Arsenal’s 100 years in the top division: the final chapter

By Tony Attwood

This series began with the article “This season Arsenal celebrate 100 years in the top division” and here we reach the conclusion of the series.

And here, as the final point, we move on to the issue of why so many clubs voted for Arsenal rather than Tottenham as the additional club that should be in the expanded first division from 1919 onwards.  Tottenham had argued that the precedent in two previous league expansions was to allow the relegated clubs to stay in the first division and bring new members into the second division – and that would have aided them, as they were relegated in the final season before the league was suspended for the duration.

Some answers have been given.  The precedent argument fell at the first hurdle since the League clearly had previously changed the rules several times to suit the occasion.  Also Arsenal were supported by the very influential “Athletics News” who made a strong case for the club, and the northern clubs were supportive of Arsenal for being the team that had brought League football to London.  Sir Henry was a popular and admired figure because of his war work for which he had risen from the lowest officer rank to that of Lt Colonel, and his raising of the Footballers’ Battalion for which he gained his knighthood.

And now here was must pause for a moment to debunk a popular theory raised in the book “Forward, Arsenal” by Bernard Joy.  For many years this book, published in 1952, was considered the definitive Arsenal history, primarily because there was nothing else of consequence available.  Joy had been an Arsenal player from 1935 to 1947, had played as an amateur (considered at the time to be a player of some consequence since he eschewed pay).  He played 86 times for Arsenal, and once for England (also playing ten times for England Amateurs).

And he was a journalist.

As such he was an ideal person to write a book about Arsenal’s history in 1952 – and you may well still be able to find the book because it was republished by the much missed GCR Books in 2009.  Ideal because not only was he an educated man (he is said to have gained a degree at one of the colleges of London University, but I can’t establish which one) and I would like to know more on this because it is also said that he played football for London University, but I am not at all sure the University had a football team at the time.  The individual colleges did, but the whole university?   (I will also declare an interest here since I happen to be a Master of Philosophy of the self-same university and I like to get these things right).

Anyway, by the time Joy wrote his book he was firmly ensconced in Fleet Street, and a mate of Tom Whittaker manager of Arsenal.  He was going to tell the story according in the way Arsenal wanted it told, and Arsenal’s board of directors, descendents direct of the group that overthrew Norris in 1927 wanted the story told in one way: to Norris’ disadvantage.

And so it is told in Joy’s book.

What he did was report a speech by John McKenna, the President of the Football League in which the President, instead of being Presidential and chairmanlike promoted the idea of Arsenal going back to the top of the league.  It is an interesting notion and sits alongside the other suggestion made was that Sir Henry himself made a spur of the moment speech. 

Neither story is true as far as we can tell, in that none of the newspapers of the time reported such speeches.  Indeed even the Tottenham Weekly Herald did not include any mention of a speech by either the chairman or Sir Henry, and if any newspaper reporting the events of the day was likely to report such a speech it would be the Hotspur supporting Tottenham Weekly Herald, who expressed their sadness about the outcome.   The writer did say, “The capability of the League to dispense justice is now a shattered ideal.”  But he didn’t mention a speech.

Here however is what Bernard Joy invented in 1952, 33 years after the event.

However although the local Tottenham paper didn’t want to report it, there were a couple of other things in Tottenham’s background that indicate reasons why clubs might not have voted for them – and there is the handling of events over Arsenal’s move north (which also won the support of other clubs).

Tottenham had chosen first off to join the Southern League, and they did this not  because they couldn’t get into the Football League – but rather, unlike Arsenal, they chose the Southern League in preference to the Football League.

Then after 12 years in the Southern League Tottenham decided to try their chances with the national Football League, in which teams by then was getting much bigger crowds than the Southern League clubs.   As a way of doing this, in February 1908 Tottenham (along with QPR) resigned from the Southern League (as the rules required them to do) and let it be known that they would be applying to join the Football League.

There is a certain irony in this situation, given what happened in 1919, in that QPR could be said to have been justified in their application as they had just won the Southern League. Tottenham however were nowhere near the top when they put in their application and ultimately just managed to scrape into 7th place beating Northampton Town to that spot.  

Tottenham had joined the Southern League in 1896/7, by which time Arsenal were entering their fourth year in the Football League – entering coincidentally just as Royal Ordnance Factories FC, who had split from Arsenal over the issue of whether working men (rather than gentlemen) were capable of running a club, were exiting the league, unable to complete their fixtures through lack of finances.  Tough business, running a football club.

