1903: the pre season and Arsenal’s greatest ever start to a campaign

By Tony Attwood

Football in the early 20th century was of course very different from now.  The notion of the pre-season friendly didn’t exist, and the period 1 May to 31 August was an absolute football free zone.   Undoubtedly the “Probables v Improbables” (later renamed more respectfully, the first team against the reserves) matches took place behind closed doors but otherwise the players trained for a couple of weeks prior to the season started, and then went into the matches.

Early 1903 had seen the signing of Tommy Shanks from failing Southern League club Brentford.  He went on to be a star striker at Woolwich Arsenal in 1903/4, but then just as Arsenal got promotion he went back to Brentford, at the height of his fame.

Tommy played his first Arsenal game on 10 January 1903 and performed reasonably up to the summer break, becoming on 21 March 1903 the  first Arsenal player to be capped for Ireland.  

The growing confidence in the players was reflected in the crowds too.  On 7 February 1903 the biggest crowd yet at the Manor Ground – 24000 – turned out to see Arsenal 1 Sheffield U 3.  It was the first time £1000+ had been taken in gate receipts.

But it wasn’t all team building and growth.  Fergus Hunt, having been Arsenal’s top scorer moved to WHU after playing his last game on 28 February 1903.

Alex Main also left for Motherwell and Duncan McNichol left for Aberdeen in October.

But the feeling seems to have been that Arsenal didn’t need a huge overhaul.  They ended the 1903/4 season very satisfactorily, including the rather remarkable score on 4 April 1903: Woolwich Arsenal 6 Small Heath 1.  It was a remarkable result as Small Heath ended the season above Arsenal and gained promotion to the 1st Division, as Arsenal secured third spot.  There was hope of even better next year.

End of season friendlies

As noted before, the tradition for many years was to round off the season with friendlies, rather than focus on them at the start of the season.  In 1903 there were four.

  • 14 April 1903: Northampton Town 0 Arsenal 1 (Dick)
  • 18 April 1903: Arsenal 0 Millwall Athletic 2. The last game against Millwall under its Athletic guise.  4000 saw the game – after this our local rivals became just “Millwall”.
  • 22 April 1903: Bristol City 1 Arsenal 2 (Coles, Hunt)
  • 25 April 1903: Chesterfield Municipal 0 Arsenal 1 (Shanks).  Arsenal had already beaten Chesterfield Town in the league on 10 April 3-0.   Quite what the attraction was with Chesterfield at this time is not known but maybe arrangements were made during the league game.


During the summer

There is one signing I have found for the summer, and also one other event of interest.

On the transfer front, as there was no restriction on when transfers could be made there was less of an incentive for directors to break their summer holidays chasing down men who would often be involved in summer jobs to supplement the half pay they would be on during the May to August cricketing season.  Here’s our one summer move inwards…

5 June 1903: Fred Dwight signed. He played for Chesham Town from 1899 until 1901 when he moved to Fulham, and then after a further two years moved on to Woolwich Arsenal.

And the item, the significance of which would reveal itself later…


6 June 1903: At the meeting which created Fulham Football and Athletic Club Company Limited, Henry Norris was elected the company’s first chairman.  He took up the reigns at Arsenal in 1910, but did not break with Fulham until after the first world war following a dispute over the post-war cup match between Fulham and Arsenal.



The new season began with a series of games in the seven team London League Premier Division in which Arsenal entered its first team, mixing in alongside the league games.

Early September, when it was still light enough to kick off after the men left the factories, was attractive as a time to fit in extra games and hence bring in some reveue.  After that the London League took a pause, returning in November, and then fitting in occasional matches on a saturday through the season when there was no Football League game.

  • 1 September 1903: Tottenham 0 Arsenal 1 (London League – attendance 7,000)
  • 5 September 1903: Arsenal 3 Blackpool 0 (Football League Div 2 – attendance 10,000.)  This was Percy Sands’ first League game.  He was a south Londoner, who trained as a teacher, signing for Arsenal from Cheltenham Town.
  • 7 September 1903: Arsenal 2 Fulham 0 (London League – attendance 3000)
  • 12 September 1903: Gainsborough Trinity 0 Arsenal 2  (Football League – attendance 3000)
  • 14 September 1903: Arsenal 4 West Ham 1 (London League – attendance 2000)
  • 19 September 1903: Woolwich Arsenal 8 Burton Utd 0.  It was the third win in a row in the league in a sequence of eight straight wins, and the first of two that ended 8-0.  Briercliffe (3), Coleman (2), Gooing, Shanks and Linward scored as Arsenal headed for promotion.  Attendance 12,000

These early season attendance figures show the struggle it was to get people into the ground for a midweek fixture.  West Ham was a local rival, but even so the game drew minimal interest compared with the league game on the following saturday against Burton.

The season thus took off to a winning start.   On 10 October 1903 Tim Coleman set club record in scoring in each of the first 6 league matches – getting nine goals in all.  And then on 26 October 1903 Arsenal won their 8th match in a row from the start of the season beating Leicester Fosse 8-0.

It really was the arrival of exciting times.

From the Pre-season files

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