There is obviously a huge campaign at the moment to re-write Arsenal’s recent past as part of an attempt to get the Lord Wenger to leave.
But since every other journalist and blogger is following that story I thought I’d go someplace different and mention another area in which the attack on Arsenal’s heritage can be found.
In recent weeks there have been a couple of articles which focus on the history of football – the current Guardian series on the 7 deadly sins of football, and earlier a piece which focused on the ten most corrupt moments in footballing history in England.
Both of these have high up on their lists the promotion of Arsenal in 1919, while failing to give the background, and while failing to comment on the action of other clubs in the era.
Arsenal (just in case you haven’t studied the history) rose from Division II to Division I for the last time with the expansion of Division I at the end of the first World War. They did this despite coming fifth in Division II in 1914/15.
The anti-Arsenal articles that cover the story offer no explanation but talk darkly of corruption, and imply the corruption was Arsenal’s. I’ve researched the whole of the Arsenal history during this period as part of my work on a book about the early Arsenal, and here’s what happened.
While we think now of clubs going up and down through formulated relegation we also today have all sorts of extra rules and conventions – not least what happens when clubs go bust. Luton’s 27 point deduction this year will look rather odd in 90 years time.
If you ever look into the rules of the Conference you’ll find that there are different rules again over solvency. And of course points can be lost because of players not being registered properly – which leads to arguments about fax machines not working (you can’t register by email or phone, only by fax or post). It’s all a bit odd.
We also live day by day with the fact that FIFA, the governing body is corrupt and the suspicion (especially over things like building Wembley) that the FA is not pure either.
We accept all this because it is part of our world. In the early 20th century there were different conventions, there was corruption just as now, and because the sport was so much younger, many issues were arising for the first time.
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Clubs got into the Football League Division II by winning the Southern League and then getting voted in – normally. But in 1905 for example, Chelsea (now KGB Fulham) got a place in Division II without having any players, and (obviously) without having ever played a match – because there was no Chelsea FC. There was no club – and yet the idea of the club was enough to get a place.
What they had was a ramshackle stadium designed by Leitch – a stadium which had endless problems with the terracing cracking up incidentally. But Leitch said it would be London’s biggest stadium and suitable for the Cup Final. So the owners of the ground used that tag to convince the FA that it needed this ground, but would only have it, if there could be a club there. The FA persuaded the League to allow in a new club that had never played a game and had no players – ahead of the teams that won the Southern League.
Fulham of course objected, since Chelsea were next door, but the corruption won the day and Chelsea got in – just a typical odd event in football in the early 20th century.
The other factor you need to note is that match fixing was rife. In the final season before the cessation due to the First World War both Liverpool and Manchester U were found guilty of flagrant match fixing, and there were demands that both should be thrown out of the League totally when matches returned after the war. Manchester avoided relegation by coming 18th out of 20 due to the fixed final day.
The final element in the saga is the fact that Arsenal were “owed” by the League. In the 19th and early 20th century the League was anxious to bring professional football to the south. It was mostly a northern game – the south being rugby, Southern League and amateur football.
The initial key to the breakthrough was professional football in London. Woolwich Arsenal gave the League what it wanted by being London’s first professional club. The club suffered at the hands of the FA who ordered all other London teams to boycott Woolwich in all games except the FA Cup but stayed with it, and so were loved by the League.
When Woolwich went bust in 1910 Henry Norris, owner of Fulham bought the club and went to the League with various proposals such as merging the two clubs, or playing Woolwich home games at Craven Cottage. None of this was against the very simple league rules of the time, but the League persuaded Norris to back off the merger proposals, in return for later favours which seem to have been undefined in print but were undoubtedly discussed.
Norris moved Woolwich Arsenal the 12 miles to Highbury before the outbreak of war (something that did not need approval from the League). Tottenham (who had made an attempt to buy shares in Woolwich Arsenal to stop Norris taking control of the club in 1910) objected, but as the League said, they could hardly stop Woolwich Arsenal when they had allowed Chelsea to enter the league across the road from Fulham, with Chelsea not even having played a match. At least Woolwich was a real club.
Then came the final pre-war season with rampant match fixing and corruption and a betting scandal. When the League called its meeting to discuss enlargement for 1919 the big issue was, would Manchester U and Liverpool be thrown out, or docked points. At the very least Manchester U should have been relegated instead of Chelsea (Manchester having 30 points, Chelsea 29, after the final fixed match).
Manchester U and Liverpool’s arguments against this are not in any record of meetings that I can find, but the traditional approach when caught was to say that the guilty had been punished, the fans were not to blame so they should not be punished, and there was now a new management in place. This was of course an even stronger in post-war Britain, since most organisations changed radically when they resumed after the war.
But Arsenal were owed by the League. The debt of bringing professional football south, and the debt of backing off the Fulham merger plan would have been called in earlier, but for the war, and now they were on the table.
Arsenal were ready to demand that Manchester U and Liverpool be thrown out of the league completely for their match fixing. The League meeting debating the extension of the League also wanted to try and get Division I football in London, to stop the Southern League, and so compromises were in the air.
Norris for Arsenal made this point.
Liverpool and Manchester U must at least be thrown out of Division I. That left two empty spaces. The League also wanted to expand Division I by two, which meant two more empty places – assuming normal relegation and promotion took place.
So on that basis Manchester, Liverpool (match fixing) Chelsea 19th and Tottenham 20th should go down, and teams 1 to 6 in Division II (including Arsenal who were fifth) would go up thus expanding the league.
But that left the problem of getting more London teams in division I. And the League bosses were well aware of the debt owed to Chelsea – who only finished in a relegation spot because Manchester U fixed their last match of the season.
So the deal was hatched. Tottenham had no bargaining counters having made such a fuss about Arsenal moving to Highbury, and having been caught trying to buy up Woolwich Arsenal in 1910. They had not been affected by the fixed matches and so they had to go down – and one London team sacrificed kept the northern clubs quiet.
Chelsea still had friends dating back to 1905 and they had the biggest ground. They stayed up. Which meant 1 southern team in the First Division.
Arsenal agreed that if they were the extra club they would drop their demands for Liverpool and Manchester to be expelled.
So Arsenal came up. The real devils in the tale are the corrupt Liverpool and Manchester U, and to a lesser degree Chelsea who should not have been in the league in the first place – along of course with the Football League itself.
It is simple and easy to blame Arsenal – in a sense just like it is simple and easy to blame Arsene Wenger. But reality is never simple.
The events of 1910 and the years leading up to it are explored in detail in Making the Arsenal, out later this year. (I have made a couple of minor changes to this article to correct slips of the typewriter in writing it).
(c) Tony Attwood 2009