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October 1923: Arsenal learn variable tactics as the vultures circle over Henry Norris

By Tony Attwood

For Arsenal the month of October 1923 began with a game against Manchester City at Maine Road on the 6th.

The League table printed in the programme for the game showed both clubs as needing to win to rise up the league and find safety althoughwith City in a slightly worse position than Arsenal…

Pos Team P W D L F A G.AV Pts
15 Arsenal 8 3 1 4 8 11 0.727 7
16 Chelsea 8 2 3 3 4 6 0.667 7
17 West Ham United 8 2 3 3 4 7 0.571 7
18 Birmingham City 9 2 3 4 8 15 0.533 7
19 Burnley 8 1 4 3 11 13 0.846 6
20 Manchester City 8 2 2 4 10 15 0.667 6
21 Middlesbrough 8 1 1 6 6 10 0.600 3
22 Preston North End 8 0 2 6 7 22 0.318 2

But of the six points City had gained five had been at home.  On the other hand five of Arsenal’s seven points had been gained away.  It looked to be a tight match, and indeed it was, with City winning by the single goal of the game scored in the second half.  Whittaker played at left back in place of Kennedy.

The following Friday, 12 October, the Arsenal squad, Harry John Peters and Leslie Knighton from the club’s management, and the Arsenal directors were at the Alhambra Theatre, in Charing Cross Road.  They had been invited by the management of the Alhambra to a special showing of a movie by the Regent Film Company which contained footage of Arsenal playing a match.   It made the players feel good to see such a novelty I am sure, and it got excellent coverage in the local press.  Arsenal were now being portrayed as the team of today’s new technology.

The following day, 13 October, Arsenal played their next league game; a game the Times described as “tame”.  The result was Arsenal 1 Manchester City 2 with City playing an offside trap and a counter-attacking game that thus far had not been common in the first division.

In this match Dr Paterson came in for his first game of the season, as always at outside left, but Bob John was missing and this certainly had an effect.   Arsenal’s defeat meant  that after their run of three wins they had now scored one goal and got one point in the last three games.

Meanwhile away from the football, during this period, the BBC continued to open its radio stations across the country, with new stations springing up everywhere from Aberdeen to Bourrnemouth.

The next match for Arsenal was on 20 October with Arsenal away to high flying Bolton.  Those recent results seen above had sent the club tipping downwards and they were now 20th (out of 22).  Thus they were not in the relegation places, and indeed were two points above Middlesbrough in 21st, but still in a difficult position.  Bolton on the other hand were thus far undefeated at home.

But the increasing mention of tactics in the newspaper reports reflected the growing awareness that by changing tactics for an individual match to outmanoeuvre the opposition (as Manchester City had done) the opposition could be taken by surprise – remembering of course that the most information the opposition would have would be last week’s newspaper report and possibly some thoughts by their own scout going to watch next week’s opposition – if the club thought of sending a scout to watch the match.

So another reason to develop two different styles of playing was to counter the report of the scout.  Such thinking was incredibly sophisticated for football, but I think there are signs that this was happening.  Having two different ways of playing beyond the simple “attack at home, defend away” approach and this was a revolutionary move.

To see just how revolutionary this was, we can look at the league table for 1921/22.  In that year not a single club scored more goals away from home than they conceded – not even the champions, Liverpool.  Only two clubs, the top two, won more away games than they lost.

This pattern of expecting to be beaten away and so putting out the same team but playing in a more defensive way was the order of the day and this continued for most sides until the 1960s.  But from the 1920s on individual teams began to experiment with a modification of tactics – as with the Manchester City offside game.  (Indeed it was the growing popularity of playing the off-side game, and the fans utter dislike of the tactic, that led to the change in the offside rules in 1925, which we shall come to shortly.

Although obviously we can’t say exactly what the source of Arsenal’s inspiration was here, the fact is that in October 1923 Arsenal appear to have played the offside game themselves as Manchester City had done the week before, and it worked; surprisingly Arsenal won 2-1 away from home to Bolton.  Bolton were third in the league and unbeaten at home so far in the season.  Arsenal were 20th in the league and had won one and lost four away from home.

According to reports of the day the Bolton crowd got so fed up with Arsenal’s tactics and their team’s inability to overcome them and started chucking cinders from the track between the crowd and the pitch at Arsenal’s goal-keeper in front of them.  The referee stopped the game and warned the crowd that he would abandon the match if this continued.  The crowd, by and large stopped.  Woods and Rutherford got the goals; Townrow played his first game of the season at inside right and Young his first match since the opening day of the season.  Arsenal moved up to 17th.

The following Monday Arsenal played their first match of the season in the London FA County Cup: a home game against non-league Tufnell Park, which Arsenal won 4-0.  Interestingly despite the lowly level of the club, there was only one change from saturday’s game – Dr Paterson dropped out and was replaced by Haden.  Young got a hattrick and Woods the other goal.

