By Tony Attwood
Woolwich Arsenal never won the league, never got further in the FA Cup than the semi-finals, and didn’t provide the backbone of the England or Scotland national sides.
So how can we claim that the club changed football?
Woolwich Arsenal’s most obvious claim to fame is that they brought the Football League to the south of England. Before Woolwich Arsenal, a London fan of the game you would have had to travel to Birmingham to see a Football League game; Arsenal brought the league to the boundaries of London.
But this was not something waiting to happen. The notion of League football in the south was something that was resisted by clubs across the south of the country. Indeed when Royal Arsenal FC, the predecessor of Woolwich Arsenal FC, proposed the introduction of a Southern League, the meeting on the topic and the voting in of clubs was quickly vetoed by club chairmen, and the league did not happen.
Indeed it was not until after Arsenal moved into the Football League that the Southern League finally got itself together and launched one year later. It was very much a case of other clubs seeing what Arsenal had done, and then acting to create their own league, for fear of being left behind. At long last they realised that the fans liked league football.
Prior to that point there had been another league – a rival to the Football League. It was called the Football Alliance, and like the Football League it consisted of teams from the Midlands and the North. The south didn’t want league football, and the clubs in the south weren’t putting it on the table when Arsenal came along and changed the agenda.
Such was power and reputation of the Woolwich Arsenal name that by the early 20th century when the President of Sparta Prague visited England, he spoke of visiting what he called “the famous Woolwich Arsenal”. He didn’t speak of the clubs that had won the FA Cup or the League, of Preston with their unbeaten season, or the clubs that had won the Double. No, he spoke of Arsenal, had his club adopted the Arsenal colours, and subsequently hired an Arsenal player as the club’s (most successful) manager.
The reason for this reputation – a reputation which as stayed with Arsenal through thick and thin ever since, was that the club became the unofficial football team of the armed forces. So strong was this link that there are reports that when men from the army and navy attended the FA Cup final, they chanted “The Arsenal” even though of course Woolwich Arsenal never made it to the final.
So Arsenal brought football south, and through their association with the ordnance factories, they became famous far beyond their achievements.
But they did more, for they introduced all sorts of ideas. As just one example, they created the concept of signing the “celebrity player” as a way of enhancing their fame and financial well-being. Players like Alf Common and Leigh Roose were purchased later in their careers by which time they were famous throughout football, and beyond, and they came to the Arsenal.
It is quite possible that Woolwich Arsenal also introduced the notion of away support, although we can’t say for sure if they were the very first. But what we do know is that the Woolwich Arsenal away day excursions were famous, and no other club’s support made the headlines the way the Arsenal support did. Journalists wrote about them as if they had never seen their likes before.
The trains that the supporters hired carried not only regular fans (male and female) but also their own musicians, their own dancers, and most remarkably, their own firework display – with fireworks made by the men of the Torpedo Factories.
These were rowdy affairs, with considerable amounts of partaking of alcohol, and they dreamed up all the tricks of the away supporter – such as arriving at the ground early and taking over the home terracing en masse. Tricks which stayed with football right up to the days of all-seater stadia.
And here’s one other issue that Woolwich Arsenal established beyond doubt. An issue that remained embodied in the approach to football until the late 20th century. For in 1910 and again in 1913 the League firmly ruled that although the League could determine what league a club played in, they could not and would not determine where the club played.
Thus when Woolwich Arsenal prepared to move to Highbury in 1913 Tottenham Hotspur tried to get the League to prohibit the move. When that failed, they even tried getting an EGM of the League – but the clubs were not interested in backing them. In fact the clubs actually wanted Arsenal to move north.
What’s more, Arsenal’s move to within a couple of miles of the Tottenham ground did something else… it raised interest in football in north London so much that instead of the crowds at Tottenham being hit by their being two clubs close to each other, the reverse happened. The crowds at both clubs shot up.
The full details of how Woolwich Arsenal changed England’s attitude towards football and the way in which the game was organised and run, are given in the book Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football. You can buy a copy straight from the publishers.