade.  At the AGM in that year the bottom two teams of the first division (Bury and Notts County) did not go down, and the top two of the second division (Liverpool and Bolton) went up.

That left Division II with 16 clubs so four more were needed.  However Doncaster Rovers who came bottom of Division II were not re-elected by the other clubs, and so five new clubs were elected – including Chelsea who were given a place even though they had no club, no team, no supporters and had never even played a match in the Southern League – the normal feeder league.

This approach of manipulating promotions was well established and went on most years with teams being de-selected, and others being brought in, not because of outstanding playing merit (there was no Chelsea and they had never played a game) but because of football politics.

The five new clubs were Chelsea, Hull, Leeds, the Orient, and Stockport.  Two London and three from the north – with the London clubs refusing to allow anything less than two of their number through.

This regional argument was always there, because the League had been formed exclusively as a northern and midlands activity.  Arsenal were the first southern team into the League in 1893.

Because new admissions to the League were voted on by the clubs, and because the clubs from the north and midlands had a continual majority, they constantly tried to keep the southern clubs out, claiming that London teams should play in the Southern League.

They had voted Woolwich Arsenal in because of the earlier notion of making the league a National League, but quickly went off the idea, and named their annual trip to Kent as “the weekend in Hell”.

In fact the only other southern teams to get into the League was Luton Town in 1897 and Bristol City in 1901.  And this despite the fact that London was the biggest city in the world at the time.

To show how biased this was, consider Tottenham.  Tottenham actually won the FA Cup in the Southern League – but still couldn’t get into the Football League, and while as Arsenal fans we might enjoy that fact, when we set our feelings aside we must admit that it was outrageous block voting by the north and midlands at work as usual.

So at the time of the 1905 expansion the clubs in London made it clear they had had enough, and two more London teams joined the ranks to avoid a split.  But bad feeling remained, and by the time of the 1919 AGM and the proposal to increase the number of teams per league to 22, everyone knew there was going to be another dog fight.

In the last pre-war season, Tottenham and Chelsea were in the bottom two relegation spots in Division I.  Derby and Preston were first and second (the promotion spots) in Division II.

Tottenham and Chelsea were ready to argue that as in 1905 they should stay up, despite ending in the relegation zone, but the northern clubs didn’t want to help London’s clubs, and would have been much happier without any London clubs in the First Division (which would have been the case if those two had gone down).

But this time there was another factor: match fixing, primarily involving Manchester United and Liverpool.  They fixed an end of season match so Man U won and so ended up with one more point that Chelsea and so avoided relegation.

So Chelsea put up a new argument which said Manchester United and Liverpool should be thrown out of the League.

This caused panic, not just because they were big clubs, but because it would mean that the League would have to admit in public that matches had been fixed.  (Everyone knew this – match fixing was wholesale, but until then had been swept under the carpet).

When the feeling of the meeting was clearly “no” to this step Henry Norris moved in, as chairman of Arsenal.  He reminded the meeting of how the London teams had done their bit for professional sport, and how Woolwich Arsenal had defied the FA in becoming the first professional team in the south.

When this approach brought snears from Manchester United and Liverpool, the southern clubs, and those in the rest of the league who had suffered at the hands of the match fixing cartel started to build a bloc and it began to look as if instead of building into an even stronger league of 44 clubs, the league would split in two – with the midlands clubs looking to join forces with the London teams to make a league of their own.

If the League as a whole would not hear of the match fixing clubs being punished then it had only one compromise to offer – a “rearrangement” of the promotion and relegation issues for the expansion of the league.

They needed two more clubs for Division I and three more for Division II (Glossop North End choosing not to continue in the League).

First they re-elected Chelsea back into the First Division, on the grounds that if Liverpool and Man U had not been bent, they would have stayed up anyway.  Tottenham who came bottom were relegated as they had no claim to a place because of any match fixing and still had few friends in the League.

There was also universal acceptance that the top two from Division II should go up – Deby and Preston, and this was agreed.  This left Division I a team short.

This is when Norris made his play.   He pointed out that although quite rightly Chelsea had not suffered because of the match fixing, the two clubs involved were still not being punished, and he would not accept this.  If he left the meeting with them still in the first division, he argued, he would use his extensive political power (he had been knighted at the end of the war, and elected to parliament) to force government action against the corrupt Football League who “encouraged” gambling and corruption.

