When Arsenal hit rock bottom of the League. October 1921

By Tony Attwood

This article is dedicated with the deepest love and affection to the memory of my mother and father Arthur and Margaret Attwood, who many, many, many years ago, when I was a schoolboy, gave me my first ever book of historic league tables.  Quite why this article in particular is selected should be clear in what follows.

Arsenal finished September 1921 in a woeful position and sadly it was about to get worse.

Pos Team Pld W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Burnley 7 5 0 2 17 8 2.125 10
2 Liverpool 7 4 2 1 9 8 1.125 10
3 Aston Villa 8 4 1 3 15 8 1.875 9
4 Newcastle United 7 4 1 2 12 9 1.333 9
5 Sunderland 7 4 1 2 13 10 1.300 9
6 Middlesbrough 7 3 3 1 10 8 1.250 9
7 Preston North End 7 4 1 2 12 10 1.200 9
8 Sheffield United 7 2 4 1 10 7 1.429 8
9 Blackburn Rovers 8 2 4 2 11 9 1.222 8
10 Bolton Wanderers 7 3 2 2 15 14 1.071 8
11 Manchester City 7 3 2 2 9 10 0.900 8
12 Oldham Athletic 7 3 2 2 5 6 0.833 8
13 Tottenham Hotspur 7 3 1 3 11 9 1.222 7
14 Bradford City 7 2 3 2 12 14 0.857 7
15 Everton 7 2 2 3 12 11 1.091 6
16 West Bromwich Albion 7 2 2 3 8 10 0.800 6
17 Birmingham City 7 2 1 4 13 13 1.000 5
18 Huddersfield Town 7 1 3 3 9 12 0.750 5
19 Manchester United 7 1 3 3 6 12 0.500 5
20 Chelsea 7 1 3 3 4 9 0.444 5
21 Arsenal 7 1 1 5 6 13 0.462 3
22 Cardiff City 7 1 0 6 6 15 0.400 2

But having drawn away with Everton on 24 September, Leslie Knighton, the manager, did something very unusual for him: he put out the same team again. He must have taken it as an omen. Interestingly, he had tried the trick after the 1-0 win over Preston earlier in September, but that had failed to make things better as it was followed by a defeat to Manchester City 0-2.

This time however it worked as Arsenal won 1-0 – their second victory of the season.  The goalscorer was once again Henry White which meant that Arsenal’s complete goalscoring account so far this season now ran

  • White: 6
  • Bradshaw: 1

What on earth would Arsenal do if White got injured?  Sadly for the club they were soon to find out.

But despite the lowliness of their position in the league Arsenal’s fanbase stayed solid and 35,000 turned up – the second highest of the season thus far.  Arsenal were still 21st in the League, but at least avoided slipping further and further behind, and indeed were only one point behind four clubs on six points.

So with this second win Knighton tried his trick of not changing the team again – showing that the flurry of injuries (if this is what had caused the earlier multiple changes) had now stopped as suddenly as it had started, and for the third match running he put out the same team with Baker at centre forward and Blyth on the wing.

Unfotunately the push up the table could not be continued as on 8 October Arsenal lost away to Sunderland and remained stuck on five points, as the clubs above them gradually started to pull away.  Only Cardiff, seemingly for the moment at least out of their depth totally, remained below Arsenal with just three points.

The following Monday, 10 October, England played Australiasia at Highbury in what was described as a “Northern Union” match – what today we would call Rugby League.  The  New South Wales Rugby Football League had been formed in 1908 and this was, I think, their first tour.

The next Arsenal game, on 15 October was the return match against Sunderland and now 40,000 turned up at Highbury.  One team change was made from the defeat in the match in the north east with Dr Paterson coming into the side for the first time this season, Blyth the inside right turned left winger dropping out.  But it didn’t help matters, as Sunderland won 1-2.  Bradshaw got his second of the season.

It was a notable defeat as Cardiff won, and moved themselves above Arsenal, leaving Arsenal at the foot of the table.

And now there is a little academic dispute at this point because the table actually looked like this:

Pos Club P W D L F A GAv Pts
19 Birmingham City 10 3 1 6 14 16 0.875 7
20 Chelsea 10 1 5 4 6 12 0.500 7
21 Cardiff City 10 2 1 7 9 18 0.500 5
22 Arsenal 10 2 1 7 8 16 0.500 5

Try as I might I can’t find a rule for positioning of clubs on equal points and equal goal average at this time, and the London papers placed Arsenal above Cardiff – presumably in terms of alphabetical order.  But contemporary on line sites show Arsenal lower, I guess because they take the modern view that after goals for and against are accounted for (now as goal difference, then as goal average) the next issue for separating teams was how many were scored.

