By Tony Attwood
One question hangs over the opening of the 1920/21 season and the fact that Arsenal won only two of their first 12 games in the league from August up to the end of October. What was the cause of such a decline in a club that had ended the previous season in 9th?
We’ve seen one line of thought: that the players bought in the previous season simply were not good enough and didn’t make it to the big time.
A second line of thought is that Arsenal suffered a much higher number of injuries than normal. Unfortunately details of injuries were not made widely available by the club so this is hard to judge but we can see how the team was chopped and changed during the first part of the season. And although I have argued that Knighton was an eccentric and inexperienced manager (this was his first job as manager having only served as assistant manager at Manchester City before) I am not sure that one could put the full blame at his door.
Plus we must now consider a third possibility. During the latter part of 1921 the flu returned to north and west London, and continued into the early part of 1922. This was not as virulent a form of flu as occurred immediately after the first world war (the so-called Spanish flu which actually originated in Argentina – despite its name). But it was enough to take out people for several weeks – and that meant for footballers (who obviously then had to get back to full match fitness) a month or more out of the game.
The best guess I can make is that we have to consider all three as contributory factors, and acknowledge that the manager was responsible for only one of them. And this triple whammy of poor recruitment, injuries and flu can help to explain the strange positional swapping around that went on during the latter months of 1921.
Injuries and succumbing to illness will never affect the whole team evenly so it was inevitable that the club could be left with (for example) a complete absence of experienced inside forwards) and this is exactly what seemed to happen this season.
Arsenal now had four league matches lined up for November 1921 plus a semi-final of the London FA County Cup against Tottenham. But going into this month they must have been avoiding looking at any newspaper that carried the league table, as must have their two local rivals.
Looking at these rivals, Tottenham had drawn two and lost three of their last five, while Chelsea had won just one of the last nine (and I suspect both were in trouble as both were, like Arsenal, losing players to the flu). Arsenal needed two straight wins and two of the four clubs above them to get two straight defeats to even think of climbing out of relegation trouble – and that was before the long division became involved to work out the goal average.
Here is the table at the start of the month.
|19||West Bromwich Albion||12||3||3||6||11||16||0.688||9|
On 4 November John Hardy Robson signed from Innerleithen (or Vale of Leithen according to some sources) as the third choice keeper. He went on to play 86 league games for Arsenal before moving in 1926 to Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic; he was very much a signing for the future for Williamson had played all the games thus far, and showed no sign of either illness or injury. In fact he went on to play 41 of the 42 league games and all six of the FA Cup matches this season.
Going into the match on 5 November Birmingham were 16th having won four games so far. Two wins had been away and two at home, so Arsenal could find some hope from their position – but no one, I imagine, was getting too excited.
Inevitably given the results thus far the criticism of Arsenal had risen to the proportions we experienced in 2018, although there was a huge difference in the results at the time. The Islington Daily Gazette reported that it was receiving huge numbers of letters that it could not publish because of the law of libel and it is clear that the editors were getting frustrated with the abuse aimed at the club, that they were receiving.
Indeed the paper in the shape of Arthur Bourke also reminded the readership that “abuse of officials” (by which they meant the directors and manager, rather than the referee and linesmen) and of the players “is not argument.” Not much it seems has changed over the centuries!
And so in the midst of complaint and acrimony, the month’s playing began, and perhaps to everyone’s surprise Arsenal got the first of their two urgently needed wins on 5 November with the scoreline Birmingham City 0 Arsenal 1.
There was one new face in the line up: Toner was back. He had played the last seven games of 1920/1 season, but then was, at the start of this season, either injured or ill, hence his absence. He went on to play 24 times in the rest of the season.
Indeed as with the inside forward position, outside right was a problem with both Toner and Dr Paterson unavailable. Voysey had played in the position for the first match, and then Hopkins had helped out, but it was clearly a weak point in the team.
In another strange positional move however Bradshaw the inside left became the third right back to be used this season. Hopkins returned to the side but now at inside left. In short there were five changes from the defeat against Huddersfield.
As a result of the win, Arsenal were still bottom, but only one point behind Cardiff and two behind Chelsea and WBA.
Friday 11 November was the first ever Armistice Day arranged by the British Legion – the first official “Poppy Day”. It had taken three years to formulate, since the end of the war, but this most moving of remembrances has continued ever since.
Arsenal’s next match was the return game against Birmingham, this time at Highbury, and I think it is fair to say the result was one that amazed football.
At half time the score was Arsenal 3 Birmingham 2. Arsenal had just scored in 45 minutes three goals – something that had taken them the five previous matches to achieve.
In fact in the previous 13 games Arsenal had scored just 10 goals. And in this game they went on to score five, winning 5-2! The club also got three new goalscorers, in addition to North, who inevitably got one. Hopkins got two, Whittaker and Baker the others.
But there was a special reason behind the score – Birmingham went down to 10 men in the first half and played most of the game with a man short. The Islington Gazette told its readers not to get too excited as it also noted that neither Henry Norris, nor William Hall nor Leslie Knighton were at the match. Knighton was apparently on a scouting trip, but where the directors were we were not told.
So consecutive wins and six goals scored, but Arsenal were still at the foot of the table. However four clubs were now within reach.
|18||Preston North End||14||4||4||6||17||24||0.708||12|
The next match was the following Monday against Tottenham; the second replay of the London FA County County match, this time played on the neutral ground of Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately, with both sides still locked at 0-0 on 90 minutes the game then went to extra time as the fog moved in. After five minutes of extra time the referee gave up trying to see what was going on, and the match was abandoned.
