By Tony Attwood
Perhaps as we draw this story to its conclusion we should focus on one passage from the autobiography of Leslie Knighton.
Knighton wrote of Sir Henry, “I have never met his equal for logic, invective and ruthlessness against all who opposed him. When I disagreed with him at board meetings and had to stand up for what I knew was best for the club, he used to flay me with words until I was reduced to fuming, helpless silence.”
No one else ever commented on Sir Henry in this way, at the time or later. Jack Humble was there – and we are asked to believe that this man who was the first chairman of Woolwich Arsenal FC, and one of the founding fathers from 1887 onwards, would sit there mutely accepting this. It seems unlikely.
As Andy Kelly points out Allison, Whittaker and Buchan all wrote about Arsenal, but didn’t talk much about Sir Henry at all.
Reading the “Behind the scenes” book by Knighton today, and knowing that there are some serious factual errors about specific games and players, I am left with the feeling that I am reading lounge-bar stories oft told to an appreciative group of older gentlemen, all of whom take pleasure in what each has achieved. “Remember Johnny? Oh I could tell you a thing or two about Johnny…” That sort of thing.
Knighton would not have forgotten the disastrous of his time at Arsenal in terms of league position, so he focussed on the money. At best we might say, he made an error as to just how much the debt was and was a little economical with the truth in not reflecting on how close the team came to relegation (which would have been a financial disaster).
His story is of hard working, honourable, honest managers doing their best in a world ruled by club owners who demand blood, given nothing and know less. And it is a fun story which was never intended to become the prime source of our historical knowledge about the most effective owner Arsenal has ever had. But that is what it has become.
Excluding Steve Burtenshaw and Stewart Houston who as temporary managers managed the club for 11 and six games respectively, Knighton was the least successful manager in the history of the club. Under the same club owner he was succeeded by the second most successful long-term manager in the history of the club.
On 11th May 1925 Athletic News ran an advert that said “Arsenal Football Club is open to receive applications for the position of Team Manager. He must be experienced and possess the highest qualifications for the post, both as to the ability and personal character. Gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exorbitant transfer fees need not apply.”
Was Sir Henry being ironic again, playing to the gallery in recognition of his reputation? Or was he stating his anger with managers who seemed to have no tactical ability and just paid money and thought that was that? If that were the latter then it is in direct contradiction of the Knighton view. Or maybe he was having a dig at Knighton’s endless requests for a bigger transfer budget.
But whatever the exact meaning of that advert there is every chance that Sir Henry knew exactly who would apply: the man who he had last met when Arsenal were thrashed 0-5 at home by Huddersfield earlier in the season.
Leslie Knighton wrote his book while in his final management job in Shrewsbury – a job he left after three years, his health causing him some considerable concern. He then worked as the secretary of a golf club in Bournemouth, and undoubtedly gained an interesting additional income and some local notoriety from his autobiography.
To the best of my knowledge, no one ever challenged Knighton’s view of football, or of Arsenal, as expressed in the book (not least because most of them were now no longer on this earth), and Knighton died (without going into any more detail on his views of football), on 10th May 1959, having seen Arsenal move on through seven championship titles and three FA Cups victories.
Quite what he thought of that subsequent success he does not really say – and that perhaps is the saddest note of all.
The Knighton series…
Leslie Knighton – the complete story
1: How the story of Arsenal after the first world war is not quite as we’ve been led to believe.