James Devlin has always been at best a footnote in the history of Arsenal, playing just one game for the club.
But as always when one looks behind the scenes there is a little more to be revealed and it is rather an interesting tale.
But there is mystery even as to his place and date of birth. Dean Hayes in Arsenal The Football Facts has him born in Bellshill on 10 January 1904. Bellshill looks as if it may be right – a town in Lanarkshire ten miles south east of Glasgow but the date must be wrong as we have his main footballing activity at the end of the 19th century.
It is possible that Devlin had a tragically short life and this is actually his date of birth, but for the moment, I have to leave both ends of his mysterious life, a blank.
We also know nothing of his life outside of football, but within football he was quite a wanderer with his clubs listed, in order, as
Dundee, Airdrieonians, Hereford Thistle, Tottenham Hotspur, Millwall Athletic, Sunderland, Woolwich Arsenal, Airdrieonians.
Now on this site we are used to seeing players travel from the north of England and Scotland to Woolwich, seeking a club where they would also be able to take on part time work when not playing and training. But James Devlin seemed to take a somewhat circuitous route.
The connection with Airdrie is easy to see as they are a Lanarkshire club. Hereford Thistle did indeed play in Herefordshire, England, and one may assume they were made up of players and supporters of Scottish descent although how and why he got there we don’t know.
But then Tottenham?
Tottenham must have had a link with Hereford Thistle because they not only took James Devlin, they also transferred Bill Crump at the same time. It appears from Tottenham’s history however in 1896/7 that they had some trouble with their players, and three of them were suspended for off-the-pitch actions, although I am not sure what those actions were. One might take a guess that they were perhaps drink related.
Having been refused the right to play for what must have been a quarter of the season, Devlin then walked out of the club, went to the Isle of Dogs and signed for Millwall Athletic – the great rivals of Woolwich Arsenal at the time.
At that point Tottenham would have been agitated as they held his registration and there seems to have been a stand off with Millwall Athletic until he was formally transferred in October 1897. He played six times for Millwall, before and after his formal transfer.
However records also show that Devlin was transferred from Sunderland to Arsenal for £80 on 19 December 1897. So he must have played most of his six games for Millwall before he signed for them, and then left Millwall, signed for Sunderland, and moved to Arsenal in the space of two months.
But then the records also say that he was struck down with pleurisy soon after arriving at Plumstead and so just played one match.
That one match was 1 January 1898 away to Blackpool in front of a crowd of just 1500. It was a 3-3 draw and James Devlin scored one of Arsenal’s three.
He moved to Airdrie on 7 August 1898 in exchange for John Dick. This was part of the transformation of the team that new manager William Elcoat carried out. Not one player who started in the first match for the 1897/98 season under his predecessor Mitchell, actually played in the first match of Elcoat’s one and only season at the club.
And a lot of the new recruits came from Scotland.
But this should not be seen as Elcoat starting a dynasty of new players. He brought in a new team, but after one season only two of them survived in Bradshaw’s first game: Ord the goalkeeper and Dick, the centre half.
Dick made his debut for Arsenal on 3 September 1898, and he only missed four games of his first season. He went on to play 266 league games for Arsenal, and later became manager of Sparta Prague.
So although James Devlin looks likely always to be a footnote to Arsenal’s history, he touched the club, enabling one of our most stalwarts of the early years to join.
Here is the lineup for Devlin’s one game
Thanks to http://archive.mehstg.com/ for the information on Tottenham in this tale.