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Thomas Brown Mitchell: Arsenal's first professional manager

Thomas Brown Mitchell
Manager of Woolwich Arsenal 1897 – 1898


Thomas Brown Mitchell was Arsenal’s first professional manager (although not the club’s first “manager” in the modern sense of the word) and the first of two managers who only lasted one year joining the club in 1897.

Thomas Mitchell was a Doonhamer – that is a person from Dumfries area of Scotland (so named because of a phrase in the local dialect which roughly translates into English as “I’m going home”).

He was born in Kirkmahoe a few miles to the north of Dumfries in 1843. He moved to Blackburn in 1867 and became the first man to referee at football matches in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales.

In 1884 he became Manager / Secretary of Blackburn Rovers, (a job title that was common at that time and indicated that he was manager of the playing squad, but also part of the board of the company that ran the club.)

He joined Blackburn just about the time of their first FA Cup victory that year beating Queens Park in the final.   Although he didn’t have much or anything to do with that Cup win, during the rest of his time Blackburn flourished winning the cup the next season, and continuing to do so for three straight wins.

When in 1888 the idea of the Football League was put forward Mitchell  played a major role in its formation and Blackburn were among the founders of the league, ending the first two seasons 4th and 3rd respectively, with the club winning the cup five times in eight years – four of those with Mitchell in control.

But then Blackburn spent money on redeveloping their ground, Ewood Park, attendances didn’t improve and the club ran into financial trouble, which was as prevalent then as now.

Mitchell resigned from Rovers in October 1896  with them in mid-table.  By the end of the season they were 14th out of 16th.  The following season they were relegated.

Quite why Mitchell resigned I don’t know.  Maybe the financial worries, maybe he had just had enough.

It also looks like he took the only job going – Woolwich Arsenal had been defeated by Millwall of the Southern League in the FA Cup in September 1896, and with that and a final position of 10th in division II they decided on a professional manager. Woolwich Arsenal quite probably couldn’t believe their luck when they got  hold of a man who had been the most famous referee in the country and was a man so well connected with the Football League itself.

He took the club up the table and they ended up 5th.  They could have done even better had his departure not led to a mini-slump with two defeats and a draw in the last five games.  He also gave them a better than usual run in the Cup, although we really ought to consider the opposition before getting too excited…

  • 3rd qualifying round: beat St Albans (home) 9-0
  • 4th qualifying round: beat Sheppy United (home) 3-0
  • 5th qualifying round: beat New Brompton (home) 4-2
  • 1st round: lost to Burnley (away) 1-3
Thomas Mitchell left Woolwich Arsenal on10 March 1898, returning to Blackburn where he worked again for many years.  The sudden departure from Blackburn, the short stay, and the rapid return before the season ended sounds mostly like an internal club row, with two strong characters each refusing to back down.  You can just imagine a “He goes or I go” situation which as always, gets out of hand.
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He died in August 1921 and his coffin was carried by four of his ex FA Cup winning players, Herbert Fecitt, Johnny Forbes, James Forrest and Nathan Walton.
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We’re following the lives of all the managers of Woolwich Arsenal throughout the club’s entire history.  Here’s the other’s so far covered.

George Elcoat: the last of the one-year managers

Harry Bradshaw: Arsenal’s first successful manager

Phil Kelso: the man who gave us promotion

George Morrell: taking Arsenal through the bad days.

Index of other Woolwich Arsenal articles

And if you are enjoying this journey you might well enjoy “Making the Arsenal” which gives an in depth look at 1910.

1 comment to Thomas Brown Mitchell: Arsenal’s first professional manager

  • I’ve dug up a little bit more about Mitchell. He left Blackburn due to a difference of opinion with the board regarding the training of players.

    Arsenal made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: £200 / year. This made him one of the highest paid manager’s in the country.

    He was appointed Arsenal secretary-manager on or around the 12th March 1897 as reported in the North Eastern Daily Gazette on 13 March 1897. Most Arsenal histories state that he started his tenure during the summer of 1897.

    As Tony states, Mitchell tendered his resignation from Blackburn in October 1896 but remained in the post until a successor was appointed. This was Joseph Warmley (a mill manager!) who took up the post at the start of January 1897.

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