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Woolwich Arsenal in the FA Cup: playing at the final stadium 1908/09

1908/09

1st round.  Jan 16th.  Croydon Common (away).  Drew 1-1  Crowd 20,000

The Arsenal handbook that I am using as a guide to these matches has this game played at “Crystal Palace by arrangement,” which is a rather interesting comment.

Where there is now the National Sports Centre there once was the home of the FA Cup final (1895 to 1914).   In 1905, in a move virtually identical to the creation of Chelsea FC, the owners of the ground decided they wanted a club to go on their ground and so formed Crystal Palace.   The military took over in 1915, and Palace (the club) moved to Selhurst Park.  The biggest attendance ever for an English match was at the ground: the 1913 Cup final, Aston Villa v Sunderland – 121,919.

England played Scotland five times at the ground between 1897 and 1909, and here’s one other match which is listed, which I include for Walter:

4 March 1911 – England Amateurs 4-0 Belgium

Now back to the Arsenal game at Crystal Palace.   Croydon Common was formed in 1897 and became a professional side in 1907 entering the Southern League.  It appears that none other than Henry Norris was the man who took them into professionalism, although I can’t find records to show if he owned the club, or was merely there in an advisory capacity.  (Norris could sometimes play with words – as when he as chair of Fulham took over Woolwich Arsenal but claimed he was acting personally, and not on behalf of Fulham.   What was the difference?)

If you have peered at the suggestions in “Making the Arsenal” you’ll know that Croydon Common then had some problems with their original stand which was burnt down – which was part of the reason they moved to  “The Nest” (Croydon were nicknamed the Robins, hence the nickname of the ground, but officially it was “Croydon Common Athletic Ground”) in Selhurst.  It was this ground that became the home of Crystal Palace, from 1918 to 1924.  So when this cup match with Arsenal was due to be played Croydon Common were using The Nest (at Crystal Palace) as their ground.

So what exactly does the entry in the yearbook of 1963/4 mean – given that Croydon played “at Crystal Palace”?    The answer is that this was a big south London derby match, and because the crowd was expected to be large they played not at the Nest, but at the actual Crystal Palace – the ground that housed the Cup Finals.   They didn’t fill the ground but they got 20,000.  And, the scorer was our old pal Fitchie (see recent correspondence on this site).

The point made in “Making the Arsenal” is that have structural damage at two grounds was a bit of a coincidence – the roof of the main stand was taken out in a gale at the Nest not long after the club moved in.   As the book reveals, Mr Norris had all sorts of issues with stands in the early days – including quite a tedious enquiry as to whether the correct permissions had been obtained on the stand at Craven Cottage.

What’s more Norris used Archie Leitch as the architect and clerk of works.  These days that might sound rather a good idea, as Leitch is now revered as a football architect , but in the early 20th century Mr Leitch’s name was mostly associated with disaster – especially at Ibrox where it was suggested and not refuted that he had been remiss in checking the details of the materials used in building the vast stadium.   Indeed in 1905 Leitch was involved in working on both the Fulham updates, and the building of the Chelsea ground at the same time – something that must have stretched his ability to keep tabs on the builders to the limits, and it appears that Chelsea’s ground suffered as a result.

In fact there is no evidence that anything was amiss in the Croydon Common stands – just an unfortunate coincidence perhaps.

1st round.  Jan 20th.  Croydon Common (home).  Won 2-0  Crowd 15,000

Croydon Common’s exploits in taking a club destined to end up 6th in the first division to a replay would have raised their profile no end.   They were a young club, who spent their years bouncing up and down between the first and second division of the Southern League.   They first entered the league in 1907, went up in 1909 and 1914, and finished bottom each time in the following season.   In 1917 they were wound up and were the only club not to return to playing football after the first world war.  There is no evidence why this was so, but we might assume that Norris had his hands full with Highbury, and didn’t need a little Southern League club as well.

2nd round.  Feb 6th.  Millwall (home).  Drew 1-1  Crowd 32,000

Millwall were also a Southern League club and did not join the football League until 1920.  They were in fact also, like Croydon,  local rivals – hence the huge crowd, for this derby game.  Millwall were having a mid-table season – but it is interesting to note just who was in the Southern League at the time.  The top of the table that year read…

  1. Northampton Town
  2. Swindon Town
  3. Southampton
  4. Portsmouth
  5. Bristol Rovers
  6. Exeter City
  7. New Brompton
  8. Reading
  9. Luton Town
  10. Plymouth
  11. Millwall
  12. Southend United
  13. Leyton
  14. Watford
  15. QPR
  16. Crystal Palace
  17. West Ham United
  18. Brighton and Hove Albion
  19. Norwich City
  20. Coventry City
  21. Brentford

If we also take a look at the second division that year we can see why a club like Croydon Common might win the league but then struggle

  1. Croydon Common
  2. Hastings and St Leonards
  3. Depot Battalion Royal Engineers
  4. 2nd Grenadier Guards
  5. South Farnborough Athletic
  6. Salisbury City
  7. Chesham Town

And less you think I have just quoted the top of the league, that was it – seven clubs, none of whom is a big name today, compared with 21 clubs all of whom (give or take a name change) are still with us.   The gap between the two divisions must have been enormous, and it is clear that the second division was for minor clubs, with the number of clubs in the league changing each year.

2nd round.  Feb 10th.  Millwall (away).  Lost 0-1  Crowd 16,285

Financially Arsenal had done well out of the cup, with four games all getting decent crowds.   But they had struggled twice against Southern League opposition – although Millwall were excused entry to the Cup, like Arsenal, until the first round proper.

Millwall had beaten Luton in the first round, but in the third were knocked out by Nottingham Forest.  In the fourth round Forest lost to Derby, who in turn lost to Bristol City in the semi finals.   Manchester United beat Bristol City in the final, once more at Crystal Palace, in front of 71,000.

So financially this would have been a good season for Arsenal – with the league success taking up the crowds in the league.   And this struggle with local Southern League clubs could have just been a blip.  Except…

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