Were Luton a pro football team before Arsenal? Woolwich Arsenal in the FA Cup 1901/2

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After finally getting into the second round proper of the FA Cup in 1901 Arsenal never again had to play in a game before the Final Supplementary Round, held normally in mid-December.   They made heavy weather of that round, but did manage to progress each year, until in 1904 Woolwich Arsenal got a bye to the first round proper each year until the reorganisation of the FA Cup in 1925.


Final Supplementary Round.  Dec 14.   Luton Town (home).  Drew 1-1  Crowd 10,000

Luton Town Football Club was formed on 11 April 1885 – a year before Arsenal.  But that is not their big claim to fame in the early years of football.  For the merger of some members of Luton Town Wanderers (some rebelled and stayed as a separate team) and Excelsior led to a quite different claim to fame, and one that affects Arsenal significantly.

This claim was that it was they, and not Woolwich Arsenal, who were the first professional football team in the south.  The claim is that on 15 December 1890, a salary of five shillings per week was offered to three players: Frank Whitby, Harry Whitby and Tom Read.

But the question is, does three players a pro team make?  It was not until August 1891 that the whole team were offered 2/6 (12.5p) a week.   Woolwich Arsenal however voted on 2 May 1891 to turn professional and started to go through the motions of resigning from leagues and associations to which the club belonged but which the club felt were only for amateur sides.  (The club was wrong, but that’s another story).

So effectively Arsenal and Luton both started the 1891/2 season not playing in a league (The Football League and the Football Alliance were just about the only shows on offer), and both paying their players.  Maybe we should call that a tie, since we don’t know exactly when Arsenal paid their first players.  But we can say that when Arsenal joined the League in 1893 they were the only professional team in the league south of Birmingham.

Luton Town still didn’t have a league, and in fact remained that way until they joined the opening Southern League campaign in 1894/95 – and the first competitive league match was on 6 October 1894 – a 4–3 home defeat to Millwall Athletic.  Luton were second that season.

After failing to get into the 2nd division of the Football League Luton and Millwall both went into the new United League, but that was a flop, and the club fell upon hard times, finally getting into the Football League in 1897/8, while still playing in the United League.  Luton were 8th, Woolwich Arsenal 5th.

In 1899/1900 Luton came 17th, and resigned from the  Football League and returned to the Southern League as a way of cutting costs.

Final Supplementary Round.  Dec 14.   Luton Town (away).  Won 2-0  Crowd 3,000

I have seen what I call the Final Supplementary Round also called the Intermediate Round in the FA Cup.  I take my name from the 1963 Arsenal handbook which has details of the early cup runs – but this may not be the correct title.

This round had 20 clubs in it, the ten winners of the Fifth Qualifying Round, and ten teams that were exempt to this stage.   Small Heath, from the 1st Division joined at this point plus Burnley, Chesterfield, Leicester Fosse, Newton Heath and Woolwich Arsenal  from the Second Division.  Reading,s  New Brighton Tower, Portsmouth and Millwall Athletic from outside the Football League also got byes until this point.   The rest of the second division of the football league had to play from the third qualifying round onwards.  This meant that some teams from outside the Football League actually got byes through rounds that Football League Division II clubs had to play through!

In fact New Brighton Tower ceased to exist in the summer of 1901 and so dropped out the cup.

First round proper.  Jan 25.   Newcastle United (home).  Lost 0-2  Crowd 15,000

Newcastle United were a totally different affair; they joined the second division in the same season as Arsenal (and were in fact our first opponents in league football), getting promotion in 1897/8.  By the time of this fixture they were a top six club, and in fact this season finished third in the league.

Newcastle went on to beat Sunderland in the second round,  but lost to Sheffield United in the third round.  In the semi-finals (the 4th round) Southampton (of the Southern League) beat Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United beat Derby County.  In the final Sheffield United won after a replay.

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