Exploding the myth that Knighton could spend no money, and Chapman could spend anything.

Ordinary is Pointless

by Tony Attwood

The story of Arsenal’s post-first-world-war era is that Sir Henry Norris refused to allow Leslie Knighton to buy players, but allowed Chapman to buy anyone he wanted.  That at least is how it is generally reported – not least because a lot of Knighton’s autobiography (the only real source that we have from the era) is a justification of Knighton’s time at Arsenal, and contains such allegations.

I want to ask if this was true – did Norris have a total change of heart when he got rid of Knighton and brought in Chapman?  Or was there perhaps something else going on.

There are three points to consider here.

First, Knighton’s period in charge came after the first world war where players were often unknown, unproven, or returning from an experience that could have injured them mentally and/or physically.  To spend money in 1919 on the basis of what a player was like in 1915 made little sense.

Second, Arsenal had a debt crisis from the building of the Gillespie Road ground in 1913, extremely modest crowds in 1914/15 during the first year of the war, and then closure.   Sir Henry obviously did need to keep money under control during those first few years to ensure the club survived.

Third, Knighton had no proven track record as a man who could spot a great player.  Chapman was of course the opposite.  So it would be logical to keep Knighton on a tight leash.  However the story that Knighton was limited to £1000 maximum transfer was untrue, as the transfer records show.  But equally we must remember that between February 1914 and February 1922 the transfer record stayed at £2500.

In effect  if Knighton was told anything it was to keep the top level of Arsenal transfers at something around half the world record.  To put that in context, today that would mean “no transfers over £40m” – quite probably a restriction that Mr Wenger has.

But there is more – and this might be the key issue with regards to transfers.  In late 1924, Syd Hoar – a winger joined Arsenal from Luton of the Third Division South for £3,000 – over half of the then British transfer record.

This makes a mockery of Knighton’s self-proclaimed limitation on transfers – and it is this transfer that might be the real explanation as to why Sir Henry made his quip about not wanting a manager who thinks that he can sort out a club by paying transfer money.

Knighton in short was not limited to £1000 transfers.  He condemned himself by his failure to raise the club, and by spending the club record fee on a player who made only a modest impact on the team.

So what really what happened when Knighton went and Chapman came in.

If we look at some of the players on the Arsenal books at this time (by which I mean the last two years of Knighton and first two of Chapman, with players selected  who made in one season or another a decent number of appearances) we get some interesting results.

Player Games 1923/4 Games 1924/5 Games 1925/6 Games 1926/7
  Knighton Knighton Chapman Chapman
Baker 21 32 31 23
Blyth 27 17 40 33
Brain 28 41 37
Buchan * 39 33
Butler 24 39 41 31
Cope* 11
Haden 31 15 25 17
Harper* 19 23
Hoar 19 21 16
Hulme * 15 37
John 15 39 29 41
Kennedy 29 40 16 11
Lambert* 16
Lewis 16 14 17
Mackie 31 19 35
Milne 36 32 5 6
Neil 11 16 27
Parker* 7 42
Paterson 21 1
Ramsey 11 30 16 12
Roberts* 2
Robson 42 26 9
Seddon 1 17
Woods 36 32 2

* Players brought into the club by Herbert Chapman

The first thing that is clear is that Chapman did not go in for wholesale changes.  The regular core of his team was made up of the players that Knighton levft behind.

Now lets look at those players brought in by Chapman

Player Games 1923/4 Games 1924/5 Games 1925/6 Games 1926/7
  Knighton Knighton Chapman Chapman
Buchan * 39 33
Cope* 11
Harper* 19 23
Hulme * 15 37
Lambert* 16
Parker* 7 42
Roberts* 2

Four of these players came in, in the first season and played a total of 80 games between them in that season.  There were 42 league games a season, and obviously 11 players on the pitch, so that makes 462 “player-games” per season.  Chapman had new men in for 80 of those, or 17%.  In short in his first season he changed 17% of the team – which makes the achievement of getting from just missing relegation to reaching the heights of 2nd all the more remarkable.