With the northern clubs absolutely refusing to budge, the League hierarchy then did a secret deal.  Arsenal would be voted into the final place in the first division and one new London club would get into to Division II (West Ham).   Coventry, Gateshead, Rotherman and Stoke made up the numbers.

So it was done.  The argument of course is, should the southern clubs have broken away and exposed the League as the corrupt outfit it was, and has been for much of its life?  Possibly, but Norris had invested his fortune in building Highbury, and clearly was not going to throw that away.

The evil of the match fixing remained, and Man U and Liverpool went unpunished, knowing they could do what they liked with impunity.  If Tony Blair had been alive and interested he would have said that a line should be drawn under the events and we should move on.  It was that sort of deal.

More on Arsenal’s history here.

(c) Tony Attwood 2010.

15 comments to The “fixed” promotion, the corruption and the match fixing. How the Football League does business

  • LRV

    Great Historical facts there. Nothing has changed then in terms of ManU and dodgy decisions. We can still see subtle eveidence of it with referees like Howard Webb & his coteries.

  • lp

    Hi Tony,
    nice post and we still have that corruption and match fixing in today game. especially eufa and fifa, those people are nothing but damaging the sport we love with their greed of power and money.

  • Gf60

    There was another factor at work… Tottenham (unlike Arsenal)were NOT a “London” club. They were and still were until 1965, a Middlesex club. The powers that be stated that they were not allowed to talk on behalf of “London clubs” and they could piss off down to the second division! That’s definitely something they don’t brag about.

  • [...] Norris was knighted for his services to the state during the first world war and then took us back into the first division in 1919.  This act has been vilified by Tottenham supporters who have managed to grab our history and re-write it for their own ends.  However as the Woolwich Arsenal analysis of the events show, Arsenal were far from being the villains of the piece.  You can read the whole story here. [...]

  • Norflondoner

    Spurs were no more or no less a Middlesex club than Your lot.
    The 3 County towns of Middlesex are Clerkenwell,Westminster and Brentford
    2 of which are closer to the City of London(the only part of London to have always been so) than N5(or indeed N7)
    Read old papers reports of games, we are always refered to as north London(certainly since the early part of the 20th Century anyway)The N17 post code was in place back then as well.To say we were considered anyless a london club than you is laughable.So by your reconing,chelsea werent either?
    just another bit of bitterness due to the fact that your History started in in saarf London
    Highbury was ,is and always will be(like Tottenham) in the ancient County of Middlesex.
    Interesting site this though,credit where credits due

  • Terence McGovern

    I have some questions that as an Arsenal supporter, I wouldn’t be very well informed on but a Spurs supporter might have an historical perspective that they might share.

    Q1: What is it like to be relegated?

    Q2: How low does your ambitions have to be before you can regard winning the Carling cup as a major success?

    Q3: What year was middlesex absorbed into London and when after that did the “pride of london” thing get slipped in?

    Q4: How can you be the “pride of London” when you haven’t won the league in 50 years?

    Q5: Would “mediocrity of london”, “awkwardness of London” or “Dismal and delusional failures of london formerly of Middlesex” not be a more apt motto?

    Q6: Don’t you just get sick of that Champions League music year after year after year after year…oh wait nevermind.

  • Norflondoner

    The last use of (enfield and parts of greater London west aside0 was 65,as was pointed out. But the fact remains that all of London outside the city walls(which itself is in Middlesex despite being given political independance)north of the thames west of the lea was in Middlesex.Look at things like the Middlesex guild hall,Middx hospital and indeed the county ground Lords.
    This “we’re more London than you is really slumming it”
    Q1 F*8king awful, was 8 years old ,broke me heart.hope never to have to go through it again.
    Q2 Real football fans enjoy winning whatever trophies, wouldnt be first on my list ,but i wont knock it.
    Q3 Already answered and explained
    Q4 Tell me a London club who’s fans dont call themselves that?
    Q5 Pathetic,as explained (Are West ham not a London club as well??)And Should you not be called “pride of Sarf London…Or was it kent back then”
    Q6 I get sick of all football a on sky truth be told,its killed the Game.And that Music just reminds me of the fact.

  • Matthew

    did Arsenal finish 3 in division two this season or what it purely down to henry norris that we got promoted?

  • Andy Kelly

    Arsenal finished 6th in Division Two at the end of 1914/15 although they should have finished 5th due to a miscalculation in goal average. The first world war then intervened. As far as the Football League were concerned prior to football resuming again in 1919 Arsenal had finished 6th.

