by Tony Attwood
One of my prime concerns is how the history of Arsenal is regularly wrongly written in the media, invariably in a way which reflects poorly on Arsenal, suggesting that in the early part of the 20th century it was a club run by crooks.
For example, as I have mentioned earlier this year, on 29 March 2020 the Daily Mirror newspaper ran the headline “Inside England’s match-fixing scandal that involved Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal” above a story by Simon Mullock, Chief Football Writer of the Sunday Mirror.
In fact there was no match fixing scandal involving Arsenal. What’s more, as far as I know (and I do run the Arsenal History Society so I know a bit about this stuff) has ever alleged there was a match fixing scandal involving Arsenal. It was Man U and Liverpool who were engaged in the affair, and it was Arsenal’s owner, Henry Norris who first reported the issue to the League.
Sometimes slips can happen, we all know that, and Untold Arsenal certainly makes a few. But then we operate with very few people, none of whom is paid. The Mirror on the other hand is part of a huge organisation that includes the Football.London website that pumps out an Arsenal story every two hours, 24 hours a day. They ought to have learned to get things right by now.
And this was not a repeat of an old tale that they hadn’t checked. Rather it was just made up. Match fixing scandal involving Arsenal? No there wasn’t one.
What brings me back to this again is that I have just come across an article published on the academic site Academia a website used by academics at 16,614 universities. It is a republication of an article that was first published by the National Football Museum under the title “Herbert Chapman and the Rise of the Football Manager.”
Now I have had a brief correspondence with the author of this piece, asking about the source of his information. He was very helpful and confirmed that as far as he could remember his source in terms of the article’s coverage up to the arrival of Chapman at Arsenal, was the autobiography of Leslie Knighton, who was Arsenal manager from 1919 to 1925.
And this leads us to the problem. As his autobiography reveals, Knighton was very angry when Sir Henry Norris sacked him in 1925 to bring in Herbert Chapman, so he obviously was not going to write anything positive about his ex-employer. But there’s a second point: Knighton did not write his book until 20 years later, and as is clearly revealed from the text, he did so without reference to any sources of information about his time at Arsenal. He was working totally from memory, spurred on by a Sunday newspaper that agreed to publish extracts.
That this article published by the National Football Museum used only one source is not unusual – it is what most people writing about Norris have done. But it is not what should happen, in my opinion. Certainly in my academic days it would not have been allowed especially where there is a second source of information available. Indeed this second source was published within weeks of Knighton’s book – it is the autobiography is George Allison.
Allison worked at Arsenal from 1910 to 1946, starting as the writer of the club programme and ending up as manager – he succeeded Herbert Chapman after Chapman’s untimely death. He was also a director of the club from 1919 onwards. During his time as a journalist he was London correspondent for the New York Post and during the first world war worked in the War Office (where Henry Norris also worked) and the Admiralty, later joining the RAF. After the war he joined the BBC, and was a regular commentator on football matches.
So we can see the danger: Knighton, a disaffected failed manager, writing 20 years after leaving Arsenal, with no access to any reference works that would help him get his facts straight, and Allison, an esteemed journalist, successful manager (two League titles, one FA Cup), able to access all of Arsenal’s records, board minutes etc, and writing having only just left the club.
Which would you believe?
Yet Knighton’s view of Norris is the one reflected completely in the National Football Museum article, and thus Norris is reported as “a rich property developer, who had persistently bullied and interfered in the management of the previous incumbent, Leslie Knighton.”
That is straight from Knighton’s account in his book. But no evidence is supplied, and Allison’s report in his autobiography is the opposite. Yet that is not mentioned.
When it comes to Norris departure the article says he was “forced out in 1927 following a scandal over illegal payments.” Yes he was forced out in that the board (except Allison) voted against Norris, but that “scandal over payments” isn’t accurate, for what was happening was that the Hill-Wood family were seeking to gain full control of the club and they needed Norris out of the way to do it.
But there’s another point that is missed. Chapman himself had also been banned from football for life in a scandal over payments at Leeds City. Indeed so big a scandal that the club was kicked out of the League. One might think that if it was worth mentioning that Norris was banned from football, then it might be worth mentioning that so was Chapman.
In fact lots of people were banned from football for life at this time – it was the standard punishment of the day, and it remained unless the individual appealed. Chapman appealed when he was offered a job at Huddersfield, and so he came back to work. Norris did not appeal because by 1927 he had bought a house in France, and his wife was seriously ill. This being the time before modern medicine (penicillin was not even discovered until the following year) the solution to long term illness for those who could afford it was to get out of England’s damp and polluted climate.
If you would like to know more about Henry Norris, the promotion of 1919 to the first division, his dismissal in 1927 or indeed his rescue of the club in 1910 and the whole of his time at Arsenal, there are two series that you could look at.
If you are just fascinated by the way in which Arsenal were elected to the first division in 1919, then we have selected out all the articles on that topic in The 1919 Affair
If you would like the full story of Henry Norris at the Arsenal, it is available here.
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