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100 years in the first division: football gets muddled, but Arsenal are straight.

By Tony Attwood

We have now reached a point in March 1919 in our story of Arsenal’s election to the first division, when the clubs were actively debating how the league should be expanded, and what was find here is that everyone now followed the lead of Athletic News, to the effect that each of the two divisions would be expanded by two clubs.  The League was not saying it, but the magazine was, and it was Athletic News that was believed.

At the same time Tottenham and Arsenal issued circulars to clubs, stating their case for inclusion in a larger FL Division One.  And clubs currently outside the League started to consider applying for what they assumed would be somewhere between two and four spare places in Division Two.  Chelsea, one of the applicant clubs for an extra 1st division place, and perhaps two more if the second division was going to be the same size as the first.

But we must remember the League had decided none of these things yet.  In their regular bumbling way they just seemed to be watching the show, rather than leading the debate.

It was now, spurred on (if you will excuse the expression) by the media circus that Tottenham also put in a claim that it should stay up, even though it had no engagement with the match fixing affairs.  It’s argument was that when the league had expanded in the past, teams at the foot of the table had stayed up, and although this was true on two past occasions, such arrangements had never been seen at the time as anything other than a way of handling the current situation.  No rule had been changed and not precedent overtly set.

On 3 February 1919 the most authoritative football publication of the era, Athletic News responded to Tottenham’s claim that they should stay in Division I despite having come bottom of the League in 1915.

You can see a scan of the original article here but as it is hard to read I have also transcribed it below.  It is not a document the Norris Conspiracy theorists quote, even though it has been on the Arsenal History Society’s site for a number of years.  And it is a fundamental document in considering how the election of Arsenal in 1919 came about.

We must remember that Athletic News was, as noted in earlier articles, the pre-eminent weekly newspaper covering football.  It was published in Manchester, and like the League itself, spent a lot of time on northern affairs.  But above all it was highly regarded and considered authoritative when it came to understanding the League, and its workings.

What I fine particularly interesting is the second paragraph which says, “Hotspur rely on precedent, The Arsenal rely on service.”  It is an early 20th century use of language, but we can still see the point.  Each club was bidding for a place in the first division in its own way, just as people who stood at the General Election two months earlier had done.

This is what the article says… and I’ve kept the original language throughout, even where it does make the meaning slightly less transparent.

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Tottenham’s election address

In the event of the extension of the League it is conceded that Chelsea must return to the First Division.  But there is a fine flutter among their Metropolitan neighbours concerning the partner for promotion.

Tottenham Hotspur and The Arsenal are now opened and avowed candidates and each club has issued a circular letter to the voters who are, of course, their fellow members of the League. Hotspur rely on precedent, The Arsenal rely on service.

Tottenham declare that when the First Division was extended in 1898, Newcastle United and again Blackburn Rovers, and again in 1905 Bury and Notts County, retained their ranks in the senior section.  Precedent only applies when the circumstances are exactly similar. Fortunately for League football there has never been such a case as now obtains.

To do justice to one club another must be given the great favour of accompanying it. Chelsea did not relegate themselves to the Second Division.  That was the sequel to a conspiracy.  Tottenham did relegate themselves and if they remain in the class to which they have descended, it is a quaint idea to suggest, that the League will confirm their self-inflicted degradation.

The cases of Chelsea and Tottenham are not on all fours.  In fact no club should be coupled with the Stamford Bridge team whereas it seems as if Spurs are standing on Chelsea’s shoulders with the idea that they are broad enough to accommodate them and that Chelsea’s legs will serve both.

Tottenham declare that voluntary enlistments in the army during 1914-15 lost them their position.   In the season of 1913-14 Hotspur played 27 men. Of these they transferred Jas. Bauchop to Bradford and placed JA Tate on the transfer list.

Of the remaining 25 we find that 17 played in 1914-15 when Tottenham introduced such men as Jacques, Lightfoot, Pearson, and Rance of whom the first three were instantaneous successes.  Grimsdell did not appear in the team after December 19.

He had if we remember rightly, joined the Life Guards.  This is the player who, having served his country, desired a temporary transfer this season, and it was stated publicly without repudiation, that the request was refused.