Two new players came in for the game Creegan and Henderson replacing Rutherford and North. Rutherford returned for the next match but North the prime goalscorer was injured (or he succumbed to the flu) and this was the first of six consecutive games he missed.
On 19 November Arsenal played their third league game of the month – against Bolton away. Bolton were tenth in the league but Arsenal, with Henderson now coming in as third choice centre forward unable to get a goal. White and North were now both missing, and Bradshaw was playing at full back and with these three having scored most of Arsenal’s goals thus far, the strain on the team was too great. They probably hoped for a goalless draw, but Bolton took the lead in the first half and held it to win 1-0.
I have suggested a couple of times during this period that I perceive a change in Sir Henry Norris coming over him personally. The drive that could take him to endless meetings, new ventures and vigorous pursuance of what he believed was right was coming to an end. Maybe he had had the flu, or maybe he was just disillusioned by the way his campaigns to give greater freedom to house builders, more equality for women, lower train fares, pensions for soldiers injured in the war… all were being swept aside by a government populated by people who knew far less about the lives of the country’s ordinary citizens than Sir Henry ever did.
And it is about this time that Sir Henry broke with his local Conservative Party – the party that had brought him to power the party he had been a member of for something like 25 years. But in this move he was by no means the only MP to fall out with his activists, and the immediate (but perhaps not long term) reason was always the same: money.
Sir Henry had been in the habit of making a generous donation each year to local party funds (although I am not quite sure what the party spent it on) but Sally Davis tell us that this year the Fulham East Conservative Association wrote to Sir Henry to ask him to double his annual contribution. He wrote back on 23 November and not only said no, he resigned from the Fulham branch of the Conservative Party. The man who had been the Mayor of Fulham for longer than anyone else before or at any time since, and who had dedicated himself ceaselessly to keeping the Borough running through the war years, without a penny in payment, had clearly had enough.
Indeed so annoyed was Sir Henry over the matter that he even threatened at one time to stand in the constituency as an independent, but I doubt that he seriously intended to do this. He knew what life was like for those who went into elections without a party office behind them.
But now to skip back a couple of days, on 21 November, a second attempt was made to play the second replay of the London FA County Cup semi final this time at Clapton Orient’s ground. Just over 9000 turned up and again the match went to extra time after ending 0-0. Fortunately the fog stayed away and in the extra 30 minutes Arsenal took the match 2-1. Butler got the first and Henderson the winner – it was his first of the season.
Meanwhile, despite discussions continuing over the move towards the separation of Ireland from the UK fighting was still continuing in Belfast (which was due to remain as part of the Kingdom). On 21 November troops were sent in to restore order in East Belfast and as the violence spread at least ten people were killed the following day.
From here on we can see that Sir Henry and his wife Edith withdrew increasingly from their previously busy social calendar, undoubtedly at least in part because of his decision to resign from the local political party. This must have represented a huge change for the family, whose lives had been utterly bound up with the Fulham community and party politics for so long.
And there was not too much solace to be had from the football. The game on 26 November against Bolton was abandoned on 38 minutes once more due to the fog with Arsenal losing 0-1 at the time. Sally Davis also reports that the London FA Challenge Cup final was due to be played on 28 November and that was abandoned for the same reason, before kick off. In fact the game was left until 8 May – which seems a very long time to wait, but that’s what the records show.
At the end of the month the league table, with all matches played that could be played now totted up.
|21||West Bromwich Albion||16||4||3||9||14||25||0.560||11|
Chelsea and Tottenham had moved up the table and only one club would be overtaken if Arsenal won their game in hand, but generally speaking several clubs were going to have to slip back if Arsenal were to ease their way of the table.
Arsenal had eight matches scheduled for December including two against Blackburn, two against Cardiff and one against Chelsea. In other words five of the eight were “four pointers”. We’ll see how they got on next time
Here are the matches played in summary. “N” in the normal home/away column indicates a neutral ground.
|14/11/1921||Tottenham Hotspur (LFACC aban)||N||0-0||12,000|
|21/11/1921||Tottenham Hotspur (LFACC)||N||W||2-1||9,029|
|26/11/1921||Bolton Wanderers (aban)||H||0-0||15,000|
Three wins, one draw and two abandoned matches – unbeaten in November! It was quite an improvement.
We are currently evolving a series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal. The main part of the story is listed below in a chronological order. Below that you will find other articles on Henry Norris relating to specific issues.
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…
- April 1915: New revelations concerning perhaps the most important month in Arsenal’s history
- November / December 1915: the match fixing scandal comes to the fore: Norris is armed
The voting and the comments before and after the election
- The first suggestion that Arsenal could be elected to the 1st division.
- Arsenal in January 1919: rioting in the streets and the question of promotion
- What the media said about the election of Arsenal to the 1st division in 1919
- Arsenal prepare for the vote on who should be promoted to the First Division
- March 1919: The vote to extend the league and what the media said
- Why did the clubs vote for Arsenal rather than Tottenham in March 1919?
The Second Libel
The Third Allegation
The Fourth Allegation
Did Henry Norris really beg Leslie Knighton to stay and offer him the hugest bonus ever? And if so, why were there no new players?
- May/June 1921: Knighton the fantasist. The fourth allegation.
- Why did Arsenal manager Knighton turn down Man City but not buy players? Summer of 1921.
Here’s the year by year account. We’re adding two or three new articles a week.
The full index of all the articles from 1910 onwards is given here
And here are the earlier articles on 1921/2:
- Why did Arsenal manager Knighton turn down Man City but not buy players? Summer of 1921.
- The Arsenal collapse of autumn 1921: Knighton’s curious positional strategy
- When Arsenal hit rock bottom of the League. October 1921