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The last tango in Plumstead: Arsenal’s final game part 2

This article continues from the previous page, with the text of a newspaper column concerning the very last game Woolwich Arsenal played at Plumstead.  Once the game was over, the kit was packed, and the club headed for Highbury.   There’s a brief discussion as to why it was so necessary, at the end of the newspaper extract
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One little note in this report.  Note how the reporter calls the club “The Arsenal” – and compare with the article on this site which explores how and when the club’s name changed.  It seems the pressure to change the name officially was there before the club moved.
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And so it is, with the end of the era in Kent.  Bottom of the league, and a crowd to the game that was so small that the promised testimonial fee could not even be paid from the gate receipts.
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This match was on 26 April 1913.  The new season would open just four and a half months later on September 6 with a home game against Leicester Fosse.  The crowd difference itself would turn out to be enormous.  3,000 turned up for the final farewell – 20,000 came to the first game at Highbury, and within a matter of a few weeks 30,000 had come along for the game against Bury.  Match attendances never went much below the 20,000 mark in the first season at Highbury – a figure that had not been reached in Plumstead since the 1910/11 season – and then very rarely.
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True, the club had had a rotten season in 1912/13, ending in relegation as shown above in the league table.  But you have to go back  to 1907 to find the last 25,000 at Plumstead – whereas at Highbury, such a number became commonplace, and was often exceeded.
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Thus when the argument is put that Woolwich Arsenal was the first franchise club, ripping itself away from the home support who had nurtured the club, and moving off elsewhere, this is a highly simplistic answer.
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First, the distance was not that great 12.6 miles according to the AA.  Second, without the move the club would have vanished, because of the poverty of support.   And although the poverty of support was in part because of the poor performance on the pitch, it was also due to the closure of elements of the Woolwich Arsenal factories.
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There were other teams who were struggling along on limited resources in division II – but none of them ever sank to the level of Woolwich in crowd terms in that final season.   Grimsby Town could get as low as 5,000, Lincoln 6,000 and Clapton Orient 4,000, but these clubs still had hope of an upturn.  For Woolwich Arsenal not a year went by without the workforce they relied on as their one and only source of attendance, getting smaller.
Soon, it was clear, there would be no Woolwich Arsenal factories of any significance, and as a politician, Norris would have known that as much as anyone.

5 comments to The last tango in Plumstead: Arsenal’s final game part 2

  • Andy Kelly

    The “poor attendances” and “poor form” became a vicious circle. 100 years ago virtually all of a club’s income came from gate money and transfer fees.

    Attendances allegedly dropped in the 1900s due to the Boer War. As attendances fell, the club was bringing in less money. The only way to supplement this income was to sell players. Eventually all of the best players were sold leaving the club with the inability to compete with the better teams.

    Add to that the fact that the journey from London to Woolwich was like a trip to hell and back and you have a recipe for disaster as the club could not attract non-local support.

    You are 100% right that if the club had stayed in Woolwich it would have disappeared or had to go back to its amateur roots and play in the lower leagues.

    We have a lot to thank Henry Norris for.

  • walter

    Wow, what a great article(s). And hats off for the people who kept that article of almost 100 years old.

    I just wonder, was it written by Jacko Jones? 😉

  • Steve Thomson

    Great site & debate. Now, a perspective from south of the river:

    1. I’m not sure WA “had to move” or “would have vanished” – though I don’t doubt that the club prospered as a result. Within a decade of leaving Plumstead, another club – very small fry before Woolwich left – had attracted 42,000 to a ground just a couple of miles away. That club (Charlton of oourse) has had its ups and downs, but many of the downs have been self-inflicted, and there has been enough evidence to show that the area can support a big(-ish) team when it is run properly. Yes, WA got bigger by moving, but many clubs would do that – Hartlepool (say) might as well move tomorrow to a bigger town

    2. Spurs can’t complain too much about their patch being invaded. As you point out, they were not the only club in the area, and it was dear old Orient that Norris truly shafted (and it looks like happening again….)

    3. So had the move not happened the current scenario would arguably still be with us – 2 teams in N London, one in red who play much closer to the centre of London (with a station nearby called ‘Orient’, and another team in red in SE London who are not a huge team, but not tiddlers either and one who has stayed true to its roots. And also with a station with the same name as the team…

  • Vince

    Regarding accusations of being the first franchise club, I would say that for my grandfather, who was 13 at the time and a regular at Plumstead, the 12.6 miles they moved might as well have been 112.6 miles. His club had gone, as far as he was concerned. He was heart broken and he never forgave them.

    Of course, a year or two later, the Royal Arsenal was employing 80,000 people, so the club would have likely survived. Ironic that Charlton v Arsenal in 1937 attracted 80,000 to The Valley! Still, we can never really know what might have been.

  • Vince, it is just the use of the word “franchise” that is odd. In what way is it a franchise when other club moves were not. Why was Millwall’s move across the river not a franchise and Arsenal’s not?

    Incidentally the numbers of employees wasn’t the key issue at Plumstead – it was a combination of the imposition of compulsory overtime on saturday afternoons, and the fact that people were willing to travel by underground across London to see games but not by bus and tram. See details in the two books “Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football” and “The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal”

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