By Tony Attwood
If you have read the book, Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football, (and there are details at the end of this article if you haven’t) you will know that Arsenal FC began its life as a professional football club by being split in two. For between 1891 and 1893 the club was rent asunder by dissension and in fact became two separate clubs.
I won’t repeat the whole story here – you can read it in the definitive history of the club, but in essence two groups emerged – one which wanted the current management to continue, and one which wanted a totally new “more professional” management to take over.
This latter group had a powerful ally – the landlord of the ground – who simply doubled the club’s rent for the new season and then refused to negotiate. In the end the club did split in two – one group taking Woolwich Arsenal FC into the second division of the football league, the other setting up a new club: Royal Ordnance Factories FC which later moved into the Southern League. The two clubs played in grounds opposite each other.
But even this dispute didn’t teach the club to tread cautiously. In March 1897 Arsenal appointed their first ever full time professional manager. And what a manager – for Thomas Mitchell had already won the FA Cup as a manager five times by the time he came to Arsenal.
He lasted a year, resigning because of the constant arguments within the Committee of the club to which he was answerable.
One might think once again that having begun life by tearing itself apart Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal and ultimately Arsenal FC (as the club became known) might have learned its lesson, and for a number of years unity broke out.
And unity was indeed helpful since the club found itself under repeated attack from both the Tottenham Hotspur club and its supporters, first for moving to north London in 1913, (again covered in detail in the Woolwich Arsenal book) and second for being elected to the first division in 1919 while Tottenham were relegated to the second.
Both issues have been dealt with extensively on this site, in the first case showing that as early as the AGM of the Football League in 1910 the League made it clear that it had no power in its rule book to determine where a club played. In the second case the League followed its normal procedure – but the protests have continued to the present day, despite the offer of a reward for anyone who can find evidence of any breakage of the rules by Arsenal in the spring of 1919 (see the article link above).
But then with the external battles fought, in the late 1920s a new form of internal dissent broke out as a group of supporters started to barrack individual Arsenal players. The player who suffered most from this was Jack Lambert whose record as a goal scorer tells its own tale:
Jack however was one of those players who took a while to get going and so the crowd turned on him – and continued to make like difficult for him even during the four years noted above when his goal scoring record was beyond anything ever seen before. You can read the whole Jack Lambert story here.
Jack played in the era of Herbert Chapman, and there is a tendency these days to think of this of a time of great success, and therefore perhaps peace within the club, but far from it and Chapman regularly wrote in his newspaper column of his outrage as the behaviour of what he called the “boo-boys” who constantly sought to undermine the success of the club.
Matters reached a pitch on 14th January 1933 when Chapman picked a number of untried reserves to play in the FA Cup match against Walsall. Arsenal famously lost, and many players complained regularly that since that match nothing they could do was good enough for the Arsenal fans.
Thus all the way through what on paper look like the glory years of Arsenal in the 1930s there was seething dissent on the terraces. But what had brought it about?
It is of course hard to pin down the exact cause, but every time I consider this one factor that stands out was that Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, the chairman from 1910 to 1927 was an incredibly strong fighter for Arsenal’s position, often openly castigating the League and the FA in the club’s programme for actions that he perceived to be against the interest of the club. Indeed even after he was deposed as a director, he would turn up at the club’s AGM’s and ask extremely pointed questions about the direction of the club – which the new chair, Sir Samuel Hill Wood refused point blank to answer.
Having come up through a working class family and made his fortune as a house builder, Sir Henry Norris always had the feel of the man on the terraces, and had made a very astute move in 1910 by getting Jack Humble, one of the club’s founders, to sit alongside him on the board.
Sir Henry’s vitriolic attacks on (for example) the FA for the terrible way it treated Tom Whittaker after he was injured on an FA tour in 1925, and on the London Combination (the League that ran during the first world war) for its utterly biased handling of the Victory Cup in 1919, made him a hero of all Arsenal supporters. Here was a man who stood up in public for Arsenal and everyone knew that the club always had a staunch defender.
Even when the FA twice investigated the transfer to Arsenal of Clem Voysey in 1919 Sir Henry stood his ground, and the FA had to back off on each occasion admitting that they had no evidence that anything was wrong.
But when Norris was deposed from his position of chairman after an ill-judged court case against the Daily Mail, there was no one so voluble to take up the fight for Arsenal. The press having gained their victory in court turned on the club wholesale, and the new aristocratic regime in the boardroom did not have the wherewithal to take them on. And thus some on the terraces followed. Chapman did his level best to take on the boo-boys, but without serious backing from the boardroom, he was fighting on his own.
The attacks on Arsenal players by the people on the terraces continued. One player who later suffered significantly was Jimmy Logie who came under attack in probably the most outrageous campaign of all in 1953. Jimmy was a teetotaller but that didn’t stop a bunch of people starting to write to the London evening newspapers (of which at the time there were five) stating that he had been seen out late at night, (usually on a night before a game) completely drunk.
Quite what made people do this, is not clear. The writers, like today’s anti-arsenal movement with its blogs, claimed to be Arsenal fans. But their allegations were all quite untrue. What made the press publish all these letters day after day after day is however quite clear. They loved every opportunity to have a go against Arsenal.