Newspapers however did not publish the actual goal average in their league tables and thus the whole thing is academic.  But you will have to forgive me here (or miss the next couple of paragraphs), for I am now about to get really nerdy, (which possibly confirms all your suspicions about me).  Having reached this point I wanted to know: did the Football League in 1921 really consider goals scored as a separator, when two teams had equal goal averages?

The newspapers of October 1921 all went the same way – they had Arsenal above Cardiff, which would either mean it was on goal difference or the clubs were listed alphabetically when goal average was equal.  But since there is never any mention of goal difference anywhere in the literature at this time, I think that is unlikely.

And after some rummaging however, I found confirmation, for in 1956/7 the 12th and 13th clubs in Division 1 at the end of the season both had identical goal averages of 1.00 and were bracketed together as 12th in RC Churchill’s “English League Football” volume published by Penguin.  This was the only volume with such data in at the time and indeed in his preface to the 1961 edition (given to me as a Christmas present by my parents who I think were happy that there was at least one book that would keep me occupied, and for which I have been eternally grateful as it launched my enjoyment of football history while a schoolboy) the author specifically claims this to have been the first ever book of its type.  My mum and dad have long since passed on, but I still have the book on my bookshelf, and must dedicate this little essay to my memory of them.

I believe the data in this book was taken directly from official Football League records, (I can’t see any other possible source) and so it is worthy of particular study in relation to this issue of clubs being exactly equal in goal average.

It turns out that this was not the only occasion in which clubs could not be separated on goal average at the end of the season, but each and every time this occurred, the club that was higher up the alphabet also had scored the most goals – a strange coincidence.  So none of those tell us whether the League was listing one side first because of goals scored or by alphabetical position.

However in 1956/7 Chelsea had scored and conceded 73 (goal average of course 1.0) but were listed below Birmingham who had scored and conceded 69 (ditto).  Thus showing that clubs really were considered absolutely equal, and were listed simply in alphabetical order – there really was no rule as to what to do when teams’ goal averages were identical.

Could it be that they actually didn’t have a rule as to what to do if the second and third club in Division II ended up equal?  I suspect that is the case, and that fits in very much with what we discussed concerning the election of two extra teams to Division I in 1919.  The League did not go in for rules it did not need, nor did it go in for precedent.  It sorted things out as it went along, as and when needed.

Indeed we might recall that in the very first football league season ever, it was not until the season had been running for a couple of months it was decided how to draw up a table.  The initial proposal was that the club that won the most games would win.  Counting draws as worth 1 point and wins as 2 only got introduced in October.

But back to the game on 15 October.  Sally Davis tell us that several members of the FA International Selection Committee, and Fred Wall and his wife, were all present (although apparently not Sir Henry Norris).  She reports, citing the Times that “Charles Buchan put on a masterly display, scoring both goals, the second from a free-kick that the (according to the Times’ report) “crowd rather resented”.   Arthur Bourke/Norseman in the Islington Daily Gazette said that Arsenal had lost the game “through reckless play” which they could not afford.”

Sir Henry it seems was not there, as he was on holiday, as Parliament had not yet reconvened after the summer recess (which as we have noted previously, did not start until September as it attempted to deal with the Irish situation.)

The following Monday 17 October Arsenal played in the first round of the London FA County Cup against Barking, according to TheArsenalHistory website.  I normally instantly defer to the accuracy of their information, but I am not sure they were not called Barking Town at this point, playing in the Premier Division of the London League.  But I add that with hesitation.

Arsenal were 0-2 down at half time in front of 4500 fans on, I suspect, the Vicarage Field, Barking.  It must have been quite a spectacle.  Arsenal put out pretty much the first team, although with Blyth replacing Patterson, and eventually run out winners 5-2 with goals scored by Butler, White (2) and Baker (2).

Matters got worse for Arsenal as the team now had to go to Huddersfield – managed of course by the reprieved and forgiven Herbert Chapman – and lost 0-2.  Making it three defeats in a row after the slight improvement of a win and a draw at the end of September.

Baker returned to right half, Patterson dropped out (I believe he was injured), Blyth came back and 11 and the new centre forward was unveiled: Bill Henderson who had just signed.

Henderson was born in Carlisle and was playing with Carlisle United outside the football league when he was signed by Arsenal for a fee reputed to be £1000 although I can’t find any independent evidence of this.  It seems a lot for a non-league player at this time – especially since one of Knighton’s big arguments against Norris was that Norris had an absolute limit of £1000 per player.  If he did (which I doubt) would he really have allowed that limit to be reached for a non-league man with no established track record?