Tottenham had played 12 seasons in that League and had won it once, come second twice, and managed fourth twice.  So seven top four finishes in 12 years, which doesn’t sound too bad until one realises that there was between 11 and 16 teams in the League during this period.  Tottenham were in fact not even big fish in a little pond.  They were a little above average sized fish in that minor pond that was the Southern League.

What happened is covered in detail in an article by Andy Kelly on the Arsenal history society site and I won’t repeat all the details, but Tottenham were involved in a scandal which included allegedly bribing another team to leave the Football League so Tottenham could take their place, and it is quite possible that this past scandal adversely affected voting in 1919, (although to be fair they were not the only club involved in such scandals).

It is indeed interesting that there is evidence of a Tottenham bribery scandal (although of course as I write the history of Arsenal I have not personally investigated the issue that deeply), and the story that Arsenal were corrupt in getting elected might well have sprung to an avid Tottenham supporter’s mind long after the events as he or she tried to cover up a Tottenham sin by planting it on Arsenal.  As we have seen, no one suggested anything was amiss with Arsenal’s election in 1919 until many many years later.

Finally there are two more articles on this if you really want to cover everything to do with the election.  There is another highly informative piece on this website: “Why don’t Tottenham have any footballing friends”.  And if you would like to study Tottenham’s view of the time that there was a precedent for them being re-elected to the 1st Division, there is a complete run down of all admissions and exits to and from the Football League on the Non League Matters website.

Overall we can see that this whole issue of Arsenal moving to Highbury through to Tottenham’s attempt to get voted back to the First Division was a PR disaster for Tottenham.

Tottenham had vigorously opposed Arsenal’s move north, ignoring all the precedents and rules of the League.  They had lost out in their attempt to stop the move, (indeed the League wouldn’t even call the emergency meeting Tottenham asked for) and then even more humiliatingly had found that in terms of crowds, the move of Arsenal north had done Tottenham some good rather than the opposite as they had predicted.

Then they had had the misfortune to have their ground closed from 1916 onwards, as it was taken over for the development of munitions and had to go cap in hand to Arsenal for a loan of a ground.  Arsenal were magnanimous and allowed Tottenham to play at Highbury.

Finally they had opposed Arsenal’s election to the first division, putting their own case forwards, and found that they didn’t have very many footballing friends.  Things only got better in 1920 when they regained their first division status at the first opportunity.

But now let us return to the events of 1919.  Having previously voted not to extend the season the League now changed its mind and voted to extend the season by allowing matches on the last Saturday of August and the first Saturday of May.  A new system of sharing the money taken at the turnstiles was also introduced (based on what the London Combination had done) with the home club having 80% of the income and the away team 20%.

After the voting, Sir Henry Norris made a speech at the AGM of the League thanking those who had voted  for his club saying it was now up to the directors to use the opportunity to pay off the club’s debts as quickly as possible.   He also wrote to JAH Catton of Athletic News to thank him personally for his input and support.

And that was it.  Arsenal were elected to the first division for the season 1919/20 and have been there ever since.  No evidence of any wrong doing has ever been presented.

If you have been reading the whole series I do hope you have enjoyed it, and hope that it helps you celebrate 100 years of Arsenal in the top division.

9 Replies to “Arsenal’s 100 years in the top division: the final chapter”

  1. Thank you, Sir Tony ! That was a very well and informative series about us being 100 years in the top division of football. Long may it continue.

  2. Tony,
    I was always under the impression that Bernard Joy was, at one stage a schoolmaster. Any truth in that?

  3. great series of articles, I just wish some tinies would read it. Could we propose that the little club from up the marshes be returned to the Southern League with immediate effect. Very interesting reading during the lean times of the summer break, much better than all the transfer rumours.

  4. Tony

    I followed all the series and looked forward to the next one daily. It is exhilarating and i thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Thanks for making out time and the effort to put the records straight. This goes to show how much you care and love this club and posterity will than you for this.


  5. Hello, offtopic a bit the season starts soon but we still have the very ploblem we had last season, we score first and we either draw or lose. Plobably these are just friendlies but we need to patch it early a stich in time…….

  6. That was not true at home last season, nor the season before. But away from home it can be a problem – but with the new forward line we will have next season I suspect most clubs will be a lot less likely to go all out to score against us, knowing how easily our three powerful forwards can catch them on the break.

  7. Thanks for this thoroughly well researched and enjoyable series, Tony. I particularly enjoyed learning of the unsuccessful machinations of our still second rate neighbors down the road. ‘Forward’ forever!

Comments are closed.