By Tony Attwood
If you’ve been reading newspapers or following a sports channel or the like these last few days it is possible you might have noticed a few comments of disgruntlement from certain quarters about Arsenal’s present state of affairs.
Or at least, if the people writing these commentaries are not exactly disgruntled, I think it is fair to say that they have shown themselves to be far from gruntled.
And maybe it is just me, or perhaps it is just that I run the Arsenal History Society, but it does seem to me that the current situation really is a bit of that old deja vu thing all over again. It is what Arsenal is and what Arsenal does, and so I thought I would take a moment to give the historical context. Yes we have a bit of a crisis now, but seeing it in relation to past crises of a similar nature can be rather informative.
At first, as I hope to show below, the crises were actually Arsenal v Arsenal – internal battles in fact. And it was out of this that the whole history of knocking the Arsenal came about.
For example, take the very early days of Woolwich Arsenal FC, which became a professional club in 1891. That was quite a contentious thing to do, as no other club in the south had become professional. Those who opposed Arsenal’s direction in terms of becoming professional, and who also opposed applying to join the Football League, were in a minority on the committee that ran the club, and so (like today’s supporters who are taking action for change) not having power, decided to take their own steps.
That action was that they persuaded the landlord of the club’s ground to double the rent on the Invicta Stadium to a price way beyond anything any other club in the country was paying for a ground, despite Arsenal having a modest level of support compared to some other clubs. Then the owner then refused to negotiate. And all this was at a time when Arsenal’s ground was far from being the biggest in the country and the crowds were very modest.
In response, the club said “no” to the price hike, and found itself a new ground, so then those opposed to the majority on the Arsenal Committee tried another trick: to persuade the owner of this new ground (the Manor Ground) to allow the club to spend a lot of money getting it ready for league matches. The dastardly plan then was for the owner of the Manor Ground’s land to renege on the agreement to lease, thus forcing the committee members who had guaranteed the cost of improvements to the land, into bankruptcy.
Which is about as dirty as it can get.
Fortunately for Arsenal the landlord of the Manor Ground declined to be quite so duplicitous. So those opposed to Arsenal’s committee formed a rival team (Royal Ordnance Factories FC) and put it in the Invicta Stadium, opposite the Manor Ground. ROF FC lasted a few years before ignominiously going bust, failing to complete its fixtures and being kicked out of the Southern League.
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That bust up set the scene for the years to come at this point we find the first recorded instance of the Arsenal crowd booing an Arsenal player. The player was Harry Storer, the Arsenal goalkeeper who was suspended by Arsenal for a month in 1895 and then sold.
We know the last game he played was Woolwich Arsenal 0 Liverpool 2 and we know Storer was successful (five wins and one defeat in his last six games), recognised as a fine keeper and not injured. What we also know is that after the Liverpool game the club suspended him for a month and then sold him to Liverpool.
What seems to have happened is that in the final game for Storer at the Manor Ground, he was involved in an altercation with fans behind the goal, and he claimed that the spectators had behaved in a “disgraceful” manner. The tragedy was that Storer was the club’s first player to be selected for a representative XI, and a man who was achieving considerable success in goal for the club.
As Mark Andrews’ book on “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal” reveals, as the crowds increased, one end of the ground (the Abbey Wood end) became the home of the barrackers. Indeed, as Mark points out, so bad was the attitude of some of the crowd that local reporters often commentated on the fact that they were forcing “decent minded supporters” out of the ground.
So it seems that Storer stepped out of line in response to the booing and barracking (although we don’t know exactly what he did), and was suspended and then sold.
By the time of the Storer incident Arsenal had already had its ground shut following events on 26 January 1895 the FA ruled that Arsenal’s ground should be closed for the rest of the 1894/95 season. However, on appeal a “compromise” of a “mere” 6 weeks suspension was agreed upon by the FA. But as Mark Andrews points out an almost identical episode of ref bashing at Wolverhampton Wanderers next season in October 1895 led to their ground being closed but for only two weeks. At least one non-local reporter put the disparity in the harshness of the sentences from the FA, down to Arsenal’s role as the pre-eminent southern professional team.
Thus it began: Arsenal getting harsher treatment from the authorities than other clubs, and Arsenal fans turning on their own players. We’ll see the consequences of this in subsequent episodes.