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December 2019
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When Margate was part of Arsenal

By Tony Attwood

During the inter-war period many first division clubs hit on the idea of taking over non-league sides and running them as “Nurseries”. Perhaps by coincidence or perhaps as a result of some copycat activities, all three of the north London teams in the 1930s had nursery clubs in Kent. Tottenham were linked with Northfleet United, Clapton Orient with Ashford and most famously, Arsenal with Margate.

At this time the school leaving age was 14, but the youngest a man could be signed as a full time pro was 17. This meant that clubs either had to take youngsters onto the groundstaff (something many of the lads didn’t fancy) or risk losing them to other jobs. The nursery club was an ideal arena in which the youngster could train as an amateur and have his development monitored while working elsewhere.

Quite why Arsenal chose Margate is not known. It might have been a nod in the direction of Arsenal’s 19th century origins in Kent, although we might also note that it was also the place where manager George Allison’s daughter attended a local school.

As Major Sir Samuel Hill-Wood was quoted as saying in the Isle of Thanet Gazette in 1934: “In the past we have suffered very much because we have been unable to take likely boys of eighteen or nineteen found by our scouts. We could not play them. Perhaps unfortunately our second team is at the head of the London Combination year after year, and we dare not experiment with the team. It would only offend players hoping to get their Combination medal. What we wanted was some club willing and good enough to teach our young players for us. We can and do find lots of promising young boys but they must have somewhere to play and be taught.”

Arsenal provided the manager and chief scout for the club and paid 60% of the wages. Margate Town Council meanwhile spent significant funds improving the ground, (undoubtedly seeing the publicity as a way of promoting Margate as a holiday and day trip resort).

Reg Lewis is perhaps the most famous player to have made his name there, while Mal Griffiths and Horace Cumner also came through the ranks and later played for their countries. Eddie Hapgood was among many who played for Margate while recovering from injury.

However after Ashford played Clapton Orient in the FA Cup in 1934/5 season protests about match fixing were made and the FA eventually banned linked clubs from entering the Cup from 1937 onwards.

This decision caused a major problem for Margate. On the pitch they were a huge success winning almost every competition they entered. They even reached the third round of the FA Cup one year before losing to first division Blackpool. But in terms of league games they always lost money. In fact a good Cup run was Margate’s only hope of financial survival and without it, the club was doomed.

True, for the friendly against Boulogne in January 1938 Margate took 800 supporters with them. But the average home crowd about that time was 2,000, and that just wasn’t enough through the turnstile each week for the run of the mill matches.

When the Cup ban came into being the partnership ended and Arsenal entered their own A team in the Southern League, playing at Enfield.

Some nursery clubs did continue into the 1950s although most league clubs subsequently followed the Arsenal model of creating an “A” and “B” team as a home for their up and coming talent.

The Anniversary files now have over 4000 entries, and are now divided into monthly sections.


2 comments to When Margate was part of Arsenal

  • nicky

    I can just imagine Arsene’s first directive, had Margate been our nursery on his arrival as manager…..
    “Jellied eels will not be eaten” 😉

  • This is essentially how it’s done in American baseball: It’s called “the farm system,” and it was designed to save the major league (think “first division”) clubs money on scouting. Before that, they’d have to sign who they wanted from existing independent minor league (“lower division”) clubs, and then, if they didn’t seem to be ready, do what football clubs do now: Loan them out to a lower club. The farm system, established in the 1920s, saved a lot of money, and probably saved some clubs from going under during the Great Depression of the 1930s, including the teams known today as the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Baltimore Orioles — who would go on to not only survive, but become very profitable, in large part because of their excellent minor-league structure.

    Ice hockey has also done this, and basketball is beginning to do so with its “D-league” (D for developmental). It doesn’t work that way in American football, but with the college system it doesn’t need to: When they get out of college, they’re 21 or more years old, at which point they can go into a pro team’s training camp, and you’ll find out pretty quickly whether or not he’ll make it. The idea of an NFL team signing a teenager, no matter how talented, to play men who are 25 or 30, bigger, and fast would be ludicrous, bordering on criminally negligent. And there’s no “League Cup” in which to blood such a player (unless you count preseason exhibitions), so the Wenger way of development wouldn’t work. Even the much-hyped, award-winning Johnny Manziel didn’t go in the recent draft until well into the first round, due to his experience level.

    But the way Arsenal do it now, not relying on a single loan-out/feeder club, is probably for the best, since it spreads goodwill. Wilshere at Bolton, Ramsey at Cardiff, and so on… Give a team a fair deal this year, and they’ll be more likely to give you a fair deal in the next few years. Though I notice we don’t loan anyone to Stoke…

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