by Tony Attwood
With the recent demise of Bury Football Club – a club that won the FA Cup twice and came fourth in the Football League in the season that Arsenal reached above that position for the first time ever – one or two questions are starting to be asked as to who should own a football club.
The phrase “fit and proper person” occurs, and it makes me wonder who the fit and proper people really are. The Glazer family? The state of Abu Dhabi? Mike Ashley? The Kroenke family? The Arsenal Supporters Trust?
I throw the last organisation in, because they have often, to my eyes acted as if they were the guardians of Arsenal holding the current owners to account, pointing out their wrong doings and so forth.
Unfortunately for them, their last attempt to do this, by having their own accountant suggest that Arsenal only had £40m to spend on transfers, (while previously having suggested that Arsenal had £40m hidden away in its accounts as a cash fund that the directors were seeking to use nefariously), makes me feel that while they might not be too cautious in their spending if they ever took over, their ability to create accurate accounts might not be of the highest order.
But the problem with this whole question goes deeper. For I think it is that many supporters don’t care who owns the club they support, or what its financial position is, as long as the club goes on winning. Are there any Manchester City supporters who protest about the activities of Abu Dhabi? Are there many Arsenal fans who won’t fly Emirates Airlines because of the political and environmental activities of the emirates or their attitude towards women?
Probably not very many.
Yet interestingly the history of Arsenal as a club is entwined with this issue. The club, as you may know, was set up by workers at the Royal Arsenal Dial Square factory, who because of the instant success of the venture, opened membership up to everyone working in the massive armaments sites on the banks of the Thames at Woolwich.
Being an amateur club, the working men who played for the club and those who supported the team, then formed a committee of volunteers to run the club. In short, a workers committee.
But when the club voted to be the first team in the south to pay its players for playing, a group of middleclass men launched an attempt to get themselves voted onto that committee, arguing that the working men lacked the education and finesse to understand how to run an organisation as complex as a football club.
Then, when they failed to get elected, these middle class gentlemen, took matters further, for they recruited the support of the club’s landlord at the Invicta Stadium. Using the virtually non-existent business tenancy laws of the day, he informed the committee that from 1893 onwards (the club’s first season in the Football League) the rent on the ground would more than double, making it the most expensive ground in the country – and in fact impossible for the club to afford.
That sum was impossible to pay, and so the workers went out and found another site they could use – a site just across the road. Hearing of this scheme the businessmen and owner of the Invicta Stadium approached the owner of this new site and offered him a deal. If he would agree to lease the Manor Fields to the club, and allow the club to spend a fair amount of money on the site, to make it ready for Football League matches, and then at the last moment, cancel the contract (which the law in the 19th century allowed the landlord to do) they would handsomely reward the landlord.
Fortunately for the men who worked at the Royal Arsenal factories, the landlord of the Manor Fields had a sense of morality, and refused to do this, so these men did not all go bankrupt, having guaranteed the borrowings needed to make the new ground ready for Football League games.
But that was not the end of the battle between Arsenal and the middle and upper class men who thought they knew best. After some success in 1906 and 1907 the club began to slip backwards, crowds declined (in part due to a long period of lay-offs at the Woolwich factories) and by 1910 Woolwich Arsenal was in severe financial trouble.
Then another wealthy individual offered to help – Henry Norris who was already a director of Fulham FC. Having seen what the toffs could do to the club, the committee at Woolwich Arsenal were naturally very cautious of giving their support, or indeed of handing over money that they had raised to help the club keep going.
But this time Arsenal had a saviour who really would put his own money in, guaranteeing the lease on a new ground, and the loans required to build a new stadium – which became “Highbury”.
What was interesting about Norris however was that he did not inherit his wealth, nor attend university, and was in no way a toff. True he was honoured for his work during the first world war, and promoted to a high position as an officer in the War Office, he most certainly was not “one of them.” Indeed as his political record shows he was a supporter of such outlandish ideas as votes for women, equal pay for women, the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers, controls on gambling etc, while opposing conscription during the First World War in Ireland.
Norris’ vision for Arsenal was always that of a club owned by its fans, and he constantly worked to sell shares in the club to the supporters. And because this was not how things were done in the 1920s, any more than in the 19th century, the upper class individuals who felt they had a right to run things because, well, these families had always run things, were very keen to oust him as chair of Arsenal.
Thus when the Hill-Wood family decided they had had enough of their own club (Glossop North End, playing in the 2nd division) they seized their chance to oust Norris in 1927 and take over the club. The sale of shares to fans declined, and the ownership from thenceforth was focussed on the directors and the campaign to blacken Henry Norris’ name took off full-time.
As a result, when eventually Kroenke came along wanting to buy, there were only a few people holding more than the odd two or three shares, and they could be persuaded to sell up readily as it made them all even richer than before.
So, Arsenal now has an owner who may or may not turn out to be a Good Thing – and a club owned by one family. That family’s ownerships of other sporting clubs suggests limited sporting success and occasional dubious dealings, but we shall obviously have to wait and see.
Is he a “fit and proper person” to run Arsenal? I guess if Arsenal win the league again soon, the answer from most supporters will be “yes” just as it is from Manchester City supporters who by and large don’t seem to mind what the owners of their club do in their spare time.
And that’s really the problem. Mostly people only object to the owners when either the results are poor or the finances mean the club hits the buffers.
If you would like to know more about Arsenal’s activities during the early days, you might enjoy the book “Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football.”
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