By Tony Attwood
This is not the first time Arsenal has suffered from relentless attacks from the mass media, and the “broken phone” metaphor seems to be utterly apt for the regular fights that have beset Arsenal over the years. In fact it seems to happen every ten years or so, which in a way is what makes the whole thing so much like a disconnected conversation.
In case you aren’t fully familiar with them, here are the 12 major battles.
1: 1892 – The gentlemen vs the workers
Having turned Royal Arsenal into a professional club, a huge split occurred between two factions within the club. The whole event is described in detail in “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” and in essence consisted of some of the more middle class members of the club claiming that they, and they alone, had the ability to run the club once it was in the League. They were supported by the owner of the club’s ground, who, to force through the takeover, proposed a doubling of the annual rent.
When the dominant faction in the club refused and voted the toffs off the committee, the landlord waited for the club to spend all its money on developing a new ground for the first League season, and then tried to buy ground and evict the club – leaving the club homeless and the committee members who had guaranteed the payment of the work, on the edge of bankruptcy.
When that coup failed they set up their own team – Royal Ordnance Factories playing in the Southern League at a ground across the road from Woolwich Arsenal.
2: 1913 – Tottenham on the rampage
Tottenham had opposed Chelsea’s election to the Southern League in 1905, and in 1913 vigorously opposed Arsenal’s move to Highbury. Unfortunately for them the Football League had already ruled in 1910 that it had no control over where a club played, rather undermining Tottenham’s protests.
But Tottenham were determined to stop Arsenal coming to north London, and so along with Clapton Orient appealed directly to the rest of the league for support, demanded an EGM of the League very actively encouraged the development of the Highbury Defence Committee and a protest group within Islington Council.
There were predictions of a decline in house prices, moral outrages of the worst kind, hooliganism, drunkenness… but the religious college that owned the land wanted a tenant, and the local shopkeepers loved the idea of a football ground nearby. Henry Norris managed the situation to perfection, and Arsenal got their move. After the move both clubs blossomed in the local rivalry; Tottenham it turns out were trying to stop an upturn in interest in the area that benefited both clubs.
3: 1919 – Twisting history to manipulate the present
Arsenal applied for election to the first division upon its expansion in 1919. This time it wasn’t the Tottenham club that objected (although having finished bottom of the League they wanted themselves included in the newly enlarged division rather than being relegated), as relationships between Arsenal and Tottenham had warmed, not least by Arsenal allowing Tottenham to play at Highbury during the war. But much later some Tottenham supporters, aided of course by the media, did suggest that the election had been fixed. That case was utterly undermined by… a complete lack of evidence.
4: 1933 – Chapman and the boo boys
Chapman created an Arsenal team that won the league with a record number of points in 1931, and thereafter anything Arsenal did was not good enough. Hence the arrival of what Chapman called the boo-boys – the 1930s equivalent of today’s aaa. The media did not join in immediately, but from January 1933 onwards (the time Arsenal lost to Walsall in the FA Cup) nothing Arsenal did was as good as the 1931 team – and they were jeered by a section of their own crowd.
5: 1936 – The luckiest club with the luckiest manager
By 1937 Arsenal had won the league or cup every season but one for seven years running – and the year they didn’t win either they were runners up in both. But there still had to be criticism – and it poured down on manager George Allison, who, because he had taken over Chapman’s team after his death, was endlessly called “the luckiest manager in the country”. Arsenal became “Lucky Arsenal” at every ground at every away match and in the newspapers every week.
6: 1950 – I saw your player and he was drunk
In 1953 the crowd turned on Jimmy Logie – a fine Arsenal player who played almost 300 games for the club, with people ceaselessly writing letters to the local papers claiming that they had seen him out drunk, the night before matches. The scale of the attack on Jimmy – who was actually teetotal – was enormous and deeply upsetting for the player. Eventually Arsenal for once stopped ignoring the press and turned on them, printing a strong rebuttal in the programme, and demanding that the press allow them to refute the accusations. It was a powerful move and one that worked.
7: 1953-69: The sad remnant of a once great club
From 1953 onward the media didn’t have to do much to suggest Arsenal were in trouble, because they were in trouble, not only failing to win anything, but most of the time not coming close. They were quite simply ignored most of the time, but when not, dismissed as irrelevant.
8: 1972: The Dirtiest team in decline
Arsenal winning the Fairs Cup and then the League and Cup Double was more than most of the papers could take. Quickly they rounded on the team and labelled them as the dirtiest side. When the Evening Standard published the article “The Thugs Route to Europe” an Arsenal fan responded writing to the paper and sending a copy to Arsenal, who printed it in their programme. It is worth a read.
But how the media relished Arsenal’s decline from the double of 1971 they never predicted. Finishes of 16th and 17th gave them such pleasure and they relished every moment.
9: 1980s – Nothing like they used to be
Part of the media’s ability is to change its story, and so through the 1980s they pretended that they had lauded Arsenal’s achievements of the early 1970s, and that now Arsenal were a team in permanent decline. When eventually the club started its worst run ever in the League on 27 January 1977 with a defeat to Bristol City, they lapped it up. 11 games without a win including seven successive defeats for a team including Armstrong, Macdonald, Stapleton and Brady.
10: 1990s – Boring boring Arsenal
George Graham was almost the first manager to give Arsenal an unbeaten season in 1991; there was just one defeat. The best the press could offer was that Arsenal were lucky and had nearly been beaten on 13 occasions. 13 was the number of draws that season – “far too many for a club that wants to be taken seriously as champions” was the consensus of the media’s coverage.
11: Wenger – Welcome to the criminal
Mr Wenger’s arrival was not only welcomed by Tony Adams’ comment “what does he know about English football?” but by a media campaign which accused the manager of the most heinous crimes while in Japan. Mr Wenger outsmarted the media but to their eternal discredit the Manchester United shop continued to sell a CD of Man U songs which included one “celebrating” the alleged events for at least 10 years.
12: 21st century – fourth is not a trophy.
And so to the present. From 2006 to 2013 – eight years – Arsenal did not win a trophy. The media, sensing their chance set up the “fourth is not” monotony. Considering that Arsenal had gone 16 years without anything in the 50s and 60s it seemed a bit over the top, but then Arsenal won the FA Cup, so immediately the call changed to one relating to the number of years since Arsenal had won the league. It was ever thus.
Arsenal History Books on Kindle
The novel “Making the Arsenal” by Tony Attwood which describes the events of 1910, which created the modern Arsenal FC, is now available for the first time on Kindle. Full details are here.
Also available on Kindle, “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” the only comprehensive history of the rise of Arsenal as a league club, and the attempts to destroy the club, from within and without. For full details please see here.
Both books are also available as paperbacks. Please see here.