Arsenal in the Southern Floodlight Challenge Cup (Southern Professional Floodlit Cup)

By Tony Attwood

The Southern Floodlight Challenge Cup (also known as Southern Professional Floodlit Cup, and to some as the Southern Professional Floodlight Cup) was won once by Arsenal – on 27 April 1959.

It was run from the 1955/56 season to 1959/60 but then in 1960 the competition was closed down and the Football League Cup came in its place.

The competition operated on a straight knockout basis with all ties being decided over single matches, but with replays if the first match ended in a draw.  The final was played on the home ground of one of one of the two teams – decided by drawing lots.

Arsenal did not compete in the first season of 1955/6 – in which 10 teams took place, but did join in the following season when there were 13 clubs in the competition:

Aldershot, Arsenal, Brentford, Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Luton Town, Millwall, Orient, Queens Park Rangers,Reading, Watford, West Ham United

So what made the competition kick off?

The fact was that at the time although many clubs – in all divisions – had floodlights, not every club had installed them.  Aston Villa for example, did not install floodlights until November 1958, and until this point, all their mid-week games were played in the afternoon.  This even included away games, where the League ruled that because Villa did not have floodlights on their own ground, they would be at a disadvantage of playing under them for away games!

There was no rule about playing the strongest team in the cup, and the clubs were free to put out a mix of first team and reserve players – although mostly it was first team players.

In 1956/7 Arsenal’s results were

  • Arsenal 4 Palace 0 (1st round)
  • West Ham 1 Arsenal 1 (2nd round)
  • Arsenal 3 West Ham 2 (replay)
  • Reading 2 Arsenal 1 (semi final)

In 1957/8 there were 16 clubs involved – including a fair smattering from London (Arsenal, Brentford, Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Millwall, Orient, Queens Park Rangers, West Ham United)   But no Tottenham.

For 1957/8 Arsenal’s results was

Brentford 4 Arsenal 1.

The same lineup of clubs appeared in 1958/9 – with Coventry added, but still no Tottenham.

  • Aldershot 2 Arsenal 3 (first round)
  • Brentford 1 Arsenal 2 (second round)
  • West Ham United 0  Arsenal 2 (semi-final)
  • Crystal Palace 1 Arsenal (final) 2 (27 April 1959)

Over 30,000 turned up to the final, and Mel Charles played, and scored.  But, there is a concern about the score.  The source I’ve used mostly (see below) gives the final as 0-2, but AFC history gives a newspaper cutting which has 1-2 – and indeed that cutting has details of the Palace scorer.  So I think 2-1 it was.

Arsenal played pretty much, but not entirely, their first team for these matches.  Here’s their side for the final:

Coe, Wills, McCullough, Docherty, Dodgin, Bowen, DR Clapton, Grove, Charles, Barnwell, Henderson.  Clapton and Charles got the goals.

The final season of 1959/60 had 18 clubs with Leicester and Southend joining in but Tottenham firmly staying out.

  • Arsenal 2-1 Portsmouth (2nd round)
  • Arsenal 4-2 Leicester City (3rd round)
  • Arsenal 1-3 West Ham United (semi-final).

The cup was wound up after the Football League Cup was initiated – but then Arsenal decided not to take part until 1966/7 as those who had not been part of the competition gradually drifted back.  (It is sometimes said Arsenal were ordered to take part in the League Cup but that is not the case).

The reason for being part of the Floodlit Cup but not the League Cup seems to have been two fold.  First, that the new cup was described by the founder  Football League President Joe Richards, as an interim step towards league re-organisation – which Arsenal opposed.  Second that the League Cup was open to clubs from across the country – whereas the Floodlit Cup was very much a London affair for most of the timee.

To give the context of this, there was much talk about declining crowds in the era, and while Arsenal v Tottenham in September 1960 got 60,088 into Highbury, other matches got far fewer.   Arsenal v Fulham on 3 April 1961 attracted only 20,142 for example.    Richards spoke of ‘cutting down the number of clubs in each division… and even given more consideration to the system of four up and four down’.  Arsenal, a very conservative club at the time, wanted none of that.

The Times on May 30, 1960 published an article which said, “Where a drastic reduction is required in an attempt to raise quality, no doubt quantity and a further spread of mediocrity will be the dose. Where men like Count Bernabeu with his wider horizons, think in terms of a European-league for the future in which a lead could surely now be given jointly by our leaders, the Football League propose next season to implement their useless Football League Cup to be played in midweek. It gets the players, the clubs and the public nowhere.”

In all 16 clubs opposed the Football League Cup and in one sense they were right so to do: the average attendance across the League Cup in its first season was 10,556, fractionally higher tan the average in the Third Division.

Alan Hardaker then threatened Uefa to the effect that the League would pull out of the Fairs Cup unless Uefa gave the League Cup winners a place in the competition.  Uefa caved in and the clubs that had boycotted the competition began to drift back in, with the promise of a European competition as the reward.

By 1968/9 season only Manchester United refrained from being in the competition on a regular basis although Everton opted out in 1970–71.  In 1971/2 all clubs were forced to take part – by which time Arsenal had already been to the final twice, and lost.  To Leeds first, and then Swindon.  We didn’t return until 1987 when we won it by beating Liverpool.

Very many thanks to Football Club History Database for providing the information on the Floodlit Cup.




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