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Arsenal in March 1919: the London Victory Cup and its consequences

By Tony Attwood

The London Combination had organised football in the capital after professional football was abandoned at the end of the 1914/15 season, running two league competitions in 1915/16, and then a season long league competition through each of the next three seasons.

Now after victory for the Allies had been proclaimed they had decided to organise a knockout cup – the London Combination Victory Cup.   I’m not sure how the competition was organised as there were ten clubs in the League at this time, but it is possible that four clubs played in the first round in January giving six others a bye, to leave eight left for a normal knock out from March onwards.

Or something like that!

In the first round Arsenal were drawn away against Millwall Athletic and won the match on the first day of the year 1-0.

The second round was not until 31 March and this time Arsenal were drawn at home against Fulham.  A win for Arsenal, who were battling Brentford at the top of the league was not certain however, for although  Arsenal were challenging at the top of the league Arsenal had played Fulham four times in the league this season (this being the format of the league – each team playing the others four times, twice home, twice away) the results being

  • Fulham 1 Arsenal 2
  • Arsenal 1 Fulham 3
  • Fulham 3 Arsenal 1
  • Arsenal 5 Fulham 0

The rule of the competition was that only registered players or formally recognised “on loan” players could be used – which meant that guest players could not be drafted in just for the occasion – as had been allowed in the Combination prior to the AGM.

To be clear on this, during the war, the rules allowed a club to use anyone available without either formal registration or the formal agreement of the club to whom the player was formally registered.  At the London Combination meeting which set up the Victory Cup, it was agreed that from the start of 1919 this rule would cease.  Clubs could still use as many loan players as they wished, but it had to be with the formal agreement of the club to whom the player was registered, or players who had previously played for the club.

Arsenal played 11 men who had all played for the club in previous matches, but Fulham played a number of men who were not eligible under the revised rules – particularly Hunter, about whom Fulham had been warned before the game.

After the match, there was an immediate outcry in the newspapers and Arsenal lodged an appeal against Fulham’s victory the next day.  Sally Davis states that “one writer described Fulham’s team for this fixture as ‘Kelso’s international team” – Phil Kelso having been Arsenal’s manager from 1904 to 1908 who had moved to Fulham in 1909 and was still running the club.  (Arsenal, you may recall, was coached during the war years by their youth team manager James “Punch” McEwen).

The appeal was held and the finding was that Fulham had indeed broken the rules, with the committee of the London Combination ordering the game to be replayed at Highbury on 10 April 1919.

However Fulham then did something which does not actually seem to have been in the rules – they appealed against the appeal, even though it appears there was no provision in the rules of the Combination to this effect.

Now we should appreciate that this sort of thing did happen during the war years not least because the London Combination had been set up in a hurry when it became clear that the Football League was only setting up wartime leagues for the north of the country – the constitution of the Combination being cobbled together quickly to enable a season to begin in September 1915.

But that was only the start of the oddity, because it also appears that the appeal against the appeal was help in secret, without Arsenal being able to supply a representative.  Fulham, it seems, were now utilising every crack and gap in the Combination’s haphazard rule book to find a way to win.

Sir Henry Norris inevitably protested to the London Combination, and also resigned as a director of Fulham, I assume on the grounds that Fulham should have notified all its directors that the appeal was happening (a limited company has an absolute duty to inform all directors of matters relating to the running of the business – with time sensitive matters being notified immediately – not least because all directors of a limited company have an absolute duty in law to run the company in a legal and proper manner.  Thus nothing must be hidden from a director).  

It looks as if Sir Henry however was not told about this appeal from Fulham, and neither was he invited to the London Combination meeting to hear the appeal against the appeal – as he should have been, given that he launched the original appeal.

With the Combination siding with Fulham in the appeal against the appeal, the replay of the game was cancelled, and Fulham went into the semi-finals of the Victory Cup.

On 11 April 1919 Norris wrote an open letter complaining about Fulham’s selection and this letter was published in Athletic News on 14 April 1919.  Had it been in the 21st century I suspect he might even had suggested the Combination was playing online games with Arsenal!

But even this was not the end of the affair.  On 19 April 1919, the semi final of the London Victory Cup took place and the selected venue was Highbury. I have seen it suggested that this was a sop to Arsenal, but looking at the matter more closely, in truth Highbury was the obvious location.  It could not be at the ground of either club participating (Chelsea and Palace) and Tottenham’s ground was still closed.  The major ground it could be played at was Highbury – and besides, Highbury had perfect transport arrangements for fans from both clubs.

The result was Chelsea 4 Crystal Palace 0.   The other semi was played at Stamford Bridge and the result was Fulham 2 Tottenham 0.  For this game Fulham avoided all controversy and played not their loan players but their regular team – which by and large was an admission that something was wrong with the earlier game against Arsenal.

The committee of the London Combination then decided to play the final on 26 April 1919 at Highbury, and to have another committee meeting on the eve of the event.

Prior to the outbreak of war and the discovery that the Football League was making no arrangements for football in London for the duration, the London Combination had been the organisation overseeing amateur football leagues in the capital, and thus at the committee meeting on 25 April 1919 the Combination prepared to vote to return to its pre-war role of simply running the amateur game.

However at this meeting of the London Combination it was proposed and accepted that the Combination should be more than this, namely that it should also operate a reserve league for League clubs in the capital (and possibly surrounding counties), with the officers in addition being specifically charged with the responsibility of protecting the interests of London clubs against what they perceived as the pro-northern bias of the Football League.

The London Combination thus continued, and was ultimately rebranded the Football Combination at the start of the second World War, and only ceased to exist in 2012, three years short of its 100th anniversary.  By which time of course we actually did have casino games.

To return to the Victory Cup, in the final Chelsea beat Fulham 3-0 with 36,000 present.   Naturally many in the crowd were Arsenal regulars and they spent the game letting Fulham know what they thought of them.  This anti-Fulham feeling was encouraged by the fact that Arsenal used the rules that the committee had reviewed to allow Fulham to continue, and loaned Jack Rutherford to Chelsea for the match, and in true Rutherford style he scored two of the goals for Chelsea.

Henry Norris and his wife were at the game and Edith presented the trophy to Chelsea.

The Henry Norris Files Section 1 – 1910.

Section 2 – 1911

Section 3 – 1912

Section 4 – 1913

Section 5 – 1914

Section 6 – 1915

Section 7: – 1916

Section 8: 1917

Section 9: 1918 and the end of the war

Section 10: 1919, the reform of football

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