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Arsenal’s 100 years in the first division: the debate begins

by Tony Attwood

This article carries on the series of pieces looking back over the events that led to Arsenal’s election to the first division in 1919, and dispelling the many myths that surround the issue.

From January 1919 onwards there was an almost constant state of discussion going on within the Football League over every possible matter from the state of the grounds (seriously damaged through neglect during the war years, with many having been used by the military for training), the demands of the reformed Players’ Union over salaries, and the idea of amalgamating the Football League with the Southern League.

Then on 13 January there was a real step forward in what was to become a significant and pivotal moment for Arsenal.

The key opinion former in English football at the time was the magazine Athletic News, based in Manchester.  Daily newspapers carried rather straightforward descriptive accounts of matches, and had little interest in considering the politics and administration of the game; such matters were normally left to Athletic News.

(To give a feel for what the paper was like at this time, and its interest in giving background articles that could not be found anywhere else, you might care to see an article about previewing Arsenal in 1910 from Athletic News that we reprinted on the Arsenal History Society site.)

But to return to 1919, Athletic News covered football in depth every Monday under the hands-on approach of its editor James Catton (generally known as J.A.H. Catton writing first under the pen name Ubique and later Tityrus).

And on 13 January 1919 Catton published an article in Athletic News raising the issue of match fixing.  This was, as far as I can discern, the very first post-war public reminder of the scandal of 1915 and here Catton argued that one of the two teams that ought to be returned to the first division (if that league was to be expanded, as had already been proposed), should clearly be Chelsea.

He then went on to consider the argument that Tottenham, who had also been relegated with Chelsea should likewise be reinstated.  However he concluded that there was nothing to link Tottenham’s relegation with anything amiss in the final season before the cessation of the League for the duration.  They had been relegated fair and square.

And then Catton wrote, “The Arsenal have a case for consideration as the oldest League club in London, and one of the most enterprising in the face of difficulties which would have appalled most directors”.

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The piece then went on to expand on the two reasons for considering Arsenal: the financial hardship the club had suffered as a result of the war and government policy, and the club’s loyalty to the Football League, being its first member from the south of England while others (he didn’t mention Tottenham but they were one of the obvious examples) had opted for the less challenging (in terms of financial commitment and player quality) Southern League.

This was the first mention in print of Arsenal being given a place back in the First Division, so the question now arises: where did Catton get this idea from?

Certainly he was highly knowledgeable about football across the country, and knew all about Arsenal’s near demise in 1910, and the risks Henry Norris had taken in paying off the debts and then moving the club in 1913.  And Catton had met Sir Henry and fellow director William Hall (who was on the Football League Management Committee).  For despite being based in Manchester before the war, Catton had worked in London during the war, and had been a regular visitor at London grounds, for wartime games.

What Catton was also doing was expanding the issue concerning the Arsenal, through emphasising the fact that Arsenal had shown great initiative by having moved themselves from south of the river to the north, thus transforming their fortunes in terms of attendances.

To see what happened in figures we need to look at Arsenal’s last season at the Manor Ground and compare that with their first at Highbury, remembering that football clubs at the time were utterly dependent on money raised at the gate.   There was an occasional profit from a transfer fee and minor profits from selling refreshments (although, as it happened, Arsenal were prohibited from selling alcohol at Highbury by the terms of their lease).  So the crowd figures showed the clubs’ main sense of income and were thus of great significance to all clubs:

Pos Club Div Average crowd Percentage change over previous season
1 Chelsea 1 37,105 10.6%
2 Tottenham Hotspur 1 28,020 17.4%
3 Manchester City 1 26,805 11.9%
4 Manchester United 1 25,515 8.1%
5 Aston Villa 1 25,350 -2.8%
6 Everton 1 25,250 26.6%
7 Bolton Wanderers 1 25,055 19.8%
8 Newcastle United 1 24,710 -0.9%
9 Liverpool 1 24,315 8.4%
10 Woolwich Arsenal 2 22,745 142.1%

Arsenal had an unprecedented growth in their gates of over 140%, up to 22,745 from 9,395 the previous season, and this despite going down a league.  It was a growth achieved quite simply by moving to the right place; a place surrounded on all sides by residences, well served by transport links and near rival clubs.

As a result of the move Arsenal had not “stolen” the crowds from Tottenham and Clapton Orient, as they predicted, but stimulated an interest in football in the area, as Norris had suggested.  Tottenham who had complained bitterly about the move of Arsenal into North London, had benefited enormously from the change, seeing their average crowd rise by 17% through this heightened interest created by the move of Arsenal to the region.

We’ll continue the story in the next episode, tomorrow.

12 comments to Arsenal’s 100 years in the first division: the debate begins

  • Les Martin

    Does anyone remember the time Arsenal played Lazio and there was a bit of a brawl after the game.
    Only saying that incident drew the team together .
    Hope something similar happens.

  • Samuel Akinsola Adebosin

    I think promotion of Arsenal to the 1st Division League in 1919 after the club was unjustly relegated to the 2nd Division League in 1912/13 season as result of the match fixing between Liverpool and Chelsea that took place at Anfield to keep Chelsea in the 1st Division that season which happened. But the Arsenal promotion to the 1st Division in 1919 has been flogged by Tottenham Hotspur and even over-flogged by them which hasn’t change the status quo as Arsenal continues to remain in the First Division now the Premier League continuously ever since they were promoted in 1919 i.e. a 100 years back.

