By Tony Attwood
As footballing ideas go, this one looks to have been just about the craziest of all time. To have a tour of Scotland immediately after the Football League season had finished, and end up playing nine games in ten days, is, well, bizarre.
But that is what happened, and the games are listed in the record books. However the question that has not been tackled is “why”. Why do it?
In this article I offer an answer to that puzzling question – but first, let’s take a look at the games themselves.
The 1907/8 season ended on 20 April 1908 with a 1-1 home draw to Sheffield Wednesday. The team for that final match was
Bigden Sands McEachrane
Mordue Lewis Lee Hoare Neave
The following day Arsenal played Heart of Midlothian, in Edinburgh, and not surprisingly lost 3-1. We don’t have the full team for that match but we know that Gray, Mordue and Neave were certainly playing. The crowd was 3000.
On the next day, 22 April, Arsenal played again and lost 0-1 against Raith. Here the team was
Bassett Theobald Low
Neave McLean C Satterthwaite Lewis McLaren
Now there clearly were some changes in the team from the last league game of the season, so they were not making all the players play every day, but poor Neave appears to have ratcheted up three games in three days.
So the tour continued (with the crowd size where we have it, in brackets).
- 23 April: Aberdeen 1 Woolwich Arsenal 1 (4000)
- 25 April: Dundee 2 Woolwich Arsenal 1
- 27 April: Motherwell 1 Woolwich Arsenal 1 (1500)
- 28 April: Rangers 1 Woolwich Arsenal 1 (2000)
- 29 April: Greenock Morton 1 Woolwich Arsenal 0 (3000)
- 30 April: Kilmarnock 1 Woolwich Arsenal 2 (2000)
Sadly we don’t have the team sheets for each game, but there are four games where we have pretty much the whole team, and we can see that, for example, Ashcroft, Theobald, Low, and David Neave all played in at least four of the games on the tour.
However we also know that some relief was provided through the use of guest players – in the match against Rangers for example Stirling (of Clydebank) and Hastie (of Ashfield) played for Woolwich Arsenal.
And this might give us a bit of a clue as to what was going on. Were Arsenal on tour recruiting new players? It certainly is possible, for the crowds that we know about were not up to much, as shown above. (This was an era in which Arsenal normally pulled in 10,000 to 20,000 crowds for home games – and indeed 30,000 turned up for the home game with Chelsea in March).
Friendly matches were commonplace at the time, and in fact in the 1895/6 season in addition to a full league programme Arsenal squeezed in 48 friendly games between 9 September 1895 and 29 April 1896. They were quite simply a way of getting in some extra cash. Even a crowd of 2000 was worth playing in front of, when the alternative was no income at all.
And perhaps one other clue as to the thinking of those managing the club’s finances was that at the end of the previous season (1906/7) Arsenal undertook their first overseas tour, taking in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary.
This gave them eight games in 15 days, and presumably the management of the club thought that without all the country to country touring, the players could play more than that when in Scotland.
So there’s a question of money. But were Arsenal really so short of cash that they would take the squad on this tour, playing match after match, day after day?
In fact there is another issue that needs to be considered. In 1906 Jack Humble, the man who had held the club together from the very start, who had played for Royal Arsenal, and who had been the first chairman of Woolwich Arsenal in 1893, resigned from the board for family reasons, and over the next couple of years the rest of the board changed.
At the same time the club shifted its policy, as concern grew about the growing debt of the club. The club’s prime benefactor, George Leavey was showing signs of not wishing to bankroll the club any more (he was a successful shop-keeper, not a member of the landed gentry), and clearly money was the problem.
And without the stabilising hand of Jack Humble the club started to lose its way.
In fact life for Woolwich Arsenal between 1906 and 1910 was one constant struggle, and the club tried all sorts of ideas to try and balance the books, including selling off their star players while attempting to develop a policy of bringing in new young players from the region and then selling them too on to league clubs in the north.
But all these policy changes failed and by the summer of 1910 Woolwich Arsenal were unable to carry on.
Indeed it was only the intervention at this point of Henry Norris (just plain Mr at this time, his knighthood and military rank being gained in the first world war) that saved the club, and eventually transformed Woolwich Arsenal into The Arsenal, and finally Arsenal, playing at Highbury.
So the explanation for this extraordinary expedition to Scotland seems to be money pure and simple. The club had tried an overseas tour, and thought they could replicate the success of that without the cost of the travel, by playing in Scotland.
As an idea it wasn’t really one of the best, and it wasn’t repeated in future seasons. But it remains a monument to a club that was willing to try anything to make ends meet.