So how much did the transfers cost?

In this table we see at the top the transfer record of the period – it changed in 1925 and 1928.

  Joined Transfer From
Record….. 1925: £6500 1928: £10890
Buchan 1925 £2000 + £100 = £4100 Sunderland
Cope 1926 ? (modest) Notts C
Harper 1925 £4000 Hibs
Hulme 1926 £3500 Blackburn
Lambert 1926 £2000 Leeds
Parker 1926 £3250 Southampton
Roberts 1927 £200 Oswestry

The Buchan transfer is famous for its oddity.  Chapman was bringing in a player who was 33 years old, and as a way of settling the fee it was agreed Arsenal would pay £2000 plus £100 per goal.  Clearly no one at Arsenal expected the 21 goals which took the price to £100 over what Sunderland had demanded in the first place.

The one other transfer early on was Willie Harper who played his first game in goal in November 1925 at which time Arsenal were in the utterly unexpected position of 2nd in the First Division.

Arsenal had already used two keepers and had suffered the 0-7 defeat (after which, it is said, the WM line up system was introduced) and had also suffered a 0-4 defeat to Sheffield United (which suggested that they hadn’t always got the system right yet).   But they were second.

In short, the demand for another £4000 for a keeper has to be seen in this context.

The third big transfer of the first season – Hulme – can be seen in the context of a player already mentioned: Syd Hoar.   Joe Hulme, cost much the same as Syd Hoar, but was a tremendous success.  He played his first match on 6 February 1926 and remained first choice until 1933 – playing 333 league games for the club.

Thus we can see the truth which is nothing like the story that has been paraded all these years.  Sir Henry did allow Knighton to buy players – but the fact was that Knighton was not very good at it, and cost the club money it didn’t have.  The page after page of reference in the ceaselessly quoted Knight auto-biography about how he brought the club out of debt carefully ignores the Syd Hoar transfer and we are left with the impression that Sir Henry suddenly changed his mind about player transfers.

In essence we can see the Chapman worked miracles with the team he inherited, and his purchases were extremely well planned.    This is not the story that is normally told.


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4 Replies to “Exploding the myth that Knighton could spend no money, and Chapman could spend anything.”

  1. Tony you prompted me to see for myself. I looked at Knighton’s last team sheet and Chapman’s first team sheet. My source ‘the Official History..’ . I found that Roberts, Makie, Butler, John, Hoar, Ramsey and Brain (Brain actually missed the first game. I presume through injury as he was a regular from the 2nd game on. Were all key players for Chapman.

    Two of them, Robert’s and John played in that 4th round cup replay in 1929 (5 seasons later) against Birmingham in which Alec James was ‘dramatically brought back’. Knighton was the manager of Birmingham. They came 6th that season a height they didn’t reach again until 1956.

    It would be interesting to know what Knighton wrote about his time at Birmingham.

  2. Colario, I read the book by Knighton recently, and he doesn’t really go into detail about Birmingham as he did about ARsenal. But one thing of note is that his record with Chelsea was the same as with Arsenal overall. Almost identical.

    There’s more on Knighton and the whole period in the new AISA Arsenal History booklet which is out in a couple of weeks. Every member of AISA (www.aisa.org) will get one free.


  3. At Tony, may be others have written on Birmingham at the time he was there.
    Your note about his time Chelsea his interesting. I wonder if there other managers that have managed both Arsenal and Chelski.

    There is ‘nothing stange in football’ so they keep telling us but I do find it strange that three former Arsenal players have become manager of Spuds and just one of their ex players (Herbert Chapman) manager of Arsenal.

    I supoose a man has got to go where a man has got to go!

  4. colario

    No one else has managed Arsenal and Chelsea (there have been plenty who have played for one or both teams and managed one of them, e.g. Ted Drake, George Graham, John Hollins).

    Tottenham have had 4 former Arsenal players manage them: Billy Minter, Joe Hulme, Terry Neill and George Graham. On top of this two former Arsenal players have been caretaker manager – Wally Hardinge and Clive Allen.

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