If Tottenham are accorded the favour that they ask it will not be because of precedent or because of the enlistments of their players, but because of any popularity that they may possess and that they can pose as the one Southern club which has won the Association Cup since professionalism was legalised.

* * *

The Arsenal scout precedent, patriotism, privilege and any other plea but one of service.  The Arsenal have been members of the League for 26 years. As the pioneers of professionalism in the south, they refused to join any other organisation.  In the Metropolis the Arsenal have always kept the flag of the League at Masthead.

The peculiar position at Woolwich entailed the loss of their position in the First Division.   Energy and enterprise brought The Arsenal to Highbury and saved the club for The League.  Only by the fraction of a goal did The Arsenal fail to secure promotion in the season before the war.

Since August 1914 the club has lost much money.  Indeed The Arsenal are still in the midst of a great scheme, and the League having sanctioned the removal to Highbury are asked to give the old club the chance of carrying it through without serious loss to gentlemen who have made great sacrifices for North London football.

* * *

North London football

Tottenham have bought their ground and made money and have little to grumble at.  No one can complain of their application.  The directors are entitled to do the best possible, consistent with honour, for their club.  The same is true of The Arsenal.

There is however the difference that Tottenham only came into the League in 1907-08 when it suited their purpose and that since then they have been among the successful.

Naturally sportsmen feel a large measure of sympathy for the weaker club which did much spade work in 1983-94 in the days of Ardwick, Burton Swifts, Crewe Alexandra, Middlesbrough Ironopolis, Northwich Victoria, Walsall Town Swifts and the like.

Some courage was needed on the part of Royal Arsenal to enter that company.  The election is full of interest and novelty.


That concludes the Athletic News article, and above all else it seems to me that with such a highly regarded publication as Athletic News on its side, and with Sir Henry Norris also able to point out to the League that it was he who had twice brought the issue of match fixing to the League’s attention, before the antics of Liverpool and Manchester United got completely out of hand in 1915, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that he would risk undoing all that work by offering a bribe at this point, to get Arsenal back in the top division, as has been alleged by others in the past 30 years or so.  Quite clearly from this article, he already had quite a few of the good and the great on his side.  Why then risk that support by offering bribes?

Indeed even if he didn’t feel that his warnings to the League about the match fixing problem, nor the above article, were enough to help his cause, he could also rely on the reputation he had built by launching the Footballers’ Battalion and his work in the War Office, with recruitment, conscription and re-settlement.   He had been knighted and earned promotions in the army from Lieutenant to Captain to Major to Lt Colonel.  Why on earth would he risk all that had been achieved, and the fact as we have seen earlier that Arsenal had become the 10th best supported club in the country, even in Division II, by then trying to bribe people when he clearly had so much support?

Of course that does not prove that he didn’t, but then even almost ten years after the Arsenal History Society offered, on its website, a reward to anyone who could come up with proof of anything underhand going on in the election of a new club to the First Division, no proof has come forward there.

In short there is no proof that Norris did bribe anyone to get Arsenal into the First Division, but plenty of evidence to suggest why a man in Norris’ position, where he was holding all the cards, would not.

2 comments to 100 years in the first division: football gets muddled, but Arsenal are straight.

  • Rosicky@Arsenal

    So another season on the horizon. Can we have, a sniff at top4. I am not very much hopeful. I wasn’t hopeful last year as well but it was within reach. But top4 is, decided by the pigmob and is, not in the natural scheme of things. As everyone here believes if Wenger was here we would have surely finished top4 last year. But UEs UNARSENAL playing style lost us points.Will we see the Arsenal of old?With Freddie in the ranks i have a,little hope if he can convinve UE to play like Wengers Arsenal than maybe we can atleast look forward to matchayds with some fervour. But the Aura of Wenger at the touchdown will be missed immensely for sure.

    And folks how are the Wobs and the idiots of AFTV Arseblog & Legroan are going? Did they got there Arsenal back?
    Have they found their manager and the owner who could spend 500 million per year to sign the Messi’s of the world to win CL and PL? Did they find their Mouriniho or Klopp or Pep they idolize to take us to the next level?

    Shame on them for destroying the club by dividing the fanbase and making us look worse on and off the pitch and jeopardise the clubs identity as a whol

  • Well said.

    The immediate future does not look rosy.

    I hope that I will be pleasantly surprised but I fear not.

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