By Tony Attwood
If you create a magazine which boasts that it is the “New Home of Football Writing” then all it needs to be is a little bit better than the football journalism that exists elsewhere. Which you might well think is not that difficult, given the lunatic inaccuracies that we see and hear daily in football journalism.
And it is on this basis (a lack of inaccuracies) that we come to examine the Athletic’s exclusive: “Disgruntled Arsenal fans to launch breakaway phoenix club based in Surrey – Dial Square FC”
OK, that looks interesting except within seconds we are told that, “Dial Square is a reference to the Arsenal Football Club’s original name, coined by the Woolwich munitions workers who founded the club in south-east London in 1886. They competed as Dial Square until 1893, when they were renamed as Woolwich Arsenal.”
Now this is not a bit of history that is hard to find and get right. Apart from a vast array of books which cover Arsenal’s history, it so happens that Arsenal has one of the most detailed online write-ups of its early history of any club. (Not necessarily “the most” because Everton have done a sensational job on their history, but we’re not too far behind).
The Arsenal History Society has been through every detail of the early history of the club, seeking to prove that the old tales about playing the first game on the Isle of Dogs, and what happened thereafter, were all true. It is all online as I say, and also in the books “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” and “Royal Arsenal Champions of the South”.
The simple fact is that Dial Square played one football match, after which at a meeting in early January 1887 it was voted to open up the club not just to employees of the Dial Square factory, but to the employees of all of the Royal Arsenal armaments factories. At the same time the name of the club was changed, meaning Arsenal only played one match as Dial Square. (They were actually Dial Square Cricket Club, but we’ll let that point pass).
Of course this could appear to be a bit of trivial detail – but The Athletic is proclaiming itself as the publication that transforms football writing, tearing down the old approach of haphazard half-truths, downright lies and a total lack of research, and replacing it with something that is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, true.
The story begins, “Arsenal fans dissatisfied with the club’s direction may soon have an alternative to consider: Dial Square FC. The Athletic understands that the new football club, which was incorporated earlier this month, aims to participate in next season’s Combined Counties Football League — the ninth tier of English football, and the same division where AFC Wimbledon entered upon being formed in 2002.”
Note that – “The Athletic understands….” Not “has been told and accepted with blind faith” but “understands.” It implies the use of the brain.
The Athletic proclaims itself as the New World of Journalism (not in those terms, but that is what it amounts to) so when it gets a very fundamental wrong in an article, one wonders. Have they got any more fact-checking than I have? Certainly, they ought to have since a) they charge for reading and b) they proclaim themselves to be important.
So no, Arsenal have had a series of names, and the shortest-lived of all of them was Dial Square – just one match on a mud heap on the Isle of Dogs against Eastern Wanderers. And yes, we have proof from the media of the day that this game did take place because the result was reported in the weekly newspaper “The Referee”. The Woolwich Gazette then reported on 7 January 1887 that sometime between 1 December 1886 and 5 January 1887 a meeting was held to widen the club to everyone in the area, and this club effectively broke away from the Dial Square Cricket Club and became Royal Arsenal Association Football Club. On 8 January 1887: Royal Arsenal (as opposed to Dial Square FC) played their first game – against Erith on Plumstead Common. Arsenal won 6-1, part of an opening sequence of three matches in which the club scored 23 goals. See also here.
After that the club changed its name it was Royal Arsenal until 1893, then Woolwich Arsenal, then The Arsenal, then Arsenal.
Now the man behind this lack of knowledge is apparently a “lifelong Arsenal fan Stuart Morgan, one of many supporters who has grown disenchanted by events at the club since Stan Kroenke’s KSE took full ownership. Now it seems some are ready to strike out independently.”
And that sentence makes the cock-up of the very foundation and fundamentals of his venture seem a bit silly. So as the article continues “Fan discontent reached its peak in the summer of 2019, when several supporters groups joined forces to launch the #WeCareDoYou campaign. A spokesperson for the campaign explained: “There’s been a steady disconnect for a lot of fans. It stems from a range of things — from when football went all-ticket and all-seater, to the change of our badge, to moving from Highbury, to higher ticket prices, and to games being constantly moved for TV. For many fans, having a majority shareholder (now owner) who is rarely in the country let alone at games, and who has never really engaged with fans, was the final straw.”
Except that the WeCareDoYou campaign was somewhat undermined by the fact that the level of club connection with those fans groups that don’t actually criticise the club in public regularly has been maintained – as it was in the “100 Years in the First Division” celebration at Islington Town Hall, which included fans, ex-players and club directors all mingling together in the same meeting.
In fact what the publication is doing is highlighting the work of Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, and ignoring the work of other groups such as Arsenal Independent Supporters Association. And that is a bit silly because AST became something of a laughing stock when in ran two articles in which its accountant “analysed” two different sets of Arsenal accounts and “discovered” that in the first set of accounts Arsenal had secretly and illegally set aside money for the directors to award to themselves, and in the second set had only set a budget of £40m for transfers. The first case of fraudulently moving money secretly from the club to the directors was never proven, and no evidence was presented, the second was denounced by directors at a supporters meeting before the start of the current season. Arsenal then went on and spent £130m. AST has, to my knowledge, never apologised for its misleading statements and defamation of Arsenal directors. The Inland Revenue has chosen not to investigate the alleged misdemeanours.
So the connection between the AST campaigns and the current league position is made, without any thought that actually there might be other factors at work – such as the ceaseless negativity of AST, and that other bunch of negativists, AFTV, and the journalists such as those in the Athletic who put a constant negative spin on Arsenal stories (as they have with this bit of trivia).
The founders of New Dial Square (if I may call the new club that) “explained” to The Athletic “This Arsenal team — the club, the set-up, the stadium — is nothing like it was in its heyday. It’s so commercialised… I sit in club level. It’s soulless, it’s lifeless… it’s not Arsenal Football Club. The reason I wanted to do this project is to go back to beginning, to try and get back to that original Arsenal.”
Well yes, I can understand about Club Level and agree. But it represents something like 0.3% of the seats in the ground. I sit directly above club level, and the atmosphere is fine.
The new club will start in north London but aim to move to Woolwich – perhaps in the mistaken belief that Dial Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal or Arsenal actually played in Woolwich. But none did. Another little cock-up.
The club was known as Woolwich Arsenal because it valued its identity as the works team of the Royal Arsenal based at Woolwich and could not call itself “Royal” because it was a limited company. Woolwich Arsenal played at Plumstead, and then for its final season under that name, at Highbury. Again, a very basic bit of history that can be looked up in a trice.
Then there is an interesting claim. “Back in 1886, the club’s first ever games were played in a dark red kit.” Is that right? I’d love to know the source of that claim, because there are lot of claims around. We know the picture that Arsenal used to justify the change of shirt colour for the final season at Highbury was artificially coloured in, and not an actual photo. So where do they get their facts?
The badge they have chosen makes reference to the Royal Oak pub where (the Athletic’s article claims) “the current club’s identity was conceived.” That is not at all clear. We know that Soar and Tyler suggest that a meeting on 25 December 1886 was held at the Royal Oak to change the name of the club to Royal Arsenal but there is no real evidence for this, and the name was in any case not changed then. So maybe, maybe not.
So, it’s not a very accurate start for the new venture, and I rather suspect this lack of historic dedication my come to haunt this recently invented club. And The Athletic.
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