The accusation that Arsenal cheated its way into football: and the answer

In response to the article Tackles, fouls, yellow cards, injuries and illness. How Tottenham and Arsenal compare an email came in from Nicklas Skott in which he said, “Why bother about this when you have cheated your way in to football. This club stinks abd now we get to see it again.”

Given that several of my articles of late have been about providing evidence, and the way that some people like to deny something has happened, and verify their statement just by making it, I was interested.

But also particularly interested because, as it happens, I wrote the definitive account of how Arsenal got into the 1st division in 1919, which I imagine is what Nicklas Scott refers to.

The full story is told in the series “100 years in  the first division” which now appear on the Arsenal History Society website, and you can see the full index to the series here.

Because the series is around 20,000 words long however I thought it might be helpful if I summarised it for Mr Skott and anyone else interested.   But please do note there is a lot of information and references to sources in the full version.

In the first part of this series (Arsenal celebrate 100 years in the top division)  I mentioned the match-fixing episode involving Liverpool and Manchester United, as a result of which Chelsea were relegated in 1915.

However, this was not the only match-fixing that was alleged during the last few years before football was suspended.   On 24 March 1913, Henry Norris went to Anfield, on his way back south, and watched Liverpool 1 Chelsea 2.  It was an unexpected result given that Chelsea lost the other five of their last six games of the season.  But it was enough to keep Chelsea in the first division, and in a subsequent newspaper article Norris all but accused Liverpool of fixing the match.

The Football League however exonerated Liverpool and warned Norris as to his subsequent behaviour, but just six months later allegations arose that the match Burnley 1 Manchester  United 2 was fixed as lots of money was bet on that exact score.  The league this time held an enquiry and found one Man U player guilty, and he was eventually jailed for corruption. Then another case arose on 2 April 1915, and this time so much more was put correctly on the unlikely final score that it was obvious something was amiss.

As a result of this game Chelsea were relegated and Man U escaped.  Football was then suspended for the rest of the war.

And so the matter rested until the summer of 1919 when the authorities prepared to start up football once again.   Chelsea and Tottenham were claiming that at the very least Manchester United should be thrown out of the League, and that Liverpool should be demoted being accused of match-fixing for the second time in three years.   Norris however, having been seriously attacked and warned over his 1913 article which alerted football to the problem of match-fixing, did as he had been told and said nothing.

Arsenal (although probably not Norris in person) would surely have reminded the League, in private, how he had been reprimanded in 1913, and how “curious” (to say the least) it was that it was Liverpool implicated in match-fixing for the second time in three years. I think Arsenal would have at least “reminded” the League that Norris had let that issue go in 1913, but that if the League had properly investigated the matter then, the match-fixing of 1915 could have been avoided.

But the League also knew that although they were dealing in 1913 with plain “Henry Norris” Arsenal director, Mayor of Fulham and property developer, they were now dealing with Lt Col Sir Henry Norris who had been deeply involved in recruiting the army during the war and was in charge demobilisation at the War Office, was a member of the powerful London County Council and who had just been elected an MP.  Plus that knighthood had been awarded for his work and financial contributions in aiding the war effort.  He was now not a man to be taken lightly. 

During 1919, before league football resumed in the autumn there was much discussion of Chelsea’s position, having been demoted through no fault of their own, and the consensus in the media and the league was that the league should be enlarged by two places and one of these places should go to Chelsea.

There was much debate in the newspapers and in the influential “Athletic News” magazine and the consensus here was reached that clubs in the second division could apply for a place in the first division, and all clubs in the league would have one vote.

Much of the debate focussed on the need to extend the League’s presence to London, not least to avoid the Southern League extending their influence, and eventually becoming as strong as the Football League.  So it was agreed that the top two teams from the 1914/15 season should go up, Chelsea should stay up and one more team was to be promoted.

Support for Arsenal’s promotion was that Arsenal had brought League football to London, and Henry Norris had not only been the man that called out the match-fixing of pre-war years but also the man who had rescued a dying club, investing his own money in taking Arsenal to north London and helping establish the league in the south.

He was also the man who had paid for the Footballers Battalions, recruiting supporters into the army before conscription was introduced in 1917, and he was the lead player in organising conscription before the war, and demobilisation after it.  And of course he was now Lt Colonel Sir Henry Norris.

Thus it was finally agreed that both divisions would be expanded to 22 teams.  With the arrangements already noted, that left one position available in the first division for another team and already seven clubs had applied in advance for that final position, so it was obvious that a vote was needed.

Most of the applicants were as expected.  Tottenham had finished bottom of the First Division in 1914-15; they wanted to keep their place.  Barnsley, Wolverhampton, Birmingham City, Arsenal and Hull had finished 3rd to 7th in the Second Division and all applied.  (Arsenal were initially listed as sixth, but in fact, as the league table shows they were fifth on goal average).  

An open discussion then took place before the vote for the final place in the First Division was held. The results are shown in the minutes of the meeting.

It has since been suggested in later reports that the Football League’s president made a speech supporting Arsenal. Other than secondary sources written years later there is nothing to support this. The Sportsman, Athletic News, Daily Mirror and The Times all reported the matter the following day and none mentioned this. They did report that C.E. Sutcliffe made a speech stating that the expansion would give them an opportunity to do right by Chelsea. but that was all.

The Athletic News reported that the Tottenham representative at the meeting stated “We shall take our defeat like sportsmen!”   And in a sense they did, playing in Division II for one year, and immediately getting promotion back to the First Division after just one season.

So, we must now ask, if matters were dealt with in an orderly and proper fashion in the meeting, with Tottenham being very gentlemanly in accepting defeat and preparing their club (successfully it turns out) for one year in the second division, where on earth did all these stories about Arsenal bribing the chairmen come from?

Curiously it came from an Arsenal player, Bernard Joy who having retired wrote a history of the club called “Forward, Arsenal” which was published in 1952.  Because Joy was close to the club this book was considered the definitive Arsenal history, but in fact Joy made a lot of it up simply to make it more exciting.

And he missed out the fact that just a few years before the events described here, Tottenham were involved in a scandal which included allegedly bribing another team to leave the Football League so Tottenham could take their place.  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).

But the clubs who had the vote remembered their history, and the fact that Tottenham had vigorously opposed Arsenal’s move to north London in 1913.  They had suggested crowds would fall, but Norris had suggested they would rise and football would become the dominant talking point in north London with three teams (Arsenal, Tottenham and The Orient) so close together.  And so it was.

If you would like to read the whole history of Henry Norris at the Arsenal then that story is told in more detail than anywhere else on the Arsenal History website.  You can find the index to the articles here.