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Today if an Arsenal supporter ever does think of Preston North End, it might be in the knowledge that they were the first Invincibles – unbeaten in the very first season of league football. With the black and white 19th century pictures of the club there is a nostalgic almost romantic image of the period.
And yet nothing could be further from the truth, because Preston not only brought invincibility to the league, they were also the centre of corruption and rule-breaking. Indeed when Woolwich Arsenal came to play their last game of the 1909/1910 season 100 years ago this week, Preston would have been seen by supporters as the most corrupt club the country had yet seen.
Because Preston North End were the first champions of the football league, it is sometimes assumed that they are a much older club than Arsenal, but their early years were taken up with cricket and rugby.
It was not until 1880 – just six years before Arsenal – that PNE took up football.
What distinguished PNE from the off was the fact that they were taken over by a man who realised that money could buy success in football – a sort of 19th century Abramovich – William Sudell, who had the idea of buying in and then paying (illegally) the top players of the day.
While all the other early clubs sought players locally, Sudell turned to Scotland for his team. In this regard he was at one with Woolwich Arsenal (although Arsenal had a natural reason to use Scottish talent, since most of the workforce in the Woolwich factories came from Scotland.)
But in the case of Preston, these were players who came to Preston in order to be paid for playing. And since that was illegal initially they needed their payments hidden. So the men were given make believe jobs in Preston at rates of pay way over the odds for the day. Indeed some men were said to have several jobs, which, had they actually done them, would have left no time for football.
Of course everyone knew what Preston were up to but officialdom turned a blind eye to it – for although no one else had ever dreamed of corruption that Preston instituted on such a scale, others were engaged in the same sort of activity.
But still there were complaints. Endless complaints. The best documented came in In 1884 when Upton Park FC complained that PNE played professionals in a cup match, and PNE were immediately thrown out.
However the strength of PNE in football was so great that they were able to hold the FA to ransom by suggesting that the top teams in the FA Cup would all pull out and play their own competition if PNE were not allowed back in the following year – with no questions asked. The FA gave in.
It is noticeable however that when Arsenal turned pro a few years later, the FA forebad all teams from playing them. PNE clearly had the money to see that things happened their way. Woolwich Arsenal were seen as newcomers, and could therefore be picked off.
PNE were in the first Football League and won the Cup and the league that year – without losing a match. But since most of the time they were up against teams that were paying much lower pay packets without the “working bonus”, it is not surprising.
Perhaps the obvious comparison would be Chelsea under Abramovich in 2010 playing in the Conference.
But just as Manchester United and Liverpool have bankrupted themselves trying to keep up with Chelsea, and Manchester City soon came along to copy Chelsea approach, so other teams took up the PNE approach in the late 19th century. Those teams like Arsenal who stuck to the maximum wage because they employed regular working men and were not financed by big business (Arsenal were in fact financed by Mr Leavey, a gents outfitter) found it impossible to cope.
But crooks do sometimes get found out and in 1893 Sudell was kicked out of the club, after being found guilty of embezzling cash from his company – money which was used to pay for PNE’s high rollers. He got three years inside, and upon release left the country in disgrace.
By 1894 with PNE’s money gone, the impact of their corrupt system was there for all to see and that year they were left having to win the last game of the season to stay in the first division. The big name players went to the clubs that were now copying the PNE method of breaking the rules – Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Wolverhampton and the like.
PNE went down in 1901, and had to wait until 1904 to come back, but the crowds had gone, and in both the 1908/9 and 1909/10 season only 8,000 turned up at Deepdale to see Woolwich Arsenal.
Woolwich Arsenal played their final game of the 1909/1910 season on April 23rd against Preston North End. Details will follow on the 100th anniversary of that game.
Other early corruption stories
Arsenal play the champions and the rest of the league cry “foul”
Tottenham Hotspur: the dark history
Chelsea: the dark origins
Arsenal’s fixed promotion. Read the full story.