Tom Whittaker, Logie’s manager took up the fight, publishing a long rebuttal in the programme, pointing out how on some of the occasions when Logie was “seen drunk in London” he was actually 200 miles away with the team preparing for a game. The club also arranged for a rebuttal article to appear in The People newspaper.
But although defeated by Whittaker’s resilience on this occasion a new alliance of the media and anti-Arsenal campaigners had formed and this marked a new development – for now the rumour mongers had wholesale publicity for their inventions. Very quickly the situation got totally out of control and after the 1953 championship victory many players openly expressed their dismay at the Arsenal crowd and the way it dealt with the players of the club they were supposedly there to support.
Arsenal historian Jon Spurling recounts the story that Peter Goring was abused after the Sunderland defeat in 1953 by a fan who said that he’d seen the Arsenal team of the 1930s and the current team wasn’t fit to lick their boots. Peter commented on this as saying, “I wasn’t the only player to be confronted in such a way. Some of the other boys also got hassle from fans which wasn’t nice,… some of those fans were very hard to please…”
Spurling also says that on one occasion, “One of Goring’s team mates snapped and told the Daily Mail journalist… that he was “ashamed of the crowd and considered them to most unsporting collection in the country.”
Partially as a result of this, the team broke up and the dark ages of the club began – there were no more trophies until 1969. As the club tried to buy new players they found it increasingly hard as players simply didn’t want to play for Arsenal.
Since then the process has remained, with the crowd at Highbury and later the Emirates able to reduce seriously good players into wrecks. One only needs to think of Martin Hayes who scored 19 in 31 starts in the league in 1986/7 but who was jeered so much in the end the manager started playing him only away from home. He lost his nerve, the goals dried up. Or we may think of Gervinho who suffered a similar fate in home games.
And of course the press have loved it, and have joined in at every opportunity turning observation and opinion into facts. When the blogs are added in, and the re-writing of history starts to occur (as with the recently comment for example on Untold Arsenal that unlike Wenger, Mee had the good grace to know when to leave, ignoring his last three seasons in which the club ended up 10th, 16th and 17th and suffered a home league cup defeat to Tranmere) you can see where the process goes.
And so it continues. A couple of days before I sat down to write this, The Evening Standard reported that REDAction, the officially recognised group that is supposedly in the Emirates to help develop the atmosphere had called for a boycott of a match. Yesterday, the Daily Mirror ran a story in which the Chair of Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association is quoted as saying,
Even if the Gunners did manage to upset the odds in Spain on Wednesday night, the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association say that the mood would only be temporarily lifted and widescale changes are needed in the summer.
Chair Lois Langton told Press Association Sport: “(Victory over Barcelona) would be papering over the cracks. There are some fundamental issues which need to be addressed within the set-up of the team and the management. We can’t keep pretending that everything is okay. Arsene has given us some wonderful memories and he has changed the way Arsenal Football Club plays football, and English football, for the better.
“It was a golden opportunity for us this season to have a real go at the league and in the cup, to get three consecutive cup wins. Somehow we seem to have let one of those opportunities – and quite likely both of those opportunities – slip away.
The Guardian is now running a story by Amy Lawrence headlined “Kronky and Wenger are too close for Arsenal’s good.” Every day there are a hundred blogs criticising the club.
So what should be done?
Certainly sacking the manager won’t help. Something like 80% of managerial replacements are failures, and people like Arsene Wenger who come in and make a success of a club from the off are very rare. It took Herbert Chapman five years to do it. (My next article will look at what happened to each manager in his first year – it doesn’t make very exciting reading most of the time).
What would rescue the club of course would be a return to the ownership style of Sir Henry Norris who never once was afraid to put his point and stand up for the club, and truly could make the supporters feel they were part of a club that would stand up to the establishment. At the same time Sir Henry always gave backing to his managers. We might say he stood by Knighton (Chapman’s predecessor at Arsenal) for too long, but more importantly, when Chapman offered his resignation in 1929, having failed to deliver any trophies to Arsenal since his appointment, Sir Henry turned him down and told him to get on with it.
We need more people like that who will stand up for the club no matter what, rather than endlessly coming to the aid of the press in its ceaseless attacks on Arsenal. Perhaps not the board any more, as they see their role as utterly different from role perceived 100 years ago, but someone needs to stand up for Arsenal. The team of us who run Untold Arsenal (reaching as I love repeating, 6.3m page views in the last year) do our level best to be endlessly pro-Arsenal, but sometimes it feels we are a bit on our own.
It is interesting that the media has remorselessly done down Sir Henry Norris since he lost the rather trivial libel case against the Daily Mail, constantly ignoring his patriotic work (for which he got his knighthood and military rank) and his very progressive views on women’s liberation, work for every man returning from the conflict in 1918, cheap transport services for all, and so forth. And that’s before we talk of what he did for football in general, and Arsenal in particular. He did after all pay all the club’s debts in 1910 when the club was bankrupt, built Highbury and he brought in Chapman.
No, we have a negative story of Sir Henry for one reason only – he took on the press wholesale. The need to do that is as strongly today as it ever. We need to be positive and defend our cause, without ever once stopping.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Paperback edition
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Kindle edition