By Tony Attwood
This article was updated 19 August 2020.
During the inter-war period many first division clubs hit on the idea of taking over non-league sides and running them as “Nurseries”. Perhaps by coincidence or perhaps as a result of some copycat activities, all three of the north London teams in the 1930s had nursery clubs in Kent. Tottenham were linked with Northfleet United, Clapton Orient with Ashford and most famously, Arsenal with Margate.
At this time the school leaving age was 14, but the youngest a man could be signed as a full time pro was 17. This meant that clubs either had to take youngsters onto the groundstaff (something many of the lads didn’t fancy) or risk losing them to other jobs. The nursery club was an ideal arena in which the youngster could train as an amateur and have his development monitored while working elsewhere.
Quite why Arsenal chose Margate is not known. It might have been a nod in the direction of Arsenal’s 19th century origins in Kent, although we might also note that it was also the place where manager George Allison’s daughter attended a local school.
As Major Sir Samuel Hill-Wood was quoted as saying in the Isle of Thanet Gazette in 1934: “In the past we have suffered very much because we have been unable to take likely boys of eighteen or nineteen found by our scouts. We could not play them. Perhaps unfortunately our second team is at the head of the London Combination year after year, and we dare not experiment with the team. It would only offend players hoping to get their Combination medal. What we wanted was some club willing and good enough to teach our young players for us. We can and do find lots of promising young boys but they must have somewhere to play and be taught.”
But let’s go back to the start and trace the history.
The first link I have found between Arsenal and Margate dates from the summer of 1930 when Gerard Keizer was signed from non-league Margate, and immediately thrust into the first division side where he stayed for 12 games, of which we won 8, drew 3 and lost 1.
Keizer was Dutch. He had joined Ajax aged 16 and by the time he was 20 he was their reserve keeper. In fact Keizer was registered with two clubs (allowable since he was an amateur and the clubs were in different countries). Apparently he would fly back to the Netherlands on Saturday nights to play for Ajax on Sundays although quite what a player who was capable of keeping goal for Arsenal was doing playing for Margate, is a little hard to fathom.
The next connection comes in 1933 when ex-Arsenal striker Reg Tricker moved to Margate. After that in June 1934 Margate and Arsenal reached an agreement through which Arsenal would loan promising players to Margate for them to get some experience playing competitive matches.
Arsenal provided the manager (Jimmy Ramsay) and the chief coach (Willie Arbuckle) and chief scout for the club and paid 60% of the wages. Margate Town Council meanwhile spent significant funds improving the ground, (undoubtedly seeing the publicity as a way of promoting Margate as a holiday and day trip resort). Arsenal also explained the situation by saying that with the club winning the Football Combination each season, and players there valuing their championship medal, it would be unfair on those reserve players to find their chances of a medal being reduced by having youngsters given a run out – so instead the youngsters would go to Margate.
Reg Lewis is perhaps the most famous player to have made his name there, while Mal Griffiths and Horace Cumner also came through the ranks and later played for their countries. Eddie Hapgood was among many who played for Margate while recovering from injury.
In addition Arsenal either loaned or transferred Charlie Preedy and Jack Lambert to the club to help bolster the team and provide training support. Jack Lambert then went on to be manager of the club and was certainly in that position by 1936. By that time Horace Cumner and Mal Griffiths who both became Welsh internationals, were in the team. Cliff Bastin and Eddie Hapgood also trained there while recovering from injuries.
However after Ashford played Clapton Orient in the FA Cup in 1934/5 season protests about match fixing were made and the FA eventually banned linked clubs from entering the Cup from 1937 onwards.
This decision caused a major problem for Margate. On the pitch they were a huge success winning almost every competition they entered. They even reached the third round of the FA Cup one year before losing to first division Blackpool. But in terms of league games they always lost money. In fact a good Cup run was Margate’s only hope of financial survival and without it, the club was doomed.
So it was that also in 1937 Arsenal announced they would be pulling out of the arrangement as it was costing them too much money. Margate left the Southern League and returned to the Kent League and at the end of the 1937/8 season the arrangement was ended, just as Herbie Roberts was about to become Margate’s trainer.
True, for the friendly against Boulogne in January 1938 Margate took 800 supporters with them. But the average home crowd about that time was 2,000, and that just wasn’t enough through the turnstile each week for the run of the mill matches.
When the Cup ban came into being the partnership ended and Arsenal entered their own A team in the Southern League, playing at Enfield.
The last major connection between the two clubs came in 1989 when Arsenal played a friendly at Margate to celebrate 60 years of football at Hartsdown Park
Some nursery clubs did continue into the 1950s although most league clubs subsequently followed the Arsenal model of creating an “A” and “B” team as a home for their up and coming talent.
Much of the information here has been taken from the excellent history of Margate club which is available here.
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