Post war Tufnell Park had joined the highly rated Isthmian League and reached the final of the prestigious Amateur Cup in 1919–20.  Then in 1921–22 they reached the sixth qualifying round of the FA Cup, and in 1923–24 the club won the London Senior Cup for the second time.

However there were also off the pitch matters to contend with.  It was around this time that the enquiry into the Harry White affair began. as the League settled down to investigate this case.

The allegation was that Sir Henry Norris had given Harry White a financial inducement to play, in addition to his salary – this being the era of a maximum wage beyond which no players were allowed to be paid anything other than particularly specific sums, such as a limited amount from a testimonial game.

As a result of the enquiry Sir Henry was censured by the League for offering an illegal payment.   It was not clear from the findings which other directors of the club knew about the inducement and when.  However Charles Crisp left the board of directors after this, and it may have been because of this affair.

Towards the end of October 1923, as a result of this censure by the league Sir Henry tendered his resignation from the Arsenal board of directors.  It appears that the board refused the resignation and passed a vote of confidence in its chairman.  Undoubtedly one of the issues that would have affected the board was the fact that the negotiations to buy Highbury from St John’s College were ongoing, and Sir Henry had proven himself to be the master of land and building arrangements, having conducted so many of them with his own company.

We should also remember that Sir Henry, as chairman of Fulham, had masterfully arranged the re-building of one of their stands in 1905 and defeated a legal challenged from the local council over his plans, and of course had engineered the entire move of Arsenal from Plumstead to Highbury in 1913, seeing off the opposition of Tottenham and Clapton in the process.

Sir Henry also offered to resign from being chairman of the London FA, and this was accepted “with regret”.  Morton Cadman of Tottenham Hotspur became president.

But it was the newspapers who really led the attack gaining revenge for the commentary Sir Henry had made at Jock Rutherford’s farewell dinner on 4 August, which the Islington Gazette correspondent “Norseman” stated was an occasion in which “Norris had caused great offence to pressmen who were amongst the guests, by strongly criticising what they wrote.”

Sir Henry had experienced this before: during the war year the local Fulham newspaper, as we have seen, was vitriolic in its condemnation of all his actions as Mayor, holding him personally responsible for each and every fault they found with wartime life in the borough.

But even in such a maelstrom some still offered their support.  Athletic News was more measured in its tone and even Arthur Bourke who wrote the Norseman column in the Islington Daily Gazette retreated a little on 29 October when he described Sir Henry as “this gallant gentleman and sportsman.”   He did however point out that Sir Henry had brought much of this on himself by saying, “unkind things of the Press”.

However what I don’t know – and I can’t find any reports that help me in this, is just how commonplace payments outside of the strict regulation of the players’ salaries were.  As we have noted several times Sir Henry was one of the few chairmen who stood out against the maximum wage for players, arguing that they, like everyone else in society, should be free to earn whatever they could negotiate from their employers.

Other chairmen who did not share Sir Henry’s views on such matters loved the fact that they could employ the best players around, and in essence own them heart and soul.  The players could not leave unless the club agreed to release them (through the Retain and Transfer regulations) and their inducement to leave was limited by the knowledge that they could not earn more money elsewhere.

My suspicion is that every club was finding ways around this.  After all, if a club wanted to buy a player they might well be able to outbid a rival over the transfer fee, but by way of inducement for the player to leave his home town and travel to somewhere he didn’t know, resettle his family (who had also just left their roots) all for… well nothing in terms of finance… was hard going.

All the top players were on the maximum wage, so clubs needed to find another inducement, and they did.  There are reports of players have afternoon jobs (there being only training in the morning) but we have to remember this was the days of the cash economy.  Everyone paid cash to enter the ground, the total number in the ground was always an estimate, and if a player went and stood in a shop occasionally as a way of getting fans to come in and buy their newspapers and tobacco from there, as opposed to another store, who was to know the route of the money that ended up in the player’s pocket for this work?

So if fiddling the regulations was commonplace, as I believe it was, why was Sir Henry singled out?

As we have seen, Sir Henry had a forthright personality which allowed him to get things done with nothing standing in his way (the rescue of Arsenal in 1910, the move to Highbury in 1913 despite the objections of Tottenham and Orient, and later the arrival of Chapman.  That does not mean he was a rule-breaker, but it means he might well have been.

And we have two other factors to add here.  First this was an era of rule-breaking.  The Leeds City scandal in which the club was found guilty of paying players during the war is a case in point.  I have found several articles that suggest that such payments were commonplace, although none points a finger at anyone in particular.  Leeds certainly thought that they could get away with simply refusing to hand over their records.

As we have noted they were thrown out of the League, but then the very next season, as a reformed club (Leeds United) at the same ground and with the same board of directors they were readmitted.  And not just readmitted to the Football League by joining its bottom division (which in 1923 was the Third Division) but by being gifted a place in the Second Division!

