By Tony Attwood
I notice Jonathan Liew has seemingly moved from the Telegraph newspaper to become Chief Sports Writer of the Independent web site.
A change of publication, but not it seems a change of style, for today he has published this:
“Henry Norris, the former Arsenal chairman, is perhaps best known as the man who hired the legendary Herbert Chapman and paved the way for the club’s unprecedented golden era in the 1930s. Spurs fans may know him better as the man who successfully uprooted Arsenal from south London to Highbury: the original franchise owner. For all his achievements, Norris was also a bully and a crook, who used the club’s expense account to pay for his own chauffeur, and who met his professional end when it was found he had personally pocketed the revenue – all of £125 – from selling the team bus…”
As so often with Liew, one is left saying, “Up to a point.” It really does qualify for fake news.
Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris (to address him properly) didn’t meet his professional end in the manner stated. He resigned as a director of Arsenal when he was sued by Fulham FC and counter claimed against them. League rules at the time, as now, say that all matters between football clubs should be resolved using football mechanisms – football’s own courts as it were. So the directors of both clubs went outside the rules, and faced the consequences.
Liew’s commentary is thoroughly ill-researched and misleading in that it focuses on such tiny details within Sir Henry’s life and leaves out so much which is relevant to our overall picture of him. Like the fact that in 1915, with the country at war, there being no conscription or National Service and the country desperately lacking in recruits Mr Norris had the idea of setting up a footballers’ battalion.
Not only did he have the idea, he also saw it through and paid for the recruitment, training and personal salaries of the battalion until it could be merged into the Middlesex Regiment.
Like so much of Henry Norris’ history it has not been properly told, and you may well find websites that suggest that the football-loathing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was involved in the scheme, or that William Joynson-Hicks, 1st Viscount Brentford, had the idea. The former is nonsense – Conan Doyle called for football to be closed down by the state in 1914, and Joynson-Hicks introduced the idea of the Pals Battalions (a way of friends signing up for the same battalion), helped Norris launch the plan by bringing Chelsea as well as Fulham and Arsenal into the scheme, and then as an MP persuaded the government to introduce the notion of the Footballers Battalion into Parliament to get it approved. Henry Norris was knighted in 1917 specifically for his services to the country in relation to coming up with the plan and funding the Battalion.
What Norris did however has been utterly written out of history (except I might add in the new history of Henry Norris which appears in episodes on the Arsenal History Society website) and this includes his uncovering of the match fixing that Liverpool FC was engaged in, over a number of years before the first world war. When he first wrote about it in (see Arsenal relegated amidst allegations of match fixing) he was threatened with being removed as a club director by the Football League. But then further allegations arose in 11913 and 1914, and the whole sordid affair was blown wide open in 1915. No action was ever taken by the Football League against Liverpool however, but given the way the League had treated Norris in 1912 they knew they were very much in his debt.
If you want to follow the story there are further details step by step in these two articles taken from the “Henry Norris at the Arsenal” series.
- April 1915: New revelations concerning perhaps the most important month in Arsenal’s history
- November / December 1915: the match fixing scandal comes to the fore: Norris is armed
Such was Henry Norris’ service to his country in the first world war he rose to the rank of Lt Colonel in 1917, in relation to his work in the War Office (he was too old to serve in the field, although he did volunteer – the official rejection mentioned his age, his poor eyesight, and the fact that he was of much greater service to his country working in England). Lt Colonel and a knight; not bad for a kid from a working class London family who left school at 13.
The match fixing scandal all came to the fore when football was resumed in 1919, and a lot of the dirt that has been thrown at Norris since relates to that. But the most detailed analysis of the events of 1919, which saw Arsenal voted back into the First Division, shows that there was nothing underhand at all. In fact so clear was the case for Arsenal being elected that Andy Kelly (who often writes for the Arsenal programme) wrote the whole story up for the Arsenal History Society, and offered to give £100 to charity if anyone could find any corruption in the whole affair. That account misses out the history of the match fixing scandal which has only come to light subsequently, but put it all together and you can see why Arsenal were elected back to the first division.
Later however two things did it for Henry Norris reputation. One was that when he was forced to stand down as a director in 1927 because of the legal case, his place was taken by Sir Samuel Hill-Wood, who had already run the League club Glossop North End into bankruptcy. It was a real case of the posh monied classes kicking out the working class kids made good. (Among the other directors to go at this time was Jack Humble, one of the original founders of the club, and the first ever Chairman of Woolwich Arsenal in 1893. It really was the transformation of the old club based around working class men, into a club run by the middle classes).
And second, what really did finish off Norris’ reputation was of course not the fact that he brought Herbert Chapman to the club, but that he sacked Leslie Knighton to make way for Chapman in 1925. 22 years later, and without reference to any of the documents of the club, having long been out of football, Knighton wrote a scandalous autobiography which mercilessly attacked Norris, who had died in 1934.
Allegation after allegation poured out from Knighton, none of which have been found to be true. To give but one example, Knighton says that so awful was Norris at running the club that Knighton was forced at one stage to put the brother in law of the club doctor in the side to make up the numbers. The man was in fact an international footballer, and such a good player that Chapman used him in the team. The Knighton autobiography is full of misreporting like that.
But of course the anti-Arsenal press love to re-publish the Knighton tales, and they are repeated again and again as if fact. Interestingly, the autobiography of George Allison, (the Arsenal director and the manager who took over from Chapman, winning the league twice and cup once), came out at the same time as the Knighton book. Allison throughout speaks positively and warmly about Henry Norris, whom he had known since 1910. But no one cites that book. It is written by a man without an axe to grind.
Knocking Henry Norris is a cheap game done by people who can’t be arsed to do any research before writing articles in papers or on websites.
But it goes on, and Liew us just the latest in a long line of people who have written about Norris without bothering to check their facts. Which is why week by week the Arsenal History Society is publishing a proper, complete, history of Henry Norris at the Arsenal. 52 episodes have been published so far taking us from 1910, when Henry Norris kept Arsenal going out of his own pocket when no one else would fund the club, so far through to December 1917. Over time we’ll get all the way through and put right all these silly little oft-repeated but never checked tales that the likes of Jonathan Liew like to spread out of the way once and for all.
What a shame the Independent’s Chief Sports Writer didn’t bother to look.
PS: “The original franchise owner” – forgetting that among many other moves, Millwall moved from north London to south three years before Arsenal moved the other way across the river.
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