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Arsenal's managers: the names now forgotten. Phil Kelso

Phil Kelso (26 May 1871 – 13 February 1935), was born near the Firth of Clyde he was part of Arsenal’s early Scottish tradition, as befits a club set up by the Scottish employees of the armaments factory.

Although now forgotten at Arsenal he was one of the great innovators, paving the way for the major changes of Chapman and Wenger in subsequent centuries. He was Mr Transformation of the club in the Woolwich days.

He did not play professional football, and came to the game as an administrator.   But nevertheless he introduced the notion of professionalism to Arsenal, insisting that players live locally, didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and got together for matches a day or two before.  Indeed there are reports (which I can’t find confirmed) that say that he actually took players away from the whole week, prior to big games.

Kelso was manager of Hibernian before coming south and taking over Woolwich Arsenal immediately after their promotion to the first division for the first time in 1904 at the age of 33.  He was manager for four years and his greatest triumph, apart from keeping the club in the first division (which was big enough in itself), was to break out of the rut of early exits from the FA Cup.  For two years running he got Arsenal to the semi-finals – a feat that put the remote Kent based club on the footballing map.

While Kelso was a firm manager of men, he was seemingly not a man to cope with managing a club in financial difficulty (or maybe he just didn’t agree with the approach), and when the troubles that were to bring about the demise of the club in 1910 started to hit, he resigned (seemingly before the end of the season) and went back to Scotland – ostensibly to run a hotel.

But that only lasted one year, as Fulham brought him back to London a year later, subsequent to the death of their manager Bradshaw.  Kelso stayed with Fulham to become their longest serving manager.

Phil Kelso took over Fulham in May 1909, with the Norris era of Fulham at its height, and lasted until the end of the 1923-4 season.

On Bradshaw’s departure, Kelso was persuaded back into football and back into London. He had to contend with a series of financial problems and an attempt by his former Fulham chairman, Henry Norris, to merge the Cottagers with his former club, Arsenal, where Norris was in charge.

Having kept Arsenal up, he did the same at Fulham, keeping them in the  Second Division (and avoiding the drop back into the Southern League) throughout his years in the club.

Kelso’s last years saw him involved in the Barney Travers bribery scandal.  Barney Travers, the Fulham centre-forward, was banned for life for allegedly being involved in the fixing of the  South Shields v Fulham match. He had joined Fulham in 1921 from Sunderland having in three seasons he had scored 52 goals in 104 matches for Sunderland.  His transfer to Fulham was for £3,000, equalling the British record transfer fee at the time.

Travers scored 28 goals in 45 appearances for Fulham, but was banned for life by the FA in April 1922 after it was alleged that he had offered a bribe to a South Shields player to ’throw’ a Second Division match at Horsley Hill.

Although Travers admitted he had travelled to the north east of England three days before the game, that was not unusual given that he had so many friends in the area.  Also, although he was charged on his own, it was hard to see how any match could be fixed by just one person.  There were stories at Phil Kelso was involved but he was not charged.

The match was crucial, in that both Fulham and South Shields were challenging for promotion to Division One.  South Shields won 1-0.

Following its usual approach the FA held the enquiry in secret, so that justice could not be seen to be done, and Travers brilliant career was forcibly ended.  He was pardoned by the FA in 1945, at the age of 50, but no announcement was ever made about the involvement of other players or of Fulham FC.

Kelso finally left football through his own choice at 53, but became landlord of The Grove in Hammersmith and then the Rising Sun in the Fulham Road. He was also for a while chairman of the Football League Managers and Secretaries association. He is buried in Sheen Cemetery.

His departure from Arsenal led to the gradual decline of the club which culminated first in bankruptcy and secondly in relegation.  His departure from his long term spell at Fulham led to five managers and two caretakers in 11 years.

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Also in this series on Arsenal’s managers:

George Morrellthe man who relegated Arsenal

Woolwich Arsenal Index

Untold Arsenal Index

Making the Arsenal – the story of 1910

2 comments to Arsenal’s managers. So what did Phil Kelso do for us?

  • One of the things that intrigued me was the fact that George Morrell started the day after Phil Kelso left. How did Arsenal have a replacement ready so soon? Even more so that this happened during the season.

    I’ve found out that Kelso offered his resignation to the board in December 1906 but withdrew it in January 1907 after a certain amount of faffing around by the board. His contract stipulated that had to give three month’s notice.

    My guess is that he offered his resignation once again in November 1907 and this was accepted. This gave the board 3 months to find a successor (i.e. Morrell) and they could give him a definite start date.

    According to a report in the Kentish Independent, Kelso was employed by the club until 15 February 1908 so there was an overlap with Morrell. However, Morrell was in control of the team from 10 February.

  • Elcoat handed in his notice (for the second time) at the end of October 1907. The Kentish Independent reported this in its 1 November 1907 edition. The paper had speculated earlier in the season that he would leave but Kelso denied this.

    Arsenal had around 60 applicants for the job.

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