Finally Sir Henry never seemed to mind that he was making enemies.  The closest he had come to being in serious trouble with the League was in 1913 when he made his allegations in his newspaper column that Liverpool were engaged in match fixing.  On that occasion the League didn’t thank him for exposing corruption, they warned him that if he repeated such accusations he would be expelled as a director.   Two years later the Liverpool / Manchester United match fixing scandal exploded and he was vindicated.

My suspicion, and it can be no more than that since I know of no one who has done a study of football men who transgressed the laws, was that Sir Henry was doing little that was not being done elsewhere.  The difference was that he was a most public figure, and absolutely not a man to keep a low profile.  He made enemies, particularly in the press, and among the upper classes who resented his rise in the War Office for being a mere “bureaucrat”  and they were starting to circle.

But there is another point as well.  As we have seen in the post war years, Sir Henry had been very ill, and this being the era before penicillin and antibiotics, the prime remedy for the well-to-do was to head south to warmer climes, and hope that this, plus perhaps a more Mediterranean diet would aid recovery.

We have no records as to how Sir Henry was feeling, but he had had built a house in the south of France, and he had his fortune.  He had rescued Arsenal, the most famous club in the south, and indeed one of the most famous clubs in the land, from oblivion and undertaken the most famous move of a club in the history of football.   He had risen from being a 14 year old leaving school without qualification, working as a clerk in the City of London, to being extremely wealthy,  being elected to Parliament, being the longest serving Mayor Fulham ever had, to having been granted a knighthood and been made a colonel.

I am not trying to excuse his behaviour in breaking rules and riding roughshod over regulations, but I think one might argue that by this stage in his life he really wasn’t too bothered by regulations.

Meanwhile there was football to be played and the last game of the month was the return game with Bolton on 27 October which ended in a goalless draw.  Not surprisingly Arsenal kept the same team as the one that had surprised Bolton the week before, but Bolton themselves seem to have caught onto the idea of changing their tactics.  Prior to the game they had drawn four of their seven away games more matches than any other team in the First Division, scoring eight and conceding seven.  One might have put money on a 1-1 draw and lost the bet, but a draw always looked likely.

Here are the games for the month.

Date Opposition H/A Res Score Crowd
06/10/1923 Manchester City A L 0-1 23,477
13/10/1923 Manchester City H L 1-2 32,000
20/10/1923 Bolton Wanderers A W 2-1 20,000
22/10/1923 Tufnell Park (LFACC 1) H W 4-0 4,000
27/10/1923 Bolton Wanderers H D 0-0 30,000

And the league table for the end of October…

Pos Team P W D L F A GAv Pts
1 Huddersfield Town 12 7 3 2 17 7 2.429 17
2 Cardiff City 12 6 5 1 18 12 1.500 17
3 Aston Villa 14 5 6 3 19 13 1.462 16
4 Notts County 12 6 4 2 14 11 1.273 16
5 Everton 14 5 6 3 18 15 1.200 16
6 Bolton Wanderers 14 4 7 3 19 14 1.357 15
7 Sheffield United 12 5 4 3 19 14 1.357 14
8 Sunderland 13 5 4 4 17 16 1.063 14
9 Manchester City 12 6 2 4 17 17 1.000 14
10 Blackburn Rovers 12 5 3 4 21 14 1.500 13
11 Liverpool 12 6 1 5 18 14 1.286 13
12 Newcastle United 13 5 3 5 16 14 1.143 13
13 West Ham United 12 4 5 3 7 7 1.000 13
14 Tottenham Hotspur 12 4 4 4 11 12 0.917 12
15 West Bromwich Albion 12 4 4 4 16 19 0.842 12
16 Nottingham Forest 12 4 2 6 18 21 0.857 10
17 Arsenal 12 4 2 6 11 15 0.733 10
18 Burnley 12 2 5 5 16 18 0.889 9
19 Chelsea 13 2 5 6 6 13 0.462 9
20 Birmingham City 13 2 4 7 10 22 0.455 8
21 Middlesbrough 12 3 1 8 15 18 0.833 7
22 Preston North End 12 1 4 7 12 29 0.414 6

And if I may now return to an earlier topic – that of home and away tactics – anyone studying the form in detail would have seen that top of the table Huddersfield (now managed by Herbert Chapman) actually had a far better away record than home record by the end of the month.  It was, for this era, a very strange state of affairs, but was one that in due course Arsenal would find rather more familiar.


We are currently evolving a series on Henry Norris at the Arsenal.   The full index to all the articles is here.   This index is updated as each new article is published.

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, is set out below in these articles.

After that there is a complete index of all the articles in the series in chronological order.

The preliminaries

The voting and the comments before and after the election

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?

The Fifth Story:

The Sixth Allegation

The Seventh Allegation

The AISA Arsenal History Society is part of the work of the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association.  If you want to join AISA contact them at membership@aisa.org

Alternatively you can join their new campaigns list and receive information on AISA’s work and campaigns by emailing campaigns@aisa.org

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