That Henderson was not a success is self-evident – he got five games in the season, and two more the following season before being moved on to Luton, who in turn moved him on to Southampton six months later, although there he stayed for five years.

In a report in the volume “The Alphabet of the Saints“, Henderson is described as “a puzzling player, not only to the opposition, but often to his own team-mates. He could make the most amazing runs, dribbling the ball through places where it did not seem possible,” alternating between “the exquisite to sheer vaudeville.”  But in the first division he was immediately dropped after the Huddersfield game and Arsenal remained at the foot of the table now one point behind Cardiff and two behind Chelsea.

Inevitably the press piled in with more criticism and equally inevitably the team changed around again.  Henderson was dropped, Paterson came back on the wing, but
White (our leading goal scorer by a mile) was now out with an injury having played every game of the season so far, and in came Thomas Maxwell an inside right from Dunfermline.

The Islington Daily Gazette announced that Maxwell was not fit, but I doubt that was the only problem because this was Maxwell’s one and only game for Arsenal.  Dean Hayes has him moving on to a club called “St Mary’s Barn” subsequently but I have no information on this.

This left the league table looking, from Arsenal’s point of view, as sorry as ever with the club now well and truly adrift, although again we can note that three of the bottom five were all from London.

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Burnley 12 9 0 3 30 13 2.308 18
2 Liverpool 12 6 5 1 17 11 1.545 17
3 Sunderland 12 8 1 3 21 14 1.500 17
4 Newcastle United 12 7 2 3 19 14 1.357 16
5 Huddersfield Town 12 6 3 3 20 13 1.538 15
6 Aston Villa 13 7 1 5 24 17 1.412 15
7 Middlesbrough 12 5 4 3 20 16 1.250 14
8 Manchester City 12 6 2 4 18 18 1.000 14
9 Preston North End 12 5 3 4 17 19 0.895 13
10 Oldham Athletic 12 4 4 4 9 11 0.818 12
11 Everton 12 3 5 4 18 16 1.125 11
12 Sheffield United 12 3 5 4 14 13 1.077 11
13 Blackburn Rovers 13 3 5 5 18 19 0.947 11
14 Bolton Wanderers 12 4 3 5 20 23 0.870 11
15 Manchester United 12 3 5 4 15 21 0.714 11
16 Birmingham City 12 4 2 6 17 18 0.944 10
17 Bradford City 12 3 4 5 15 23 0.652 10
18 Tottenham Hotspur 12 3 3 6 16 17 0.941 9
19 West Bromwich Albion 12 3 3 6 11 16 0.688 9
20 Chelsea 12 2 5 5 10 18 0.556 9
21 Cardiff City 12 3 2 7 13 20 0.650 8
22 Arsenal 12 2 1 9 9 21 0.429 5

On 31 October Arsenal had the second round match in the LFACC, again away and this time against Queens Park Rangers, now an upper team in Division III (South).  They however got less of a good start than Barking in the earlier round and Arsenal won 2-0.  Turnball came in at right half and White and Hopkins got the goals.  The crowd was 5000.

That afternoon and evening there was a debate in Parliament censuring the government for entering negotiations to allow setting up of an Irish Free State in what is now called “Ireland” (although known in the UK sometimes as the Republic of Ireland”).

The censure motion focused on the fact that the government had been elected as Unionists (meaning supporting the indissoluble union of Great Britain and Ireland) and here they were a couple of years later breaking it up.  The government, with Sir Henry Norris’ support, won the day easily – and it would have had a problem had it not – the Irish Treaty Conference had opened on 11 October.

Here are the games for the month.

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
01/10/1921 Everton H W 1-0 35,000
08/10/1921 Sunderland A L 0-1 30,000
15/10/1921 Sunderland H L 1-2 40,000
17/10/1921 Barking (LFACC) A W 5-2 4,500
22/10/1921 Huddersfield Town A L 0-2 12,000
29/10/1921 Huddersfield Town H L 1-3 30,000
31/10/1921 Queen’s Park Rangers (LFACC) A W 2-0 5,000


Below are set out details of some of the key elements from the controversies that we have already covered in this series.  A full index of all the articles is published here.

The promotion of 1919, the libel and the subsequent allegations 

Perhaps the most popular element in the Norris story is that of Arsenal’s promotion to the first division in 1919.  The most complete review of this, which puts right the numerous misunderstandings of the events of that year appears, and most importantly cites contemporary articles and reports, such as the minutes of the FA meeting where the promotion was confirmed, and the reports in local papers thereafter, here in these two sets of articles…

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

The Second Libel

The Third Allegation

The Fourth Allegation

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