    But what I don’t know is, if there is another club side that played in the last 100 years beside Arsenal in the First Division that has not suffer relegation to Division II League before the advent of the Premier League? And are Arsenal the Premier League landlords who have never been relegated to the Championship?

  • Menace

    Samuel – you have been a naughty boy & not read all Tony’s posts. He has covered all the clubs that were in the league & have dipped below the top division over the last 100 years.

    Now you have some punishment. Go through the league of 1919 and then trace which teams dipped their toes into the lower division and when.

    When you have completed the exercise I am sure Tony will publish the result as a post. -Your first.

  • John L

    I recall the Lazio brawl. John Roberts led the fightback

  • GoingGoingGooner

    Kolasinac… Arsenal legend

  • goonersince72

    Tony,
    A brief pre-season scouting report if I may.
    I’ve just returned from Washington D.C. and the Real Madrid v Arsenal match. The area has 3 major Arsenal Supporters Clubs and there were many activities organised by the local clubs and Arsenal America in conjunction with the AFC. Fortunately, I was invited to all since my daughter is a board member of the D.C. Armoury supporters group. At a meet and greet we saw Unai Emery, Aubameyang, Leno, Emi, Nketiah, Willock, and Smith Rowe. The Special guest was the Romford Pele himself, Ray Parlour! We had a friendly conversation, he signed my hat and took some photos. What a gentleman. Thrill of a lifetime!

    Both clubs started the match with regulars and the intensity was a lot more than you would expect in a glorified ‘friendly’. Lots of hard tackling from both sides. Arsenal went 2 up after Madrid were reduced to 10; Laca with the PK and Auba with a beautiful, controlled finish. After an early foray by Benzema was turned away on a reflex save by Emi the Arsenal were on the front foot for the rest of the half. Even after Sokratis was sent off on a specious 2nd yellow card. Until that point he was very solid, tough. After that the Arsenal players were fair game. The ref didn’t seem content to just even up the sides and it seemed as if Riley came out of retirement to ref the second half or, at best, sent Mike Dean to the rescue, lol. RM eventually tied the score on a nice goal by Bale but on the tying goal Martinez was being kneed in the head as the goal was scored. No call. Real Madrid won on penalties 3-2 and the match was that close, although Arsenal had long stretches of possession.

    For me, the performance was very positive as AFC played with Madrid all over the pitch. Reiss Nelson was strong in midfield. Colin Chambers in the centre and Carl Jenkinson on the Right looked super fit and were very solid. Jenko had to contend with Marcelo and then Bale the whole match and I can only recall one instance where he was beaten outright. Marcelo was given MOTM though but not at Jenkinson’s expense. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play that well. All the supporters in my section were commenting on those two and we had a good view in the Arsenal Supporters section right behind the goal. Late in the match both managers sent in the kids. The fans chanted his name every time Eddie Nketiah was even near the ball. He had a few good chances and scuffed one that should have been in the net. Has a goalscorers’ nose for the net. First team for me. He has a large following in the States, second in cheers only to Auba at the fan event and the match.

    Now to the enigma that is Mesut Ozil. I have to say upfront I think the club is better with him than without and, before anyone kills me, realise it’s just my opinion. On defense he tracked back all the time and had a couple of takeaways. When Arsenal had the ball he moved well and passed sublimely as usual. My complaint is with the other players or Emery’s tactics because Ozil just didn’t see the ball enough. He would ghost into space and not receive a pass. He’d play a give and go and not get the ball back when he beat his defender. Mystifying. He was working for it. And this wasn’t B & H Albion FFS. As I said, I don’t know if the other players don’t have the vision or it’s Emery.

    All in all, a strong positive performance. For those who think AFC need to add at almost every position to get back into the Champion’s League places this match would disabuse you of that opinion. After all, 1 more point from the easy 6 game run-in and they are in fourth; 2 more points they’re in third. As Tony Attwood has pointed out, an even decent away record and we’re not having the conversation. So, after a great fan experience, I’m back to retirement in Florida, USA and will be watching the club on the television or PC. Cheers to all, thanks for reading and of course, COYG!

  • WalterBroeckx

    Nice report goonersince72! Thanks

  • Nitram

    goonersince72

    Nice write-up

    Meeting the Romford Pele ! Wow.

    One of the better ex Arsenal players. Even when he went on the odious talk shite he never sank to the shameful level of many of our ex’s. Top guy.

    As for Ozil, I’m with you all the way, we are a better team when he plays. Again just opinion.

  • goonersince72

    Thank you Walter and Nitram. Ray Parlour was a complete gentleman from start to finish of the event. Even when the fans were actually pushing against him to get his signature he never lost his cool and controlled the situation, organising the group into a straight line. Reminded me of his playing days, lol. A true Arsenal legend and a credit to club and country.

  • goonersince72

    P.S. Was going to include a photo with the Romford Pele but can’t figure out the technology, lol. Needless to say, HE looks great!