    It was due to Henry Norris that Arsenal were elected to Divsion One for the 1919/20 season.

    Even if Arsenal had finished 3rd in 1914/15 they wouldn’t have been automatically promoted as only two teams are promoted and relegated between the top two divisions until the mid 1970s.

  • [...] The rest of the story is told in our special article on the promotion to Division I [...]

  • Steve Palmer

    All this arguing about who belongs where and who started where amazes me does it matter,some would say yes but Arsenal have fans far and wide they are one of the biggest clubs in the world we have history years and years of history, fans and supporters dont all live in north london the ones who do travel from outside of London to support and follow their life long club,they would at times love the EMS to be in their home town so they can support easier, north london is not the most attractive place in the world, me being an east ender realises that my part is probably worse, but now i’m in hertfordshire and i would love the EMS to be there, we were lucky to find a site to build our stadiam still close to where we were before and a lot closer from where we came from before, the idea of moveing from Highbury was Financial and probably the same from Woolwich, you support the greatest team in the world whether in north london or anywhere else, its the club not the place.

  • Tony Hill

    The usual Arsenal bias. How come if Norris was so good he was banned from football for life for bribing players to his club? He also upset locals with his aggresive moving in to the area of Highbury. The dig at Liverpool is unwarrented as Smith,who was on the board at Liverpool, the FL chairman was a buddy of Norris & worked hand in hand to get them a chance of election to the top flight. The fact Arsenal only finished 5th in the 2nd division was ignored. The biased writings of a lot of Arsenal fans on here proves the point that they have always been the most one eyed viewers of football. Ironically they have a one eyed manager today in Arsene Wenger.

  • Tony Hill

    The book is inaccurate in its biased writing. Liverpool & Manu were fined for match fixing.
    Norris was known to be corrupt for years & was a Fulham supporter who saw a chance to gain some publicity. Arsenal were promoted after a lot of prompting,kindest word i could use, from Smith the FL Chairman who happened to be on Liverpools board & was ‘connected’ to helping Norris get his wish.
    Spurs were told they would not be relegated as the Division one was being expanded to 22 teams. If anyone should have been relegated it should have been Manu & Liverpool for match fixing.
    Why have Arsenal always been known as ‘Lucky’ Arsenal & cheating Arsenal? It has been sang at many of the premiership clubs even today. A lot of the clubs & fans in the 1920s & 1930s refered to Arsenal with the same contempt.
    You would think the way Arsenal fans & their club speak today that they are the most honest club in history. Good luck with Usmanov! your going to need it.

  • Tony Attwood

    Tony Hill’s comments are interesting in that they are presented without any reference back to the evidence. There’s no mention of the articles in Athletic News in 1919 for example, which is a major source of evidence, nor of Henry Norris previous reporting of a fixed Liverpool game, in the 1913/14 season. The suggestion that Norris upset the locals in Islington is right, but only up to a point – the Highbury Defence League was active, but then there was a second group, just as active, supporting the move. Indeed in the weeks after the start of the 1913/14 season the local papers were full of comments about how the crowd dissipated very quickly after the game.

    There is no mention of all the other elections to and from leagues in the years leading up to 1919 which are highly relevant if the issue of Arsenal’s 5th position is to be considered. There is some evidence that the board of Liverpool supported Arsenal, but there is also some evidence that Norris was keen that the match fixing scandal should not be forgotten.

    But perhaps mostly the writer, like most Tottenham supporting writers, makes no reference to the fact that Arsenal got more than half the votes in a ballot involving seven clubs who applied for that promotion.

    I am always willing to admit that I have got things wrong in the history of Arsenal, and have done so many times on this site, and have often been corrected (just see the comments Andy Kelly has made on my work for example!) but my writing on Arsenal’s history is based on research and if it is to be contradicted some evidence should be supplied.

    Certainly the comments about Norris in general are just silly without taking into account the context of the Norris/Humble directorship of the club from 1910 to 1927. Or come to that Norris’ political views, as made clear when he stood for Parliament in 1918 and was elected for the coalition government.

  • julian

    What should or should have not happened is irelivant now. The fact remains is that at the time of 1919 all was fixed. You can not change the past. Just make sure it does not happen again. But football is slow to stop this. Ask sepp!

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